Voyages du capitaine Lemuel Gulliver en divers pays éloignés: a review by Amélie Derome

SWIFT, Jonathan.. Ed. Valérie Maffre and Dominique Triaire. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2021. ISBN 978-2-36781-336-3, 15€.


Less than a year after Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift had been published in London, Voltaire was already extolling the virtues of this book which he deemed thoroughly entertaining thanks to its ‘many imaginative aspects’ and to the ‘lightness of its style.’ He thus begged Thieriot to quickly translate the work, rightfully fearing that ‘a more hurried person might have already done so.’ Indeed, a French version of the work had already been issued in the Hague a few weeks before the philosopher had written his letter to Thieriot in January 1727.

However, this anonymous translation, published by Pierre Gosse and Jean Neaulme, had not been advertised in the better-known French reviews of the time. It thus hardly comes as a surprise that Voltaire should not have been familiar with this text. In March of 1727, Pierre-François Guyot Desfontaines, who would later become one of Voltaire’s many literary nemeses, authored his own translation of Gulliver’s Travels, a work which would be met with widespread success. The Dutch publishers attempted to fight back, although to no avail. They indeed presented a new version of their text, insisting on the presence of illustrations and maps which could not be found in Desfontaines’s edition. The public nevertheless remained more inclined to read Desfontaines’s version than the anonymous one from the 18th century to the present time. While The Hague’s Gulliver was only reprinted six times, Desfontaines’s translation was printed in 96 books, either in full text or in adapted and shortened versions.

Many literary critics, such as Sybil Goulding or Pierre-Gabriel Boucé had however tried to plead for this unjustly overlooked translation. This version remains far more accurate and better renders Swift’s scathing tone than Desfontaines’s text which can be considered as a ‘belle infidèle.’ Desfontaines indeed liberally removed supposedly inappropriate passages while adding entirely new paragraphs for instance dealing with the beauty of women or the best way to rear children. Although The Hague’s translation also quite heavily modified the original text, it seems better to portray Swift’s contradictory and sharp voice. This text, which could hardly be purchased nowadays, has now been made available by Valérie Maffre and Dominique Triaire, along with valuable critical elements. This book hence fills a gap in the francophone publishing field.

The work’s preface precisely highlights this translation’s specificities. The authors outline a scrupulous typology of the anonymous translator’s omissions. They show how he has erased several British references (currency, measuring units, toponyms), deleted, for elegance’s sake, Swift’s typical enumerations and repetitions, diminished the presence of the narrator by cutting several interferences, alleviated obscene references to the body or finally removed technical details. Valérie Maffre and Dominique Triaire also remind us that the translator has chosen not to include one the original’s paratextual elements – the letter from the publisher to the reader – which triggers a play on the blurring of the borders of fiction and reality. These elements thus allow readers better to navigate the translation while giving them the opportunity of comparing it to both the original and Desfontaines’ version. One could perhaps further add that the anonymous translator has heavily edited the text where the moral values of the character were seen as unworthy, as can be exemplified by the disappearance of many passages concerning his cowardice.

The footnotes seem particularly well-balanced. They showcase the major differences between Swift’s original and the anonymous version, indicating suppressions, additions and mistakes. The comparisons, although not entirely comprehensive, entirely suffice to grasp a clear notion of the nature of the translation while dodging the risk of weighing on the reading process. They decipher, in a more than welcome fashion, several satirical allusions which the translation alleviated, or which would have remained unintelligible to non-specialists. The coloured silk threads upon which Lilliputian dignitaries have to perform stunts in order to impress the Emperor for instance refer to the Order of the Garter in a parallel which the authors highlight. Finally, the notes offer interesting explanations of French 18th century vocabulary when definitions have shifted throughout the years, as shows the case of “machine”, which used to refer to “heavy and hard to move objects” rather than only devices.

One should note that the text’s spelling has been modernised according to contemporary norms and that ampersands have been replaced by the coordinating conjunction “and” – a choice which seems to pertain to the author’s decision of sharing their translation with a widespread audience rather with than mere specialists. While the 1727 anonymous translation tended to favour colons instead of Swift’s semi-colons, Valérie Maffre and Dominique Triaire alternate between full stops and semi-colons, a phenomenon which strengthens the closeness to the original.

Finally, the volume comprises the four maps of fictive lands and the two diagrams of the original which Gosse and Neaulme had already printed and partially translated in 1727. This appears as a crucial editorial decision as the only contemporary French edition which offered them was that published by Garnier-Flammarion, translated by Guillaume Villeneuve and commented by Alexis Tadié. One can also find the four original illustrations which were engraved for this text in the Dutch Republic in the 18th century.

This book hence seems a welcome addition to translation and 18th century British literature studies in France, reprinting a poorly-known text and shedding a new light on the unsung translators of the Dutch Republic who however played a major role in print circulation. It will naturally find its spot in academic libraries while remaining relevant for a wider readership.

Amélie Derome


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