The Spread of Novels: Translation and Prose Fiction in the Eighteenth Century

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Fiction has always been in a state of transformation and circulation: how does this history of mobility inform the emergence of the novel? The Spread of Novels explores the active movements of English and French fiction in the eighteenth century and argues that the new literary form of the novel was the result of a shift in translation. Demonstrating that translation was both the cause and means by which the novel attained success, Mary Helen McMurran shows how this period was a watershed in translation history, signaling the end of a premodern system of translation and the advent of modern literary exchange.

McMurran illuminates aspects of prose fiction translation history, including the radical revision of fiction's origins from that of cross-cultural transfer to one rooted by nation; the contradictory pressures of the book trade, which relied on translators to energize the market, despite the increasing devaluation of their labor; and the dynamic role played by prose fiction translation in Anglo-French relations across the Channel and in the New World. McMurran examines French and British novels, as well as fiction that circulated in colonial North America, and she considers primary source materials by writers as varied as Frances Brooke, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Françoise Graffigny. The Spread of Novels reassesses the novel's embodiment of modernity and individualism, discloses the novel's surprisingly unmodern characteristics, and recasts the genre's rise as part of a burgeoning vernacular cosmopolitanism.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"McMurran's book valuably examines translation's role in the beginnings of English copyright law. . . . In demonstrating that nations believed to be unilingual were really multilingual, in affirming their readers' cosmopolitanism to the extent that they dipped into others' literatures, McMurran and her fellow essayists add significantly to studies of the English novel."—Nancy Vogeley, Eighteenth-Century Studies
Eighteenth-Century Studies
McMurran's book valuably examines translation's role in the beginnings of English copyright law. . . . In demonstrating that nations believed to be unilingual were really multilingual, in affirming their readers' cosmopolitanism to the extent that they dipped into others' literatures, McMurran and her fellow essayists add significantly to studies of the English novel.
— Nancy Vogeley
Eighteenth-Century Studies - Nancy Vogeley
McMurran's book valuably examines translation's role in the beginnings of English copyright law. . . . In demonstrating that nations believed to be unilingual were really multilingual, in affirming their readers' cosmopolitanism to the extent that they dipped into others' literatures, McMurran and her fellow essayists add significantly to studies of the English novel.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691141534
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 8/24/2009
  • Series: Translation/Transnation Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Mary Helen McMurran is assistant professor of English at the University of Western Ontario.

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The Spread of Novels

Translation and Prose Fiction in the Eighteenth Century


Copyright © 2010 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-14152-7

Chapter One

Translation and the Modern Novel

Two assertions are routinely made about the novel. The first is that the novel is universal, a claim that goes back at least to Henry Fielding, who said in his preface to Tom Jones that he was serving up "no other than HUMAN NATURE." In the wake of twentieth-century critiques of Enlightenment universalism, the claim is now rare in academic criticism, but it is frequently reiterated by contemporary novelists. In his recent book-length essay on the purposes of the novel, The Curtain, Milan Kundera states that Fielding's assertion in the preface to Tom Jones "only seems banal." If the idea of universality sounds flat now, Kundera explains, during Fielding's era fiction was elevated to a reflection on human nature for the first time, establishing the novel's "raison d'etre." The second assertion is that the novel is quintessentially national. This claim, which can also be traced back to the eighteenth century, has pervaded academic criticism explicitly or implicitly in recent decades. The realistic novel, written in the national vernacular, is thought to mirror national social and cultural life, and because the novel is consumed privately, many have argued that it also uniquely supports individual identification with the nation. Cathy Davidson's Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America provides only one example of the novel-nation argument, but her formulation is ideally succinct: "The first novels ... provided the citizens of the time not only with native versions of the single most popular form of literary entertainment in America, but also with literary versions of emerging definitions of America." Davidson and others have argued that the novel, unique among literary genres because of its popularity, trains a citizenry in its national identity at the very historical moment in which both the genre and that identity were consolidating. Surprisingly little scholarship exists on the archeology of these two claims and their relation to one another, especially with respect to the novel's emergence in the eighteenth century. This lack of critical attention is surprising in part because those who emphasize the novel's universality do not deny the novel's attachment to the nation, and those that take up the novel-nation argument do not explicitly deny universality, but the two claims are not compatible in any obvious way. The intimate link between the novel and the nation rests on the notion of particularity: the novel is first of all distinguished by its focus on particular individuals and settings, and characterized by its level of particularistic detail, rather than reiterating conventions or myths. Moreover, the novel portrays the particular social and cultural modalities of a nation, and readers are interpellated in the nation in amutually reinforcing loop of realistic depiction and readerly identification. On the other hand, the belief that the novel portrays human nature and that its ultimate purpose is to reflect on universal humanity effectively denies the constitutive particularity of the novel.

I believe that the reason the two assertions about the novel have not seemed incommensurate is translation. More specifically, the novel's simultaneous particularity and universality depends on a specific view of translation implied in the ways we have theorized the genre's origins. I begin this chapter with a critical rereading of Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding, which was among the first to systematically link the novel's emergence in the eighteenth century to structural aspects of modernity, revolutionizing the trend of comprehensive histories of fiction that preceded it. These chronological compendia were broadly based but failed to articulate a cohesive sociocultural frame for the novel or identify it as a separate, unique genre. More recent studies of the novel in the eighteenth century do not follow Watt's argument in all its detail, or reproduce his limited scope and canon, but most have left Watt's fundamental assertions about modernity unchallenged. For Watt, the novel's rise is due first of all to the influence of modern empirical philosophy and its valorization of particularity over idealism. Particularity, which Watt argues becomes the new literary aesthetic of the novel, is paired with his argument that the modern novel belongs to a particular nation, England. Yet, Watt also asserts that the novel represents universal humanity, and implies the universality of the "novel form" rather than arguing for a distinctively English form. In latching onto modernity, Watt makes assertions about the novel's particularity and universality that strain the relation between its origination point and its reach, between its rise and spread. An analysis of Watt's discourse discloses this shaky logic about the modern origins of the novel in order to show that the tension in the modernity argument of the novel's rise is predicated on altering the role of translation from a core concept for the novel to an accessory operation.

The second part of the chapter reexamines translation's role in novel theory by going back to narratives of fiction's origins and history written during the long eighteenth century. The story of fiction was told and retold in dozens of essays by British and French writers from Pierre Daniel's Huet's Traité sur l'origine des romans (1670) to Walter Scott's "Essay on Romance" (1824). The historical narratives in these essays are diachronic and cross-cultural, often governed by the premodern idea of transmission as embodied in the concepts translatio imperii (transfer of power) and translatio studii (transfer of learning). However, these essays also display the difficulties of adhering to translatio especially when they return, as they do again and again, to fiction's origins. By the end of the eighteenth century, most writers stop tracing the first fictions to ancient civilizations and claim instead that fiction originated anywhere and everywhere a society came into being; the origins of fiction were now understood to be the stories that a nation or society tells itself about its birth and heroes. Eighteenth-century writers effectively substituted the historical narrative of fiction's origins with a universal theory of fiction-the result, paradoxically, of relocating fiction's origins within a particular group. The eighteenth-century historiography of fiction helps recuperate the centrality of transmission to novel theory even if its appearance is most striking when it was evanescing. As the core principle of fiction's birth and spread, premodern transmissibility gave way to a more systematic theory of fiction's origins. A new model for fiction resolved the bagginess of transmission narratives by particularizing its origins, but required an unstable appeal to universality, which would ultimately redefine translation as exchange. Prose fiction was not, as is sometimes thought, transnational before it emerged as a modern and national form, but rather, theorizing the novel's emergence has relied on displacing its relation to translating.

To Rise and Spread: Ian Watt and the Novel Franchise

The Rise of the Novel struck on the winning approach of integrating early modern philosophy and historical sociology into a single story about the rise of the realist novel. Watt connects the larger canvas of modernity and the novel by arguing that both represent a complete break with the past: "[T]he novel arose in the modern period, a period whose general intellectual orientation was most decisively separated from its classical and mediaeval heritage by its rejection ... of universals." For Watt, the break with the past is an epistemic shift to a new investment in particularity both for the culture broadly and for the novel specifically. First, particularity manifests itself as a general orientation to the individual subject, "particular people in particular circumstances," which is expressed in novels, unlike romances, in the representation of individual experience. Particularity is also tied to originality, for according to Watt, the eighteenth century expresses a new valorization of originality, and novelists set themselves apart from romance writers by rejecting imitation and convention. Finally, particularity is manifest in the novel as an adherence to detail. New narrative techniques mirror the new empirical outlook, and thus novels, unlike romances, use individualized rather than generic names, specific temporal and spatial locations, and so on. In sum, particularity is the substance of Watt's "formal realism"-the defining feature of the novel as the literary expression of modernity.

It is especially curious, then, that Watt's definition of formal realism in the first chapter returns to the universal. He seems to belie his own insistence on particularity when he speaks of the novel's "fidelity to human experience" (emphasis added). He restates the point later when he defines formal realism, saying that "implicit in the novel form in general [is] ... that the novel is a full and authentic report of human experience" (emphasis added). We should not discount these statements as merely rhetorical, unconscious or conventional iterations of a defense of the novel on the grounds of its universal humanism. Instead, we can note that at the crucial moment of defining the novel as a genre, Watt seems to disclaim particularity by eliding individualism with universal humanity. How can he argue that the new literary form of the novel is defined by nothing other than particularity, and yet also claim that the novel is the form of universal human experience? Watt might have defended this substitution of individual with "human experience" by distinguishing between universalized actual experience in the novel and the idealized portrayal of humanity in the fiction of earlier periods, which the novel rejects. It is difficult to see such a distinction, however. Actual or experiential rather than ideal universality leaves us with the same problem if actuality is defined, as it is for Watt, by the particulars of existence. That is, how can we locate or identify his universal humanity in the novel if the novel represents a break with the universals, as he claims, and is constituted in particular experience? Watt's unstated premise seems to be that particularity is somehow one and the same with the universal.

As Michael McKeon notes, Watt was interested in the "generic coherence" of the novel as predicated on its modernity: "For the scholarly tradition in which Watt participates, establishing the generic coherence of the novel in particular has its own special interest. This is because the novel is, with the essay, the only genre to have emerged under the conditions of epistemological and historiographic self-consciousness that characterize the modern period." Watt succeeds in formulating generic coherence by privileging particularity as the manifestation of modern consciousness in narrative technique, but particularity alone was not meaningful without reference to the universal. The particularity of individual experience was thus substituted with universal "human experience" when Watt articulated his definition of formal realism. The slip in Watt's discourse from individual and particular experience to human experience is echoed in his emphasis on the "novel form" over the idea of a specifically English novel. It is noticeable that in a book about the rise of a new genre, Watt uses "genre" sparingly compared to his use of "form" and "formal"-perhaps an attempt to avoid the prescriptive or descriptive modes that discussions of genre often entailed. I take Watt's use of "form" as first of all pertaining to the distinction of form and matter, or in literary terms, form and content, since he uses form to point to narrative technique rather than themes, plots, and so on. In an Aristotelian tradition, form (one of the four causes) is necessarily immaterial, but more specifically, form is that which makes a thing what it is. Watt implies this meaning of form when he says that formal realism establishes the "distinctive narrative mode of the novel" as separate from other genres and previous modes of fiction. Put another way, form is the quality of novelness that allows Watt to theorize the rise of the genre without binding it to the content of a particular author or national tradition. As novelness, form corrals novels into the modern novel-a universalized literary entity, not bound to any particular nation but only to modernity itself. One result of Watt's focus on the novel form is that it implicitly emphasizes the novel's extranational history, for the novel "form," by definition, exceeds the borders of any particular nation. So, it is all the more curious that as soon as Watt identifies the novel as a form, he brings particularity back into play. Without clearly extending the use of the term "particularity" to nationality, Watt nonetheless intimates that the novel's relation to particularity as narrative technique also makes it particular to the English. He asserts that the novel is a "logical literary vehicle" for English culture specifically, and that the break with the past that characterizes the novel was most pronounced in England.

In many ways, Watt's link between the modern rise of the novel and a particular nation saw one of its most sophisticated and influential articulations in Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities, even though the aim of Anderson's study is to trace the origins and rise of nationalism rather than the rise of the novel. Anderson argues for the association of print capitalism, and the novel in particular, with the construction of the nation as a political and cultural entity. He briefly restates the essence of the argument in Spectre of Comparisons: "I argued that the historical appearance of the novel-as-popular-commodity and the rise of nation-ness were intimately related. Both nation and novel were spawned by the simultaneity made possible by clock-derived, man-made 'homogenous, empty time.'... The novelty of the novel as a literary form lay in its capacity to represent synchronically this bounded, intrahistorical society-with-a-future." 15 Anderson analogizes the novel form and nationness through their shared temporality. Both novel and nation were "spawned" by modern clock time, which Anderson characterizes, borrowing from Walter Benjamin, as a kind of homogenous, empty time in which simultaneity is newly possible. In other words, novel and nation are isomorphic avatars of the shift to modernity, though the novel also has a special "capacity to represent" the nation because of this temporality. Therefore, the novel not only shares some essential features of modern nationhood, but also becomes an agent in the process of nation formation, not least because the realistic novel's homogenous, empty time of narration allows individuals to identify themselves with a large citizenry that the reader will never meet and never know as individuals. I think Anderson suggests that the realistic novel can only be national; it does not properly pertain to other kinds of localities like cities or regions because it allows readers to imagine only their national community. In this way, like Watt, Anderson's view is that the novel is always particular: it belongs to and helps foster national particularity. At the same time, Anderson, as Pheng Cheah states, "is not interested in particular nations but the paradigmatic style of how the nation in general as a unique form of community is imagined and the material conditions that give rise to this new paradigm." In ways that were more nuanced than Watt's, Anderson would recognize particularity as crucial, only insofar as it is paradigmatic, and hence nationness like novelness is universalizable as a form.


Excerpted from The Spread of Novels by MARY HELEN MCMURRAN Copyright © 2010 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

INTRODUCTION: Eighteenth-Century Translating 1
ONE: Translation and the Modern Novel 27
TWO: The Business of Translation 44
THREE: Taking Liberties: Rendering Practices in Prose Fiction 72
FOUR: The Cross-Channel Emergence of the Novel 99
FIVE: Atlantic Translation and the Undomestic Novel 130

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