Radical Translation as Direct Action

By Nigel Ritchie

The transnational circulation of radical ideas of liberty, equality, and rights has deeply shaped European societies since the revolutionary period. But how did revolutionaries translate these terms across different national, geographical, and linguistic boundaries? Consider, for example, the extraordinary impact of revolutionary polemic on the Italian language. As the Italian linguist Erasmo Leso has shown, this was the moment when neologisms, such as regalista (royalist), vandalismo (vandalism), and sansculotto all entered common parlance. But could an Italian regalista be the same as a French royaliste? Could there be Italian sans-culottes without the political clubs and popular uprisings more broadly associated with the term? In a related vein, we might ask what the term meant in English and whether it was the same as the Italian and French usage. What, for instance, did the radical reformer John Thelwall mean when he chided a former colleague, now residing in America, for doubting his revolutionary sincerity, “I tell you in plain terms: I am a Republican, a downright sansculotte… I fear you are somewhat short of the true sansculotte for liberty, that you have too much veneration for property, too much religion, too much law” (Letter, February 1794). Had sansculottism become a potent signifier for something more profound than socio-economic status or dress sense?

And how should an aspiring revolutionary handle the term la patrie, which came to carry so much freight? Did it equate to “country,” or “homeland,” or something else again? Along the English-French axis, Bolingbroke’s Idea of a Patriot King(1740, translated 1790), equated patriotism with a love of the common good. But did this mean the same thing in French in 1790, as it did in English in 1740? And what about Richard Price’s Discourse on the love of our country (1790, translated almost simultaneously into French in 1790)? Originally a speech, this publication triggered a revolutionary War of Pamphlets with Edmund Burke. In it, Price positively compared France’s Revolution to England’s own Glorious Revolution of 1688, and suggested that in both contexts, love for one’s country equated to a love for its community and ideals rather than its rulers or geography. These examples suggest that, at least in 1790, patriotism could still connote a broader, cosmopolitan love of humanity. By contrast, a term such as patriote, is notoriously hard to pin down. A French patriote in the 1770s – denoting a supporter of the corporate rights of the Parlements, under the guise of traditional liberties, against the crown – was a very different creature to a patriote after 1789 – denoting a supporter of the creation of the National Assembly as a repository of popular sovereignty, and, by extension, a direct alternative to the ancien régime privileges of the Parlements. But was this the same as an Italian democrat? Or even a Jacobin? As it should be clear, key radical terms could often carry different meanings in different chronological, as well as cultural, contexts. Whenever they were translated, they accrued new meanings and shed older associations, putting translation itself at the heart of the revolutionary project.

The AHRC-funded project, “Radical Translations,” based at King’s College London, and led by Dr. Sanja Perovic, repositions radical translators not as passive collaborators of a predominantly French revolutionary culture but as activists seeking to spread progressive ideas into new contexts, and create new political tools for action. So far, we have identified 800 translations with a radicalising purpose that have never been systematically studied. This includes published translations, self-translations and pseudo-translations, as well as projected translations, recoverable from publishers’ prospectuses, newspapers, and personal correspondence. At the same time, the project also seeks to foreground the lives of over 500 translators, ranging from well-known revolutionaries to lesser known radicals, and those anonymous, or pseudonymous, translators whose lives are barely known at all. Some are professional translators, others translated only occasionally. What unites them all is the way they use translation to extend, adapt, and re-appropriate radical ideas into new contexts.

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A challenge of any translation history is to recover the work of obscure, or anonymous, writers. This is all the more difficult in a revolutionary period in which opportunities for freedom of expression opened as quickly as they closed, and many writers could not openly reveal their identities. Hence this project has embraced an extensive, prosopographical approach to highlight the importance of social networks and shared membership of political and cultural organizations. We have used these networks to identify some of these translators. Take, for instance, “A Kentish Bowman,” the pseudonymous translator of Helvetic Liberty, or, the Lass of the lakes (1792), an English translation of Antoine-Marin Le Mierre’s well-known play, Guillaume Tell (1766, also translated into Italian in 1796). Could this translator be the well-connected “Citizen” Charles (3rd Earl) Stanhope, a former commander of the Tir de l’Arc (or company of archers) in Geneva? The Swiss foundational legend of William Tell’s courageous struggle against tyranny is one of the inspirational tropes that was widely appropriated during this period. Stanhope’s attribution was the result of piecing together various clues, including the decade his family spent in Geneva, his close involvement in their political affairs, and his Kent residence at Chevening.

Extensive paratexts – the material surrounding a text, such as prefaces, dedications, notes, appendices, and new titles – accompany many of these translations, and have been captured in separate, richly annotated records. These offer vital clues to how these translations sought to extend radical ideas to new audiences, and, in some cases, circumvent existing constraints or censorship. It is here that the translator’s voice can be heard, and we pay special attention to how such paratexts function as compact forms of communication, expressing the translator’s own political aims, and sometimes revealing how and why a particular text was translated. To take just one example, a group of French and Italian Américomanes, led by Filippo Mazzei, chose to translate and annotate a short American pamphlet by John Stevens, Observations on government (1787), so extensively that their combined commentaries in Examen du gouvernement d’Angleterre, comparé aux constitutions des États-Unis (1789) add up to three times the length of the source-text, constituting an entire treatise in themselves.

The presentation of a translated text, or extracts, such as the National Assembly’s Declaration of the Rights of Man, or the comte de Volney’s Ruins, can also be illuminating, when it is recycled in different settings, such as stand-alone pamphlets, appendices, serial miscellanies, or even with the opposite intent for which the texts were intended. For example, the counter-revolutionary “Association for Preserving Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers” sponsored a collected edition of British Addresses to the National Assembly (1793) in an attempt to expose the “disloyalty” of these clubs, including the London Corresponding Society, the Society for Constitutional Information and the London Revolution Society. In a related case, a conservative publisher sought to expose the absurdities of revolutionary infighting by organizing the translation of Camille Desmoulins’ virulently anti-Girondin polemic, Histoire des Brissotins (1793), but in so doing, ended up furthering knowledge of, and potentially, sympathy for, the more radicalizing elements of the French Revolution.

It should be noted that this project is still ongoing. As more entries are added, we are better able to gauge an author’s outreach. Unsurprisingly, Thomas Paine comes into his own here, with the largest entry in the database, due to his unique position as a revolutionary figure in three different countries (the United States, Britain and France), provoking frequent prosecutions through the reissue of cheap, pocket editions of both parts of his Rights of Man (1791-92). Other revolutionary-era translations can reveal new angles on established texts. For example, while foundational political works by John Locke and John Miltonwere dusted off for a new audience across the Channel, two of the most radical authors from England’s republican Commonwealth period were also reintroduced into French and Italian political discourse. These were James Harrington, especially The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656), leading to the reissue of his entire Oeuvres Politiques in 1794, and Marchamont Nedham, translated into French and English in 1790 and 1798. As Raymonde Monnier has shown, and our own archival research has substantiated, Nedham’s translator, Théophile Mandar, tried and failed to get the Comité d’instruction publique to reissue his extended 1790 translation in 1794, arguing that it still had value in teaching the French about the advantages of a republic. However, events had long moved on, and the Comité were more interested in paying him 1200 livres to translate Thomas Howel’s Voyage en retour de l’Inde (1789) instead, with its outline of a shorter sea route to India and perceived value for French commerce.

Another work that was very popular, but is almost unread today, is Volney’s hallucinatory vision of a world freed from religious superstition and political despotism, Les ruines, ou Méditation sur les révolutions des empires (1791). Through the various translations and recycling of its parts, Volney’s utopian vision of people rejecting organised religion in favour of “the principles of individual happiness and public prosperity” enjoyed a considerable vogue across the Anglophone world, and in Italy, as a kind of free-thinking manifesto. The history of its translation into English highlights two distinctively different networks of transmission, while also revealing how a translated text could sometimes be perceived as more radical than the original source-text. 

One extract from James Marshall’s 1792 translation – which was made widely available in cheap pocket-book form – was frequently recycled as “Dialogue between the people and the idle classes” (from ch.15, a vision of a ‘New Age’). It appeared, for example, within the pamphlet, Appeal to the inhabitants of Birmingham, designed as an answer to Job Nott (1792), as well as cheap, radical miscellanies, such as Thomas Spence’s Pig’s Meat (1793) and Daniel Eaton’s Hog’s Wash (1793) – both of whom were members of the London Corresponding Society – and regional periodicals, including Sheffield’s The Patriot (1792-93). It was still being reprinted by the L.C.S. in 1798, as The Torch: or a light to enlighten the nations of Europe in their way towards Peace and Happiness. Spence even cast a token (coin) showing a scene from Ruins, of a soldier shaking hands with a civilian, with the words, “We also are the people,” referencing a scene where soldiers refused to fire on the crowd. E.P. Thompson has suggested that Volney’s views appeared more radical in English than in French through Marshall’s translation of the notion of a parasitic, aristocratic “order” into the more generalized “class” of the idle rich. 

The other network came via Volney’s links with America. Despite, or because of, its transatlantic popularity, the exiled Volney, now living in Philadelphia, was not happy with Marshall’s translation, and arranged another one through the radical poet and entrepreneur, Joel Barlow. Barlow persuaded Thomas Jefferson to retranslate the first nineteen chapters before finishing it off and publishing it anonymously – at Jefferson’s request – in 1802. This new translation became the template for all future editions of a text, which continued to exert its influence upon the secular, American tradition into the 19th century, including the future president, Abraham Lincoln, the writer, Mark Twain, and the poet, Walt Whitman, who claimed he had been “raised” on it.

These are just a few snapshots of the many buried treasures within the database, with many more still to be discovered or deciphered. Since working on this project, I have been struck by the extent to which normal research habits have become radically altered, guided by a new way of seeing things. Now, whenever I spot a potentially relevant source-text, my first instinct is to try and hunt down a translation in order to see how it was adapted as it criss-crossed the tumultuous, and multilingual sphere of radical print. While the first thing I do on opening any academic study, is to look for “translator” in the index and check the bibliography for translations. Often, there’s nothing there, as if the very idea of viewing a writer’s works through the prism of translation had simply not crossed the scholar’s mind, or was deemed worthy of inclusion. This lacuna is something the dynamic database provided by this project seeks to address in providing an invaluable starting point for future research, perhaps, even, re-orienting researchers’ horizons towards a more cosmopolitan way of thinking about the spread of radical ideas.

Besides the interactive, metadata-rich, corpus of radical texts and their translations, our project website also publishes regular blogs on featured translators, and other findings, as well as news of student-centred translation workshops and performances, such as those focusing on the earliest political manifesto, Sylvain Maréchal’s Manifeste des Égaux (1796)For those wishing to join in the detective work, we welcome any collaboration in identifying “unknown” sources and “anonymous” translators, as well as suggestions for new entries we may have overlooked, or corrections to existing ones.


Dr. Nigel Ritchie is a Post-doctoral Research Associate on the Radical Translations project, where he works across archives, libraries, and digitized texts to identify and contextualize translations and translators for the database, as well as helping to construct its prosopography.

His most recent publications include: “Jean-Paul Marat versus the public sphere: a question of savoir-faire,” in Cité et citoyenneté des Lumières (Honoré Champion, 2022, forthcoming), The French Revolution (British & Irish Literature) (OUP Bibliographies, 2020), and various entries for 30-Second Paris, ed. John Flower (Ivy Press, 2018). His research interests include journalism and the public sphere, political violence, and cross-Channel links between England and France during the late 18th century. He obtained his PhD in history at QMUL (2019), exploring the radical origins of the revolutionary journalist-politician Jean-Paul Marat, and tracing, in particular, the English influences on his thought. Before that, he was a non-fiction writer/editor and digital consultant for interactive entertainment.

Title Image: Richard Newton, The Ghost of Mirabeau’s Address to the London Revolution Society (1 July 1791, William Holland.)

Suggested readings:

Baker, Keith. Inventing the French Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Bellos, David. “A Question of Human Rights: Translation and the Spread of International Law,” in Is that a Fish in Your Ear?London: Allen Lane, 2011.

Leech, Patrick. Cosmopolitanism, Dissent, and Translation: Translating Radicals in Eighteenth-Century Britain and France.Bologna: Bononia University Press, 2020.

H. Lerner, Marc. “The William Tell Story as a Transnational Approach to the Age of Revolutions,” in Annales historiques de la Révolution française, July 2019, vol.397, no.3

Leso, Erasmo. Lingua e rivoluzione. Ricerche sul vocabolario politico italiano del triennio rivoluzionario, 1796–1799 (Venice: Instituto Veneto di Scienze Lettere ed Arti, 1991)

Mannucci, Erica Joy. “Déplacer et replacer la poésie révolutionnaire entre la France et l’Italie: le cas de Giovanni Fantoni,” in Jérémy Decot & Clare Siviter, eds., Un engagement en vers et contre tous. Servir les révolutions, rejouer leurs mémoires (1789-1848), Clermont-Ferrand: Presses Universitaires Blaise-Pascal, 2021, pp.97-115.

Mee, Jon. Print, Publicity and Radicalism in the 1790s: The Laurel of Liberty. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Monnier, Raymonde. ed., Marchamont Needham, De la souveraineté du peuple, et de l’excellence d’un état libre. Traduit de l’Anglais et Enrichi de Notes par Théophile Mandar. Paris: Editions des travaux historiques et scientifiques, 2010.

Perovic, Sanja. “The Radical Translations Project: Some Challenges in Using Translation as an Approach to Revolutionary History,” in Journal of Interdisciplinary History of Ideas, 6 Sept 2021, vol.10, no.19.

Perovic, Sanja & Rosa Mucignat, eds, “The French Revolution Effect: Special Issue,” in Comparative Critical Studies, 1 Sept 2018, vol.15, no.2.

Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. London: Victor Gollancz, 1963.

Whatmore, Richard. “Saving Republics by Moving Republicans: Britain, Ireland and ‘New Geneva’ During the Age of Revolutions,” in History. The Journal of the Historical Association, 102 (2017), 386-413.

The Enlightenment Books Projecthttp://kates.itg.pomona.edu/books/intro.php

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