Translating for a Good Cause: Joseph Lavallée’s antislavery novel Le Nègre comme il y a peu de Blancs (1789) and its two English translations (1790)

Kristiina Taivalkoski-Shilov
Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, University of Helsinki

In Joseph Lavallée’s Le Nègre comme il y a peu de Blancs (1789) novelistic means are openly used to serve the abolitionist cause. The author announces in the preface that his aim is to “make his readers love Black people”. The novel was quite well received in France and it was translated into English twice the following year, first by Joseph Trapp and then by an anonymous translator. My article is based on a comparative analysis of some key passages containing abolitionist discourse in the source text and in the two target texts. I argue that the second English translator systematically made the novel more suitable for the abolitionist cause, by omitting or by modifying contradictory material found in the source text. Interestingly, it was this manipulated version of Lavallée’s novel that became popular among English-speaking readers.

Table of contents

It is a given that translating never is a totally neutral or transparent activity. The very fact of choosing a text to be translated or retranslated can be a cultural or a political act. Translations are efficient means of importing cultural capital into the target culture where their main impact is felt (Lefevere 1998: 41–42; Toury 1995: 29). Since a translation represents the source text to the target culture, even though it is rewritten by the translator, it is not only easy but also efficient to insert, omit or enforce such things as polemical elements. Owing to ‘manipulation’ (Hermans 1985, Lefevere 1992), the translator’s or the commissioner’s ideology gets support from the foreign author, who might or might not subscribe to it.

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