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La traduction dans les cultures plurilingues

Francis Mus
Karen Vandemeulebroucke
Lieven D’Hulst
et al.

Espaces plurilingues

Late-Victorian London, a multilingual and multicultural Mecca in the isle of Great Britain

Denise Merkle

Texte intégral

1In the official nineteenth-century discourse the United Kingdom was a modem unified State with a clear identity and a shared collective consciousness. However, in the minds of many of its late-Victorian citizens, especially those who resided in large urban centres such as London, it was an imagined community, to use the well-worn words of Benedict Anderson (1991). Better work prospects, intellectual stimulation, avant-garde ideas brought Irish and Scots migrants to London, though the latter did not necessarily abandon their regional “home rule” aspirations when they moved to the centre of the kingdom. Native London writers and painters, disillusioned with British values, sought literary and artistic inspiration in the Gallic culture located on the other side of the channel, which in turn exiled its political trouble makers to London. Immigrants sought refuge from oppression in London, without however abandoning their originary identity. Those artistic and literary Londoners who crossed the channel usually spoke at least two languages; immigrants, political exiles and refugees who found themselves in London, permanently or in transit, added English to the list of languages they already spoke. In addition to these groups who, generally speaking, were not members of the socioeconomic elite, was the well-educated and moneyed cosmopolitan class whose financial means afforded its members the freedom to leave their insular base and travel throughout the Continent and the colonies. José Lambert (2004) has argued that when foreign languages inhabit a monolingual, even plurilingual, territory, translation activity is a naturel result of the intercultural contact. In officially monolingual cultures, translation is not a product of government policy or legislation, rather the fruit of a desire to access information and the symbolic goods held by a closed group within the so-called monolingual culture. Groups could be closed to protect themselves (political refugees) or to ensure the survival of their alterity (immigrants).

2Some Londoners migrated outside Britain in order to import foreign values that they believed would improve British culture; foreigners exported their culture by bringing it with them when they moved to London. As is often the case for the latter group, the move to the new land was a painful act of cutting ties with one’s roots and with all that was familiar, even if the familiar involved injustice, even violence. The new land may have offered democracy and liberal laws, but behind the veneer of official welcome often lurked a muted mistrust of the other, the subtle sneer of patronizing condemnation of his foreign ways, a “haughty pity” (Cunningham 1969: 270), all of which were acutely felt by the newcomer. For, as some nationals think to themselves, why should the foreigner choose to make the new country his home if he were not fleeing a reality that was in some or in many ways inferior to what the new country had to offer? Newcomers may have taken up residence in their new country, but they did not necessarily feel at home, at least not at first. But then, this situation in nineteenth-century Britain only serves to underline the pertinence of Anderson’s argument that a sense of community shared by all of a nation’s members is an artificial construct. We argue that the fragmentation of the myth of a unified and homogeneous community was most acutely felt during the latter decades of the century, a period marked by the accelerated urbanisation of Britain accompanied by the influx of political refugees and immigrants to urban centres. On the heels of the crumbling myth followed, in the twentieth century, the physical fragmentation of the empire and the United Kingdom itself through Home Rule and later devolution.

  • 1 In the early 1890s, one of the Lutetian Society translators, Ernest Dowson, fell in love with Adela (...)

3It becomes clear that by contrast to the official, and illusory discourse of nineteenth-century European nations as homogeneous (one language, one culture, one literature), in reality many of the inhabitants of the capital city of at least one of these nations, London in this study, were in fact multilingual and multicultural, identifying with their plural identity, often at the expense of identifying with British hegemony. Migrants from Ireland, Scotland and Wales may have spoken a local language in addition to English; assimilated Jews, such as Israel Zangwill who himself mastered Hebrew and Yiddish, referred to themselves as Anglo-Jews; French and German exiles spoke French and German or a German dialect; Bismarck expulsed from Prussia alien poles1 who made their way to Britain or America; Eastern European immigrants spoke German, Polish, Russian or Yiddish; the educated classes learned Latin, Greek and French in school; middle class girls destined for a career as governess were likely to be taught languages. It was Britain’s reputation as “the beacon of political freedom” (Goldstein 1992: 126), the bastion of freedom of expression, a country proud of its tradition of tolerance that made it a safe haven for those fleeing injustice and that attracted a broad cross-section of immigrants and political exiles. Their point of entry was usually London. In some cases, Britain was not their final destination; rather London was but a stopover as they made their way to the United States. Furthermore, Britain was an empire with colonies in the Middle East and Asia that brought, for example, native Egyptians, Chinese and Indians to London, as well as British nationals born in the colonies, such as Rudyard Kipling who, after spending his early years in a multilingual home in Bombay (his nanny spoke to him in Portuguese and a manservant in Hindi), developed a hybrid, fragmented identity. Some Britons who wished to make a career in the colonies learned a language of the colonized, for example Arabic, Chinese or Hindi. To ensure a successful career, young Britons with military aspirations, one notorious example being Sir Richard Burton, often learned a second and third language, if not more (Merkle, fortheoming).

4Those who were not multilingual were primarily the native-born working masses, whose English nevertheless did not necessarily reproduce the educated norm, yet they represented the majority of the population in ternis of sheer numbers. Workers of British lineage pursued the family tradition of one language and one culture although not always the one with which official discourse identified. In this study we shall examine the relationship between the diverse sociolinguistic complexity of late nineteenth-century London and translation activity in the metropolis, by considering the Marx family, an example of a family living in political exile, and London’s Jewish ghetto, an example of an immigrant community.

1. London and Political Exiles: The Marx Family and Translation

5The feared dark masses could not afford newspapers until the abolition of the newsprint tax in 1861 (Goldstein 1992: 129). The Victorian newspapers that were published until then were thus written for a better-educated readership or for the closed groups to which we have earlier referred. Numerous London newspapers were unilingual “foreign-language” publications, such as the German-language Deutsche Londoner Zeitung that serialised Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto in German in 1848. The Manifesto had been published earlier the same year in book form and reprinted three times. The first English translation was produced by Helen Macfarlane in 1850 for the Red Republican. No doubt encouraged by having been able to publish, without reprisal, the Manifesto in London, Karl Marx and his family immigrated to Britain in August 1849 with Friedrich Engels following them in November of the same year. Marx and Engels hoped to help restore the Communist League and aid fellow revolutionaries, and they believed, like other German exiles who had fled Bismarck’s repressive laws (Merkle 1999, Gibbels forthcoming), that Britain was “the only piece of Europe where you can freely think and speak as you like” (in Merkle 1999: 126). The Marx family first settled in Chelsea, then moved to Soho where they lived among other foreigners and in abject poverty for six years. Helena Demuth who had joined the family in Chelsea also spoke German. Other German-speaking political refugees and colleagues of Marx who had moved to London, such as Wilhelm Liebknecht, visited the family on a regular basis. Upon receiving a family legacy, Jenny von Westphalen Marx moved the family, in September 1856, to a house in Maitland Park located on the outskirts of London. The language spoken in the household was German until Eleanor, bom in 1855, turned five. Eleanor was the only Marx child born in London to survive, and the only British subject.

6Reactionary Conservative circles in Parliament used Karl Heinzen’s pamphlet Lehren der Revolution reprinted in the Deutsche Londoner Zeitung to try to justify expulsing revolutionaries from Britain in the late 1840s. This Conservative fringe was, however, small and unable to exert influence on public policy. Great Britain had been admitting political exiles from Germany since the early 1840s and would welcome exiles from France under Napoléon III, who himself would be exiled to Great Britain, as well as from Russia, e.g., Prince Peter Kropotkin and Alexander Herzen. The liberal Victor Hugo and his family settled in Guemsey, where his son François-Victor produced the first complete and literal translation of Shakespeare’s works (Mallet 1993). Parisian communards settled in London after the 1871-1873 uprising. To cater to the multilingual market, a number of bilingual and plurilingual newspapers were published in London, e.g., the London Polyglot published issues in French, German and Italian that contained handwritten translations of excerpts from London daily newspapers (1879) and The Stranger in London: L’Étranger à Londres: Der Fremde in London was published in English, French, German and Italian (1866).

7However, the generally benevolent attitude to political exiles soured, even among traditional Liberals, in the 1880s, a decade of economic hardship and labour unrest. Take as a case in point two excerpts from the Hansard, the first dated 1888:

Within his [Samuel Smith’s] knowledge there was a large number of persons in London who had been driven from abroad, who had suffered imprisonment, and who dare not live in their own countries, because their characters were so well-known; they came here and brought with them the vilest practices, and carried them on almost untouched. (NVA 1889: 8 cites the Hansard of 8 May 1888)

8In the Hansard of 1889, the tone becomes more strident:

The law ought to be more stringently enforced; books are allowed to be circulated here which are forbidden in Germany and our own Colonies, and miscreants ply their trade safely in London who have been expelled from every country of Europe. Our excessive regard for personal liberty has laid us particularly open to this evil. (NVA 1889: 29 cites a letter addressed to The Standard of 28 July 1888, written by Samuel Smith)

9This is an allusion to the writings of August Bebel, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, among many other social activists, who promoted social revolution and sexual equality and whose writings had been banned in Germany in accordance with Bismarck’s law. Marx and Engels were free to live and write in London provided they wrote in a foreign language, given that texts not published in English were allowed to circulate freely without fear of prosecution under censorship laws (Merkle 2009). Nevertheless, a few prosecutions of revolutionary exiles who applauded assassinations were successful under the 1867 Offences Against the Person Act (e.g., 1881-1882, the German anarchist Johann Most and two associates were jailed for publishing articles applauding the assassination of Tsar Alexander II and the Phoenix Park murders in Ireland; 1898, the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Burtsev and associate were imprisoned for urging the assassination of Tsar Nicholas II) (Goldstein 1992: 130).

10Indeed, London was a trampoline for disseminating revolutionary ideas and a platform for international revolution. Karl Marx wrote primarily in German, although he also penned articles for periodicals in English and French. After disappearing from view between 1850 and 1870, the Communist Manifesto went through a number of editions from 1872 to 1890; notable new prefaces were written by Marx and Engels for the 1872 German edition, the 1882 Russian edition, the 1883 French edition, and the 1888 English edition. The English edition, (re-) translated by Samuel Moore, has been the most commonly used English text since it was published. Macfarlane’s 1850 translation was considered free. Consequently, to ensure accuracy and add credibility, Engels made corrections to Moore’s translation and annotated it in an edition that was published in 1890 (France 2000: 325).

11A polyglot, Marx received French, German and Russian revolutionaries in his London home and was able to converse with them in their native tongue, speaking his native German, as well as English, French and Russian. During her father’s lifetime, Eleanor Marx worked as his secretary. Engels started directing the translation of Marx’s writings into English after 1883, the year of the death of his friend and colleague, and after Marx had spent more than thirty years in London. Engels hired Samuel Moore to translate Das Kapital, but since the translator’s progress was slow, Edward Aveling, the husband of Eleanor Marx, was asked to co-translate, though he was allowed at first to try only the chapter on “Der Arbeitstag” “this being chiefly descriptive, wrote Engels, and free, comparatively, from difficult theoretical passages for which Aveling is totally unfit as yet” (Tsuzuki 1967: 113, 113n1). It is clear from Engels’ correspondence with Laura Lafargue, Eleanor Marx’s sister, that as late as February 1886, Engels felt that Aveling’s translation of Capital was unsatisfactory. Eleanor Marx, who was trilingual German, English and French, undertook to verify the accuracy of quotations from Blue Books in order to avoid errors in back translation. She would later learn Norwegian to enable her to translate Ibsen’s Works into English (see Apter 2008, especially her bibliography), as well as Yiddish in order to help Jewish workers unionise. Her sisters, Jenny and Laura, neither of whom was born in England, both married Frenchmen and spoke English, French and German.

12After some delay, Engels’ translation of Capital was published in 1886. Five hundred copies were “almost sold out in the first two or three months, though nearly half the number went to America. But soon the sales slackened: only sixty-five copies were sold for one year from July 1887” (Tsuzuki 1967: 152). The book was reviewed in the Athenaeum and the Pall Mall Gazette and does not appear to have been targeted by censoring authorities, although negative reviews may have reduced readership. Chushichi Tsuzuki believes that Edward Aveling’s injured reputation and unfavourable book reviews by the Fabians may have negatively impacted sales (Tsuzuki 1967: 152-153).

13Capital and the Communist Manifesto were thus published in English translation in the 1880s. The worst of the economic crisis was felt in 1887, followed quickly by an economic recovery from 1888 (Garrard 1971: 30). The years 1888 to 1895 drew attention to the outcast classes in the East End where destitute aliens lived in overcrowded squalor. Socially conscious reformers, encouraged by the agitation of revolutionary activists, turned social reform into an issue during the 1890s (Garrard 1971: 27). During the 1880s newly educated workers listened to socialist speeches and read revolutionary political pamphlets that propagated ideas that originated in France, Germany and Russia. Eleanor Marx Aveling contributed in no small way to the dissemination of these ideas through her translation and writing activities. Socialism became a workers’ movement in England, and women started demanding social and political equity. London hosted an international congress in 1885 which was to “revive the International” as Eleanor Marx reported in To-Day (Garrard 1971: 112). The translation Women in the Past, Present, and Future by Harriet B. Adams Walther of August Bebel’s original was published in 1885. Eleanor Marx reviewed it in the Commonweal and in a pamphlet entitled The Woman Question (Garrard 1971: 124-125). In 1889, thanks in part to the efforts of Eleanor Marx, two worker associations were founded in the aftermath of two strikes: Silvertown Gasworkers and General Labourers Union. The same year, she helped to orchestrale the Dock Strike. In 1889, she leamed Yiddish in order to be able to speak with non assimilated Jewish works working in the London’s textile industry (the East End), and she helped them organise (Merkle 1999).

2. East End London, a “foreign country”

14Translation studies scholar Sherry Simon has studied the linguistic and cultural dynamics of metropolises. In particular, she has looked at how cities can be divided along cultural and linguistic lines, taking Montréal as a case in point (2006). Like Montréal, where east of Saint Laurent is associated with poverty, London’s urban poor congregated in the East End. The latter area is where Irish migrants and Jewish immigrants tended to settle. By contrast, Chelsea and Soho attracted foreigners, many of whom were German and French political refugees and exiles.

15The famine had driven Irish farmers from their homes to London from 1845 to 1852. A period of strong immigration to London from abroad lasted from 1880 to 1914. During this period, many Jewish immigrants fled pogroms and persecutions in Central and Eastem Europe (for example, Poland) and Russia. In 1881, the population of London was 3.3 million versus Paris at 2.2 million. From 1880-1914, approximately 150 000 East European Jews immigrated to the United Kingdom. The principal immigrant settlement was in London. Immigrants sought refuge from the life in the villages of the Pale of Settlement in Czarist Russia. Though pogroms were staged throughout the existence of the Pale (from 1791 to 1917), particularly devastating attacks occurred from 1881-1883 and from 1903-1906. In 1882 it was forbidden for Jews to settle in rural areas. As a result of Alexander III’s ‘Temporary Laws’ in 1881, the Moscow région (from which thousands of Jewish craftsmen and their families were expelled in 1891-2), and Yalta (1893) were closed to Jews. The laws of 1881 also prohibited any new settlement by Jews outside the Pale, with the exception of the ten Polish provinces located in the Vistula River région. Unskilled workers and their families gravitated to the needle trade in London, and other manufacturing centres, such as Leeds (Wilson 1967: xx).

16Poor Jewish immigrants formed ghettos in Whitechapel and the East End marked by overcrowding, dilapidation, high rents, and “key-money” (Garrard 1971: 4). The celebrated Anglo-Jewish writer Israel Zangwill, who received his education in a parochial school in Whitechapel, wrote in the Children of the Ghetto (1909): “Such people are their own Ghetto gates; when they migrate they carry them across the seas to lands where they are not” (quoted in Garrard 1971: 4). In fact, “to the rest of English society East London [...] was like a foreign country” (quoted in Garrard 1971: 49). The Hansard reported in 1892 that “There are some streets you may go through and hardly know you are in England” (Hansard 4S H (8) 1205, 11 February 1892), explaining that

railway timetables [were] posted... in Hebrew characters, the bills of places of amusement distributed in the streets in Hebrew, and the public entertainments given in Yiddish (as well as a foreign press) in which were advocated with great immunity all kinds of revolutionary doctrines. (Hansard 4S H (133) 1110, 25 April 1904, quoted in Garrard 1971: 50)

17The Jewish Chronicle of 28 September 1888 had already expressed concern at the tendency of Jewish immigrants to create ghettos:

If poor Jews still persist in appropriating whole streets to themselves in the same district [...], drawing to their peculiarities of dress, of language and of manner, the attention which they might otherwise escape, can there be any wonder that the vulgar prejudices of which they are the objects should be kept alive and strengthened. (quoted in Garrard 1971: 49-50)

18Israel Zangwill, born in London in 1864, was a political activist, journalist, writer and humorist whose writings attracted the attention of the Jewish Publication Society of America that requested him to write a novel on modem Jewish life in an urban setting. The commission resulted in the well-known Children of the Ghetto, Being Pictures of a Peculiar People (1892), a work that at once made him famous. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, it attracted broad interest and was translated into German, Russian, Hebrew (in part) and Yiddish. This work was followed by The King of Schnorrers (1894), which applied “the new humour” to London ghetto life. It was translated into Yiddish. Zangwill also published many poems and verses, including translations from the medeival Jewish poets that have been included in the authorized festival prayers of the English Jewish congregations. Most of these poems were collected under the title Blind Children (1903) (Jacobs 2002). His simulation in English of Yiddish sentence structure and his heavy use of Yiddish aroused great interest in Jewish and non-Jewish readers alike, while his portrait of poor immigrants struggling to survive in a new environment provided a jarring glimpse into ghetto life to the British (Zangwill 2008). Zangwill used self-translation as a literary device, while ensuring cultural transfer.

19It is interesting to note that Zangwill collaborated with Eleanor Marx on a little-known play, ‘ “A Doll’s House’ Repaired” that suggested an alternative ending to Ibsen’s Nora (A Doll’s House) in fact parodying British “public reaction”, punned as “Ibscenity” (Bernstein 2007, para. 12). Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling had prepared the first English translation of Nora in the early 1880s. With George Bernard Shaw, Edward Aveling and May Morris, Eleanor Marx-Aveling participated in a private reading in English of Nora on 15 January 1885 at her flat on Great Russell Street. This unpublished version had introduced unadulterated Ibsen to London (Merkle 2004).

3. Preliminary Conclusion

20In 1844, Engels wrote: “England is undeniably the freest, in other words, the least unfree, country in the world” (in Goldstein 1992: 127). The country’s reputation as a democratic and tolerant nation attracted those seeking freedom to express their ideas and safe haven from oppression. As a consequence of (im) migration, London was bubbling with influences from many different traditions, and numerous foreign languages were the vehicle of communication in its streets. London’s receptiveness to free speech attracted some of the most avant-garde nineteenth-century political and social thinkers, many of whom wrote in languages other than English, such as German, French and Russian. Their foreign-language writings on British soil invited translation into English that resulted in the dissemination of new, even revolutionary, ideas that after the elimination of the stamp tax in 1861 could make their way to the working classes. In other instances, writings were translated for linguistic minorities in London (into Yiddish or Hebrew, for example). Particularly innovative on the part of Israel Zangwill was his vanguard experimentation with hybridisation of linguistic and literary forms, a product of languages and cultures in contact.

21In many instances, the decision to translate was a response to market forces: workers were interested in leaming about the progress of labour movements in other countries; readers in Britain and the United States realized that literature could provide insights in the sociolinguistic reality of closed groups living within their midst. At times translation activities engendered controversy and became the catalyst for conflict. Take as a case in point labour unrest that was supported by foreign-born socialists in collaboration with home grown social reformers.

22Texts that communicated alternative worldviews and innovative ideas about political and social organisation were imported in an effort to improve the living conditions of Britons residing in urban centres where more than 30 percent of the population lived in poverty (Merkle 1999: 206-208). The translation of texts contesting the overarching patriarchal worldview of the British Empire during this period of socio-political tensions at home appears as a force for cultural (trans) formation and renewal (Ellis and Oakley-Brown 2001: 5). However, when the economy soured in the 1880s, the threshold of public tolerance was put to the test. Labour unrest and the potential power of “workers” as well as women seeking a new role in society stoked social anxiety and brought it into the public arena. London’s conservative éléments (the NVA, Parliament, religious groups) feared that social fragmentation was being generated by antagonistic social (feminism, Fabianism, secularism) and political (traditional Liberalism, unionism, socialism, republicanism) forces. The result was a “fissure” of ideological constructs (Laclau & Mouffe 2001: 7), one response to the socio-political context. In particular, the construct of British “oneness” was tested along with the sense of a shared community, and, as we have shown, translation played an important rôle in disseminating knowledge during this period of dynamic socio-political progress.



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– , The King of Schnorrers, London/New York, Macmillan, 1894.

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1 In the early 1890s, one of the Lutetian Society translators, Ernest Dowson, fell in love with Adelaide Foltinowicz ( “Missie”), the daughter of a Polish immigrant (Longaker 1945).

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