Erasmus & Gueudeville: Master and Translator

- by Thibault Ehrengardt

The relationship between France, Holland and books is very interesting. Louis XIV twice tried to conquer Holland in the late 17th century, in vain. Religion was also at the heart of the matter, mostly because the revocation of the Edicts de Nantes by Louis XIV forced thousands of learnt and sometimes wealthy men to migrate to Holland where they soon started to fight back – mostly through forbidden books, publicly disapproved and secretly sought-after. Holland became the center of an illegal trade. Everyday, dozens of pirate books were entering France – and as many forbidden writings. Some established French publishers put out books using the name and address of some imaginary Dutch printer. People became acquainted with those editions of poor quality, with less attractive bindings and suffering from many misprints. Whenever a Dutch printer honestly put out a book (which happened), he had to let it be known. In the 1720 edition of the Colloquies (Leide), Pierre Vander Aa wrote : “With Privilege and with a 3,000 florins fine to all counterfeiters” at the bottom of the title page.

Gueudeville was one of those refugees who wrote and translated books to earn a living. His detractors soon portrayed him as ready to do anything to buy himself a loaf of bread – or rather, a pint of wine. About his huge Atlas Historique (7 in-folio volumes), Chaudon says it was “written by hunger and thirst.” His criticism of Fenelon’s Télémaque was also officially considered a partial work of hate – it was in fact appreciated by many readers and some say Fénélon even corrected his book after some of Gueudeville’s remarks. No matter what our man was doing, as a Protestant, a traitor to his country and an enemy to his King, he was a villain who deserved nothing but disdain. But who could criticize Erasmus, or Thomas More, two geniuses of the Renaissance who remained faithful to their Catholic faith? It was safer to fight Gueudeville’s translations of their works – and turn them into crimes of lese-majesty. In 1875, Victor Delavay put out his own translation of Erasmus’ Colloquies. The forewords read: “This curious work has been relatively neglected over the years, partly because of the absence of a French translation, as we can not give this name to the mis-shaped essay given by Gueudeville (1780, 6 in-12 volumes) which Querard calls, in his France Littéraire, a misrepresentation rather than a translation.”

Thanks to Delavay’s edition, I realized that this ugly drunkard of Gueudeville had, from the back of a filthy Dutch tavern, given to the world the most terrible translation of this masterpiece. No wonder I was disappointed at the Colloquies! I then thoroughly compared several dialogues of both editions... only to find out that Gueudeville’s translation was almost identical to Develay’s (or I should say the contrary). So, who was the ugly liar after all? In fact, Erasmus’ book is not that entertaining for one reason, he had just written those discussions to exercise his Latin. He had no intention to print them. Had he reduced their number and, sometimes, their length, he could have equaled the quality of In Praise of Folly – some discussions on war, travels or religion are dreadfully caustic. But he did not and Chaudon says: “His Colloquies do not match Lucien’s nor Fontenelle’s ; they are mostly read for their Latinity rather than for their contents.” Well, that’s something no one can accuse me of.

I soon got reconciled with Gueudeville, and even drank a pint of wine to his forgotten – and unjustly despised – Dutch memory. The wrath of his enemies could have inspired one of Erasmus’ colloquies, or even a passage of In Praise of Folly. I even got reconciled with the Colloquies, finding some bitter-sweet dialogues that do sound like a “declaration of war on Man” after all. And Mr. Feller, Chaudon, Dandeline and Delavay have demonstrated in their time that it is always useful to declare that type of war to Man.

Thibault Ehrengardt