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When, if ever, the Judgment Books are unrolled, it is not the East End sweated women who will have the first say, but rather the plagiarised and pirated authors, the translators and poor scholars, in the leash of the illiterate and the vulgar! What an army they will form!

Victor Plarr, 1914, pp. 99-100


Victor Plarr would be relieved to learn that the twentieth century has given authors a say, at least in part thanks to Zola’s “affranchissement” of the modern writer. However, it is in large part thanks to the advent of Translation Studies in the 1970s and the explosion of translation research in the 1990s that a British literary scholar such as Nicholas White would write that history must not overlook “the cultural status of the figure of the translator” (1995, p. 19)[2]. This paper will examine the role of the Lutetian Society and its six translators as translating subjects and cultural agents, united by the cause of introducing British readers to the “real Émile Zola,” a misunderstood, and in their minds unjustly maligned, French writer. Furthermore, it will take a look at their migrations between France and England in the aim of assessing the relationship between a sincere and keen interest in the cultural other and translation activity that contests literary and translation norms. Finally, the paper will try to give some insight into the effect of translation activity on their personal appreciation of Zola and the novel translated.

What is the Lutetian Society?

In late-Victorian London, a number of literary societies, for example, the Kama Shastra Society, founded by Sir Richard Francis Burton and F. F. Arbuthnot, published for distribution to their members unexpurgated editions of banned books, often in translation. Another such society was the Lutetian Society that published translations of six of Émile Zola’s banned novels in 1894 and 1895; however, like the Society itself, its founder remains a mystery. In her article, “Did you say… The Lutetian Society?,” Chantal Morel wonders whether Leonard Smithers[3], a solicitor from Sheffield, who set up a publishing business in London with the intention of publishing “anything the others are afraid of” (Flower, 1967, p. 264), might be the man behind the Lutetian Society (1997, p. 11). The translation of Voltaire’s La Pucelle d’Orléans that was commissioned by Smithers and published by the Lutetian Society (see Annexe I, Ernest Dowson) appears to confirm this hypothesis. Another possibility, according to Morel, is Paul Ferdinando (pseudonym Carrington) who set up the Athenian Society in the early 1890s in order to publish unexpurgated editions of Aristophanes and Lucian (1997, pp. 11-12). Although we may not have identified with certainty the Lutetian Society’s founder, the Society’s mission was nevertheless clear: “to issue to its members, translations of such representative master-pieces of fiction by Continental authors as are unprocurable in English in an unmutilated rendering” (Anonymous, note, 1894, n.p.).

The President of France’s Société des Gens de Lettres, Émile Zola was invited in 1893 to London to give a talk on the anonymity of the press at the Congress organized by the Institute of Journalists. According to Morel, “Zola received a ‘regal’ welcome from both the press and the literary world” (1997, p. 14), the latter celebrating the completion of the Rougon-Macquart series with the publication of Le Docteur Pascal. White believes that “[t]he Lutetian Society’s project was clearly designed to exploit these celebrations that took place both in Paris and London” (1995, p. 21, n. 17)

So a decade after the publication in England of the Vizetelly & Co translations of Zola’s novels, translations that made cuts in the target text in order to ensure better target audience reception (Besnimon, 1990, p. ix)[4], the Lutetian Society’s “leader” Alexander Teixeira de Mattos was arranging for private issue a series of scholarly and undiluted retranslations of six of Zola’s more controversial novels. He had £300 to pay for the translations, or £50 per translation, a considerable sum at the time. Each of the translations was published in two volumes. The edition was limited to 300 numbered copies printed on hand-made paper (Arnold no 6), as well as ten copies on vellum paper (Morel, 1997, p. 7). On the title page of the translations, one reads: “Printed by the Lutetian Society for Private Distribution Amongst Its Members”.

Teixeira de Mattos, who retranslated in 1895 Zola’s La Curée, the third of the series, oversaw the work of the Lutetian Society (re)translators whose acceptance of cultural and literary difference set them apart from their more ethnocentric compatriots. They were fully cognisant of the intercultural character of their work and of the fact that they were producing retranslations. In 1894, Arthur Symons retranslated L’Assommoir and Victor Gustave Plarr, Nana. La Terre was retranslated by Ernest Dowson, Germinal by Havelock Ellis, and Pot-Bouille by Percy Pinkerton in 1895.

The Lutetian Society’s objective was “to translate and publish works which appealed primarily to the erudite and conveyed principles and doctrines that were different from, if not always antagonistic to, Victorian ideals of morality” (Longaker, 1944, p. 131). The translators knew the law that had condemned the novels they accepted to retranslate and subverted it, for their translation activity was clandestine, being as they were “protected” by a secret society with a very limited subscription of wealthy and educated readers. We know that the members of this francophile group socialized and travelled together (except Pinkerton about whom we have found very little information). The Lutetian Society translators were linked by their love of French culture and literature, although when it came to Zola’s writings, Symons and Ellis, in particular, were at first clearly less enthusiastic. This group of turn-of-the-century writers and poets produced their unexpurgated retranslations of Zola’s chief novels to protest the power of Britain’s traditional literary institution as well as to revive their national literature[5] by looking for inspiration to the great city of literary and artistic innovation, Paris. To varying degrees, these translators felt alienated in their mother tongue and native culture, and felt at home elsewhere. All of these translators believed it important to produce an unexpurgated version of certain banned translations of French literary works in order to allow those who did not master French to form their own opinion of their literary value. An anonymous “Note” that appears on an unnumbered page that precedes Symons’s translation of L’Assommoir, the first of the series, explains:

The editions will in every case be strictly limited, and will not be offered to the ordinary English public. “L’Assommoir” is the first of six novels from the Rougon-Macquart series, by Émile Zola; it will be followed by translations of “Nana”, “La Curée”, “La Terre”, “Germinal”, and “Pot-Bouille”: these six works form the first issue of the Society to its subscribers. And it should be added that this series is the only complete, unexpurgated, and absolutely liberal edition of M. Zola’s novels as yet printed in the English tongue, and it is issued by the special permission and under the direct auspices of M. Zola[6].

1894, n.p.

The translations could not be advertised because they were illegal, and their existence was made known only by word-of-mouth. Not all of the 310 copies were sold, and it seems very few scholars could afford to buy, or were interested in buying, these six translations for 12 guineas (Longaker, 1944, p. 133). The first series was thus a financial disaster, and the Lutetian Society abandoned any idea of translating additional Zola novels[7].

The names of three of the Lutetian Society translators are recognized today for their scholarly and artistic contributions to late-Victorian cultural life: Ernest Dowson, the Decadent poet; Havelock Ellis, the controversial sexologist; Arthur Symons, the Symbolist scholar. Victor Plarr is known primarily for his friendship with Ernest Dowson. Alexander Teixeira de Mattos, despite being a career translator of literary and scientific works, is not a recognizable name today. History is largely silent on the sixth member of the group, Percy Pinkerton, although he was a prolific translator of libretti and songs from French, German, Italian and Russian.

Émile Zola in the Victorian England of the 1880s and 1890s

In the 1880s, French literature produced by Flaubert, Balzac[8], Maupassant and Zola was generally considered lewd, if not outright pornographic. Zola’s novels were singled out for attack in the 1880s. His works were not to be read in translation, other than by those (male) members of the socio-cultural elite who were able to do so “critically.” Although not enough time had elapsed since the Vizetelly trials of 1888 and 1889[9] to establish his literary reputation, in the 1890s Zola had influential supporters in Britain, despite the fact that the ban (1888) targeting in particular three of his novels in translation — Nana, Pot-Bouille and La Terre — had not been lifted by the authorities. According to William Frierson (1928, p. 549), generally speaking Anglo-Saxons found undiluted realism and naturalism antipathetic to their nature; the Church, even liberal literary criticism (including Algernon Swinburne, Havelock Ellis, George Moore)[10] and the government continued well into the 1890s to criticize, if not condemn, Zola and his writings, at least on aesthetic grounds. However, Ernest Vizetelly’s translation of Zola’s La Débâcle: The Downfall. A Story of the Horrors of War (1892)[11] appealed successfully to English antiwar sentiment and prompted the timing of Sherard’s biography (Lethbridge, 1995, p. 9). Robert Harborough Sherard,[12] who spent his life in France and Corsica and who knew Zola as well as Daudet and Maupassant personally, published in 1893 the very well received Émile Zola: A Biographical and Critical Study that did much to improve the French writer’s literary reputation in England. This divided reception underlined the existence of the two opposing literary camps identified by Decker in The Victorian Conscience (1952). Two of Zola’s British devotees were Lutetian Society translators Ernest Dowson and Victor Plarr, who appreciated his literary genius.

Foreign influences, certainly, had begun to have more and more effect upon the making of such literature as is produced in England nowadays; we had a certain acceptance of Ibsen, a popular personal welcome of Zola, and literary homage paid to Verlaine.

Symons in White, 1995, p. 11

Lutetian Society Translators: Their Cultural Migrations

English decadent poet born on August 2, 1867 in Kent outside London, Ernest Christopher Dowson travelled extensively with his father to France and Italy as a boy, and was also educated by him. Henry Havelock Ellis was born in Croydon in 1859. At the age of seven he sailed around the world with his father, a shipmaster, and also travelled extensively in South America. In England, he studied at French and German schools. At sixteen, he set out on another world tour, but became too sick to go beyond Sydney. Ellis remained in Australia for four years, earning his living as a school teacher. Victor Gustave Plarr was born on June 21, 1863 in Le Kapferhammer near Strasbourg. His mother was Celtic and his father a distinguished Alsacian mathematician. After the family house was burned down by the Prussians during the 1870-1871 war, the family moved to Scotland. Arthur Symons, born in 1865 in Wales of Cornish stock, was the critic and poet who familiarized the British with French and Italian literature. His parents gave him a deeply religious, yet nomadic, childhood in the Welsh and English countryside. In his Memoirs, he writes: “If I have been a vagabond, and have never been able to root myself in any one place in the world, it is because I have no early memories of any one sky or soil” (in Beckson, 1977, p. 6). He moved to London as a young adult. More is known about the childhood of Dowson, Ellis, Plarr and Symons than about Teixeira de Mattos’s and Pinkerton’s, although we do know that Teixeira de Mattos was born in 1865 in Holland and educated in England.

Thanks to his travels as a youth, upon his arrival at Oxford (1886), Ernest Dowson (see Longaker, 1944) was more worldly than most undergraduates and interested in Schopenhauer, Zola, Baudelaire, Poe, and Swinburne. Unfortunately, he did not complete his university studies. In the 1880s, Dowson made frequent, and sometimes lengthy, visits to Dieppe and Paris, in no way hiding his admiration of France and things French; he also visited Belgium. French habits and customs were of greater interest to him than English ones; for example, he took a liking to absinthe, whereas in general the English considered it a poison, and he was very well read in French literature (Balzac, Stendhal, Chamfort, Loti, Baudelaire, Flaubert). In 1888, he became a good friend of Victor Plarr and, in 1891, met Arthur Symons. Himself a gifted lyrical poet, Dowson joined the Rhymers’ Club of poets that met in the early 1890s. The Rhymers was a group that, according to Arthur Symons, attracted for the most part non Anglo-Saxons connected by their love of poetry and French culture despite generalized British condemnation of decadent French morality. Dowson also befriended W.B. Yeats, Verlaine[13], and Oscar Wilde. The latter led the Decadent movement in England, moving to Paris in the wake of his legal battles. The only Lutetian Society translator whom posterity considers an unequivocal “Decadent” is Ernest Dowson[14]. According to Thomas Swann, Dowson’s range of French, though limited, was sufficient for reasonably accurate translation “and the fastidious ear which delighted in the letter ‘v’ and the dreamlike rhythms of Poe assured both grace and polish” (1964, p. 88). Dowson contracted phthisis in 1894, the same year that his father’s dry-dock went bankrupt in Limehouse and that his parents died in close succession (Gawsworth, 1939, pp. 117-120). Late in 1895 he moved to Paris and was kept busy with work there until he moved in the early spring of 1896 to Pont Aven (Brittany)[15], though he continued to spend much time in Paris, travelling occasionally to Belgium. During this time, Arthur Symons published the latter’s short stories and literary reviews in The Savoy, while Dowson prepared for publication his first book of poetry (Gawsworth, 1939, pp. 118-120). No longer supported by the family fortune after his father’s bankruptcy and death, Dowson translated to earn a livelihood, spending the last days of his life in France, where he died on February 21, 1900 of alcoholism and pulmonary tuberculosis.

Havelock Ellis studied medicine in London, his research culminating in the seven volume Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1897-1928), the first scientific and guiltless study of the subject that provoked a great deal of controversy and was finally banned in Great Britain. Despite his controversial research, like Plarr, he had conventional literary tastes that put him, unlike Plarr, in the anti-Zola camp, from an aesthetic and philosophical point of view, in the 1880s. Though his literary tastes leaned toward the classical, he led a somewhat unconventional life, writing and editing books, while studying medicine. In 1886, he proposed to Henry Vizetelly, English publisher of Flaubert and Zola, a series of unexpurgated Elizabethan and Jacobean dramas to be called the Mermaid Series. The same year, Arthur Symons edited the plays of Massinger for the Mermaid Series under Ellis’s general editorship (Beckson, 1977, p. 255n9). Ellis was dropped from the series in 1888 when the publisher changed as a result of Vizetelly & Co’s legal problems. Ellis also edited the first English collection of Ibsen that same year. He solicited the collaboration of Eleanor Marx-Aveling, who produced the translation An Enemy of Society, and whom he knew through their mutual appreciation of Ibsen that dated back to early 1885[16], if not earlier, and through her translation of Madame Bovary that she finished in early 1886[17]. In 1890 he published The New Spirit, a collection of literary essays. During the same decade, he and Arthur Symons started their life-long friendship and became travelling companions. One destination was Paris, where they explored their mutual interest in Symbolism and met many of the Symbolist writers. Ellis’s sole translation is that of Zola’s Germinal.

Percy E. Pinkerton may not be as “distinguished” as the most famous of the Lutetian Society translators, in the words of Robert Lethbridge (2000, p. 14), yet he was a prolific “gentleman of letters” with a wide range of publications (see Annexe I). According to Lethbridge (2000, p. 14), in Victorian England, a familiarity with French was a given: Pinkerton also translated from German in the early 1880s, adding Russian and Italian to the list later in his career. In 1885, he edited the dramatic works of Christopher Marlowe and published in 1927 some of his own lyrical drama.

In 1882, Victor Plarr[18] studied at Oxford, then at Worcester College where he graduated in 1886. From 1886 to 1890, he worked as a journalist and translator. He met Dowson in 1888 and, in 1890, was named librarian at King’s College, while a member of the Rhymers’ Club. He was not a bohemian like Ernest Dowson and Arthur Symons; neither a Decadent nor a Symbolist. He was a family man and a librarian, a turn-of-the-century minor poet and writer who made translations in his spare time, a man with “a cynical but kindly wit, with a wide tolerance of men and things” (Fletcher, 1974, p. xiii). He was one of the more conventional of the Lutetian Society translators, having traditional literary tastes. A scholar, he updated for Routledge the fourteenth edition of Men and Women of the Time in 1896, as well as the fifteenth edition of 1899. Unlike Symons and Dowson, he does not appear to have travelled frequently to France. Nevertheless, he was an enthusiastic supporter of Zola, writing in 1898 a scornful sonnet directed against those who persecuted Zola for having defended Dreyfus, revealing as well his republican sympathies (Fletcher, 1974, p. xiv). During the First World War, he wrote his biography of Ernest Dowson. He died on January 28, 1929.

For Plarr, the 1890s was a decade of literary productivity which reveals his original otherness. He spent time in francophone circles, joined by his francophile friends Teixeira de Mattos, Dowson and Symons[19]. His poems published in the 1890s are marked by his anthropological studies. In 1899, nostalgic voyages back to his childhood led to the publication of A Garland of New Poetry replete with allusions to the tricolore, the Marseillaise, his childhood in the Alsace and to negative memories of the destruction of the family home during the war. Fletcher (1974) believes that this collection of poems destined for a broad range of readers was more pro-British than some of his other works. As an immigrant to Britain, along with Teixeira de Mattos, he perhaps felt “a recurrent tension between integrative motivation and the anxiety of absorption” (Cronin, 2000, p. 124), as he vacillated between identification with British values and his Alsacian roots.

Arthur Symons was a purveyor of French and Italian literature to his British compatriots, being the poet who introduced Symbolism to Britain. By 1890 Symons was spending more and more time in Paris, the 1890s his most fruitful and bohemian decade. In 1890, he wrote in a letter: “I am by this time getting so Parisian that the thought of London fills me with horror. I am contemplating permanent residence here; have forgotten most of my English” (in White, 1995, p. 15). Yeats wrote in his Autobiographies: “Arthur Symons, more than any man I have ever known, could slip as it were into the mind of another, and my thoughts gained in richness and in clearness from his sympathy” (in White, 1995, p. 17).

Symons attended Mallarmé’s (1842-1898) “mardis” (Gambier, 1996, p. 197) and was keen to meet Zola, Renan, Huysmans and Coppée[20]. He was as well known in the bohemian cafes of the Parisian Left Bank as he was in London and as such “occupies a most privileged location at the intersection of Anglo-French cultures” (White, 1995, p. 12), as well as being a precursor to comparative studies by writing his Studies in Two Literatures (1897). He is also the author of The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899), “out of which the important [English-language] poets of the early twentieth century learned the elements of French symbolist poetic” (in White, 1995, p. 12), his translation activity also familiarizing English readers, especially his friend Yeats, with the works of the French symbolists.

Alexander Louis Teixeira de Mattos San Payo y Mendes (Longaker, 1944, p. 131) was to become the most sought-after translator of his time (Flower, 1967, p. 260), translating from the Danish, Dutch, German, West Flemish, and especially French (see Annexe I, Texeira de Mattos). He was a dandy, “fastidious in his garb” (Longaker, 1944, p. 131) and his “working habits were regular and strict” (Longaker, 1944, p. 132). From the winter of 1893, he treated Dowson with “coldness,” sensing, according to Longaker, that the poet was not going to be prosperous (p. 131), for the latter tended to procrastinate. Teixeira de Mattos was also linked with the Symbolist movement through his friendship with Arthur Symons and their joint travels to France.

Their Lutetian Society Translation(s)

On October 15, 1893, Zola’s biographer Robert Sherard and Zola were at Teixeira de Mattos’s home in London[21]. Dowson, who had developed a “student idolatry” of Zola at Oxford (Longaker, 1944, p. 115, 130), was there as well, already interested in convincing the English public of Zola’s genius and greatness, his interest further stimulated by meeting Sherard. The latter convinced Dowson to “open English eyes to the merits of the French author” (Longaker, 1944, p. 130). It was understood that Dowson would translate La Terre, the translator believing “he was about to reform public taste” (Longaker, 1944, p. 132). However, he was not Teixeira de Mattos’s first choice, probably because the editor-in-chief did not appreciate the poet’s work habits. So Teixeira invited George Moore to translate La Terre behind Dowson’s back. Moore’s refusal, according to Longaker, was “unquotable” (1944, p. 132), and Dowson obtained the commission.

Dowson started his translation in the spring of 1894; Teixeira had given him a deadline of May 1894. He was paid £50, like the others. “It was before the days of the typewriter. In ‘94 the written word had to be written, and to translate about two hundred thousand words was indeed a job. Nevertheless to be young with fifty pounds in those days was to enjoy a splendour” (Jepson in Colburn, 1952, p. 100). Dowson discussed the translation with Victor Plarr, who wrote that Dowson finally decided to “render certain Rabelaisian phrases into something less offensive in English — into common cleanly [sic] blasphemies at least” (in Colburn, 1952, p. 102). This problem, and the fact that he did not like the enforced discipline of sustained translation, led him to complain to Plarr that he was “overwhelmed” by Zola. He had to be prodded by his editor to finish the project (Plarr, 1914, p. 96). In the spring of 1894, Dowson spoke to Plarr of spending Easter outside London in order to translate twenty pages of La Terre a day so as to make up arrears. Plarr noted that the “absolutely literal rendering into English of Zola’s humorous libel on the French peasant was engaging [Dowson] daily. He found the task most irksome” (Plarr, 1914, p. 96). Dowson wrote to Plarr in April: “I have been so overwhelmed with Zola […] I have not done more than 340 pages. […] I suppose you are rurally at your ease now, so far as it is possible to be at your ease and translate Zola. […] I feel that I ought to go to no dinners until this pyramid is pulled down” (Longaker, 1944, p. 133).

Dowson believed that his translation of La Terre was not his best. However, critics (and friends) are divided. Symons called it “hack-work” (in Colburn, 1952, p. 102), writing elsewhere that Dowson’s translations “were never without some traces of his peculiar charm of language” (Longaker, 1944, p. 130), and Plarr called it a “pot-boiler achievement” (in Colburn, 1952, p. 102). The latter complained that La Terre was forced work and that Balzac’s La fille aux yeux d’or [The Girl with the Golden Eyes] suffered the same fault (1914, p. 99). According to Thomas Swann, some of Dowson’s contemporaries thought that the gifted lyric poet was wasting his talent: “In many cases vitality as well as lyricism was needed to make successful translations, and Dowson, whatever his virtues, was anything but vigorous” (1964, p. 88). However, others say that he undertook the translation with great “zeal” (Longaker, 1944, p. 130) for he espoused Zola’s cause as a misunderstood writer. In the opinion of Desmond Flower, “he carried out his undertaking conscientiously and laid the foundations of a good reputation as a translator [with the] willingness to persist with work he found uncongenial” (1967, p. 260), Graham King judging that the translation was “quite remarkable for its time” (1974, p. 402).

If Dowson was as meticulous when translating as when writing prose, King’s assessment is not surprising, for as Symons writes: “Dowson’s care over English prose was like that of a Frenchman writing his own language with the respect that Frenchmen pay to French. Even English things had to come to him through France, if he was to prize them very highly […]. He was Latin by all his affinities” (in Beckson, 1977, p. 89). Plarr explains elsewhere:

In his prose, on which he set extreme value, there is sometimes an apparent touch of labour and preciosity. There are petulant Gallicisms, for instance, set down with deliberation. He was fond of quoting Flaubert — was it Flaubert? — who sat long in meditation in front of a blackboard with alternative words chalked thereon. Dowson would have me believe that he, too, pondered the mot juste for hours.

in Longaker, 1944, pp. 129-130

Ironically, the translation experience undermined Dowson’s zeal for Zola, for “heartily tired [of translating La Terre], some of his enthusiasm for Zola had waned” (Longaker, 1944, p. 132). The only translator of the group to have more than one translation published by the Lutetian Society was Ernest Dowson.

Teixeira de Mattos assigned Germinal[22] to Havelock Ellis who accepted the project for he did not wish to “neglect the opportunity of spending [his] spare time in making a modest addition to his income” (Ellis, 1933, p. viii). Ellis signed his contract on or about 15 February 1894. The parties to the contract were Joseph Hannaford Bennett, publisher, London, Leonard Charles Smithers, publisher, London, and Havelock Ellis, Cornwall. According to Chantal Morel, the copyright owners were Bennett and Smithers, and the fees paid for the translation, including rights, reissues, etc., was £50 (1997, pp. 7-8). Translating the novel was a pleasant experience that greatly increased Ellis’s appreciation of Zola’s creative genius. In the introduction to his translation, Ellis writes: “Evenings of the early months of 1894 were spent over Germinal, I translating aloud.... In this way I was able to gain a more minute insight into the details of Zola’s work, and a more impressive vision of the massive structure he here raised, than can easily be acquired by the mere reader” (Ellis, 1933, pp. viii-ix). Ellis was convinced of the importance of the novel and prided himself on having made the one and only unexpurgated English-language translation:

It is […] a satisfaction for me to know that I have been responsible, however inadequately, for the only complete English version of this wonderful book, ‘a great fresco,’ as Zola himself called it, a great prose epic, as it has seemed to some, worthy to compare with the great verse epics of old.

Ellis, 1933, p. viii

Basing his assessment on Ellis’s use of symbolism and imagery, King believes that Ellis’s translation does justice to Zola’s novel, creating “the finest example of any rendering of Zola’s fiction into English” (1978, p. 398). Helene Beckerman in her 1981 “Comparative Study of Four English Translations of Germinal” is more critical of Ellis’s translation, considering it at times “adequate” (p. 27), more frequently accusing Ellis of “awkward syntax” (p. 44), of having a “great deal of trouble translating verbs of motion” (p. 59), and of having problems “understanding the original” (p. 68). Beckerman concludes:

His translation is […] full of awkward sentences and glaring errors […]. [I]n at least two places he either misunderstood the original or wrote a translation which was completely different. He clearly did not have a talent for translating dialogue and he did not pay enough attention to the translation of prose.

pp. 163-164

Percy Pinkerton’s Pot-Bouille of 1895 has enjoyed a long shelf-life, still reprinted as late as 1986 (Lethbridge 2000, p. 14)[23]. According to King, Pinkerton “faithfully includes” the details of Octave Mouret’s rape of Marie and of Adèle’s gruesome labour. The translation is readable today thanks to its robust and straightforward language, though it lacks style (1978, p. 393). Lethbridge considers “King’s assessments of Pinkerton’s labours [to be] more or less generous” (2000, p. 15), identifying numerous examples of infidelity. He asserts that Pinkerton “seems to draw back from the more scabrous implications of the suggestive texture of Pot-Bouille” (p. 15) and reveals occasional ignorance of French institutions (p. 16).

In 1894, Plarr retranslated Nana[24] literally, though not energetically (Longaker, 1944, p. 132) and frequently hesitating, because Teixeira de Mattos insisted on a complete and accurate translation:

[...] like hooked fish we struggled desperately to escape the ultra-literal in places, but like a cool trout-fisher Mr. Teixeira de Mattos, our brilliant chief, held us up rigorously round the editorial boat, never once allowing one of us to dart off into the depths of British decency for which we longed.

Plarr, 1914, p. 96

The bilingual and bicultural Plarr believed Zola’s novels to be important and, as such, that learned men should read them. Yet he valued the protection offered by the Lutetian Society, guaranteed by its sincerity and high prices. Plarr wrote on the subject of Nana:

Six of us were engaged with [Dowson] in translating the best known of Zola’s novels […]. We had the fearful example of Mr Vizetelly before our eyes. He had been prosecuted some years earlier for his translations of ‘Nana’ and one or two others of Zola’s novels, but we were enrolled as a learned group, ‘The Lutetian Society,’ and we were writing for scholars, and were protected by our manifest sincerity and by prohibitive prices.

Plarr, 1914, p. 96

His retranslation of Nana confirms Bensimon’s hypothesis (1990, p. ix) that “le retraducteur ne cherche plus à atténuer la distance entre deux cultures.” Plarr was able to penetrate the mind of the other, because he was other and same, as well as being able to maintain the cultural divide, to establish himself in the other place, even if he had never lived in Paris, per se. With this displacement came understanding, or empathy.

Ironically, this imported novel, the translation of which was possible thanks to Plarr’s mental migrations, travelled quite literally across the Atlantic[25], along with the other translations in the series:

Our books as remainders drifted off finally to the States, where to my horror Nana reappears as a huge and, I am told, lavishly illustrated production in “The Millionaires’ Library,” or some such edition. The poor translator gets nothing by this vast act of appropriation save annoyance and nightmare. America, of course, is the honestest of countries. Was it not there that George Washington ‘never told a lie’? Well, well! I wonder if La Terre has kept Nana company.

Plarr, 1914, p. 97

According to King, Victor Plarr’s Nana was the Zola translation published by the Lutetian Society that enjoyed the greatest appeal. Several American retranslations are based on his Nana. King considers Plarr’s translation better than Henry Vizetelly’s of 1885 and Charles Duff’s of 1953; however, he finds Plarr’s English less pleasant to read than George Holden’s of 1972 (1978, p. 390).

The trigger “to [Arthur Symons’s] activities as purveyor of foreign texts in Britain” (White, 1995, p. 17) seems to have been his 1894 translation of l’Assommoir[26] that developed his appreciation for Zola (Annexe I shows no translations by Symons prior to 1894). He completed his translation in six weeks (Longaker, 1944, p. 132). Symons was initially dismissive of Zola, writing: “There is no doubt that Zola writes very badly, worse than any other French author of eminence[...]” (White, 1995, p. 15). His voyage of discovery through translation led him to a greater appreciation of Zola’s literary art. According to King, “L’Assommoir undoubtedly benefited from [Symons’s] sympathy with Zola’s symbol-laden and frank, emotive prose” (1978, p. 388).

Teixeira de Mattos’s[27] translation of La Curée, the only title to include an English translation in parentheses (The Hounds’ Fee), “remains the standard English text for this novel, its remarkably timeless tone no doubt acts as a deterrent to a more modern competitor” (King, 1978, p. 377). Very disciplined, he started working daily at 6 a.m. and “finished his novel long before the edition was issued” (Longaker, 1944, p. 132). He was designated editor-in-chief of the project because of his many contacts with publishers, whom he knew how to handle, and he could be counted on to ensure deadlines and quality standards were met (Longaker, 1944, p. 132). He insisted on a “completely faithful rendering” with “no demonstrations of literary initiative on the part of the translator” (Longaker, 1944, p. 132).

Graham King is of the opinion that the Lutetian Society translations are “uniformly excellent” (1978, p. 372), considering Symons’s L’Assommoir and Ellis’s Germinal “masterpieces of their kind” and Dowson’s La Terre “outstanding” (1978, p. 372), proving that a half dozen excellent writers can produce faithful and elegant translations. Twentieth-century Zola translator Leondard Tancock is less generous in his assessment, writing:

I thought at one stage of an article on mistranslations or travesties of Zola, which would have been amusing and possibly instructive. Havelock Ellis’s Germinal (1933) is written in pidgin English throughout. Arthur Symons’s version of L’Assommoir (1958) has gross errors of meaning (ramonait = came up, piler = to take away), while d’un air béat de coq en pâte becomes with the beatified expression of a man in clover in V. Plarr’s Nana (1957). The best examples are far too long to reproduce here.

Tancock, 1972, p. 389n1


Throughout the nineteenth century, British and French swords were drawn, two powerful nations vying for economic and cultural domination, which could help at least in part explain the negative Victorian reception of French realism and naturalism. The two rival imperialistic powers interacted on the intercultural level, importing and exporting cultural products as well as producing these products, France for example “exporting” the Plarr family to Great Britain. Some of these producers of cultural products were translators, such as Dowson, Ellis, Teixeira de Mattos and Symons, who migrated between the capitals of London and Paris, Dowson in the end choosing self-imposed exile in France, the years of his greatest productivity as a translator. As we have seen, their motivation varied. Some were driven by discontent with their own culture, others by curiosity about the cultural and linguistic other. In both instances, the different cultural and linguistic space was perceived as having something to offer that would fill a void or compensate for something that they did not like in their own culture. Although both great intellectual centres, it was Paris, not London, that enjoyed the reputation of being the Western world’s literary mecca during the period, the birthplace of numerous “schools of literature,” a reputation that was begrudgingly acknowledged by many members of the British cultural elite. Translators, however, tend to be drawn to dynamic urban centres, whether at home or abroad, to great intellectual crossroads. London and Paris were both such centres, and Ernest Dowson and Arthur Symons, in particular, were drawn to them, spending much time not only in London but also in Paris “la capitale des capitales artistiques” (Gambier, 1996, p. 197) to await the arrival of new ideas and new literary movements (p. 194). These intellectual and cultural nomads produced retranslations of six of Zola’s novels that were “definitive” for the period, improving significantly on the previous Vizetelly versions (Colburn, 1952, p. 102). Moreover, both Symons and Ellis learned to appreciate Zola’s literary merits through the task of translation, Ellis writing in “Zola: The Man and His Work,” published in The Savoy in January 1896: “if Zola is not among the world’s greatest artists, I do not think we can finally deny that he is a great artist” (in Decker, 1952, p. 109). It is clear that the act of (re)translation served to expand the cultural horizons of the cultural agents associated with the Lutetian Society, and their translations would, in turn, expand the cultural horizons of those who read them.