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Class translation project with Newberry Library offers students insight into French Revolution

Group working with original 18th-century pamphlets

French Revolution Pamphlet
The cover of an original 18th-century pamphlet written by Jean-Baptiste Humbert. The pamphlet is just one of several that was translated from French to English by Pascale-Anne Brault's French translation class during the fall quarter. (The Newberry Library, Chicago)
Students in Pascale-Anne Brault’s French translation class often feel they are back in 18th-century France, during the French Revolution, because of an unusual class project with Chicago’s Newberry Library.

The Newberry, an independent research library, has a collection of more than 30,000 documents from that volatile era — pamphlets from aristocrats, clergy, commoners and political activists. Some 20 of Brault’s students and two DePaul alumni are paired up with an original French Revolution era pamphlet to translate into English for the first time. Their final translations ultimately will go online for researchers and others around the world to access.

“The document I’m working on with my translation partner, Madelyn Colvin, is a personal account of Jean-Baptiste Humbert, who stormed the Bastille July 14, 1789,” said Owen Ostermueller, a junior pursuing a degree in French.

“There are no history books, no secondary sources. I get to study and interact with a document written by someone who took part in a defining moment of Western history. For someone that geeks out over revolution, politics and philosophy, especially if any of them are French, working with a document so closely connected to the actual French Revolution is just about as interesting as it gets. If you Google the Bastille, you can see the drawbridge that Humbert talks about crossing and the towers he talks about climbing, it gives a great new layer of perspective. It’s been so humbling and exciting to play a part in bringing this intimate piece of history to a broader audience through translation,” Ostermueller said.

The pamphlets represent opinions of factions that opposed and defended the monarchy, said Brault, a professor in DePaul’s modern languages department. They range from letters to the general assembly, to plays, music and verdicts from the courts. One document comes from a prisoner pleading that he didn’t receive due process or a fair trial. Another suggested how ending slavery in the Caribbean Sea territory of Martinique would stimulate the economy.

“The selection of texts was extremely varied in order to provide insights into the turbulent years of the French Revolution from as many perspectives as possible,” said Brault. “They voice the concerns of an entire nation trying to rethink itself in the wake of the Revolution.”

Most interesting perhaps are works described by Brault as some of the first “feminist manifestos.” These include a Declaration of the Rights of Women that seeks to match the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789, a letter asking for equal punishment for husbands and wives who commit adultery, and equal education for boys and girls.

The project offers a complicated set of challenges when deciphering language from 18th-century France, said Brault.

“Terminology has evolved in meaning over time,” she said. “Students have had to use dictionaries of the time period and look at the history of certain terms. They’ve also had to read documents in English of the same time period in order to provide historically accurate translations. Some documents use very technical legal terminology, others were written by people with little formal education so the original sometimes includes mistakes and defective syntax.”

Another challenge were the letters from the alphabet, noted Brault. In 18th-century France, the letter F was used the same way an S would be in 2017. However, the letter F could also just mean F, so the students had to determine if the letter should be an F or an S. For example, “je prévois que l’autorité du roi, comme le premier légiflateur de la loi, le forceroit d’interpofer fa puiffance fupérieure” in 1789 would read “je prévois que l’autorité du roi, comme le premier législateur de la loi, le forcerait d’interposer sa puissance supérieure” in contemporary French. In English, that sentence means “I foresee that the authority of the King, as the first legislator of the law, might have to use his superior powers to intervene.”

“Translating these 1789 pamphlets has been a great way to learn more about the French Revolution, a fascinating period in French history,” said Brault. “These texts provide some context for France’s first attempt to create a new type of society, one that would embody democratic ideals. Ultimately, they also cause us to rethink the current state of democracy in the world. A translation is never just a text, it has a context and that context can be a platform for the study of the language, history and values of a culture, as well as its political and intellectual legacy.”


Pascale-Anne Brault

Media Contact:
Russell Dorn