François-Victor Hugo’s French Shakespeare, or What is in the archive of a translation?
In the Fall of 2022, I began researching the story of François-Victor Hugo’s nineteenth century French translation of William Shakespeare’s complete works. The translation was published in 18 volumes, between 1859 and 1866. It included the so-called “apocryphal plays” as well as lengthy introductions, supplementary notes and appendices detailing the Bard’s “obscure collaborators”: the ur-texts, the helping hands, the sources out of which he fashioned his masterful plays.
Shakespeare was not new to France when Hugo’s translations were published. At least four other iterations of francophone Shakespeares had been published over the course of the nineteenth century, fueled by the Romantic engouement for what the Bard’s “mixture of styles” (the blend of high and low comedy, tragedy, its lack of regard for unity of time and space) could do to transform the restrictive neo-classical codes of the French theatrical tradition. Yet, this version stood out for various reasons. Written from the Anglo-Norman Channel Island of Guernsey, while François-Victor had followed his illustrious father in political exile, it exemplified the kind of mythical re-working of how “Shakespeare” (and the notion of “author” more generally) was to be understood, which characterized the century. Scholars of literary history often describe this as the Romantic myth of the “single, solitary author, genius, hero”. The starting point of the research, then, was an interest in how the "myth of Shakespeare" the translator constructed in his project was entangled with the myth of himself, as a toiling, solitary figure. This characterization was itself entangled with the myth of his illustrious father, already well-established at the time of publication. The idea was not, however, to make the banal point that there is something fraught with the idea of literary Greats (I find both Hugo and Shakespeare to be endlessly rewarding reads, and I have no particular interest in chipping at their monuments). Rather, I was interested in what lies below or besides the myth, helping to construct it. The project thus became a kind of test, or investigation, of what archival materials can yield about the conditions of production of a translation.
Thanks to the College Alumni Society Undergraduate Research Grant, I had the chance to visit the archival fonds of the translation project, housed at the Maison Victor Hugo in Paris (France), in December 2022. I had come to the archives with the original hypothesis that two people must have had great influence upon the produced text: Victor Hugo (the father), and his mistress and copyist Juliette Drouet, who had herself acted Shakespeare upon the Parisian stage in the 1830s. The surviving materials revealed a much more complex intertwining of influences, interventions, collaborations. These archival discoveries happened both "negatively" and "positively". That is to say, some parts of the story appeared precisely because they left no trace, while the extensive "remains" of others spoke to the conditions of production of the text as much as the archive itself. Of the latter kind, I traced three tales. First, the practical, financial story of the translation's famous preface, signed by Victor Hugo, lauding the considerable feat his son has achieved. Second, the role played with the "éditeur" Charles Pagnerre, who published the translation, in the actual materialization of the text. Third, the poetic process by which François-Victor Hugo polished his text over the years, sending his corrections on Hamlets, Macbeths, Othellos overseas, to be implemented by his friend Paul Meurice. Corrector of the texts, Meurice was also its collector: he founded the Maison Victor Hugo, in 1902. Of the former, missing kind, belong the stories of Juliette Drouet (Victor's aforementioned mistress) and Emily de Putron (François-Victor's English-speaking fiancée). The physical closeness of their involvement in the project led me consider the role of distance in the construction of archives.
This thesis project seeks to tell the myth of the translation, of its archive, and, in a way, of itself: how what I could see, what I understood was guided or misled by what I expected, by what I found and by what I did not.