Five Questions: Brecht de Groote on Thomas De Quincey: Romanticism in Translation

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Brecht de Groote is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Faculty of Arts and Philosophy at the University of Ghent. He has worked and published on a wide range of Romantic-period subjects, including war, late style, pseudotranslation, anachronism, spectrality, liberalism, economics and print culture. His first book, Thomas De Quincey: Romanticism in Translation, which we discuss below, has just been published by Edinburgh University Press.

1) How did you first become interested in re-examining De Quincey through the lens of translation?

I must confess that I initially knew De Quincey almost only through his ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’—it’s a text that’s designed to make an impression, after all. The idea to look at De Quincey in much greater detail, particularly through the lens of translation, came from my doctoral supervisor, Tom Toremans. This was long before I ever considered working this into a monograph: some projects translate into a book quite readily, but as I was starting from quite an underexamined field, I had a lot of thinking to do just what it meant, first, to read De Quincey, and then to re-read him through translation. Throughout his career De Quincey practised and theorised translation in increasingly involuted ways, but there was very little out there which actually discussed these texts (Frederick Burwick’s and Éric Dayre’s work being important exceptions), how they related to De Quincey’s works more broadly, and how they related to our understanding of Romanticism, British or otherwise. This really was a project that created itself, in that as I worked on the project, it morphed incessantly: I needed to follow De Quincey’s lead in expanding the meanings of translation, and actively consider how an increasingly complex analysis might actually be made digestible, both for myself and for my readers.

2) To what extent do you see De Quincey as being representative of Romantic-period attitudes toward translation, and in what ways is he idiosyncratic?

This is a question I return to multiple times in my book, because it’s not an easy one to answer, and because it’s a problem De Quincey can be seen to puzzle over himself—I think it’s part and parcel of who De Quincey is that it is very difficult to determine just how performative this worrying over his idiosyncrasy was. The question is also a key to the argument I’m constructing, in that I seek to read De Quincey both on his own terms and as a writer whose practices and ideas reconfigure our understanding of Romanticism.

De Quincey is obviously bringing together ideas on translation that were very much in the air at that time, and which have been documented by Antoine Berman, Susan Bernofsky, and others. In this sense, he is a relatively representative Romantic. The complication is that he chooses to pursue translation in a British context, and that British Romanticism has a much more complicated relation with translation through its conception of originality and authorship than does, say, German Romanticism. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle are closest to what De Quincey is attempting to do, in that they, too, understand translation might acquire genuine philosophical force, and there are certainly many other writers in the background, all informing what De Quincey is doing. But we have now largely forgotten about the many acts of translation that informed British Romanticism—Diego Saglia’s recent book is an attempt to buck this trend—so that one is often tempted to think much of what De Quincey is doing must be sui generis.

In my book, I try to balance these two perspectives—representation and individuality—by noting that if translation is pivotal to many other Romantic writers, what makes De Quincey quite idiosyncratic is all the work he’s making translation do. His practices often mirror theoretical developments in work by Friedrich Hölderlin, Friedrich Schiller or even Walter Benjamin, while pursuing a much more involved set of connections. He translates, of course, but he also thinks deeply about what it means to translate, and reinvests what he takes from those reflections in essays that are ostensibly quite far removed from translation as we would typically conceive of it. Translation transforms from a principle of interlinguistic transfer into a structure with print-cultural, rhetorical, aesthetic and philosophical potential; a way to think about how language works, and how Romanticism might be different from what has gone before—and particularly how De Quincey’s Romanticism is different.

3) How did you arrive at the book’s final structure, with the introduction and coda bracketing chapters on the distinctions between translation and authorship, linguistic difference, disjunctions between meaningful and material aspects of expression, and the conception of ideal translation as ‘a mode of thinking and writing that achieves a dignity and force all its own’?

The book’s structure was the result of a long process of pondering how to set up my narrative. It’s pretty straightforward at first blush to write about De Quincey and translation, but it’s a difficult topic to broach, as my intention wasn’t simply to do a contrastive study of originals and their translations: I wanted to examine what it means to consider all the things that translation could be in Romanticism, both as an active practice and as a theoretical field. Given the web of meanings that translation acquires in De Quincey, I wanted to offer a narrative that recreated these connections while remaining approachable to my readers—and it’s really the audience that determined the final shape of the book. De Quincey studies is quite a crowded field already, to say nothing of Romantic or translation studies, and I spent a long time figuring out how to pitch my argument to each of these groups of readers. There was an evident way to handle this, starting off with a highly theoretical info dump, but I know from experience introductions along those lines are almost impenetrable. So I decided to move a discussion of the theoretical space into which I’m pitching my argument—there’s Benjamin in there, Paul de Man, Wolfgang Iser, and so on—to the book’s coda, as a gesture to those few readers who really want to see a critical model that could be used for other writers. The book certainly activates the ideas I’m offering in the coda, but it endeavours to carry all the theory lightly; to show, rather than to tell.

With the coda out of the way, I settled on guiding the reader through a process not dissimilar from what I experienced as I set about reading and re-reading De Quincey. The book accordingly starts with a relatively gentle introduction, which rehashes and increasingly re-angles a familiar story about who De Quincey was. As the chapter ramps up, though, the irrepressibility of translation becomes increasingly clear. The following chapters take a similar tack, moving from a relatively approachable angle on translation to some rather knottier questions both within each chapter, and across each of the chapters. This sequence has the advantage of being logical and roughly chronological; more importantly, it gives the book a concentric sort of structure, moving from empirical and historical questions to increasingly theoretical problems. In addition, the chapters build on each other without demanding to be read in sequence, in that they have a clearly identified set of primary and secondary texts they chiefly deal with—a thematic or disciplinary focus, if you will.

4) While your own book focuses on De Quincey, its approach might fruitfully be applied to a number of other Romantic-period authors.  Which writers would you be particularly keen to see reappraised in translational terms?

My book is very much focused on a single translator-author, and I think that’s a good angle to take in analysing quite a few writers; that is, to treat their translations as integral parts of their wider oeuvre which may create new readings or resonances upon being integrated. For non-British Romantics, there’s always been a greater interest in this approach, with plenty of ground still left to cover. For the British tradition, there’s been some seminal work done for Coleridge by Paul Hamilton, and on William Wordsworth by Bruce Graver—given recent advances across several fields, especially translator studies, there’s still a lot that could be done for Coleridge and Wordsworth, though. To throw out a few more names—Henry Crabb Robinson, Carlyle, Walter Scott, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and so on: all had an interest in translation, produced them, and commented on them. Much of the material’s already there; but has rarely been read with an eye to concrete mechanisms of transfer. The question of women in translation is a particularly intriguing one to me, with much material very much in need of examination. The one thing that a study on these lines would need to do is note that translation, and this is a point I make in my book a few times, is rather difficult to pin down: it’s not so much a matter of transferring language A into language B; it’s part of a wider network of genres and transformations.

Those are the single-author studies that we need; in addition, there are some much broader, thematic problems that still need a lot of work. Someone really should write a book on Romanticism and pseudotranslation, for instance; or on periodicals and translation. There’s some excellent work being done by Diego Saglia and Gillian Dow, amongst others, but the amount of work still be done is absolutely massive. Speaking more broadly still, I think a great many studies on Romanticism in an international, cosmopolitan or global perspective would be enhanced tremendously by acknowledging questions of translation.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I have two new things in the works, running roughly in tandem. First, I’ve now been working for some time on the idea of a late-Romantic subperiod within Romanticism. Having worked on De Quincey for such a long time, I’ve grown very interested in his strange temporal position within British Romanticism, which he himself thematises in his work as a fundamental untimeliness, born of two things—being born too late, and living far too long. There are many other Romantics who take up a position strikingly similar to his, and as we approach bicentennials that move into the 1820s, they have recently come to the fore in criticism. I’m very interested in exactly what late Romanticism is, and for its very different tonality; both melancholy and oddly competitive with what we might call High Romanticism.

Second, this interest in late Romanticism provides some of the theoretical foundations for a project on the phenomenon that perhaps most characterises the late-Romantic subperiod; that is, the extraordinary proliferation of information through the periodical press. My current work takes a somewhat unusual approach, in that it focuses on questions of misinformation; that is, on tall stories, and especially on how such fake stories spread between countries. So while this project continues work by Margaret Russett and Angela Esterhammer, amongst others, it does what my book did; that is, re-read Romanticism through the lens of translation.