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.

2021 BARS First Book Prize Shortlist Announced

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The judges for the 2021 BARS First Book prize, chaired by Professor Francesca Saggini, are delighted to announce a shortlist of four exceptional books, drawn from a strong list of initial submissions:

The winner will be announced at the BARS Virtual Conference, ‘Romantic Disconnections/Reconnections’ at 2.30pm-3pm BST on Thursday 19th August.

Congratulations to all the shortlisted authors!

Keats House online event: ‘Keats V Shelley’

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23 July, 5pm BST

‘The Feast of the Poets’ was a poem written by Leigh Hunt, first published in 1811. The poem took a satirical swipe at poets good and bad and was later republished along with an introduction and notes, speculating on the future reputations of what became the British Romantic Poets.

Each month we’ll assemble an informed panel to explore matters of the moment ‘from a principle of taste’, so join us for #FeastOfThePoets.

Joining us in July, to discuss the relative merits and reputations of Keats and Shelley, are: Dr Amanda Blake Davis, Honorary Research Fellow, University of Sheffield; Deborah Lam, PhD Researcher in Romantic and Nineteenth-Century Literature and Art, University of Bristol; Dr Anna Mercer, Lecturer in English Literature (Romanticism), Cardiff University.

Details and tickets here.

BARS Digital Events ‘Seeing Through Whiteness’

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29 July, 5pm BST

This roundtable centres The History of Mary Prince (1831) as a profound challenge to Romanticism and as precursor to many arguments about whiteness to be made in Black Studies. It brings together experts on Prince to highlight gender, labour, motherhood and property in the text and to argue for these aspects as a powerful counter-narrative to Romanticism’s self-idealization. The panel will point to Romanticism’s need for Black studies, not as a co-opted or assimilated area, but as an external force that puts it under considerable pressure.

Our speakers will include Kristina Huang (University of Wisconsin–Madison), Shelby Johnson (Florida Atlantic University), Felicia Bishop Denaud (Brown University), and Kerry Sinanan (University of Texas at San Antonio).


#Shelley200 roundtable on the ‘Revolutionary Shelley’

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4 August 2021, 7pm BST

This free roundtable event, to be held on Zoom, will invite an international gathering of Shelley scholars to discuss Shelley’s revolutionary poetics, politics, and legacy.

Click here to book.

The speakers at the event will include Dr Julie Camarda, Graham Henderson, Jacqueline Mulhallen, and Professor Michael Scrivener. Following a stimulating roundtable discussion, the audience will be invited to participate in a Q&A session. This event will also be recorded and shared online, welcoming further discussion.

For future events and the 2022 Shelley Conference, visit
Twitter: @ShelleyConf2022

New BARS Communications Assistant

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We’re delighted to welcome our new BARS Communications Assistant, Dr Jack Orchard!

Jack Orchard is the Communications Assistant on the BARS Blog. He is a Post-Doctoral Researcher with the Elizabeth Montagu’s Correspondence Online project at Swansea University, and his research focuses on late eighteenth-century reading practices, literary criticism and women’s correspondence, as well as the parallels between eighteenth-century reading practices and contemporary media engagement.

As BARS Communications Assistant he will be responsible for maintaining the BARS Blog alongside Dr Anna Mercer and Dr Emily Paterson-Morgan.

The ‘Archive Spotlight’ blog will continue to focus on showcasing and exploring physical archives and archival research, but will also now address digital projects as well. ‘On This Day’ will continue to explore the anniversaries of significant, interesting, or amusing, events from the Romantic era, and the new ‘Romanticism Now’ series will focus on Romanticism in pop culture; Historical Fictions, Period Films and TV Drama, Video Games and more.

He will also be assisting with circulating news about Calls for Papers and other events in the Romantic Studies community, if you’d like to be a contributor to any of these Blog series’ or have an event you’d like to circulate, please get in touch

Thank you to everyone who showed an interest in this post, and we hope to renew the post in future years, so keep up to date by following BARS on Twitter @BARS_Official. You can also become a member of BARS to be added to our Mailing List.

BARS is committed to supporting early-career and postgraduate researchers. Check out our funding opportunities here.

BARS Digital Events ‘Re-envisioning Romantic Publishing’ Recording Now Online

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This roundtable addressed trends in Romantic and Romantic-period studies journal publishing, and helped to demystify the practices of journal publishing.

Ideal for graduate students and early career researchers. Enjoy the recording now!

Our speakers were Jonathan Mulrooney (College of the Holy Cross), Emma Hills (University of Southampton), Charles Mahoney (University of Connecticut), Lucy Morrison (University of Nebraska), Jennifer Reed (Boston University), Alexander Regier (Rice University), Matthew Sangster (University of Glasgow), and Alan Vardy (Hunter College, CUNY).

NEXT EVENT 29 July: ‘Seeing Through Whiteness’, tickets here.

19th Hazlitt Day School and Annual Hazlitt Lecture

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Saturday 18th September 2021
University College London

The 2021 Hazlitt Society lecture and the 19th Hazlitt Day School, organized by Gregory Dart, Uttara Natarajan, Philipp Hunnekuhl and James Whitehead, will be held at University College London on Saturday 18th September 2021.

The annual lecture, entitled ‘Hazlitt and Prejudice’, will be given by Dr. Freya Johnston (University Lecturer and Tutorial Fellow in English at St. Anne’s College, University of Oxford) at 4pm in the Gustave Tuck Theatre, UCL.

The day school precedes the annual lecture from 10am – 4pm.

Regrettably, because of the need to determine numbers, this year the annual lecture can only be attended by those registered for the day school.

19th Hazlitt Day School: Programme
Committee and Council Rooms, Wilkins Court, UCL

Morning Session

9.30am-10am – Arrival and registration, tea and coffee
10am-11am – Editing Hazlitt (James Grande and Jon Mee in conversation with Gregory Dart)
11am-11.15am – Coffee
11.15am-12.45pm – ‘Romantic interaction in London: Hazlitt, Keats and the Shelleys’ (Anna Mercer); ‘‘I will yield to none in admiration for Hazlitt’: R. L. Stevenson and the Abandoned Biography of Hazlitt’ (Robert-Louis Abrahamson)
12.45-1.45pm – Lunch

Afternoon Session

1.45pm-3.15pm – ‘Habits of Thought in the Familiar Essays’ (Hannah Tran); ‘On Whether William Hazlitt was a Philosophical Idealist (and Why it Matters)’ (James R. M. Wakefield)
3.15-3.45pm – Coffee
4-5.30pm – The Annual Hazlitt Lecture: ‘Hazlitt and Prejudice’ (Freya Johnston)
5.30pm – Drinks at the Marlborough Arms, Torrington Place

NB We are hoping that the event can take place with attendance in person, but if the circumstances do not permit this, it will move to an online platform. The lecture will be recorded and made available online afterwards in any case.

In order to register for the day school and annual lecture, please email Places may be limited, especially this year, so please do make sure to register in advance to avoid disappointment.

The organizers hope to welcome back regular attendees and new participants alike.

The registration fee for the day school is £20, or £15 concession for the retired and students. This includes morning coffee, lunch, and afternoon tea. Please send a cheque, payable to ‘University College London’, to: Hazlitt Society, c/o Dr James Whitehead, Liverpool John Moores University, John Foster Building, 80–98 Mt Pleasant, Liverpool, L3 5UZ

The Davy Notebooks Project has launched!

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A public-facing project set to uncover previously unpublished material from the early nineteenth century’s ‘foremost man of science’ has launched online.

Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) discovered more chemical elements than any individual has before or since. His achievements saw him rise up through society’s ranks from relatively modest origins to become, just over 200 years ago, the President of the Royal Society.

In 1815, he invented a miners’ safety lamp that came to be known as the Davy Lamp, saving countless lives in Britain and Europe, and vastly improving the nation’s industrial capability.

The £1 million project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and led by Lancaster University with the University of Manchester and UCL, will use the people-powered research platform Zooniverse to bring to light Davy’s notebooks – the documents he used to work out scientific ideas alongside lines of poetry, philosophical musings, geological drawings, and accounts of his life.

Davy kept notebooks throughout his life, but most of the pages of these notebooks have never been transcribed before. Most entries have yet to be dated or considered in the light of what they tell us about Davy, his scientific discoveries, and the relationship between poetry and science.

In 2019, AHRC funding enabled Professor Sharon Ruston and Dr Andrew Lacey, both of the Department of English Literature and Creative Writing at Lancaster University, to crowdsource transcriptions of five of Davy’s notebooks, dating from between 1795 and 1805, using Zooniverse.

Following on from this successful pilot project, during which more than 500 participants from around the world transcribed 626 notebook pages in under 20 days, the project team will now crowdsource transcriptions of Davy’s entire 75-strong notebook collection.

Some 70 notebooks are held at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London and 5 are held in Kresen Kernow in Redruth, Cornwall.

Crowdsourcing is now underway. It’s free to take part, and you can transcribe as much or as little as you like. The edited transcriptions will later be published online, alongside images of the notebooks, on a free-to-access website, as part of Lancaster Digital Collections.

Online and in-person discussions with participants will enable the project team to find out how transcribing Davy’s notebooks changes their views of how poetry and science could co-exist today.

To take part in transcribing Davy’s notebooks, sign up at Zooniverse.