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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Austen en français

Say what you will of Isabelle de Montolieu: The woman had chutzpah.

In 1816, de Montolieu, a successful Swiss novelist, published her translation of Sense and Sensibility, the first full-length French translation of an Austen novel. In a diverting recent blog post, the British Library – which owns a first edition of Montolieu’s work – describes the results. As the blog’s headline puts it, de Montolieu, along with the early French translators of three other Austen novels, turned our favorite writer into “an irony-free zone.”

In a preface, de Montolieu, who the blog tells us was at the time more famous than Austen, promised the reader that her translation was "reasonably faithful until the end, where I have allowed myself, as is my custom, a few slight changes which I have deemed necessary." Yes, you're quite right to be alarmed: de Montolieu deemed it necessary that Willoughby’s wife should die and that he should repent of his evil deeds and marry the seduced-and-abandoned Eliza, saving her from the fires of hell.

Now don’t you wish Jane Austen had thought of that? Thank goodness de Montolieu came along to turn her into an altogether more conventional and less interesting writer!

As the British Library succinctly puts it, “This early French Jane Austen is a somewhat formulaic novelist of sensibility devoid of her trademark sense of irony and social satire.” Talk about lost in translation.

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