Clandestine Translation in Late Victorian England

During the second half of Queen Victoria's reign, social fragmentation was being generated by antagonistic social and political forces, creating what Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have referred to as a "fissure" of ideological constructs in need of being "filled up" (1985:7). Not surprisingly, this was also a period of intense translation activity, one response to the sociopolitical context. At least at the outset, the 1880s were a period of optimism; writers and thinkers believed that the time was ripe for greater scientific curiosity and literary openness to heretofore taboo subjects after more than a century of predominant puritan values, with duty and self-control the watchwords of public decorum (1). Attempts were made to import texts that communicated alternative worldviews and innovative ideas about sex and sexuality in an effort to renew British literature and culture; during the period translation appears as a force for cultural (trans)formation (Gentzler 2001:194) or as a reaction to a perceived "intellectual/cultural lack" (Ellis and Oakley-Brown 2001:5). At the same time, when texts contested the overarching patriarchal worldview of the British Empire during this period of (sociological) tensions at home and (colonial) contestations abroad, they were often perceived as threats to the preservation of the Victorian status quo, and socially sanctioned presses continued to refuse to publish them.

In view of these constraints, it is reasonable to expect that all foreign texts would have been subjected to close censorial scrutiny. In fact, such was not the case. Untranslated foreign texts circulated freely in Britain (Speirs 2003:85), but the same cannot be said for translated foreign texts. Writers such as André Theuriet and Octave Feuillet, whose novels had won morality prizes in France (Portebois 2003:66), were approved by British moral authorities. But novels that did not serve as innocent entertainment or that were socially disruptive and sexually explicit were condemned. Those who wished to publish the latter did so at the risk of being prosecuted.

One alternative available to translators was clandestine publishing, at times financed completely or in part through the creation of a secret literary society made up of the publication's subscribers. Émile Zola's writings which were censored in translation were published by such a society in the 1890s.

* * *

MERKLE, Denise, 2010. "Secret Literary Societies in Late Victorian England", in Tymoczko, Maria (ed.) Translation, Resistance, Activism. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst and Boston, pp. 108-109.


1. Free-thinkers (e.g., secularists) and the "morally loose" (e.g., libertarians from all social classes) added to the complexity of Victorian culture.


ELLIS, Roger, and Liz OAKLEY-BROWN, eds. 2001. Translation and Nation: Towards a Cultural Politics of Englishness. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

GENTZLER, Edwin, 2001. Contemporary Translation Theories, 2nd ed- London: Routledge.

LACLAU, Ernesto, and Chantal MOUFFE, 1985. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. London: Verso.

PORTEBOIS, Yannick, 2003. "A Publisher and His Books: The Catalogue of Vizetelly & Co., 1880-1890", in Marie Elena Korey et al., Vizetelly & Compan(ies): A Complex Tale of Victorian Printing and Publishing. Toronto: Governing Council, University of Toronto, 39-78.

SPEIRS, Dorothy E., 2003. "Émile Zola's Novels", in Marie Elena Korey et al., Vizetelly & Compan(ies): A Complex Tale of Victorian Printing and Publishing. Toronto: Governing Council, University of Toronto, 79-105.