Published on Jun 5, 2019

by Marcos Dinnerstein

When people use the term, “literary canon”, they mean those books, plays, poems or other written works that are considered important or influential at a time and place in history. But the term, “is considered” is problematic. It hides behind anonymity. Who does the considering? Is this invisible group accountable for who and what is considered important or influential?

This is at the heart of any explicit or implicit selection process that creates the canon of any field.

Translating the female voice, a piece recently published on Varsity.co.uk cites the limited number of English translations of the works of popular female French writers from the late 1600s and early 1700s. These writers were part of a group that wrote about fairy tales. The writers were  Marie Catherine d'Aulnoy, Charlotte-Rose de Caumont La Force, Marie-Jeanne Lhéritier, and Charles Perrault. This last name on the list is the only man among this group. In fact, it was Marie Catherine d’Aulnoy who coined the term “contes de fées” (fairy tales) that came to define a literary genre. Yet the name most associated with fairy tales is Charles Perrault. 

Who were these women and, 300 years later, why is it so difficult to find an English translation of their work? Let me focus on one of these women.

Marie Catherine d'Aulnoy, born in either 1850 or 1851 and a member of the nobility, was given away in marriage at the age of 15. Her husband was accused of treasonous speech against the king, spent 3 years in the Bastille after which he convinced the court that it was his accusers who were treasonous. They were executed instead. It deserves mentioning that these accusers were said to be the lovers of his wife, Marie Catherine d’Aulnoy and her mother. Her mother fled to England and Mme d’Aulnoy escaped arrest by hiding in a church. Other intrigues ensued that make for salacious reading for those who love 300-year-old soap operas. But when the dust settled Mme d’Aulnoy retired from Paris social life and for the next twenty years pursued a life as a writer. She was widely published and so well regarded that she was elected to membership of the Paduan Accademia dei Ricovatri in Italy. Among these writings were two collections of fairy tales. The account in Wikipedia describes her fairy tales in this way, “... Much of her writing created a world of animal brides and grooms, where love and happiness came to heroines after surmounting great obstacles.”

If you search Amazon.com for Charles Perrault you’ll find 675 results. Marie Catherine d'Aulnoy yields 140 results. Charlotte-Rose de Caumont La Force returns 32 results. Marie-Jeanne Lhéritier 15 results. 

What’s the point here? Equal opportunity does not mean equal outcomes. Should there be an equal number of English translations for all works of French literature? Of course not. But in the case described here, there was a 3 to 1 ratio of women to men. Each of them was a successful writer. Yet the man has had significantly more English translations - and into other languages as well - than his female contemporaries. The net result amplifies itself over time. If there is an English translation of a literary work then it must have been worth translating. That, in turn, begets other English translations.

Again, why should we care if there are English translations of writers who wrote over 300 years ago? Because we perpetuate a false version of history if we don’t fairly represent their contributions to the literary activities of that time. That’s an injustice both to the women of that time and to everyone today. We all deserve the right to see an accurate representation of history. 

Publishers, translators, academicians should make a dedicated effort to more accurately represent the work that was done by everyone of that era. They should do this not to diminish the work of Charles Perrault or even to claim the superiority of his female contemporaries. But once again, there should be an honest account of historical events.  

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This is a tale of an author, whose work was so popular that his book was translated into 25 languages. But, believing that only he could do the English language version justice, reserved for himself, the right to translate it into English. That was not fated to be, as he died before completing the work. His granddaughter and another translator completed that work.

Madame d'Aulnoy, her life and Fairy Tales