The Unfaithful Beauties

The 17th and 18th centuries are known as the golden age of French literature, and it is the time that translations referred to as the belles infidèls (“unfaithful beauties”) appeared: a manner of translating classic works in French style, as the classical texts were considered out of date. This expression is attributed to a lexicographer by the name of Ménage, who made the following comment about the translations by Perrot d’Ablancourt (17th century) of the original works of Luciano de Samósata (2nd century), a Syrian writer who wrote in Greek: “They remind me of a woman I loved very much in Tours, who was beautiful but unfaithful.” Gille Ménage (17th century) was an extraordinary French writer, who began studying law to be a lawyer like his father, but an illness forced him to abandon the program and he began ecclesiastical studies.

These translations known as unfaithful beauties omitted words that would startle the reader, such as “drunkenness,” “orgy” and “sodomy.” The problem arose when these translations made the source texts “unrecognizable,” thus becoming unpublished works. Today, thanks to translation theory, it is possible to obtain “faithful beauties.”

Anne Dacier, the French translator of Greek and Latin classics

As we began to see in a previous article, To Be Faithful or Not to Be Faithful: That Is the Question, the female pioneers of translation really deserve to be recognized for the dedication and vocation. Today we remember a French translation icon: Anne Dacier, philologist and writer.

Anne Le Fèvre was born in 1647. Her father was the philosopher Tanneguy Le Fèvre. In 1664, she married the man who would publish her father’s works, Jean Lesnier. In 1672, upon the death of her father, she separated from Lesnier to go live in Paris with André Dacier, a member of the French Academy and a brilliant student of her father’s, whose last name she took. In 1683, she married André Dacier; they retired together in 1684 to dedicate themselves to the study Theology, announcing their conversion to Catholicism in 1685.

Her translations that stand out include: those of Anacreon and Sappho (1681), various works by Plautus and Aristophanes (1683-84), Terence (1688), The Iliad (1699) and The Odyssey (1708).

Madame Dacier’s father, a professor at the Academy of Saumur, was a determining figure for his daughter since she inherited from him her critical sense and philological foundations, which were borne out in her works with a very personal style. Madame Dacier introduced her own ideas such as non-translation and partial translation, aimed at reconstructing the text in explicative fashion, while not pushing the limits of literal or free translation. The result was the perfect balance.

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Las bellas infieles