The Cultural Politics of Translation: The Case of Voltaire’s Mérope and Scipione Maffei’s Merope
In 1743, Voltaire writes to Scipione Maffei his intention to translate Merope, a drama the Italian playwright had composed thirty years before and that Voltaire deemed worthy of the French stage due to its treatment of the classic heroine and its adherence to classical norms. However, Voltaire later claims that due to flaws in Maffei’s work, he will write his own version of the play. This petty incident stirred a long-lived and animated debate over which dramatist had adhered more closely to the principles of classical theatre and whose country could claim its primacy in European theatre. In my paper, I use this episode to illustrate how translation shapes and is shaped by source and target cultures, and how it determines what is peripheral and what is central to intercultural debates. I argue that both Voltaire and Maffei struggle to assert their position as leading “translators” of classical Greek theatre and eminent interlocutors in the debate over form and content of modern drama. My paper will use Voltaire’s translational faux pas to reflect on the larger issues of how translation situates itself in the middle of cultural hierarchies and how it fashions national identity, cultural pertinence, national subordination, and notions of cultural peripheries and centers, all topics that lie at the heart of contemporary translation studies
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