Scholarly Translations from the Cabet Collection

“…you have to consider that these are correspondences with other people which is like walking into someone else’s conversation.”–Marlee Graser

URCA Assistant, Ethan Hill.

Last year, Dr. Debbie Mann, Professor of French, initiated a translation project involving the university’s Étienne Cabet Collection.  Lovejoy Library is currently digitizing the collection, acquired by SIUE in 1969 and preserved in the University Archives, in order to provide easy access online. The project is a cooperative venture between Library & Information Services and the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature and involves translating selected letters and documents from the collection from French to English in order to make them more accessible to scholars who cannot read French.  

You might be left wondering though…who exactly was Étienne Cabet and why was he significant? A mid-nineteenth century French social activist, political philosopher and author, Cabet is known for founding the Icarian utopian socialist movement and establishing a utopian society in Nauvoo, Illinois, after that town was abandoned by the Mormon community.  The Cabet Collection at SIUE is significant as it is likely the most complete source for the history of the Icarian movement. “This is right in our backyard,” commented Mann, “and we do not usually feel the closeness of the French being here, but there is a huge French presence in this country. All of these documents were in our library and were not being heavily used by non-specialists, so I decided to start a project to translate them and draw attention to the collection.”

Students in Mann’s upper level translation course (FR 305) began translating original paper format documents in the library under the direction of Metadata Librarian, Marlee Graser. “Dr. Mann’s class came in and worked for hours with the original documents and digitally scanned ones,” said Graser. “This is no easy task though–translation by itself is incredibly difficult, and then you have to consider that these are correspondences with other people which is like walking into someone else’s conversation.” This is the first time one of the library’s unique collections has been embedded into a curriculum and Graser hopes that projects like these will continue to arise.

The translation process is far from over and continues through the efforts of Dr. Mann’s Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (URCA) Assistant, Ethan Hill, a triple major in International Business, Foreign Language and Literature, and European Studies. Currently working on the project firsthand, he detailed more of the process: “The first step of the process is actually transcribing the French cursive to print. The next step is to try and do the actual translation and make sure to keep it word-for-word as much as possible.” Hill explained how the translations must be further refined considering aspects such as the context in which people used the words originally versus in 2019 and how some words may no longer be in use.

The Cabet translation partnership is the first of its kind and an incredibly valuable project illustrating the fruits of collaboration. Hill plans to graduate in the spring of 2020 and pursue graduate school, exploring routes to becoming a translator. Mann plans to continue the translation process, and Graser will continue working to complete the digitization of all manuscripts and publications in this very special historical collection.

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