This is an excellent example of what happens when context is lost during translation. The original Candide was published in 1759. There are seventeen separate translations that survive from the original publication era and God knows how many others since. Voltaire, the author, was an acomplished fellow with more than a few literary credits to his account and an impressive body of work about philosophical, theological, historical, and political content.
Suspecting that in the original form there was considerably more irony and humor than translated across in the edition I first acquired, I went shopping for a second version, then a third…and because I’m a tad obsessive/compulsive when a notion takes hold…a fourth and then a fifth volume. I draw the line at five versions. All of these translations were completed in different times by different translators. I know enough about translation to know its a tricky business. Duh. Obviously.
After five excursions through the content I found myself a bit weary of reading about poor besotted (and ludicrously named) Candide. Can I be honest and say that by the time he came round to being disillusioned in poor old Pangloss’s optimistic perspective about “all is for the best” I was ready to slap a high five. The equally smarmy, and somewhat slutty, love-interest Cunegonde has more adventures than everyone else combined. Interestingly one of the translations I read resurrected characters toward the end which had been killed off at the beginning without any explanation. My advice is to accept the possibility and keep moving because the book is short, the pace is fast, and in the end the entire thing is designed to poke philosophical fun. Make no mistake, the story is funny. The humor ranges from subtle observations about social status to over-the-top ridiculous aggrandizing about the posturing of human behavior as a result of “enlightened reasoning.”
This was one of those times I wished I could read a book in the original language with enough facility to really grasp the underlayment of tautology. There’s so much subtext in this story, you can sense it oozing out between the lines, and since it reflects directly on the time period in which it was produced I simply didn’t always have enough background to “get” all the inside jokes. Sometimes we forget how important context is and in the case of classic literature, there’s a reason a story continues to resonate with subsequent generations. Candide succeeds in this arena because it pokes fun at the dissolute and morally bankrupt ruling class in a time when that world was about to change. Drastically.
Recall that the French Revolution occurred a mere thirty years later. Civil and civic unrest was building. Disquiet with the ruling class and their continued indulgence was fomenting among the masses. Eventually things boiled over. Candide was a simpering fop, a simpleton of the ruling class, coddled and cared for by the people whom he was perceived to better. The book is an ironic commentary on the changing social class and the upheaval of attitudes and norms of behavior. It hops from country to continent, leaps across philosophical works, and dismisses some historical events while heavily emphasizing others.
Then there’s all the stuff written about the book. Let’s not even go there.
Having somehow managed to squirm my way through an education void of Candide, I didn’t really know what to expect. My first read-through left me feeling like I’d skimmed the cliff-notes version of a longer treatise. The book is only of novella length and my recall of historical events from this time period was somewhat lacking. I’m glad I waited until I completed two versions before conducting research. I had no idea so much had been written about the writing of Candide. In fact, a quick google will produced hundreds of sites with useful information and a browse through wikipedia hits most of the hard facts.
The story is absolutely worth reading. With some context for the time period and an understanding of the social interaction of the people, not to mention the major events of the day – well, the satirical flavor comes across much stronger. The criticism of time and place and people is strengthened by a minute amount of knowledge that sets the reader into that world with a sense of what life was like. For that reason, I recommend reading multiple translations if you’re unable to read a classic work in the original form.
Next on my list is something completely different, maybe some Ivanhoe or Moby Dick. Stay tuned…or, better yet, climb on the Classic Literature Express and join up. Read with us. Explore some of the world’s greatest writers and get started over at Ali Dent’s site.