Translating a 19th-century Feminist novel : George Sand’s Jacques (1833)

Mentor : Kathleen Hart (French & Francophone Studies)

Project : Translating a 19th-century Feminist novel: George Sand’s Jacques (1833)

This summer, Izzy Kaufman-Sikes and I worked with Professor Hart to explore Thelma Jurgrau’s preliminary translation of George Sand’s novel Jacques. Using Jurgrau’s draft as a starting point, we explored a variety of translation tools, including the latest version of Chat GPT. We were curious to see how the recent developments in artificial intelligence might assist translators, particularly those translating an older work with a style and syntax no longer in use. Although we found the speed at which Chat GPT translates and its ability to create several different versions of a translated text to be incredibly valuable, oftentimes the best insights came from our collaborations with each other and with Jurgrau’s text. 

This project required close attention to historical details such as gender relations, class and economic structure, the politics of the era, and French colonialism.  Like many nineteenth century novels, Jacques centers around the souring of a mismatched marriage during a time in which divorce was illegal under the Napoleonic Code. Fernande and Jacques, the couple around whom the novel centers, are immediately shown to be ill-suited for one another: In addition to being twice Fernande’s age, Jacques is also reclusive, mercurial, and taciturn. Although Jacques resembles classic novels like Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion—an overbearing mother, a volatile ex-soldier, a concerning age gap—Sand’s salient social critiques set the story apart. Sand not only condemns the Napoleonic Code but also discusses taboo topics like suicide and infidelity, even challenging the institution of marriage itself. 

With the new surge of interest in classic literature, from book recommendations on TikTok to a shout-out to the 1995 adaptation Pride & Prejudice in the new “Barbie” movie, an English translation of Jacques cannot arrive soon enough. While Sand’s feminist ideals are cloaked in polite language and subtlety, modern readers will surely appreciate her radical thinking just as much as they did almost 200 years ago.