The Cultural Politics of Translation: The Case of Voltaire’s Mérope and Scipione Maffei’s Merope


  • Stefano Muneroni University of Alberta



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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Author Biography

Stefano Muneroni, University of Alberta

Dr. Muneroni is Assistant Professor of Intercultural Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Alberta. He is a theatre historian, dramaturge and translator who has taught in Italy, England, the United States, and Canada. His areas of specialization are Intercultural Theatre and Border Theory. Recent dramaturgical credits include: The Mill on the Floss, Yerma, Angels in America, Cymbeline, The American Clock, Tales of the Lost Formicans and Old Times. Recent translations: A Toothache, a Plague and a Dog (from Osvaldo Dragún’s Historias para ser contadas) and A Ritual of Faith by Brad Levinson. Dr. Muneroni received his Ph.D. in Theatre History and Performance Studies from the University of Pittsburgh, and was twice awarded research grants from the Center for Latin American Studies there (Honduras and Argentina) He was awarded the Andrew Mellon Predoctoral Fellowship for 2007-2008.