A Tradition of Commentary

Voltaire. 'Candide, ou L’optimisme.' The 'La Vallière' Manuscript, 1758. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal.

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Almost immediately upon its publication in 1759, Candide was translated, pirated, and responded to in pamphlets, unauthorized sequels, and adaptations for stage. In what was a common joke at the time, Voltaire had nodded to the slipperiness of authorship and the afterlife of a text when he attributed the tale to a fictional “Docteur Ralph,” who had translated it from the German. Later editions claimed to be augmented with notes found in this fictional translator’s pocket. Although police tried to seize the book as it was sold underground and it was placed on the Vatican’s list of forbidden books 1762, the controversy made it all the more attractive to readers to get their hands on it. Readers responded actively to Voltaire’s tale: they wrote about it, sometimes in the margins of their own copies they bought under the table, but often in public forms of repudiation for its religious irreverence, defenses of Leibniz and Rousseau, and imaginings of what would happen after Candide and his companions were left to cultivate their garden in the Orient.

Such practices may even look oddly familiar today as we see new genres of commentary on commentary develop and proliferate online: discussion boards, comments sections of blogs and wikis, episode recaps of television shows, spoilers, continuity error lists, etc. What do these genres share with forms of commentary that developed as print culture flourished in the Enlightenment? How does an online forum change these forms or precipitate new ones?

Candide 2.0 is an experiment in the forms of commentary that Voltaire’s readers have always been compelled to make on the book. What do we learn about how readers interact with texts and experiment with ways to leave their mark on what they’ve read? Such questions can be addressed in the margins themselves as a way to communicate with other readers in this public forum.

We have taken our inspiration from the final image of the characters of Candide cultivating their garden and extended the invitation to readers to cultivate the text of the book with their commentary. These “gardeners” will each annotate a chapter or two of Candide, cultivating the text with commentary about interpretation, connections among chapters, historical information, or questions that have interested them as they have re-read the book. Readers are invited to respond to these comments with their own annotations.

Notes on Translation

By the end of 1759, three English translations of Candide had appeared, the last of which promised to combine the features of the previous two for the best translation. Since then, Candide has been retranslated countless times, most recently by Burton Raffel (Yale University Press, 2008), Roger Pearson (Oxford World Classics), Michael Wood (Penguin Classics, 2006), and Peter Constantine (Modern Library, 2005). NYPL is using the most widely available e-text of the book, from the anonymous translation published by the Modern Library in 1918, available on Project Gutenberg. The practice of translation in the past hundred years, reflected by the work that translators still see to be done in tracing eighteenth-century usage, vocabulary, and irony as they prepare new editions.

This digital annotation experiment is peculiarly well suited to facilitate readers’ interest in comparing translations, as one can annotate at the paragraph level and compare passages. Indeed, what looks like a constraint on copyright can become an opportunity for readers to explore variations in choices, historical trends in translation which look different to contemporary readers, and nuances that they may not have seen in a more elegant, updated version.

— Alice Boone: Curator, Candide at 250: Scandal and Success, exhibition at the New York Public Library

A Note on Technologies

Candide 2.0 is powered by digress.it, a plugin for WordPress which enables paragraph-level commenting in the margins of texts. digress.it is a spin-off of CommentPress, an ongoing project originally developed by Bob Stein, Eddie Tejeda, Ben Vershbow, Dan Visel and Jesse Wilbur at the Institute for the Future of the Book.

Project Team

Alice Boone is the curator of Candide at 250: Scandal and Success. She is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

Ben Vershbow is a Digital Producer in the New York Public Library’s Office of Strategic Planning working on e-publishing, social media and spearheading NYPL’s new staff blogging initiative. Prior to coming to NYPL, Ben was Editorial Director of the Institute for the Future of the Book, a Brooklyn-based think tank exploring the future of reading, writing and publishing in the digital age. There, Ben led a series of “networked book” experiments working with authors to develop texts in communal, web-based environments, which, in part, gave birth to the digress.it software used in Candide 2.0.

Eddie A. Tejeda is an independent technologist working closely with non-profits, educators, universities, libraries, think-tanks, start-ups, programmers, writers, and designers. He has helped create various web applications and online communities, including grassroots transparency site littlesis.org, the Cornell e-Rulemaking Initiative (CeRI), and digress.it, the annotation tool that powers Candide 2.0. Previously Eddie worked with Ben Vershbow at the Institute for the Future of the Book on a variety of e-publishing experiments. www.visudo.com

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The Candide 2.0 reading experiment has concluded. Please feel free to roam our garden of comments and annotations.