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Oxford translates Enlightenment works on tolerance to commemorate Charlie Hebdo

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A book cover featuring the words "Tolerance: The Beacon of the Enlightenment" set against a coloured background
Tolerance: The Beacon of the Enlightenment contains excerpts from fifty-nine 17th- and 18th-century works (cover: Heidi Coburn CC-BY).

Over one hundred Oxford students and tutors have translated a body of French Enlightenment works about tolerance and free speech into English. Available for free online, the book was published last week by Open Book Publishers to commemorate the anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, which took place on 7 January 2015.

The original French-language book, Tolérance: le Combat des Lumières, was put together shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks by French academics as a show of solidarity. It contains excerpts from fifty-nine 17th- and 18th-century Enlightenment works on freedom, equality, the rights of women, exploitation, and tolerance by a diverse range of authors. The book opens with The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizens, followed by selected writings from Voltaire, Montesquieu, Condorcet, Locke, Diderot, and Kant, to name but a few.

Dr Caroline Warman is Vice-President of the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (BSECS), and a fellow and tutor in French at Jesus College. She said that the French-language effort ‘was such a wonderful initiative, and done in such a collective spirit’ that the BSECS wanted to support the project and discuss it at its annual conference. To make the most of the texts, the society wanted them translated into English, which would enable a wider readership and greater appreciation of their value to debate. Dr Warman commented that these works allow for discussion on some of the most important issues in political discourse. This enables ‘an awareness of the past in which these issues were already being debated, and a willingness to engage with the past in a nuanced way that also takes on board the centuries-long result of colonialism’.

The translation process involved 102 staff and second year students at Oxford. The works were translated in college classes under the supervision of tutors over the course of last Trinity Term. Dr Warman praised the undergraduate students: they were ‘brilliant at it, and [loved] to be involved in a collective effort of consciousness-raising’ She translated the remaining works over the summer and proof read the compilation before submitting it publishers in late November. Open Book Publishers agreed to waive the usual charge for downloading the book as a PDF. The release made national news and the text was downloaded more than four thousand times on its first day of publication. According to the publisher’s website, it has been viewed over eight thousand times as of 0th week.

Tolerance aims to share writing about freedom and equality so that these issues can be debated as fully as possible. Can academia help combat extremist ideology? According to Dr Warman, it is potentially very valuable. She said it functions as a ‘space to understand the world we live in, to understand what extremist ideology is, by whom it is given that label, and how the global political systems behave’. But she also believes that current anti-extremist legislation constitutes a limit of free speech; academia ‘must resist the current Prevent Legislation [The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015] which requires all universities and schools to monitor their own students and alert the authorities should anything linked to ‘extremist ideology’ be in question. This in itself is a limit to free speech which we cannot accept.’