Interview with Paul Gibbard

Australian history Botany Paul Gibbard The French Collector Translation

Paul Gibbard teaches French and translation studies at the University of Western Australia. He research takes in French literature, travel writing and intellectual history from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. His publications include critical editions of works by Voltaire, the co-edited volume The Political Thought of Enlightenment Women and a translation of Émile Zola’s The Dream. His most recent publication is The French Collector: Journal and Letters of Théodore Leschenault, Botanist of the Baudin Expedition published in February 2023 by UWA Publishing.

 Paul Gibbard


Can you tell us a bit about your academic career?

After doing my undergraduate studies in Adelaide, I did my doctorate at Oxford University on anarchist thought in late nineteenth-century French and English literature. I then worked for a variety of research institutes and universities in the UK and Australia before coming to the University of Western Australia. During that time I spent five years at the Voltaire Foundation in Oxford where I helped produce a number of volumes of Voltaire’s Complete Works – including his late masterpiece the Questions on the Encyclopedia, which hadn’t been published in its entirety for over two hundred years. In the last few years I have been doing more translation work, which has included novels by Émile Zola and Colette along with Leschenault’s journal. In our translation classes I sometimes ask students to translate passages from these same works and it’s interesting to see the different tacks they take.


How did you gain access to Leschenault’s journal and letters?

Just over two hundred years after the Baudin expedition explored the coast of Australia, the Baudin Legacy Project was begun with the aim of making available to the public and to researchers the journals of the French officers and scientists who travelled to Australia. I was asked to translate the copy of Leschenault’s journal that was housed in the National Archives in Paris. The original journal was thought lost but later turned up at auction in France in 2016. Fortunately I was able to get hold of this original for my translation – and the previously unknown chapters in it offer many fresh insights into Leschenault’s thoughts and feelings about the voyage. Leschenault’s letters are scattered around public and private archives in France and the UK and there was quite a lot of detective work involved in tracking some of them down. There are no doubt other letters by him still out there somewhere...


Can you tell us about the process of translating Leschenault’s journal and letters in The French Collector?

Leschenault’s journal is a mixture of different sorts of observations – from fluent and lyrical descriptions of nature or his own emotional states through to precise scientific accounts of the plants and animals that he encountered. At times the language can get quite technical. To translate his description of the features of a sea shell, for example, I might have to search out nineteenth-century books on conchology in both French and English to try and match up the scientific terms. In his letters, by contrast, there is quite a lot of sentimental and formal language, typical of letter writing in the period, and I tried to preserve the feel of those letters while keeping his meaning clear in English.


What do you find fascinating about Théodore Leschenault’s life story?

One of the strange things about Leschenault is that he is almost unknown in France and yet a recognisable name in parts of Australia – for example, down in Bunbury in southern WA, which borders the Leschenault Estuary. For the introduction to the book, I wrote a short biography of his life before the expedition – which involved piecing together his family history from different letters and documents in a way that hadn’t been done before. In addition to describing his family life in his home town of Chalon in Burgundy, I also tried to get a sense of what it was like for him to be imprisoned during the French Revolution – and was able to track down his precise room and bed number in the prison where he was held. Conditions there were not as bad as other parts of France – prisoners were able to request more wine and bread and even asked to have a chef brought in... I am also interested in Leschenault’s travels in later life – he continued collecting in Indonesia, India and South America – and suspect that there’s probably a worthwhile biography in all that...


Who is your favourite author?

My favourite author is probably Chekhov, which may be rather scandalous for a French lecturer. But Proust doesn’t come too far behind...


And, an interesting fact about yourself?

I worked part-time on the project of revising the big Oxford English Dictionary while a student – one of my jobs was to read books they supplied me with on unusual topics and highlight words that weren’t in the dictionary. It was a job where you literally got paid to read books.


The French Collector


Paul Gibbard's translated work The French Collector: Journal and Letters of Théodore Leschenault, Botanist of the Baudin Expedition is available to purchase.

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