The Knight Robert Surnamed the Brave, a posthumous work of the Count de Tressan. Translated from the French by Joseph Wilson, Junr. [manuscript caption title].
An 1808 American English language translation (the only?) of a French chivalric romance
Impeccably transcribed, the complete translation by Joseph Wilson, Jr. (1788 or 1792–1872/1875) of a French chivalric romance betrays none of the difficult labor associated with translation. Wilson’s manuscript, which he entitled The Knight Robert Surnamed the Brave may well be the only English-language translation of Le Chevalier Robert, ou Histoire de Robert surnommé le Brave.
The manuscript is likely a fair copy; Wilson’s minute, perfectly inclined handwriting unerringly and obstinately fill the pages of the unruled book. Le Chevalier Robert, ou Histoire de Robert surnommé le Brave, a work first published in French in London and Paris in 1800. How did he carry out the translation? What dictionaries or other resources did he use? How did he develop a taste for French romances at a time when medieval romanticism in the United States was years away?
Wilson’s manuscript, as did contemporary printed editions, attributes authorship of Le Chevalier Robert to the “Count de Tressan,” Louis-Elisabeth de la Vergne, Comte de Tressan (1705–1783). Today, the work is generally credited to Tressan’s son, l’Abbé de Tressan (d. 1809). Still, why did Wilson choose to translate a work by, as he believed, a French Academician long dead by 1808?
A pencil inscription on the rear endpaper reads: “you had better go as soon as translating is done, had you not? I think Helen likes this. Wheelock.” Wilson could have been educated abroad, but it seems more likely that Helen and Wheelock were fellow students in Marblehead, perhaps sharing a French-language teacher, possibly an itinerant tutor.
Biographical and genealogical records indicate that a Joseph Wilson, Jr. of Salem, Massachusetts, four miles from Marblehead, married in 1814 or 1816, captained the schooner “Mary and Sally” in 1810 and later owned a cordage factory in Marblehead, Massachusetts. By 1839, a Joseph Wilson from Massachusetts appears in the Cincinnati directory as a grocer and cordage manufacturer. Could this be a likely career trajectory for a man once devoted to translating French romances and obsessed with perfect handwriting?
His father may have been Joseph Wilson Esq, Collector of the Customs at Marblehead, Massachusetts, during the time the translation was crafted. If that was the case, then the young Wilson would have been aware of the need for a fine script and may have learned it from the clerks who worked at the Customs House. His father would have had the means to educate him; at the head of an impressive customs inspection hierarchy, the father would have had access to European imports, including French texts and the finest steel nibs manufactured in England.
Description: The Knight Robert Surnamed the Brave, a posthumous work of the Count de Tressan. Translated from the French by Joseph Wilson, Junr. [manuscript caption title].
[Marblehead [Massachusetts?]; April 1, 1808].  leaves containing 108 numbered, manuscript pages. 7½ x 6½ inches. Blank book; stitched gatherings. Original blue, reinforced paper wrappers; cream and pale blue laid paper leaves. Disbound; some losses at edges of wrappers which bear modern tape reinforcement at spine on recto and verso; stitched gatherings reinforced with silk ribbon; toning; scattered stains, else very good; easily legible. Housed in a custom archive enclosure.
No fictional work in English translation by Count de Tressan is recorded on OCLC. Refs. Cutter, New England Families, Genealogical And Memorial… (New York, 1914). Family Tree of Joseph Wilson and The U.S. Customs Service in Salem - Salem Maritime National Historic Site both accessed online. Gorton, A General Biographical Dictionary…Vol. III (London, 1847).