Bryce Gessell, a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy, has published a new translation of Essai sur l’Optique (Essay on Optics) by 18th-century French philosopher Émilie Du Châtelet.
The translation is available through Project Vox, a Duke initiative to highlight historical female philosophers whose work had been previously overlooked. Although scholars had long known about Essai sur l’Optique, it wasn’t until the 2000s that the first complete copy was discovered. In 2017, Gessell worked on a transcription and a translation of the text. The transcription of the French text was published that year, and Gessell continued to refine the English translation into the version that is now published on the Project Vox website.
Gessell’s work is part of a larger effort led by Duke philosophy professor Katherine Brading to translate Du Châtelet’s writings into English. Gessell also published an article on Essai sur l’Optique earlier this year in the British Journal for the History of Philosophy, in which he argued the text represented an important stage in Du Châtelet’s intellectual development.
Gessell said that since he published the transcription two years ago, he has heard from people around the world expressing excitement and appreciation for his making the French text freely available online.
“It was important to me, as well as everyone else on the Project Vox team, that the results of our work be disseminated immediately and without any barriers to access,” he said. “Beyond that, the text is just really, really interesting, and that's the best part about it.”
The biggest beneficiaries of the English translation, Gessell said, are undergraduates.
“Faculty and professional researchers are usually able to read the Essay on Optics in the original French, but you can't expect undergraduates to do that when you’re teaching on Du Châtelet,” he said. “My main goal in translating the work was to make it available to undergraduate students, since it is an important part of Du Châtelet's thinking as a scientist early in her career.”