The Pleasures and Perils of Creative Translation
By JAMES CAMPBELL
Published: June 9, 2011
The first modern French novel I read — the one that introduced terms like “avant-garde” and “surrealism” to my tongue — was “Les Enfants Terribles,” by Jean Cocteau. I thrilled to the extravagant antics of Paul and Elisabeth, brother and sister, soon to be sleeping partners, in “the Room” they share with teenage friends. Life in Cocteau’s Paris is “the Game,” with its own rules or no rules, a state peculiar to the spirit on the threshold between infancy and adolescence. All lovers of this slim novel seek to unlock the secret door leading from their own room to the Room on the Rue Montmartre. When I open it now, it is my cleareyed 20-year-old self in Scotland who begins to read, as much as the weathered, bespectacled “me” of almost four decades on.
Illustration by Ben Wiseman
There was no Café de Flore in Glasgow in the early 1970s. The Left Bank of the River Clyde was still dedicated to shipbuilding. But symbolism and existentialism were meat and drink in the pubs around the university, where Albert Camus was as grand a hero as Bob Dylan. Those studying French tackled Camus’s novel “L’Etranger” in the original; others, including me, took the convenient option of Stuart Gilbert’s 1946 translation, “The Stranger” (known to British readers as “The Outsider”). The pressure of the midday heat on Meursault before his fatal act was much debated, as was the import of his opening words: “Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.” Was it for the crime of lack of feeling that Meursault faced the guillotine? Let’s have another round.
Late last year, as an extra layer of insulation against a severe London winter, I embarked on a project of reading in French the novels I had devoured so eagerly in translation, and which I felt had helped form me. I picked up Camus’s book again, only this time in a compact Livre de Poche, dated 1963. The cover illustration shows Meursault on the beach outside Algiers, besuited but crucially bareheaded, caught between the expanses of sand and sky. Moments later, he will shoot five bullets into an Arab who has insulted his friend.
As I read, I occasionally compared a sentence of the French text with the Gilbert version. The results were startling. Gilbert, a friend of James Joyce in Paris in the 1920s, adds phrases and changes the meaning of others. Some of his interference is trivial, but any rearrangement of a hero’s attributes, his way of speaking, of responding to questions, shifts perceptions of who that character is, however minutely. When Meursault is caught up in the aftermath of a soccer match and is acknowledged by one of the players, he returns the greeting silently “en secouant la tête,” literally, “in nodding my head.” Gilbert writes, “I waved my hand,” and invents a verbal greeting (“Good work!”). When Meursault enters his usual restaurant, the proprietor Céleste asks “si ‘ça allait quand même,’ ” which is to say “if things were all right anyway.” Meursault has been at his mother’s funeral. “Je lui ai dit que oui et que j’avais faim.” “I told him yes and that I was hungry.”
Gilbert’s Meursault doesn’t answer “yes.” He answers “no” — to a different question. He isextremely hungry. After coffee “to finish up” (another redundancy) and a nap at home, “I smoked a cigarette before getting off my bed.” How Gilbert knew that Meursault smoked in bed is a mystery, since Camus doesn’t say so. All these examples, apart from the hand-waving, occur in one paragraph. (The American translation by Matthew Ward, published in 1988 as “The Stranger,” is far more intimate with the original.)
A similar surprise awaited when I turned to “Les Enfants Terribles.” Cocteau’s French is much flightier than that of Camus, and at times I referred to my old Penguin translation by Rosamond Lehmann. She dispenses with many of the chapter divisions and line spaces, and introduces her own. More important, Lehmann pays little heed to the tempo and rhythm of Cocteau’s prose — its French accent. The chapter in which we encounter Elisabeth after the death of her husband, Michael, begins with a list easy to understand even for readers with little French: “L’héritage, les signatures, les conférences, avec les administrateurs. . . . ” Lehmann opens the same section as follows: “Elisabeth felt quite incapable of coping with all the wearisome legal paraphernalia of her widowhood. . . . ” Cocteau writes that the meetings and chores “accablaient” — overwhelmed — Elizabeth. Apart from that, the sentence is the translator’s whimsy.
The question of translators’ fidelity to the works they are charged with smuggling across borders has been much debated. Every thoughtful practitioner is aware that he is creating something new. The Kafka that many of us read for the first time was in part a construction of Edwin and Willa Muir. Readers on the whole worry little about it, being grateful for access to foreign goods. Nevertheless, I often wonder what people mean when they say they like the way that, for example, Haruki Murakami writes. Or Pasternak. Or what, precisely, the Swedish academicians were rewarding when they gave the 2000 Nobel Prize to Gao Xingjian. And now I am bound to wonder what I meant when I held forth on Camus’s sensation-based prose, or dissected Cocteau’s quasi surrealism. After all, what I had been reading were English novels by Gilbert and Lehmann, based on original ideas by French writers.
In the middle of the last century, life in France seemed to many people in Britain practically a different form of civilization, with risky morals, and peculiar customs in eating and dressing. English ways of intellectual expression are largely empirical whereas French thought tends toward abstraction. Gilbert might have felt he could do more or less as he liked with the first novel by a young French-Algerian author. But when the style of a work is integral to its moral — as is the case with Camus’s book — then there are grounds for objecting to the divergence. I’ve tried to think of how a waving hand works better in English than a nodding head, or how a question that elicits “no” instead of “yes” might be required to spark some necessary form of local recognition, but in vain.
Translators take fewer liberties nowadays. The novelist and critic Tim Parks has written recently about the standardization and flattening of foreign texts, giving the effect of an “internationalist” translatorese; universally edible but pretty flavorless. Dutch, Italian and Albanian writers are increasingly apt to sound alike, Parks suggests.
As I tackled these books last winter, I was exhilarated by the experience of reading for the first time something I had claimed to be familiar with, but I also had the sensation of forsaking a part of my past. I reached for another novel, “Le Grand Meaulnes,” by Alain-Fournier, who died in the early stages of World War I, days before his 28th birthday. Although written in 1912, it is set in the 1890s, with a pastoral charm far removed from the anarchy of the Room, or an absurd act on an Algiers beach. In English, the atmosphere always seemed to me hazy, obscuring the essence of the characters, and blurring the story itself. Reading it in French, however, four or five pages a day over several weeks, I was enraptured. Occasionally, I would flick open one of the two translations on my shelves, by Frank Davison (1959) and Robin Buss (2007, as “The Lost Estate”). Nearing the end, I reached the meeting in the woods between the narrator and the young Frantz, whose aborted wedding triggers the main action. The opening line of the chapter “L’Appel de Frantz” (“The Call of Frantz”) reads: “Hou-ou!” That, at least, could surely be left as it is? Apparently not. Davison scratches out the exclamation point and replaces it with a dying fall: “Hou-ou . . . ” Buss keeps the exclamation point but alters Frantz’s cry to “Whoo, whoo!” Was there really any need to alter the structure of a wordless cry? No. Rather, make that yes.
James Campbell is the author of “Exiled in Paris: Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Samuel Beckett, and Others on the Left Bank.