Skip

Today, Maman died.
May 16, 2012 9:19 PM   Subscribe

Rethinking "Mother died today": Translating a work requires a surprising amount of thought to avoid leading readers into contextual pitfalls, and The Stranger is no exception. "Within the novel’s first sentence, two subtle and seemingly minor translation decisions have the power to change the way we read everything that follows."
posted by estlin (47 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
Huh. I don't quite understand the author's contention that getting periphrastic with the verb in English would be "more literal". The passé composé is the only viable way in French to describe someone dying in the past. Sure, it also subsumes the English "has died", but I don't think it's fair to say that it's more accurately translated that way.
posted by threeants at 9:28 PM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


I came here to gripe about "mom" being too short compared to Maman but one of the commentors at the original article beat me to it.

So here's to you, Mexicomic, wherever you may be.

"Today my mom died" is what I was hoping he'd have at the end of the article.
posted by Earthtopus at 9:30 PM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


By which I mean I am excited to talk about this, of course!

A comparison of number of lexemes is indeed considered to be the best possible rubric for fidelity; this is sometimes quite unfortunate.

Oh, and a thought: "Today my mom died" would be perfect for me, but that's how I refer to my mother. "Mommy" seems jarring, childish to me--but so does just bringing the word "maman" into the English version. So YMMV.
posted by Earthtopus at 9:40 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Interesting that the author gave no thought at all to "mama," which seemed like the obvious choice to me.
posted by jedicus at 9:42 PM on May 16, 2012 [12 favorites]


Translation is an art and there are few exact word for word translations between languages that are accurate. Every translator makes choices and I don't know that this author's suggestion is better than any others. French conjugations translate to multiple English ones and vice versa.

And I found the use of "Maman" jarring as well. Plus the French, in my experience, use Maman for Mother, Mama and Mommy.
posted by shoesietart at 9:49 PM on May 16, 2012


now, right from the start, the American reader is faced with a foreign term, with a confusion not previously present

Despite the fact that Bloom goes on to dismiss this--because, he contends, an English speaker would have no problem figuring out that Maman is a female parent--I must be an uncultured rube because I'm sure it would take me a few paragraphs to figure it out.

As far as our first impressions of the narrator go, if I read a novel in English that began "Maman died today," I'd assume at first that the speaker was an fairly pretentious effete prone to using an overly precious substitute for a common noun;
Mummy passed away today, don't you know? Dreadfully sad, that. Actually, not to put too fine a point on it, vis a vis the actual time of her demise, but it occurs to me that it may have in fact been yesterday when she rung down the curtain and all that. The telegram wasn't terribly accurate w/r/t the exact time of death, I'm afraid. So...yes. My dear mother's earthly residency appears to have come to an end within the last twenty-four to forty-eight hours. It really makes one think, doesn't it, about the ultimate futility of life and all that rot. Dash it all, I believe I'll pop down to the beach for a bit...
posted by Ian A.T. at 9:52 PM on May 16, 2012 [14 favorites]


One fine morning in the month of May, my elegant mother might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne. She seemed a little flushed.
posted by maudlin at 9:54 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't know what the second and third sentences of the novel are, but I don't think it's true that most people would parse "Maman died today" or "Today, Maman died" as referring to the narrator's mother. I think the most common read would be that Maman was a name.
posted by overglow at 10:03 PM on May 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


The key sentence to me seems to be the second one of the novel, where the not being sure of whether it was today or yesterday paints a very concise picture of existential doubt. The first sentence is designed to shock, the second to confuse (and reflect eternal confusion).
posted by chavenet at 10:22 PM on May 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


Really fascinating article. I have always failed to comprehend why "today" is not the first word of the novel in any of the translations, that seems to be a far more clear-cut situation than the completely intractable "maman" issue. It would even make the sudden uncertainty in the second sentence more striking, even a little comical (though maybe that was not the goal).

Unfortunately (or fortunately I guess, b/c always so much fun to agonize over this stuff), an article of similar length & richness could be written for every single translated sentence ever.
posted by geneva uswazi at 10:48 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Despite the fact that Bloom goes on to dismiss this--because, he contends, an English speaker would have no problem figuring out that Maman is a female parent--I must be an uncultured rube because I'm sure it would take me a few paragraphs to figure it out.

I agree, that part of the article is ridiculous. I studied French for several years, and I wouldn't know what to make of "Maman" if I read it in a book out of the blue.
posted by John Cohen at 11:17 PM on May 16, 2012


I also would have read Maman as a name. I think 'ma' has most of the connotations he's looking for. It's more warm than 'mom' and not as childish as 'mommy' or 'mama'. Perhaps it's a little hokey.
posted by painquale at 11:33 PM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Calling your mother "Maman" in English is more fauntleroyesque than meursaultian.
posted by Wolof at 11:37 PM on May 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


I also studied French for years and I remember that Maman means mother. I think if you kept "Maman" in italics it would be reasonable to expect people to know that it is not a name and to look it up if they are unfamiliar with the term. I do think "Mom" is the closest alternative but, as the author notes, is too jarring a word to work well. I can see the argument for Mama, but it sounds so affected... no one calls there mother Mama in the third person. "Ma" somehow conveys a stronger emotional attachment than "Mom" to me - both affection and irritation.
posted by maryr at 11:40 PM on May 16, 2012


It's a tough problem, to be sure. But the overall tone Meursault takes throughout the book should be considered as well, and the first line should reflect that, though of course as it is the first line it is just as important in setting the tone as reflecting it.

The way Meursault relates the story is sort of in confidence, to someone with whom he has no need to dissemble or disguise his feelings (such as they are) - like a close family member. And it is a confession of course in many ways. It should, from the start, be honest. But it is also conversational.

Even though it's honest, I don't think "maman" is the way to go. I like Ward's translation otherwise and the first line is probably the most difficult one in the book for a few reasons. But the choice to use "maman" was, I think, shooting a little too high? "Mom died today" seems to be what Meursault would have said to the reader had he been an English speaker. Not "My mom," since you wouldn't say that to someone with whom you are close enough to bare your soul. Not "mother," since that has that impersonal quality. But even "Mom died today," as the author of the piece notes, misses out on that syntactical irregularity, placing today before mom. I don't really buy the "today interrupted mom's death" metatextual interpretation he gives it, but I do think there is a certain je ne sais quoi that was intentional and, like so many things, nearly impossible to translate. But you can find the center of a circle once you feel its arc, so we don't all need to beat our heads against the wall because we'll never understand L'Etranger. We just won't ever have a proper English version of, at the very least, the first line.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 12:09 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm opposed to Maman as well, for overglow's reason -- fewer readers than you think would understand it isn't a name (although in a sense it is). The main problem with any of the English words is that they vary considerably according to culture. "Mom" works for me, that's what I grew up with, but is clearly American compared with "Mum" or "Mummy". The various "Mummy/Mommy/Mama" diminutives are further culturally divided; Americans would recognize "Mama" -- or even more so, "Ma" -- as a ruralism, most likely Southern.

Then you have the suggestively compound nature of Aujourd'hui, literally, "on the day of this day", although in simple usage terms that is forgotten. Still, "On this day" might better translate the sense in which Camus is using it here. Or even "So this is the day". This starts to edge into quite subjective territory, of course, but that's the whole thing.

I probably would also like the finality of "is dead" rather than any other verbal form of "die". English does have the problem of bowlderized phrases here such as "passed [away]" which might even convey the issue of fluid and uncertain timing better, but get away from the bluntness of emotion.
posted by dhartung at 12:56 AM on May 17, 2012


Then you have the suggestively compound nature of Aujourd'hui, literally, "on the day of this day", although in simple usage terms that is forgotten. Still, "On this day" might better translate the sense in which Camus is using it here. Or even "So this is the day".

I'm sorry, no. It means "today". It is in no way "suggestively compound". It is how "today" is said. There is no other way. This is a simple declarative sentence. This is how Camus writes.

"Mum died today. Or perhaps yesterday, I don't know. I got a telegram from the home. 'Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Yours faithfully.' This means nothing. Perhaps it was yesterday."

The telegraphic style is perfectly evident.
posted by Wolof at 1:38 AM on May 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


I think Mum, Mom, Ma, are all too regionally marked to be used here. If I read a translation with Mom or Mommy, it would be very jarringly American to me. Ma is a word I have only seen in Little House on the Prairie, so again, the wrong connotations. I assume the reverse would be true of Mum for Americans.

Mama seemed like an okay option to me, except that it is a bit posh and old fashioned, which is maybe okay - I don't know the book, so I'm not sure if those are connotations you would want for that character. It didn't occur to me until I read the comment above that those are NOT the connotations mama has for everyone. It has no association of ruralness or anything for me.

It does seem like maman in italics would be the safest choice among all the English alternatives.
posted by lollusc at 2:51 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


This was the first book I read in French for High School French (in New Zealand). That first sentence has stayed with me ever since for over 30 years. It is very powerful indeed. I always translated it, in my head, as "Today my Mother died". That may not be technically correct but that those are the "translated" words for me. When my Mother died, that sentence had special resonance.

As to process of translation itself I always think of the saying, Italian I think, that says something like "Translation is like a mistress: when she is beautiful, she is rarely faithful, and when she is faithful, she is rarely beautiful". No doubt that applies to the translation itself!
posted by vac2003 at 2:54 AM on May 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


It was the first book in French for me in high school as well. I always thought of that opening line as, "Today, Mother is dead."
posted by mothershock at 4:51 AM on May 17, 2012


Even though I studied french for years, by the time I was through reading that article I was mistakenly seeing "Mammon" instead of "Maman", and, well, that's the wrong connotation to accidentally bring into things.
posted by jepler at 5:09 AM on May 17, 2012


What vac2003 said above. Adding in that little pronoun -- my -- changes the formal and impersonal "Mother" into something much more understandable, without being childish or jarring: my mother. (One of the New Yorker commenters made this suggestion as well.) "Today, my mother died. Or maybe it was yesterday. I don't know."

"Est morte" is problematic as well. I like the cadence of, "Today, my mother is dead." However, that doesn't make sense with the sentence that follows.
posted by spacewaitress at 5:42 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think if you kept "Maman" in italics it would be reasonable to expect people to know that it is not a name and to look it up if they are unfamiliar with the term.

I think that this is the worry with leaving the word untranslated. By saying "Maman" you're acknowledging that the meaning is hard to put into English, yet you're expecting somebody who knows no French to translate it by looking it up or using rudimentary French (I assume skilled French speakers would go straight to the French original). I feel as though the translater is pushing the work onto a reader who is not only less likely to know what the word means, but much less likely to know that there is some ambiguity in the English translation. The hurdle is only overcome by not letting anybody know there is a hurdle in the first place. You're effectively damning the reader to never understand exactly what the word means, rather than the partial understanding you can give by saying "Mum" or "Mom" instead. "Maman" is a bad choice.
posted by Jehan at 5:45 AM on May 17, 2012



I'm with spacewaitress on this one. Est Morte is not past tense, as the translations suggest, but present tense. Now my French is so long behind me that I'm not sure if this is idomatic or something. But literally translated it is, Today, Maman is dead. (I'd leave the Maman because it's very specific to French. Deal with it in a footnote.

Doesn't it change the meaning of the sentense and the tone and feeling of the sentiment? It implies that a world has changed. In one day, the protagonist has gone from son to orphan, everything is different. It opens the door to dispair and lonliness and a special kind of alone-ness.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:53 AM on May 17, 2012


the formal and impersonal "Mother" into something much more understandable, without being childish or jarring: my mother

Except that "Mother" is as name, what some people call their mother, and often as intimate and personal as "Mom," "Mama," or "Mummy." "My mother" is a phrase you would only use to refer to your mom when talking to someone outside your immediate family.

If you say to yourself "my Mother died" it seems like you're thinking about yourself. If you're thinking about your mother, you'd say to yourself "[what I call my mother] died" (e.g. "Mom died" or "Mummy died" or "Mother died" or "The Old Shrew died" or "My Dear Mama died.")

"Today, Mother is dead. Maybe it was yesterday. I don't know." That seems perfectly idiomatic to me (and I'd assume "Mother" is the name the narrator uses for his mother) if the narrator is thinking first about the significance of Today and then realizing he doesn't know for sure when his mother died. "Mother died today" puts the emphasis on the fact of his mother dying rather than the awareness that Today is significant.
posted by straight at 6:03 AM on May 17, 2012


Est Morte is not past tense, as the translations suggest, but present tense. Now my French is so long behind me that I'm not sure if this is idomatic or something.

Then why do you insist on commenting on this issue of which you know precisely nothing? This is the passé composé. It is absolutely basic grammar.
posted by Wolof at 6:04 AM on May 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


I am not sure the term mother would have been cold and aloof in the 1940s. Avoiding it because we find it so today would imply that we should re-translate all books periodically to make the tone more contemporary.
posted by snofoam at 6:15 AM on May 17, 2012


And, of course, at that point, why not update all fiction regardless of what language it was written in.
posted by snofoam at 6:17 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


And, of course, at that point, why not update all fiction regardless of what language it was written in.

Instead of shooting an Arab, maybe Mersault could have a skateboard competition with him? Awesome.

posted by Jehan at 6:29 AM on May 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


would imply that we should re-translate all books periodically to make the tone more contemporary.

We absolutely do that. Each translation is unique after all. In the words of Keats:

On First Looking into Chapman's Homer

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold
:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific — and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
posted by ersatz at 6:49 AM on May 17, 2012


@snofoam: but that's exactly what we do. We retranslate books when the English into which they are translated itself requires translation. Translations contemporary to the original are not always the best ones---compare the Constance Garnett Dostoyevsky translations to the Pevear/Volokhonsky ones. (I don't know Russian, but Garnett certainly makes Crime and Punishment into a George Eliot novel, which just seems the wrong tone)
posted by dis_integration at 7:03 AM on May 17, 2012


Argh! L'Etranger is a whole novel. It's not the first sentence, or the first paragraph. It is in French, so an English translation will naturally carry some inaccuracies. The details of those inaccuracies in one sentence are not so important. Unless you're some smug literary critic type who has a passing knowledge of high school French and so sink your teeth into that first sentence, the easy one, the one whose grammer you think you understand. So can go on pretentiously about it while ignoring, you know, the rest of the book.

I've been hearing about this "controversy" about the first sentence since I first read the book in high school in, oh, 1988. It's totally overwhelmed anything I've heard discussed about the rest of the book. It's lazy and tiresome, cocktail party conversation.
Aujourd'hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. J'ai reçu un télégramme de l'asile: «Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués.» Cela ne veut rien dire. C'était peut-être hier.
posted by Nelson at 7:37 AM on May 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


How would one translate assiette de haricot?
posted by stargell at 7:46 AM on May 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


Est Morte is not past tense, as the translations suggest, but present tense. Now my French is so long behind me that I'm not sure if this is idomatic or something.

Then why do you insist on commenting on this issue of which you know precisely nothing? This is the passé composé. It is absolutely basic grammar.


Ouch, burn.

I guess you told me. I'll slink away now.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:17 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


> Even though it's honest, I don't think "maman" is the way to go.

It's not "honest," it's just lazy and pretentious. I agree with those commenters at the link and here who think "my mother" works best; it avoids both overfamiliarity and overformality and carries over the tone as well as it can be carried over into English.
posted by languagehat at 8:23 AM on May 17, 2012


We retranslate books when the English into which they are translated itself requires translation.

I guess I am not convinced that the earlier translations were problematic in the article, or that I would agree with others on when a work "requires" re-translation.

I think there may be cases where earlier translations are indeed not that great. There may be other cases in which earlier translations are seen as lacking simply because they use the language of their day.

If we're talking about translating Homer, reading a translation from the Renaissance has no added authenticity, so why not update to contemporary language. On the other hand, I don't see why a quality, contemporary translation of something like The Stranger might not better reflect the language and feeling of the original.

Of course, sticking with an older translation doesn't generate new press or sell as many books.
posted by snofoam at 8:50 AM on May 17, 2012


My use of contemporary is kind of confusing above. I mean:

If we're talking about translating Homer, reading a translation from the Renaissance has no added authenticity, so why not update to the language of today. On the other hand, a quality translation of something like The Stranger, done around the time it was written, might better reflect the language and feeling of the original.
posted by snofoam at 8:55 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, there may be good reasons to retranslate books, for example, making them more accessible to newer generations, but the linked article isn't making that case. He's saying that older translations are flawed. I don't think he can convincingly make that case without addressing how the term mother was used in English at the time the novel was written.
posted by snofoam at 9:03 AM on May 17, 2012


And, of course, at that point, why not update all fiction regardless of what language it was written in.

We do. People write new stories.

And as for the translation issue, try reading two different translations of a single work from different periods, and you will have very different experiences. A translation of, say, Homer from the 16th century (Chapman) vs. one from the 17th century (Sandys) vs. any of the numerous ones from the 20th century (Fitzgerald, Lattimore, Lombardo, etc) will be different not just in language but in meaning. Each translator -- especially those working at different historical moments -- will read the text differently, and you will see in each translation the differences not only between the translators' methods but between the cultural moments within which they work.

Argh! L'Etranger is a whole novel. It's not the first sentence, or the first paragraph. It is in French, so an English translation will naturally carry some inaccuracies. The details of those inaccuracies in one sentence are not so important. Unless you're some smug literary critic type who has a passing knowledge of high school French and so sink your teeth into that first sentence, the easy one, the one whose grammer you think you understand. So can go on pretentiously about it while ignoring, you know, the rest of the book.

It's called "close reading," and as Ryan Bloom says (in an admittedly smug tone), it is crucial to understand how each component of the novel works as part of the entire text. If someone decided to translate the first line as "Mom's dead" that would have a profound effect on our interpretation of the rest of the novel. What Bloom is doing is not ignoring the rest of the novel, but rather examining closely one part of it as it affects and functions in relation to the rest.

Anyway...

I like "Mama" instead of "my mother." It is more of a title/name rather than just a noun.
"Today, Mama died."
or "Today, Mama is dead."

If you want to use "mother," then I would capitalize it, again to suggest it is more than just a simple noun but a name. "Today, Mother [has] died."

For a scholarly edition in English, I like Ruthless Bunny's suggestion: "Maman" in italics, with a footnote.
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:07 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


there may be good reasons to retranslate books, for example, making them more accessible to newer generations, but the linked article isn't making that case. He's saying that older translations are flawed.

That's a very good point, and one of the failings of the original article. The author's tone is too prescriptive and haughty, when it should be intellectually curious and generous. "How do these different translations change our understanding of the work?" rather than "All those dicks were WRONG!"
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:09 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Saxon Kane, I agree that part of what makes some translations very interesting is how much they tell us about the era of the translator. On the other hand, I don't think this is as applicable to current translations of a book that is only 70 years old. Although maybe future generations will find it interesting.

The idea that people writing new stories is the equivalent of retranslating works into contemporary language doesn't work for me. I think many people believe that contemporary translations are better because they convey the supposed original meaning more clearly to a modern audience. This idea is largely unique to translations from other languages, or perhaps works in English that are so old they are almost the equivalent of another language. People don't create or fawn over Hemingway novels updated to contemporary language.
posted by snofoam at 9:19 AM on May 17, 2012


"The first sentence isn't how I would have rendered it and this changes everything, everything."

Egregious beanplating. You simply are not going to convey the precise meaning, tone, weight, and implications of each phrase of the original in translated fiction. The best you as translator can hope to do is get across the sense of what happens, and possibly make a rough stab at underlining (your understanding of) why.

This is not to say there aren't bad translations. There are, painfully bad ones (exhibit A, all the renderings of the Bible into "up-to-date English.") So doesn't that imply that there are good ones?

No, I think not. There are scandalously bad ones, and there are somewhat less bad, more neutral ones. Which will not discourage a consciencious translator. Translating art writing is--must be--a very self-effacing task. The best possible outcome is that a translation will engage readers enough so that they will want to abandon the translation and go to the original. For Camus and Western readers that's almost a given; cats and dogs can read French (English-speaking cats and dogs anyway.)

Taking a work that was written in language A and rewriting it in language B is a related but different (and less self-effacing) task. The Chapman Homer that Keats was so high on was a rewrite. (Meter is critical in ancient Greek poetry. Chapman neither tried to reproduce the original dactylic hexameter nor gave up completely and rendered it in prose; he just used a different meter. Also he threw in all kinds of extraneous material that doesn't appears in any Greek text.)
posted by jfuller at 9:26 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I know about "close reading". Strangely, no one ever applies "close reading" to the rest of L'Etranger in popular articles. I stand by my claim that because this one sentence is so simple, a bunch of folks who don't really know French find it easy to "close read" it in a way that makes them seem smart at a cocktail party but doesn't really contribute anything to a real understanding. I should say this is not a criticism of Ryan Bloom himself, he obviously has his Camus chops. But his article, the New Yorker editors, the folks who read the article.. It's just so shallow.

I don't buy the argument that the first sentence is somehow important and magical and sets the tone for the whole book. Even in this first paragraph, I'm much more struck by the marriage of the telegraph quote and the author's own direct, simple statements. And the last sentence of the paragraph ("C'était peut-être hier" / "It could have been yesterday") carries much more of the meaning to me of the book, the way Meursault is so detached from the world.

Harumph. At least I should be glad people are discussing the novel. It really is a great work of alienation.
posted by Nelson at 9:27 AM on May 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't buy the argument that the first sentence is somehow important and magical and sets the tone for the whole book.

I’m not either. I don’t see the problem with it to begin with, and I knew I was reading a translated work and took that into account. I find the subject of translation decisions kind of interesting, just not this particular case. I often wonder, when I read something I don’t like (The Nimrod Flipout), how much of it is the translation?

I only read The Stranger a few years ago. I had never heard of it, and barely knew who Camus was, only the name really. It was just some book I picked up. I was floored by it, and so it was funny when I excitedly looked it up and realized I was the only person in the world who didn’t read it in school (actually, no one I know did, we must have lived in a time and place that skipped this.)
posted by bongo_x at 9:54 AM on May 17, 2012


I agree that part of what makes some translations very interesting is how much they tell us about the era of the translator.

Well, that's part of it, but that's not necessarily what I meant. Each era (or, if you want to use Stanley Fish's more flexible term, each "interpretive community") constructs the meaning of a text differently. Through different translations we learn not only about the era of the translator, but we learn different things about the text itself. The text is made to do different things, mean different things, and so we learn different possibilities of how to read and understand the text.

On the other hand, I don't think this is as applicable to current translations of a book that is only 70 years old.

70 years is a long, long time these days -- there have been numerous seismic shifts in global cultures, and I would imagine that we'd all be surprised at the differences such a timeframe would make. But, I'm basing this not on any hard evidence but just on my own personal experiences of reading translations of Dostoesvksy from the late 19th C as well as those from the late 20th c., so YMMV.

The idea that people writing new stories is the equivalent of retranslating works into contemporary language doesn't work for me.

I didn't mean that exactly. I meant that because humans are always writing new literature, then we are "translating" old stories, making them new. I was being a little grandiose and a little facetious at the same time. Although I am in full support of the project of new translations of works in a foreign language (whatever foreign may be to your native language), but adamantly against "updating" old works in one's native language -- for example, the "No Fear" Shakespeare books that paraphrase Shakespeare's language into modern, colloquial English. If someone wants to adapt an old story, re-tell it, that's one thing. But paraphrases are just lame.

(NB: I am saying this from the perspective of an English prof, so I'm thinking about them in the context of school. If someone just wants to know what happens in Hamlet and is having trouble reading the text, then by all means read a paraphrase. But if you are a student in my Shakespeare class, you best read the flippin play!)

There's a certain hypocrisy on my part here, I am sure. After all, Shakespeare's English is a foreign language to modern English speakers in many ways. And, of course, reading a translation of a work is a foreign language is sort of equivalent to reading a "paraphrase" of the No Fear Shakespeare sort, in the sense that no translation can ever be truly faithful to the original. But, the barrier to entry is so much lower for reading something in an archaic form of English than reading something in a completely foreign language. I would LOVE to take the time to learn Homeric Greek and read the Iliad in its original language, but that would take a prohibitive amount of time, so I make do with (multiple) translations.

Strangely, no one ever applies "close reading" to the rest of L'Etranger in popular articles.

In popular articles, I'm not surprised. But maybe there's a larger body of scholarship on the translation of the novel, I don't know. I'm sure that it is an important and interesting subject. As I suggested above, I am extremely ignorant re: Camus and Camus scholarship. I think the difference between our reactions to the article is that you have read similar arguments before, while I have not. So the ideas Bloom put forward seemed interesting and new to me, while they seemed cliche to you.

I don't buy the argument that the first sentence is somehow important and magical and sets the tone for the whole book.

I agree with you on this, although I do think that the first line of any work IS very important, but not necessarily more important than any other one in the first paragraph or the rest of the book. I think Bloom chose it (and the other people to whom you allude who have discussed it before) because it is useful as an example of the problems of translation and easily communicable to a general, literate readership. It's the first line, somewhat iconic, probably one of the more memorable line to people familiar with the novel. I could imagine a similar article about, for example, how one should translate the first word of Beowulf, "Hwaet." this page has a comparison of 4 translations (plus a "literal" translation). I think Bloom's tone borders on "everyone else who has translated this line is stupid" when it should be, "hey, let's look at these different translations and compare them. What differences do these choices make to our understanding of this line, and then let's extrapolate how those might affect our understanding of the book as a whole." He comes across as arrogant instead of informative and intellectually curious, which is (IMHO) the biggest problem with the article.
posted by Saxon Kane at 4:42 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


> Shakespeare's English is a foreign language to modern English speakers in many ways.

True, and so is the English of the KJV. But I'm willing to read Shakespeare with only the flyspeck-condensed-type version of the OED to help. And a magnifying glass, and a good bright light. The KJV itself is different in an interesting way in that it's a very old translation of yet older languages, so that if there's something I don't understand it may be that I just don't get some English idiom of James I's time but it may also be that James's translators got something wrong (e.g. Moses's horns.) A modern scholarly translation is much more likely to be a useful crutch in that case.

Earlier than that, Middle English and before, I get very shaky. I can read Chaucer in ME but not without a study guide close at hand, and I have to refer to it often. I see phrases and passages in Beowulf that (seem to) make some sense but I have no confidence in that and actually don't even pick it up without Tolkein's version (sentimental favorite) within reach. I once tried the Battle of Maldon cold but it might as well have been Martian. Got no more from it than if I had tried to read the Elder Edda in Old Norse.
posted by jfuller at 5:29 PM on May 17, 2012


"The moment one learns English, complications set in." — Felipe Alfau.
posted by unliteral at 8:17 PM on May 17, 2012


« Older Print is dead.   |   Paralyzed Woman Controls Robotic Arm With Her Mind Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post