The Perils of Reading in Translation

August 2, 2007 at 1:02 pm | Posted in books | 9 Comments

From an essay in Esquire by author Benjamin Percy:

Sometimes I’m struck most by the authors who say the least. “Mother died today,” wrote Albert Camus in The Stranger. That one gets me every time. For a couple reasons. First of all, we’ve got a death, which means I’ve got a reason to pay attention. And then there’s that voice, so blunt and distanced, so stripped down. He doesn’t say Mom, he says Mother. He doesn’t say passed, he says died. Does this guy have a heart, I’m wondering?

Of course, as everyone knows who has read Camus in the original, the narrator of the story doesn’t say Mother at all — he says Maman, and that, for me, makes all the difference.

Maman is certainly closer to Mom than to Mother, but it might actually be closer to Mommy or Momma…  It’s a child’s word, sentimental and emotionally charged.  For a grown man to use this word, especially in contemplating her death, is anything but distanced or heartless.  Miss this point, you risk misreading the entire novel.



  1. Exactly.

  2. So true, so true.

  3. well put. i wholeheartedly agree.

    it’s a painful thing to read a translated version of a famed literary work and cringe over a phrase that has so obviously been translated with an axe.

  4. I’m glad you all agree, though I think some of you might be interested in this article, explaining how and why a new translation of L’Etranger came about.
    I think it’s funny that they’re trying to whitewash the woeful inadequacy of the original translation by calling it “British,” as if all British children grow up calling their mothers “Mother”. But it is good to know that a better translation does exist out there, even if no translation is ever perfect.

  5. correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the point of l’etranger that he recounts everything with a certain distance? that he feels alienated from his life and experiences? I haven’t read it since high school french but that’s my recollection. so even though “aujourd’hui maman est morte” is better translated as “mommy” than “mother,” the next sentence is something like “ou peut-etre hier, je ne sais pas” (forgive my paraphrasing from memory), so there is a certain distance in the way he’s talking about the event.

  6. You’re right, Lauren, he is supposed to be unsentimental and distanced. But I think the contrast between his use of the childish term and the rest of his attitude is significant. To me, this has always suggested, not that he doesn’t care about his mother, but that he can’t (doesn’t want to) face the truth about her age, her sadness, and her death. He focusses on details in order to avoid the emotional impact of the death.

    This is also why he refuses to look at the body at the funeral — not because he is indifferent (in which case, why not look at the body?), but because he is afraid of what he might feel.

  7. I’ve had an unnatural fear of reading French novels in French, I think because I thought I wasn’t ready for it, which is too bad because it can only help to improve my vocabulary. Thanks for writing this post; I’m going to buy a copy of L’Etranger in French very soon (unless we already have one. Surely I would have read it by now if we did…).

  8. a sound reading! one I can agree with.

  9. Agree with Vivi, I think I’ll have to look up my copy of the book to see how they translated it in Spanish. Will go out and look for a french copy, now with fresh eyes.

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