ranslation is a funny thing. Because I speak two languages, I am intrigued by how we manage to get from one to another. The New Yorker recently wrote a piece about a novella published in 1942 by Albert Camus called l’Etranger. More specifically, the article was about translating the first sentence.
We, who range broadly, will talk about the first two sentences and the title. As you will see, the way Camus talks about his novel has a bearing on the first novel of our seven that I reviewed last week. Next Friday I will post readers’ remarks in the blog.
Meursault, the main character in Camus’ novel, is a French citizen living in North Africa. His mother dies. When he goes to her funeral, he does not cry. He returns to Algeria, where he begins a relationship with Marie and helps a friend, probably a pimp, write a letter to his girlfriend telling her to come over. He intends to spit on her and throw her out. Meursault agrees, but when the girlfriend arrives, she is beaten and the pimp gets off with just a warning. Meursault walks on the beach, hallucinates due to the intense sun, and shoots and kills an Arab. He’s put on trial where he is excoriated for not crying at his mother’s funeral. Then he’s put in jail for a year, refuses comfort from the priest, saying that he knows more than the priest because he is closer to death. He reflects on what his mother must have been experiencing as she died. He tells the priest, basically, we are all going to die. He is executed.
This story appealed to French intellectuals perhaps because France was devastated after the war. Camus uses the term “absurdism,” in which the effort to make meaning out of our lives is futile, but we do it anyway. Why? For the sake of freedom. As you can see from the very brief synopsis, Camus’ sense of the absurd is lacking in Beckett’s humor, particularly in Beckett’s funny / tragic play Waiting for Godot.
Here’s how L’Etranger begins :
« Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. » Here’s the literal translation :
« Today, my mother died. »
Reader : And this is controversial?
The word, “maman,” is tricky. It means something more like Mom, or momma or the British Mum. It is slightly less formal than the word, “mother,” but not as informal as “Mom.”
Let’s try: “Today Mom died.” I don’t think we would say this in English. When I was giving an overview of the story I said, “his mother dies.” Somehow when death is involved, we become slightly more formal in English. I think we would say, “Today my mother died.”
However, I think that sentence is not right either. Wouldn’t we say, “My mother died today?” It has been translated as “Mother died today,” which is off because “mother” here is especially formal. An intrepid soul recently just left “maman,” as it is. “Maman died today.” Clever dodge.
However, The New Yorker writer was not happy. Because time is crucial to the pivots of the text, we have to begin with “Today,” giving us, “Today maman died.”
Reader: At this rate, the book will never see the light of day in English.
On to the second sentence: « Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.» This translates to, “Or maybe it was yesterday, I don’t know.” No discussion here.
Reader: There is a God.
Me: (Ignoring the interruption) Because the second sentence talks about time, I believe we get it. Time is important. So, we can translate the first sentence the way we would actually say it, “My mother died today.”
Now, the title. In France, if you are from another country, you are called un étranger, which means, well, somebody from another country. Stranger, outsider, foreigner, non-native.
Meursault is a Frenchman domiciled in Algeria. He is also a stranger to or in his own life. Do you remember that old adage from college, where we would put a hand on our foreheads and say, “I am a stranger to myself?” What was that, reader? You still do this?
Camus had a few words to say about his novel :
« J’ai résumé L’Étranger, il y a longtemps, par une phrase dont je reconnais qu’elle est très paradoxale : “Dans notre société tout homme qui ne pleure pas à l’enterrement de sa mère risque d’être condamné à mort.” Je voulais dire seulement que le héros du livre est condamné parce qu’il ne joue pas le jeu. En ce sens, il est étranger à la société où il vit, où il erre, en marge, dans les faubourgs de la vie privée, solitaire, sensuelle. »
“I summarized L’Etranger, a long time ago by a phrase that I recognized as very paradoxical: ‘In our society any man who doesn’t cry at the internment of his mother risks being condemned to death.’ I only wanted to say that the hero of the book is condemned because he doesn’t play the game. In this sense, he is a stranger (foreigner) to the society where he lives, where he wanders on the margin in the suburbs of a personal life, solitary, sensual.”
A somnambulant sensualist, preoccupied by his mother, who drifts along, murders somebody and is executed. Undeniably compelling. Well, this summary is not, but the book somehow hooks you in. Wandering in the suburbs of your own life is creepy but seems to happen at least once in a while. In fact, Camus was awarded the Nobel prize in 1957 for illuminating the modern problem of conscience. The two vagrants in Beckett’s play wander similarly in the suburbs of an actual life, but from time to time they enjoy themselves. It must be the Irish in them.
I was thinking about this book, L’Etranger because the Chinese Revolution forced our several protagonists in the novel Swimming Back to Trout River out into the margins of their own lives, where some of them navigate more successfully than others. Two of the main characters actually leave China and move temporarily to the US, which makes them official foreigners as well.
Three brave souls have sent along their reflections on Swimming Back to Trout River, and I will present them next week.