One of the most widely read French novels of the twentieth century, Albert Camus’s L’Étranger, carries, for American readers, enormous significance in our cultural understanding of midcentury French identity. It is considered—to what would have been Camus’s irritation—the exemplary existentialist novel.
Yet most readers on this continent (and indeed, most of Camus’s readers worldwide) approach him not directly, but in translation. For many years, Stuart Gilbert’s 1946 version was the standard English text. In the 1980s, it was supplanted by two new translations—by Joseph Laredo in the UK and Commonwealth, and by Matthew Ward in the US. Ward’s highly respected version rendered the idiom of the novel more contemporary and more American, and an examination of his choices reveals considerable thoughtfulness and intuition.
Each translation is, perforce, a reenvisioning of the novel: a translator will determine which Meursault we encounter, and in what light we understand him. Sandra Smith—an American scholar and translator at Cambridge University, whose previous work includes the acclaimed translation of Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française—published in the UK in 2012 an excellent and, in important ways, new version of L’Étranger.
To begin with, she has changed the book’s English title: no longer The Stranger, Smith’s version is called, rather, The Outsider. She explains in her introduction:
In French, étranger can be translated as “outsider,” “stranger” or “foreigner.” Our protagonist, Meursault, is all three, and the concept of an outsider encapsulates all these possible meanings: Meursault is a stranger to himself, an outsider to society and a foreigner because he is a Frenchman in Algeria.
Then, too, Smith has reconsidered the book’s famous opening. Camus’s original is deceptively simple: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.” Gilbert influenced generations by offering us “Mother died today”—inscribing in Meursault from the outset a formality that could be construed as heartlessness. But maman, after all, is intimate and affectionate, a child’s name for his mother. Matthew Ward concluded that it was essentially untranslatable (“mom” or “mummy” being not quite apt), and left it in the original French: “Maman died today.” There is a clear logic in this choice; but as Smith has explained, in an interview in The Guardian, maman “didn’t really tell the reader anything about the connotation.” She, instead, has translated the sentence as “My mother died today.”
I chose “My mother” because I thought about how someone would tell another person that his mother had died. Meursault is speaking to the reader directly. “My mother died today” seemed to me the way it would work, and also implied the closeness of “maman” you get in the French.
Elsewhere in the book, she has translated maman as “mama”—again, striving to come as close as possible to an actual, colloquial word that will carry the same connotations as maman does in French.
Smith has made a similarly considered choice when confronted, later in the novel, with the ever-ticklish French contrast between vous and tu.…
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