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Translated today. Or maybe yesterday; I don’t know.

Albert Camus’ novel The Outsider is the subject of a new Penguin translation. For JACK DUNLEAVY, re-translation is a necessity, not to provide a definitive edition but to remind us that reading French texts in English is ‘at best an equivalent and at worst an approximation of the original’.

In the past 5 or so years a spurt of new translations has reshaped the relationship between the English language and French literature. In 2011, Lydia Davis’ translation of Madame Bovary drew a line under previous translations, creating a new standard English text which is both accurate and immensely readable.

Last year a new translation of Raymond Queneau’s brilliant but notoriously untranslatable Exercices de Style was published by New Directions Books. The new edition, an update on the 1985 translation, was completed by a team of translators and adds additional chapters, some by Queneau, some a tribute to him by the translators. In contemporary literature, the Pushkin Press has translated all four novels by literary prodigy Florian Zeller, quoted to be ‘one of the hottest literary talents in France’.

The latest significant book to join this trend is Albert Camus’ The Outsider, translated for Penguin Classics by Sandra Smith. This book, for good reason, is one of the more familiar French novels in translation, and it is hard to find a piece written on it – either by reviewers or by the translator – which does not feel the need to justify a new edition.

The publishers of this one seem keen to do this through design; hardback, non-glossy and with a white and duck egg blue design which is almost classical, everything about the cover tries to suggest permanence. If this seems a little superfluous (and at £20 for 130 pages the price certainly does), it is only necessary to open the book and begin reading to realise how necessary this new translation is, and how hard the translator’s job must be.

In an article for the Paris Review discussing her translation of Madame Bovary, Davis demonstrates the amount of murky water in translation. A single phrase of Flaubert’s, ‘bouffées d’affadissement’, has variously been translated as: gusts of revulsion; a kind of rancid staleness; stale gusts of dreariness; waves of nausea; fumes of nausea; flavorless, sickening gusts; stagnant dreariness; whiffs of sickliness; waves of nauseous disgust.

Though Camus’ prose is a little less nebulous than Flaubert’s, different translations inevitably have different phrasing, and this deviation from the original is a problem in The Outsider too. An example of this is the books title, some editions go for The Outsider, some for The Stranger, and others give up and go for the French title, L’Etranger. It may seem pedantic, but these different titles have slightly different meanings, and therefore alter the story. When read in tandem with Stuart Gilbert’s 1940s translation (the most popular English edition before Smith’s), a number of these small discrepancies appear.

Though they rarely affect the larger plot these deviations give quite a different impression of character, an important difference with such an ambiguous character as the book’s protagonist, Meursault, a man so easy going he borders on evil; the literary equivalent of a Gallic shrug. In one passage in Smith’s translation, Meursault swims with his future lover and as she exits the pool he tells the reader his ‘hand brushed against her breasts’, while according to Gilbert, Meursault lets his ‘hand stray over her breasts’. Each translator describes a different event and the reader reacts differently. Meursault is so rarely roused to do anything that Gilbert’s suggestion of intention here makes the character less passive than he appears in Smith’s translation.

Ambiguity is one of the themes of the novel, as shown by the much quoted first line: ‘Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.’, or if you like: ‘My mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know’, and these little differences between the texts can be quite fun to decipher, but are an obstacle if you want to get the ‘real’ story. This can be especially exasperating when, as will be the case with the majority of this edition’s readers, the original French is impenetrable. Without an original document to fall back on, the reader in translation has to make their own mind up about what happened, and read in tandem the bias naturally falls with whatever edition is read first.

Though most people will not read in tandem, this problem still exists when reading a single edition. With literature in translation it is very easy to forget that what you are reading is not an original English text; it is at best an equivalent and at worst an approximation of the original.

Regardless of its closeness to the original, Smith’s translation is never wooden and, as Lydia Davis says, the skill of the translator is not their knowledge of the language but their ability to write. In her preface Smith claims that she was able to capture Camus’ colloquial style by listening to recordings of him reading the novel to ‘try to replicate the nuances of his rendition’.

Translator’s notes are full of this kind of justification – presumably to reassure the reader that they did more than copy and paste the book into Google Translator, but Smith’s method is undoubtedly a success; she may not have captured the colloquialisms of 1940s Algeria, but the freshness and alertness of her prose preserves the sense that Meursault is talking directly to the reader.

Literature in translation may have a train of problems attached to it, but this do nothing to diminish the joy provided by insight into another culture. Books like The Outsider and many others like them are beguiling not only for their literary qualities, but also for the surreal sense of reading in English something which is foreign to English culture. Fine writing such as Smith’s is a testament to the worth of the translator’s art.

The Outsider, by Albert Camus, translated by Sandra Smith (2012). Penguin, £20

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