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Lost in Translation?: A Note on Sexuality in L’Etranger

From: Romance Notes
Volume 52, Number 3, 2012
pp. 263-277 | 10.1353/rmc.2012.0030

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For several years after its appearance in 1954, Stuart Gilbert’s English translation of Albert Camus’ great novel, The Stranger, originally published in French in 1942, aroused little controversy among literary scholars. Nowadays, especially following publication of Matthew Ward’s “superior” translation of the roman in 1988, applause for Gilbert’s rendering is the exception rather than the rule. About that time, Camus scholar Patrick McCarthy pointed out (106–7), “Gilbert seems ill at ease with the earthy, working-class flavour of The Stranger.” English Showalter agreed, noting the existence of two detailed critiques of Gilbert’s translation that had appeared in the early 1970’s (26). “Two American scholars, John Gale and Helen Sebba,” he observed, “have written articles pointing out the most glaring instances [of Gilbert’s ‘infidelity’ to Camus’ text] and analyzing the cumulative effects of the individual variations; readers who know at least a little French might want to look them up.” Most translators and literary critics would agree that his advice remains valid today.

Although Helen Sebba’s article, “Stuart Gilbert’s Meursault: A Strange ‘Stranger,’” appeared nearly forty years ago, it continues to occupy an honored place in the literature on L’étranger.1 A well-known translator of several works, her opinion carried extra weight, even though she essentially pointed out the obvious: that Stuart Gilbert’s translation of Camus’ novel was often stilted and unfaithful to the original, pervaded by a stiff-upper lip, British accent throughout.

Sebba begins by asserting that the discrepancies between Camus’s text and Gilbert’s translation that we instinctively excuse as products of the translator’s Englishness nonetheless prima facie distort or detract from Camus’s meaning. “Small deviations from the French text, which at first might seem to be no more than the minor adjustments that an idiomatic English style requires, prove on closer examination to blur or destroy vital clues to Meursault’s character and behavior,” she argues, and finds that Gilbert’s anemic translation negates Meursault’s “very idiosyncratic mode of being.” Gilbert’s manipulations of the text to accord with what he thinks it should say deprive Meursault of his simplicity, attachment to Nature and the immediate moment, and his uniqueness. “Scattered throughout the text are elusive understated indications of the nature of his sense of life,” she asserts. “By failing to recognize these, or by deleting or distorting them, the English version makes The Stranger conventional precisely at the point where his strangeness can best be comprehended” (340).

Sebba vigorously questions the validity of Gilbert’s translation. She believes it obscures Meursault’s irrationality, instead rendering him a logical, pragmatic individual who understands the consequences of his actions. In her opinion, “the English version [Stuart Gilbert’s] of Camus’ novel shows certain psychological inconsistencies, not present in the original, which stem directly from the translation.” She aptly points out: “In trying to maintain the tone of common speech, Gilbert all too often smoothes away insights embodied by Camus in seemingly trivial factual details and substitutes purely conventional ideas or responses or reactions for what are in fact indications of a very idiosyncratic mode of being, of the Stranger’s cosmic sense of life” (334). However, Sebba criticizes Gilbert’s translation without acknowledging that her critique may be applicable to other translations of L’Etranger, and indeed is an inevitable, intrinsic concomitant of translating.

Sebba stresses the validity of her characterization of Meursault, as an individual whose distinctiveness she believes Gilbert’s translation does not sufficiently evoke. Meursault’s uniqueness, she says, lies in feeling at one with the cosmos, albeit tenuously. (She seemingly overlooks the theme of Camus’s simultaneously written classic, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), which famously emphasized the alienation of human beings from a Nature that they cannot feel at one with, especially the inevitable Death imposed on us all, which we cannot escape no matter how hard we try. Awareness of aging, illness, and mortality leads to a painful recognition of our self-consciousness and the Absurd, setting humans apart from the material and animal worlds in being conscious of old age and death.) Meursault is absorbed in the immediate moment, and his feelings of “relatedness...

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