Lost In Translation – Why The Prison Stripes?

Posted: February 7, 2018 in Uncategorized

Arthur Goldhammer, translator of a volume of Camus’s Combat editorials, calls it “nonsense” to believe that “good translation requires some sort of mystical sympathy between author and translator.” While “mystical” may indeed be a bit of a stretch, it’s hard to look at Camus’s famous first sentence—whether translated by Stuart Gilbert, Joseph Laredo, Kate Griffith, or even, to a lesser degree, Matthew Ward—without thinking that a little more understanding between author and translator may have prevented the text from being colored in ways that Camus never intended.

Louise Bourgeois
Maman (Mommy)
  1. Nat says:

    That was such a captivating article. It brought up my long lost memories of reading that book, and filled in gaps where back then, it made no sense to me. Thanks for sharing.

    In another one of my classes someone mentioned an author of color wrote a novella in response, from the perspective of the Arab or the Arab’s family member. I don’t remember the author or title but I wanted to read it.

  2. Natalie Van Orden says:

    When I read The Stranger and was researching articles and essays about it online, I remember the first topic I encountered was the controversy of how the first sentence of the novel should be translated. I was interested that the difference between “Mother died today,” and “Today, Maman died” could be such a big point of discussion, especially because it seems like a relatively easy sentence to translate from French to English.

    Our brief discussion about The Stranger in class really helped me to understand the novel in a way I never did when I read it originally, and I would now argue that the translation of the first line is immensely important in how you interpret everything that follows. “Mother” is interpreted as a more formal, distant term, and therefore sets us up to understand that Meursault is cold towards his mother. “Maman,” while not being an English term, doesn’t necessary need to be translated if any translated form adds emotion or formality that Camus didn’t intend to have. I’ve heard of other translation controversies similar to this, such as whether Marcel Proust’s novel should be translated as In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past, and in my opinion it really does matter if a translator has a good grasp of the philosophies and experiences of writers rather than just having a good grasp of French and English.

    Looking at Louise Bourgeois’ interpretation of Maman as a spider, at first I thought she was trying to portray Maman as a distant almost disgusting figure looming over Meursault until I read that she considered her own mother to be like a spider—nurturing and protecting her, while weaving a life for her. I think this example illustrates well how without context it’s easy to say the translation of The Stranger’s first line isn’t important, but after studying Camus’ philosophy, different translations of the first line can send you down at least two entirely different interpretations of Meursault’s relationship with Maman, and therefore his entire character and motivation for the rest of the novel. One can initially see Maman as a cold, distant spider, or grasp more context and interpret Maman as gentle and growth-promoting.

    • Nice to see you responding so thoughtfully here. Yes, translation is a huge deal. Even a single words can make a world of difference. Consider how odd it feels to us to have someone mispronounce out name. It’s as though they didn’t really understand who we were, and possibly didn’t even try. Transferring that feeling over to the realm of art and literature can teach a lot about the risk, if not the impossibility of translation – something I’m study on my own right now. But there can also be opportunities for gain in translation. I think that’s what we see in Louise Bourgeios’ spiders. Here, I wouldn’t see the spider as either menacing or sheltering, but rather as a deliberately ambiguous combination of the two. Mother/Mama, for Meursault, seems to be an irrational origin from which he originates. The center of his existence, or rather the ground of his existence, is an unspeakable mystery, one which the word Maman covers over. You’ll find similar concepts expressed, though through very different means, in the work of Robert Gober. I hope to discuss him more later in the semester.

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