A very well-known and important piece of French literature comes from Albert Camus. Thanks to translations, L’Étranger has been read by people in many different languages, including multiple English versions. Unfortunately, these professional English translators cannot seem to agree on the translation of the first sentence or the title itself, and the different translations may cause the reader to subconsciously assume a certain attitude toward the main character for the remainder of the story.
Albert Camus opens his story with the line “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.” This sentence appears to be a fairly simple and straightforward sentence to translate. Provided they have a basic understanding of the French language and passé composé conjugation, anyone should be able to translate this sentence, right? Wrong, according to the author of the source article below.
Stuart Gilbert translated the story in 1946. The translation chosen for the title and first line were The Outsider and “Mother died today,” respectively. L’Étranger is a first-person narrative. When reading this line, most readers will develop their first impression of the main character/narrator, Meursault. An American reader of Gilbert’s translation may feel that the main character and his mother are not close or overly loving. The use of the word “mother,” instead of a more endearing term, could turn the reader off from Meursault and influence their views on the murder described in the book.
The first line remained as Gilbert translated, but Joseph Laredo and Kate Griffith both chose to change the translation of the title to The Stranger. However in 1988, an American poet decided to make his own attempt at translating the novel. Matthew Ward opted to change a single word of the opening line. His translation begins with the sentence, “Maman died today.” It appears that his intentions of using the French word “Maman” were not simply poetic in manner, but also intended to shape the reader’s view of the relationship between Meursault and his mother. In the story, Meursault is on trial for murder and this relationship is a key factor in the way his character is viewed and judged by the reader. Instead of seeming distant and unkind toward his mother, by referring to her as “Maman,” Meursault is conveying a deeper, more caring relationship with her.
The author of this article poses the question, “What if the opening line had read, ‘Mommy died today’?” The most plausible response would be that the English-speaking reader would assume the narrator to be a child and feel sorry for him. Even though subconsciously, the reader would then be shaped into feeling a certain way toward Meursault for the remainder of the book.
Not only does this one word pose a hassle to translators, but the choice of word order is slightly strange as many people would generally say “Maman est morte aujourd’hui.” As a writer, Camus did not haphazardly use this odd syntax; the word order was specifically chosen. For that reason, it seems that the translators should have kept the word order in English as “Today, mother/maman/mommy/etc. died.”
But what’s the big deal with such a simple sentence? If I were to say “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times […]” you would likely recognize it right away, even if you did not remember that it is the opening of A Tale of Two Cities. Classic novels that are highly remembered and praised, are so because of the feelings they invoke within the reader. In the opening line, we develop a sense of the story and begin to develop our first impressions of the narrator. The first line of a novel is crucial to the reader’s impression of the novel as a whole as well and can have a sort of control over the reader’s feelings about events that transpire throughout. And as they say, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.