Translation is, at best, the science of ‘best fit’. Whether in the euphemistic, guarded language of politics or the allusive, metaphor-heavy literary world, words always carry far more weight than just their simple face value, carrying hidden references and allusions. The word ‘straight’, for instance on the surface just means linear- a ‘straight road’. Yet it carries a whole bundle of associated meanings; it can signify honesty, sexuality, neatness, seriousness. A quick look at the online Oxford Dictionary shows you the extent of the meanings stemming from this simple word.
This makes the lives of translators very problematic, and the difficulties are nowhere more pronounced than in literature. Take the title of Camus’ most famous book- L’Étranger. In French, this word carries three associated but nevertheless distinct meanings: the stranger, the foreigner and the outsider. All of these words have some degree of claim to representing the French title, and conveying Camus’ intentions, but none of them can truly represent the meaning of the original word. As it is, the title is usually translated as either The Outsider or The Stranger, although The Outsider proves the less popular choice; probably due to the phonic similarity between ‘stranger’ and the original title.
Moving beyond the title into the first line, one of the most famous in French literature – ‘Aujourd’hui, maman est mort’- and the debate continues. How do we translate ‘maman’? Mersault, the main character, is a cold, unfeeling outsider (or stranger); the choice of how he reacts to his mother’s death will set the tone for the novel as a whole. Mother is too cold and formal, mum is too monosyllabic and informal. ‘Maman’ sits between the two and is the reason that Matthew Ward left it untranslated in his edition (he also plumped for The Stranger). Recently, a new edition of L’Étranger was published that translated the line as ‘My mother died today’, introducing a new warmth and sentimental attachment.
The debate then is over the structure of the line itself. Should the structure of the sentence remain the same- ‘Today, mother died’- or the more fluid ‘Mother died today’? While the latter sounds more Anglophonic, it carries none of the associated meaning of Camus’ original. It is significant that Mersault lists the time before the death of his mother. He lives without a concept of past and future, living in the present. He concentrates on his life as it happens, disregarding the past and not bothering to foretell the future consequences of his actions; his emotional and temporal detachment render him cold, uncaring, and unlikeable. ‘Today, mother died’ is far more consistent with his outlook and with the next sentence of the novel- ‘or yesterday; I don’t know.’
So much to consider from the first sentence, and the task of the translator will not get much easier throughout the novel. Exploring the minefield of meaning is a difficult task, but an enjoyable one; a form of mental yoga, stretching meanings and contorting sentence structure until the original intent of the author is adequately conveyed. It is just a shame that Camus himself is not around; it would have been interesting to see which translation he chose.