2011 Translation Projects
It has often been said that a significant work of foreign literature is translated anew with every generation. Yet, while certain classics are retranslated on a regular basis -- Homer, Dante, Kafka, Baudelaire -- others languish in an original translation that is often flawed or dated. With the help of the National Endowment for the Arts, I'll be retranslating Eugène Sue's Les Mystères de Paris, the earliest English-language translation of which appeared in an undated translation circa 1843. Several translations followed in 1844 and 1892.
Not only do these 19th-century translations differ significantly among each other, all of them play fast and loose with the original text. Some versions eliminate the first few pages of the novel for no obvious reason. Others transpose characters, currency, and street names into British English of the period. None are accurate or faithful by contemporary standards of translation. Given the fact that the book has not been retranslated in over a century and is something of a milestone in the history of crime fiction and popular novels, a retranslation was long overdue.
from Mysteries of Paris by Eugène Sue
[translated from French]
On December 13, 1838, a cold, rainy night, a man of athletic build, wearing a cheap smock, crossed the Pont au Change and entered La Cité, a labyrinth of dark, narrow, winding streets that runs from the Palais de Justice to Notre-Dame. The neighborhood around the Palais, although narrowly circumscribed and under constant surveillance, serves as an asylum or rendezvous for the criminals of Paris. It is indeed strange -- or should I say fatal? -- that some irresistible attraction drives such individuals to gravitate toward the powerful court that condemns them to prison, hard labor, or the scaffold.
That night the wind swept violently through the narrow streets of that cheerless quarter; the pale, hesitant glow of the streetlamps, agitated by the gale, was reflected in the rivulet of brackish water that flowed between the muddy cobblestones. The dun-colored houses had few windows, and of these the frames were worm-eaten and most of the panes missing. Dark, dank alleyways led to staircases that were darker and danker still, and so steeply raked that they were difficult to climb even with the aid of a rope attached to the damp walls by iron spikes. The ground floor of some houses was occupied by stalls where peddlers sold coal, offal, or meat of dubious quality. Although such goods are of little value, the displays of nearly all the shops were covered by an iron grate, for the merchants feared the bravado of the neighborhood's thieves.
The man in question, upon entering the Rue aux Fèves, located in the center of La Cité, slowed his gait considerably, for now he was on familiar ground. The darkness was extreme, water fell in torrents, and strong gusts of wind and rain battered the walls. In the distance, the clock of the Palais de Justice struck ten. Women clustered beneath vaulted arches, dark and deep as caves, from whence the faint singing of popular melodies could be heard. One of those women was certainly known to the man in question, for stopping abruptly before her, he grabbed her by the arm.
"Good evening, Chourineur."
The man, a lifelong convict, had received the nickname in prison.
"Is that you Goualeuse?" said the man in the smock. "I feel like a brandy. How about standing me a brandy? Or would you prefer that I take it out of your hide."
"I have no money," the woman answered, trembling, for the man was greatly feared in the neighborhood.
"Well, if you're broke, the Abbess at the local dive will give you credit for your pretty puss."
"I'm already in hock for the clothes I'm wearing!"
"Are you arguing with me?" cried Chourineur. He struck out wildly in the dark and hit the girl hard. She cried out in pain.
"That's nothing, little girl. Merely a warning."
Barely had the man spoken those words, when he let out a terrifying oath:
"I've been winged! You scratched me with your scissors." In a rage he ran into the obscurity of the alley in pursuit of La Goualeuse.
"Don't come any closer or I'll poke your eyes out," she said with determination. "I didn't do anything to you. Why'd you hit me?"
"I'm going to tell you why," the man said, as he continued to advance into the darkness. "There, I've got you. Now you're going to dance for me!" And in his large, strong hands he held a thin, frail wrist.
About Eugène Sue
French author, Eugène Sue (1804-1857) was born near the city of Cannes in southern France and came from a distinguished family of doctors. His father, a renowned surgeon, had been head physician to the Imperial Guard under Napoléon I. Following in his father's footsteps, Sue also studied medicine. He began his career as a naval doctor but retired in 1829 to write. His life as a writer began with a series of novels based on his experiences at sea. Although the books were moderately successful, they brought him no lasting fame.
Sue's first success was Arthur, an autobiographical novel of youthful disillusion. The book was published as a feuilleton in La Presse, a new daily paper. However, his most successful, and perhaps best-known, work is The Mysteries of Paris. This too was a novel in parts and was published in Le Journal des Débats. It was the first time in a novel that readers had been exposed to the social agitation and mixing of classes experienced in the bars and cabarets of Paris's dense core on Ile de la Cité. With its hovels and dive bars, its depiction of the prison of Saint-Lazare, which housed prostitutes and female thieves, it portrayed a world rarely described in the literature of the time. The book became an immediate success and was the talk of the town throughout the two years of its first publication in the newspaper.
It was also a turning point in Sue's life. Sue embraced socialism wholeheartedly and became a shareholder in two socialist papers La Phalange and La Démocratie pacifique, assuming his literary fame would be sufficient to help spread their influence and their ideals. After the Revolution of 1848 Sue supported the effort toward democracy and socialism by editing a paper devoted to republican propagandizing, Le Républicain des campagnes. Following the election of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte as president, Sue ran as a candidate for a vacant seat in the assembly as deputy from the Seine. Although he was easily elected, Sue made no lasting mark on French politics and proved to be a feckless and fairly incompetent politician, remaining mostly silent throughout the duration of his tenure.
He died in Annecy in 1857. His complete works, depending on the edition, run to 78 volumes.
Robert Bononno has been a freelance translator from the French for more than 20 years. He was an adjunct professor in New York University's Translation Studies program, where he taught courses on technical translation and computer technology for translators, and at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, where he taught courses on terminology and translation. Bononno is credited with the translation of more than a dozen full-length books and numerous shorter pieces. These include René Crevel's My Body and I -- a finalist for the 2005 French-American Foundation Prize -- Hervé Guibert's Ghost Image, and Henri Raczymow's Swan's Way. In 2002 he received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to complete a translation of the work of Isabelle Eberhardt. Bononno's latest translation, the first volume of Isabelle Stengers's Cosmopolitics, was recently published by the University of Minnesota Press.
Photo by Robert Bononno