Most of us have read Homer or Dostoyevsky or Dante at some point, but very few of us have actually read the original texts. Instead, you’ve most likely read a translation, written by somebody else who may have altered the meaning no matter how accurate they were. And while this may seem to only affect words, it can also heavily influence the legacy of an author’s work, as can be said for Albert Camus’s oeuvres.
On Monday, April 11 at 5:30 p.m., Professor Alice Kaplan of Yale University will be giving a lecture called “How Albert Camus’s L’Etranger Became The Stranger: A Literary Translation and the long life of a classic.” Kaplan will discuss the novel’s process in becoming a classic and how the 1946 English translation enhanced its status. The lecture is sponsored by multiple departments, including the host department, French and Francophone Studies, as well as Philosophy, English and Africana Studies.
Kaplan currently is the John M. Musser Professor of French and the chair of the French Department at Yale University, where she’s taught since 2009. She originally attended Vassar as an undergraduate before transferring to University of California, Berkeley to earn her B.A. in French and her PhD afterward at Yale. Kaplan has written several books on 20th-Century French cultural history and translated multiple books from French to English as well.
In October, Kaplan will publish her book “Looking for The Stranger,” which will expand upon material presented in this lecture.
Last summer in Paris, Professor and Chair of French and Francophone Studies and the organizer of this lecture Susan Hiner met Kaplan, where she explained to Kaplan an exciting discovery found at Vassar that convinced Kaplan to visit: “I told Alice that it must have been fate because when I became chair back in 2011, while going though some books in the chair’s office with Ron Patkus, the director of Special Collections, we discovered a letter pressed in a book. It was a letter from Albert Camus, signed by him, thanking a French professor for his hospitality during a visit to campus. Camus had visited Vassar on several occasions it turns out. All of this was very evocative to me, and Professor Kaplan was thrilled to hear about the letter.”
Albert Camus originally published “L’Etranger,” translated as “The Stranger” in America and “The Outsider” in the UK, in 1942, and today his work is still regarded as an exemplar of existentialism. In 1946, Camus came to Vassar to give a lecture on French contemporary theatre, speaking right before his career significantly took off. Besides his works of philosophy, Camus wrote several novels and plays and in 1957 received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Despite dying in an untimely car accident at age 46, his legacy persists today as one of the greatest thinkers of the modern era.
Professor of French and Francophone Studies Cynthia Kerr, who teaches “L’Etranger” in one of her courses and in a seminar which focuses on translation, explained how errors in translating can define a legacy: “The 1946 translation by Stuart Gilbert, a British literary scholar, is widely viewed today as inaccurate because it distorts Camus’s intentions, characters and style,” she remarked. “In it, Gilbert embroidered, explained and interpreted in ways that transformed the original into a far wordier text with a decidedly British tone. For 36 years, however, Gilbert’s text remained the only English version available. It was thus through a distorted version of the original that generations of American and British students learned about Meursault, his mother, and his crime.”
The process of translating can be very challenging, with the translator having to make numerous decisions on meanings as well as cultural connotations. A translator can’t give a literal translation either, so they must also essentially serve as an editor. A skillful linguist would be able to turn an ancient Greek play into a critique of nuclear war if they select the right words.
French and Francophone Studies major Noah Mintz ’16, who is translating a Patrick Modiano novel from French into English this semester, spoke about the difficulties one faces in translating: “What I will say is that French is deceptively close to English, and so presents some tempting pitfalls. It’s easy to do a literal translation, one that is semantically ‘faithful’ to the French, bearing all the same meaning, and yet a complete disaster in terms of style and tone.”
In her own work, Kaplan has run into the challenges of translation as she writes in both French and English. Her first book, “Reproductions of Banality” (1986), was a theoretical exploration of French fascism. Since then she has published books on Céline’s antisemitic pamphlets (sources et citations dans “Bagatelles pour un massacre”), on the treason trial of Robert Brasillach (“The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach”), and on American courts-martial in newly liberated France (“The Interpreter”).
With a world around us and more languages than there are countries, translators are still relevant and essential. With any foreign text, it’s not as simple as typing in the words into Google Translate, because the essence of a text requires knowing more than just the surface meaning. A translator needs to understand both languages’ cultures and apply that knowledge which is more than any computer can do.
“Translation is a complex task requiring an intimate knowledge of the source and target languages, an in-depth understanding of the text at hand and a large dose of patience and humility,” Kerr said of the dilemmas of the translator. “The goal of a good translator is not to flesh out a novel, skew its characters or add humor to what may seem like a lifeless description. Nor is it to agonize endlessly over the multiple nuances, denotations and connotations of each and every word to the point of losing the flow. The art of translation lies in finding a happy medium and remaining faithful to the author.”