Monday, February 17, 2014

The Rougon-Macquart: Getting a Good Translation

Updates as of 3/1/14 in red

The immediate challenge in reading any work of literature written in a foreign language is getting a good translation. The quality of the translation can completely determine whether we get the full artistry in a novel. It can even determine whether we like or dislike the work. This is because the translator is charged with bringing not only the text into English, but also the connotations, subtleties, and meanings, as well. It's also important for a translator to preserve some feel of the author's style. If a translator fails to capture the skill a writer has in describing characters or misses the poetry in the text or is unaware of symbolism or double meanings, then the best part of the literature can be lost. This renders a great book, at best, mediocre.

Zola's Rougon-Macquart Cycle is especially challenged in this regard. Back in the late 1880's, some of Zola's realism was a bit too much for his contemporary readers. He was actively criticized for indecency in some of his novels (notably L'Assommior and Nana). To remedy this, the initial English translator of the Cycle, Henry Vizetelly, 'cleaned up' most of Zola's works and even adjusted the style quite a bit. This leaves us with an inaccurate translation and, in some cases, a pointless exercise.

Henry's son Ernest later reworked some of these initial translations, apparently bringing some of them closer to Zola's originals. Despite how heroic this undertaking was, I can't help but think that a repaired version of a broken translation can't be more effective than simply starting from scratch. As a result my opinion is that, unless you have no other options, the Vizetelly translations should be avoided.

So where does this leave us? Luckily in not as bad a place as I had once thought. In response to my post on Abbe Mouret's Transgression, I received some helpful (though anonymous) comments from someone who appears to have a deeper understanding of the state of Zola translations than I. The commenter was able to confirm that Oxford University Press appears to be slowly bringing out new translations of the novels in Zola's Cycle. This is very welcome news given the topicality of many themes in the Cycle (notably the financial crisis depicted in Money, the Oxford University Press' latest release). Not to mention that hopefully we shall soon have the whole of the Cycle in good English translations. (And then can we hope for a hardcover release of the whole set? I'd buy!)

Brian Nelson,
Godsend to All Who Read Zola in English
Given the commenter's information and what I know myself, I thought it would be a good idea to summarize where things stand as of now. Of course, there's no way I spent enough time to claim I have a completely accurate picture. Hopefully, it will be a help to anyone navigating the Cycle who wants the real deal. Again, I do not speak French so I'm no expert on what makes a good Zola translation (although I do feel that I've gained a feel for his cadence as a writer by this point). I also know nothing about the commenter I reference. So take this list with a grain of salt!

As a final note - and a bit of a thank you - we must recognize Brian Nelson, without whom we not be able to fully enjoy many of the books in Zola's Cycle at all. I've ready many of his translations, and they sparkle or pulse like an ulcer, depending on what is being depicted. Thank you!

So, without further ado, here's how to avoid Vizetelly translations. ('OUP' refers to the existence of an Oxford University Press edition, the publishing house which offers the most new translations).

  1. The Fortune of the Rougons - OUP, translated by Brian Nelson.
  2. His Excellency, Eugene Rougon - Only Vizetelly translations are available at this time, however the commenter referenced above indicates that the publisher Elek Books provided new translations during the 1950's. I have not read anything from this publisher, so I have no first hand knowledge of the quality. While stopping short of fully endorsing these translations, the commenter felt they were good enough to recommend over Vizetelly. However, the Elek Book editions are out of print so you may have to search to find them.
  3. The Kill - There's actually two recent translations available. I read and fully enjoyed the Modern Library translation by Arthur Goldhammer. OUP also has a Brian Nelson translation available (and I'm just enough of a literary geek and Nelson fanboy that I might buy it). 
  4. Money - OUP just released its edition. Translator, Valerie Minogue.
  5. The Dream - I read the recent translation by Michael Glencross (Peter Owen Publishing). The feel of the text is different than other translations, but I'm betting this is the result of a different stylistic approach employed by Zola rather than any deficiency with the translation work. So I recommend it (for whatever that's worth!).
  6. The Conquest of Plassans - An Elek Books version titled: A Priest in the House can be found. Otherwise, we're stuck with Vizetelly. The commenter mentioned that an OUP edition was 'coming soon', but he also felt the Vizetelly translation was of much higher quality than one would expect. This rang true for me. While reading Vizetelly's translation, I noticed myself thinking "oh, I know something got cut there!" far less often than usual.
  7. Pot-Bouille - OUP, in a 'realer than real' translation by Brian Nelson. Phenomenal.
  8. The Ladies' Paradise - OUP, translator Brian Nelson.
  9. Abbe Mouret's Transgression - The Vizetelly version of this book is just awful. However, I've had it from several sources that it is an extremely hard book to translate. Further I suspect, as with The Dream, that Zola's style is purposefully different from the other novels. The commenter noted there are some good mid-Century (out of print) editions available.
  10. A Love Episode - Mondial Books publishes editions that are largely Vizetelly translations. This is one exception. While I don't know when the translation by C. C. Starkweather in the Mondial edition was undertaken, I didn't sense much was missing here, and the commenter seems to agree with me.
  11. The Belly of Paris - OUP, translator Brian Nelson. Watch out for old editions of this book entitled The Fat and the Thin. It's this book in a Vizetelly translation.
  12. La Joie De Vivre - Elek Books' edition is titled Zest for Life. Nothing more modern exists. The Vizetelly version likely has some major edits.
  13. L'Assommoir - OUP, translator Margaret Mauldon. I've read this, and she does a great job. I believe this was the book that gave Zola his initial fame, and Mauldon preserves the page-turning (and gut-churning) descent Zola created. Looks like Penguin also has an edition translated by Robin Buss.
  14. The Masterpiece - OUP, translator Thomas Walton (revised by Roger Pearson). I've read this, and it's excellent.
  15. The Human Beast - OUP, translator Roger Pearson.
  16. Germinal - OUP, translator Peter Collier. Roger Pearson also has an edition through Penguin.
  17. Nana - OUP, translator Douglas Parmee. I believe I read the Penguin translation by George Holden, but it was a long time ago so I'm not sure. Whichever I read was very good.
  18. The Earth - Penguin has a translation by Douglas Parmee. Wikipedia's article on Brian Nelson suggests he's working a translation due in 2015.
  19. The Debacle - OUP, translator Elinor Dorday. Penguin also has an edition, translated by Leonard Tancock.
  20. Doctor PascalMondial Books publishes editions that are largely Vizetelly translations. This is one exception. I don't know when the translation by Mary J. Serrano in the Mondial edition was undertaken; I'm just happy that there is an alternative. Since this is the novel where Zola lays out his themes overtly, I really Really REALLY didn't want to read a Vizetelly version. The commenter indicated there is an Elek Book edition, so perhaps Mondial took the Serrano translation from that edition.
While putting this list together, I came across editions from other publishers. However, while some of them claim to be modern translations that reinsert previously excised passages, no translator is listed. This make me cautious about the actual quality and scholarship. 

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