Eugène Sue’s crime novel The Mysteries of Paris was originally published in ninety instalments in the newspaper Journal des débats between June 1842 and October 1843. I am able to read French only at an exceedingly lingering and contemplative pace, which would make tackling The Mysteries akin to trying to kayak across an ocean. I have picked my way through Voltaire’s Candide and Albert Camus’ L’Étranger, but even these slim tales took me months. I would be certainly fluent in French by the time that I got to the end of The Mysteries, but I would be also at least three hundred years old.
So English it is then and here the aspirant explorer of The Mysteries has only one serious option to choose from. In 2015, Penguin brought out the ultimate translation-of-all-translations by Carolyn Betensky and Jonathan Loesberg. Hitherto, the most widely available English translation had been produced in 1843 and this, to the dismay of Penguin’s translators, has been recently proliferating once again online and in e-books. Betensky and Loesberg deplore this translation’s “significant omissions.”
Unfortunately, their own, re-inflated book is literally bigger than a house brick. It is, I think, the biggest that a paperback can feasibly grow to – a book that teeters on the cusp of total impracticality. Admittedly, the sheer space that this book takes up on a bookshelf goes some way to reconfirming its importance. The translators assert that English literature has been haunted by the absence of any “readable translation” of Sue’s epic. They despair over Sue’s prevailing invisibility throughout the Anglosphere and his failure to unite with French authors of a similar stature as an English household name. They posit that The Mysteries is “the most important work of nineteenth-century French fiction that is virtually unread in English.”
Two American translations had promptly followed at the heels of the 1843 British one, and, in being American, they were freed from any financial onus to the European copyright holders. In a 2014 article for the Revue Française d’Études Américaines, Carol Armbruster recounts the remarkable battle of the books between the translations that were serialised by the New World and Harper & Brothers. If Penguin’s translators were condemning the “omissions” within prior attempts, this is a warpath that was well trodden by the New World, which had decried its rival’s “mutilated edition of Eugene Sue’s work.” When it came to the quality of the prose, the New World would venomously conclude of Harpers’ translator, Charles H. Town, that, “we pity from the bottom of our hearts, the man who has permitted his name to be attached to a work, which a school-boy would disown.” With The Mysteries apparently appearing in the USA in Harpers’ lowbrow and the New World’s highbrow translations, the latter came courtesy of Henry C. Deming, who would go on to serve as the mayor of occupied New Orleans in 1861 and to author a biography of Ulysses S. Grant.
Edgar Allan Poe had hated whichever of the American translations he had read. But disturbers of The Mysteries had increasingly tended to rewrite them rather than translate them. Mysteries of London and New York were published in 1844 and 1848. In his 1932 study of The Mysteries, Georges Jarbinet had counted out thirty-one subsequent crime novels from between 1843 and 1846 with “Mystères” in the title. All, he had joked, were clients of the same “muse industrielle.”
I inevitably begrudge the 2015 translation because, in picking the first e-book to jump out at me, I had originally read a 1843 one. This is the British edition from Chapman and Hall, the identity of whose translator I still cannot winkle out, though at the time their version didn’t seem to stick. The market had felt it necessary to produce two further British translations, and these were completed by Charles Rochford (1844) and Henry Downes Miles (1846). Thumbing through them, it is hard to see what exact choice was being offered to potential customers, or why the translators had each agreed to a project that was so humungous and so superfluous.
When I turn to 2015 and the more robust update, the names of many of the 1843 characters have been altered. For example, the melodic (at least to an English ear) Chourineur is now “the Slasher.” I have no wish for characters who I have got to know so well to be renamed at such a late stage in our acquaintance. The Chourineur has got by for considerably over a century without being called the Slasher. Indeed, if the translators had wanted to fix a more modern name for him, then Umberto Eco had already run with “the Ripper” in his 1979 analysis of the novel.
As I fume over this, I come to regard many of the 2015 changes as being gratuitous. Perhaps, I sneer, the intention is to shake down the old prose into a more appropriately journalistic plainness. I note how one chapter title, “Castles in the Air,” is flattened to “Wishes.” In 1843, Rodolphe suavely tells Fleur-de-Marie that “we should never find fault with an oversupply of happiness,” whilst in 2015 he is made to belch that “you can never have enough happiness.” Even today, the choice remains that between Harpers’ lowbrow and the New World’s highbrow.
2015 nonetheless splashes out a few more generous fingers of realism for us. In one philosophical scene, 1843 reports merely that “the countenance of the Goualeuse became still more saddened,” whereas 2015 confirms that, “despite the glass of brandy she had drunk, Songbird did not recover her cheerfulness…”
A tentative comparison between the original, the 1843 translation that I had read, and the 2015 one, appears to show that 1843 is the odd book out. An interesting window into the priorities of the 1843 translator is offered in the scene in which various rustics deliberate over the goodliness of David, a black doctor. Claudine asserts that, “a doctor with a black face is enough to terrify any one – I should scream myself into fits if he were to come rolling up the great whites of his eyes at me.” In 2015, this is rendered as “I still think a black doctor has something frightening about him.” The eyes rolling up were indeed never contained within the original. Neither was Claudine’s vividly racist horror of meeting a black man when she is ill, the description of her as being “fairly hunted into a corner from which no argument could rescue her,” nor her continued protest that “black skin is so very ugly to look at…” Her foolishness is not placed under such a piercing spotlight and its correction duly carries diminished force.
When it is clunkily reasoned that “this clever, kind, and charitable man is a black, but his heart is white and good,” this too is an embellishment. One gains the impression that 1843 is taking needless pains and being excessively helpful. It could be that the freestyling translator was simply garrulous – it could be that he was under some commercial pressure to bump up the word count – or, more intriguingly, it could be that The Mysteries was here translated by an especially eager opponent of slavery.
My biggest bugbear is still with the names. The 1843 translator had anglicised Rodolphe’s name by severing the E, which perhaps makes it sound more Germanic, though they had otherwise stuck with the Chourineur’s and the Goualeuse’s original French monikers. In 2015, these two are kitted out with new names that make them sound like bit players from a Batman episode (“the Slasher” and “the Songbird”). The translators reasonably insist that their use of nicknames is in keeping with Sue’s affinity with James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826) and that “leaving them untranslated would be the same as leaving ‘Pathfinder’ or ‘Hawkeye’ untranslated into French…”
One stroke of mischief is possibly attributable to Sue himself. 1843 had at least tidied Rodolphe’s faithful servant into “Sir Walter Murphy,” whereas 2015 drags us back to the lopsided “Sir Walter Murph.” Sue describes his character as “an English squire.” It is hardly a nuance of the British class system that English squires were not meant to have the commonest surname in Ireland. Either Sue was being extraordinary hapless when coining Murph or else he was trolling his English Protestant readers.
With 2015, we might remark that a somewhat less French English translation of The Mysteries has appeared during a period when modern languages are in unprecedented decline. Or rather, at a time when the stamp of reader who might wish to consult an obscure nineteenth-century French novel is less likely than ever to possess the necessary knowledge of French. It is hardly much of a leap from l’Ile du Ravageur to the Scavenger’s Island, but one senses that it is now still too far for many English readers.
The chief problem for translators of The Mysteries is that passages of dialogue are spoken in a criminal slang that the original French readers were meant to find alien and unfamiliar (in this respect, an untranslated copy would completely demoralise my straggling French). The mysteriousness of The Mysteries is thus literally a function of its prose. Rather than slowing down the narrative with complicated explanations, the 2015 translators decide “to find – sometimes to invent – slang terms in English that retained, as much as possible, the implications of the French argot.”
Some of these dilemmas about translating The Mysteries have been offloaded on to me and my own readers. If I go with “the Slasher,” rather than “the Chourineur,” then French readers, who will naturally use the original names, are going to struggle to find my articles on internet search engines. I will be consequently writing about a major work of French literature for the exclusive readers of a single recent translation. This is hardly satisfactory. On the other hand, sticking with “the Chourineur” will address my writing to the few English readers who have not read this work’s latest and most widely available edition.
So, in this moment of decision, the Slasher and the Chourineur have whipped out their blades and they are skirmishing in the dust. “Leave off, gentlemen! I’ll toss a Euro for you. Let’s say heads the Slasher, tails the Chourineur.”
It’s heads. What a relief!