We’re most likely all familiar with Albert Camus, but it hides a dilemma. Between “The Outsider” and “The Stranger” yes.
We’re most likely all familiar with Albert Camus’s novel, but it hides a dilemma.
If we didn’t read it, we heard someone mention it. Or we have seen it listed in a school or college curricula.
But what you may not know is that within the novel’s first sentence, hides a language riddle. A problem many literary translators have faced and, in the opinion of many, failed. The waters divide in two. Between “The Outsider” and “The Stranger” yes. But most importantly, two subtle and seemingly minor translation decisions in the very first phrase that have the power to change the way we read everything that follows.
Albert Camus was a French novelist, essayist, and playwright. He is best known for his novels The Stranger (1942), The Plague (1947), and The Fall (1956). He won the Nobel Prize for Literature, much to his surprise at the moment. And was recognized for his clear-sighted earnestness with which he illuminated the problems of the human conscience.
L’Étranger, the piece we are focusing on, was published in the U.S. under the title The Stranger, and in Britain as The Outsider. This novel is a study of 20th-century alienation with a portrait of an “outsider” condemned to death for shooting an Arab. But in reality, for saying what he genuinely feels and refusing to conform to society’s demands.
Outsider, stranger or foreigner?
These words carry three associated but nevertheless distinct meanings: the stranger, the foreigner and the outsider. And none of them truly represent the meaning of the original word. An étranger can mean a foreign national, an alienated outsider or an unfamiliar traveler. Which is best?
Let’s go over a few definitions (since the foreigner wasn’t as acclaimed, we’ve left it out):
- One who is not part of a community or organization.
‘While the initiated easily understand the symbols, they are wholly inaccessible to outsiders.’;
- One not belonging to the concern, institution, party, etc., spoken of; one disconnected in interest or feeling.
- A person whom one does not know; a person who is neither a friend nor an acquaintance.
‘That gentleman is a stranger to me.’; ‘Children are taught not to talk to strangers.’;
The Outsider proved itself the less popular choice. Probably due to the phonic similarity between ‘stranger’ and the original title. But back in the day, the outsider made sense for a different reason.
Some people believe it was called The Stranger in American editions, and The Outsider in British ones for political reasons. Theories went as far as to hypothesize that in the melting pot of New York, they had a more acute sense of foreignness that directed them towards The Stranger. While in class conscious Britain, social exclusion made more sense locally.
Though plausible, neither are correct. Cyril Connolly, the magazine editor and influential literary critic, brought attention to The Stranger immediately. By September 1945, he had also sent his complete manuscript to Knopf in the US with instructions and a title: The Stranger.
But, right after, Hutchinson called one of their Russian novels The Stranger.” So in Britain, the decision was made to name the novel The Outsider. Blanche Knopf was not happy. And readers were never informed that the two titles were an accident. And while political questions were not part of the original decision, the titles do lend themselves to conflicting political interpretations.
The problématique: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte”
But the star of this article, and of so many debates, is the opening of Albert Camus’s “L’Étranger”. The line goes “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.”
It was translated by many: Stuart Gilbert, Joseph Laredo, Kate Griffith, Matthew Ward. Some believe more understanding between author and translator would have prevented the text from being shifted in ways that Camus never intended. But many argue not. After all, we’ve had time to reflect upon this.
Stuart Gilbert, a British scholar and a friend of James Joyce,rendered the first line as “Mother died today.”
The two elements in discussion are the not discreet change from Maman to Mother. And the change in word order, where ‘today’ is no longer the first word, but the last. Why is this so tremendously relevant?
Meursault, the protagonist, is a very ambivalent character. A stranger to us. Not created to please. But his mother plays a big role in how we judge him. And her being called Mom, mother, mommy or Maman makes a difference. But it’s not so simple.
Nor “Mother” nor “Mommy” translate quite right. The first is somewhat detached. The second is childish. Meursault is none. The French word Maman hangs somewhere between the two. Many argue “Mom” is a good fit. Others argue there is something off-putting and abrupt about single-syllable words. For whichever reason, no one tried it.
What’s more, it wasn’t until 1988 that the line saw a single word changed. When poet Matthew Ward reverted “Mother” back to Maman. He found, in the end, the structure and etymology was close enough for it not to be translated, yet to be understood, and to portray familiarity and warmth. It also reminds readers that they are entering a world different from their own by the single use of a foreign word.
That being said. Why is the word order of “today” so important? And why didn’t they leave “Today, Mother has died”? Syntactically, “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte,” is not the most fluid English sentence. So literary translators adapted it.
But again, this is not how Meursault viewed the world. This etranger is a character who, first and foremost, lives for the moment. He doesn’t dwell nor worry about the future. Time is a heavy motif throughout the novel. It’s not an accessory. So many believe that Camus’s intent was for time to come before the action itself in this first sentence. “Today” comes between Meursault and his mother’s death.
The sentence, and the answer to the “L’Étranger” riddle, therefore is brought forward finally as: “Today, Maman died.”
Do you have any literary translations in mind? Call our language experts at Stillman.