A SLIGHTLY WARMER FISH

Found in Translation: Simon Willis applauds a new version of Albert Camus's most confrontational novel...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2012

AUTHOR ALBERT CAMUS
ENGLISH TITLE THE OUTSIDER
ORIGINAL TITLE L'ETRANGER (1942)
ORIGINAL LANGUAGE FRENCH
TRANSLATOR SANDRA SMITH

Existentialism had its great theorist in Sartre and its great novelist in Camus, and this is still the book students turn to when they need a fix of me-against-them. That's partly because Camus looked worth emulating—a rakish romantic to Sartre's goggle-eyed nymphomaniac—and partly because as a novel "The Outsider" is an attractive mix of pith and mystery. It has had several translators since Stuart Gilbert, who gave us the first English version in 1946. His opening line was "Mother died today", and as other translators followed suit it began to look indelible. But this new translation, by Sandra Smith, differs from the first word. The question it asks is how to talk when we talk about mothers.

She opens with "My mother died today", a small change which signals that Meursault, Camus's narrator and one of fiction's coldest fish, might not be quite as cold as usual. Throughout the rest of the novel, he refers to "mama" instead of "mother". This isn't just a question of what the French word maman means. After he shoots an Arab on the beach, Meursault's fate in court rests largely on the question of whether or not he loved his mum. He won't give anything away, which is where both his problem and his heroism lie. In 1955 Camus described Meursault as a man who refuses to play the game—a refusal which, as the terms get more affectionate, feels more potent.

This version doesn't have quite the terse elegance of earlier translations, but with a few deft choices, Sandra Smith has made the battle lines between Meursault and the world starker. She's given a subtle twist to an old story.

Simon Willis is apps editor of Intelligent Life

The Outsider Penguin, out now