Ryan Bloom has an interesting post over at the New Yorker on how to translate the first line of Camus’s L’etranger.  It’s good if you like to puzzle over the cultural and literary implications of translating even simple sentences, or if you like to mock those who do.

The line is Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.  The traditional translation is “Mother died today.”, which Bloom argues is doubly wrong: first, it misses the fact that maman is more colloquial, thus making the relationship seem colder than it is; second, it makes ‘today’ seem less consequential, which he thinks gets the novel’s themes wrong.  He prefers “Today, maman died.”

The comments section is even better, or worse, as a bunch of people throw out one suggestion after another, most of them a bit absurd.  A great translator can do wonders, but I suspect that most of these disputes matter less than one might think; they concern only a surface level of a book which is less important than the characters and themes and plot, which survive translation.  (It’s important in another way, in that the translator supplies the author’s voice in English and if it’s a mediocre choice it can put the reader off.  But I don’t think it can be claimed that people don’t sufficiently appreciate Camus.)

Many commenters disapproved of Bloom’s solution of retaining the French maman, and I tend to agree– it’s a copout.  For a francophone it preserves the nuance, but if you’re a francophone you read the book in French.  For an anglophone it says nothing.

(The main problem is that maman covers all of the ground from ‘Mommy’ to ‘Mom’ to ‘Mother’– with the result that none of these sound quite right.  Personally I’d go with Mama, which just seems to have the right feel to it; it’s old-fashioned but not jarringly so.)