Oct/Nov 2004 Book Reviews

Stendahl's The Red and the Black
Translated by Burton Raffel
The Modern Library Classic Paperbacks (2004) 524 pages

reviewed by Kevin McGowin


The standard English translation of Stendhal’s classic Le Rouge et le Noir, composed in 1830, has long been that of Margaret Shaw (1953), still available in the Penguin Classics edition. And it’s still the best, by far. When the cover of the present translation quotes Salon.com saying that this new translation "...blasts Stendhal into the twenty-first century," it fails to note that neither the statement nor the verb is complimentary. For early "Realist" though he was, Stendhal was not a writer of the twenty-first century but of the nineteenth, and any translation of this novel, in particular, must be sensitive to that.

Raffel is not incompetent—far from it—and his work is certainly well intentioned. Yet I don't choose Stendhal for my "summer reading" to feel like I'm reading bad Hemingway, which is how the book is rendered here. Gone is the suggestive fluidity and subtle suggestion of the French, so aptly translated by Ms. Shaw; in Raffel's translation, I feel as if I'm being repeatedly hit over the head with a blunt object.

No translation is ever exact or perfect, of course. And Mr. Raffel is simply trying to bring Stendhal to a new generation, as Richard Howard, the foremost American translator of French, did in 1999 with his surprise bestseller translation of the same author's The Charterhouse of Parma (1839; same American publisher, 2000). Say you know no French. Try this: read the first three pages of Howard's Stendhal, and the first three of Raffel's. Could two works of the same length written by the same author in the same decade be this different?

No. See, Howard, as always, captures the tone of the prose; Raffel is more literal. This may work with a later author like Balzac, but not Stendhal, who was still, ever so subtly... a Romantic.

And okay, one more very, very simple example, which may seem minor, but try it for 500 pages. Mind you that I am not an "expert," per sé, and I do not read huge French novels in French. Okay? Yet I am not entirely ignorant of the language, which I did learn from reading children's books in French as a child, and I've spent time writing in Paris, and it was great, and the people were very kind.

Here is the third sentence of the second paragraph of the novel in the original:

Un torrent, qui se précipite de la montagne, traverse Verrières avant de se jeter dans le Doubs et donne le mouvement à un grand nombre de scies à bois; c'est une industrie fort simple et qui procure un certain bien-être à la majeure partie des habitants plus paysans que bourgeois.

Here it is in Raffel:

A stream that rushes down from the mountains, crossing through Verrières and then pouring itself into the Doubs, powers a good many sawmills—an immensely simply industry that provides a modest living for its inhabitants, more peasant than bourgeois.

Okay. I could nitpick with single words, but I won't. The comma and the semi-colon are growing fast out of fashion in English, but they're essential to form and content in the nineteenth-century French novel. Shaw follows the French perfectly.
And one final problem, this to do with the publisher—aside from the tasteless new cover (see RandomHouse.com), their "reader's guide presents this as the final item:

15. Stendhal's style—the way he writes—is almost magically effective. The very rhythms and shapes of his sentences help him to evoke the fullest possible shades of meaning. What stylistic role is played by Stendhal's choice of individual words? What kinds of words does he favor? What kinds does he shun? Is he consistent in such matters? Who—if anyone—does his style seem to resemble, in any significant way(s)?

—No bleeping comment, guys.


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