Friday, January 20, 2012

Forgotten Books: The Three Musketeers (2006)

When this translation of The Three Musketeers came out in 2006, it was heralded as being the most accurate version ever, and for supposedly restoring some spicy bits censored by earlier translators. I was intrigued, of course, and with a new film version out (which I still have yet to see) this seemed a good time give it a read.

Well, I’m sure it comes as no surprise to hear this is still a great book. But as for Richard Pevear’s translation, I’m less than impressed. In his introduction, he crows that his is the most literal translation of Dumas’ words, and scorns earlier translators who took too many liberties.

Trouble is, a translator walks a fine line between content and style. Sure, you want to be true to the original author’s intent, but you should also convey some of the writer’s style. To do that, you have to be more than a translator, you must be a writer yourself, and that’s where Pevear falls short. His version lacks the rhythm and grace found in most earlier translations.

The trouble with critiquing a translation, of course, is that I can’t read French, so I don’t know if Dumas had that rhythm and grace or not. All I know is that several earlier translators told the story with more style. Pevear’s prose is flat and pedestrian. I’ll take his word for it that he’s an accurate translator, but I saw no evidence that he's a writer.

As for the spicy bits, I couldn’t find any. Pevear says that the removal of explicit and implicit references to sexuality in one earlier translation “makes the rendering of certain scenes between d’Artagnan and Milady, for instance, strangely vague." Well, guess what? They’re still vague. There’s no sex, explicit or implicit, in Pevear’s version either. D’Artagnan spends a couple of nights in her presence, and we still don’t know if they did the deed or not.

One thing I didn’t know - or had forgotten: Dumas wrote the novel as a newspaper serial. I think he knew where he was going for the first half of the book, telling the story of the queen’s diamonds and d’Artagnan’s trip to England to save her honor. But after that, I suspect he was making things up as he went along. At the mid-point, the story loses focus and our heroes wander aimlessly about in search of another plot. Eventually they find one, in a grudge match against Miladay, and reach a satisfying conclusion, but there are huge chunks that could be cut out without loss to the story. In that second half, a bit more rhythm and grace (which Dumas likely had) would have helped a lot.


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Anonymous said...

This is an edition I'd not seen before.

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Oscar Case said...

The mention of titillating parts not included before was probably to encourage more sales.