Rereadings: A Dumas First Chapter in Translation(s)
Since I am chronically having translation issues, I decided to take this rereading opportunity to look back at one of my favorite books (and one with many translations), The Three Musketeers. But I decided not just to reread the entire book. Instead, with Richard Pevear’s newest translation in hand, I wanted to reread the first chapter of the book in as many translations as I could find and see what difference it made to my enjoyment of it. Thus I set out chronologically in search of the first ever English translation of The Three Musketeers.
Happily, I soon found CadyTech’s wonderful website discussing editions and translations of Dumas’ book. From there, I learned that William Barrow’s translation was the first English one out there (first published in 1846), is still commonly published, and is in many circles considered the best version. Aside from Mr. Barrow’s work, I added a translation by William Robson from 1895 which is also frequently republished, the 1950 Lord Sudley translation currently popularized by Barnes and Noble, and, of course, the 2006 Pevear version touted by Penguin. Having thus found a translation from roughly once every fifty years since Les Trois Mousquetaires was first published in France, I decided I had enough chronological breadth to see the differences in translations and enough options to see which I liked best. I also had handy the original French text for the sake of a rough comparison.
I started with Mr. Barrow’s work (1846). This was hardly a pleasant experience. Mr. Barrow appeared to be tremendously fond of literal translation to the detriment of the text. In his desire to present what Dumas literally had written, Mr. Barrow utterly lost all feeling in the translation. Different languages, of course, have different grammatical constructions (see: Latin!) and Mr. Barrow forced the French construction into his English translation. Additionally, the copy I found was an Oxford Classics edition and thus Mr. Barrow’s lengthy and grammatically confusing sentences were further bogged down by incessant asterisks indicating more information or translation notes at the end of the book. There were three in the first sentence alone. On the whole, I was displeased and a little dizzied by Mr. Barrow’s translation.
I quickly moved on to the work of William Robson (1895). Mr. Robson, agreeably, was far less literal than Mr. Barrow and his text was thus greatly improved. His Three Musketeers managed to be both readable and enjoyable while maintaining a very close translation from the original Dumas. He carefully translated the work nearly-literally but wisely updated the grammar to be appropriate and understandable for English readers. Basically, the Robson translation made instant sense whereas each sentence in the Barrow translation took a few minutes to decipher. Additionally, Mr. Robson had a good flair for the adventuresome so his story zipped along with excitement while Mr. Barrow’s trudged with the weariness of having to translate so long a story. So far, Mr. Robson was in the lead.
So I fast-forwarded to the 1950 Lord Sudley edition. Lord Sudley’s translation, comparatively, was like cracking open the Reader’s Digest version of The Three Musketeers. While Mr. Robson had simplified Dumas’ French grammar, Lord Sudley completely watered everything down from sentence structure to vocabulary so I felt like it was version of the book adapted for elementary school students. He made sentences shorter and used simpler words; he removed any of Dumas’ asides (“let us do X,” etc.) and, for lack of a better phrase, dumbed down all references within the text. It was definitely easier to read and sped along, but it didn’t feel as honest. I didn’t feel like I was actually reading The Three Musketeers.
Thus with slight trepidation at the trend in translations (at this rate, the 2006 edition would a picture book!), I cracked open the Richard Pevear translation (2006). Remarkably, Mr. Pevear did the impossible: he was actually more literal than Mr. Barrow but more readable than Mr. Robson. It was the perfect mix! He updated some vocabulary, but never simplified like Lord Sudley, and his narrative proceeded in an entirely pleasing manner that was loyal to the Dumas text while also conforming to English grammatical constructs and the general adventurous tone of the story.
Since I was only reading the first chapter, I couldn’t judge whether or not the promises of the Pevear translation being saucier (no bowdlerization for us these days!) would be true, but I can say that I enjoyed the translation immensely based on the first chapter. If I had to choose, I would be somewhat torn between Mr. Robson’s and Mr. Pevear’s. I liked the more Victorian phrasing of the Robson, although the liveliness of the Pevear was also very enjoyable. Sadly, I think my original reading was of a Lord Sudley so in any event sometime soon I’m going to have to go back and read The Three Musketeers properly. Hey, this may even be a perfect time to exercise my rusty French and try Les Trois Mousquetaires! A girl can dream!