Rereadings: A Dumas First Chapter in Translation(s)

May 7, 2010 at 12:00 am 23 comments

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!


Entry filed under: Classics, Rereadings. Tags: , , , , .

Discussion Post: The Old Curiosity Shop Weekly Geeks: Secret pasts and peculiar presents

23 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KT  |  May 7, 2010 at 7:29 am

    Moral of the story: Penguin always wins. ALWAYS.

    This was SO interesting! I have been thinking about adding Dumas to the Classics Challenge, and I might have to try the Pevear translation. Am I correct in thinking this book is absolutely massive, though?

    • 2. Corey  |  May 7, 2010 at 9:02 am

      Yeah, pretty much accurate. : )

      I’m so glad you liked the post! Dumas would be great for the Challenge if only, as you say, he were shorter. Georges is the shortest Dumas I’ve ever encountered; all his other books tend towards lengthiness. He does have some plays, though, and some nonfiction travel writings, so maybe those would be Challenge-appropriate? (Sidebar: Don’t even think about Monte Cristo for the Challenge! It took me weeks and weeks including a trans-Atlantic flight and some empty summer vacation days to finish it! It’s good, but soooo long.)

  • 3. Natalie  |  May 7, 2010 at 8:05 am

    What a great experiment! I never gave much thought to translations until I read Heaney’s Beowulf in early high school. Reading such an amazing translation made me understand instantly why I hated Russian novels: I had been reading my mother’s ancient translations, and they were horrible! (I’ve since discovered that subsequent readings of better translations haven’t improved my opinion of most Russian literature, but that’s neither here nor there.) Ever since, I’ve researched translations before reading non-English books. I’ve never done a head-to-head comparison before, but I may have to try it. It sounds like fun!

    • 4. Corey  |  May 7, 2010 at 9:04 am

      Thanks! Translation is something that’s bothered me for quite some time, but I’d never put two-and-two together for Dumas, so to speak. Weirdly, I never considered him in translation until this post!

      Heh, Russian novels. Which ones were you reading? I’ve only ever read Anna Karenina (which spurred quite a bit of translation angst) and whatever short stories were assigned in AP Lit. I loved Anna, but I don’t see myself attempting War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov anytime soon!

      • 5. KT  |  May 7, 2010 at 1:45 pm

        Was there something about a Russian man in an overcoat assigned in AP Lit? I’m having a weird partial recollection.

      • 6. Natalie  |  May 9, 2010 at 12:46 pm

        I know I attempted Anna Karenina but I can’t remember which others… I would pick up a book and slog through a couple of chapters, then throw it down, exhausted from the slogging. Then, a month or two later I’d feel guilty for stopping and for being a Bad Reader who couldn’t handle Russian novels and pick it up again, but I’d have to start over because I couldn’t remember what happened. I’d make it through three chapters, then peter out again. Sometimes I’d repeat the cycle and make it through a whole four chapters, but that’s about as far as I ever got.

        And this is the story of how I have never finished a Russian novel. :)

      • 7. Corey  |  May 10, 2010 at 5:11 am

        KT, yes! Something about a guy named Akaky Akakievich, am I right? I remember liking it so much (or at least so much more than Billy Budd).

        • 8. KT  |  May 10, 2010 at 9:36 pm

          YES. And he died in the end. Because…his overcoat was missing? Did he give it away? Augh!

        • 9. Corey  |  May 11, 2010 at 6:27 am

          I don’t remember! Ack! He does definitely die at the end, though, you’re quite right…by why…?!

      • 10. Corey  |  May 10, 2010 at 5:12 am

        Urgh, I know the feeling. There a few books that I’ve been slogging through like that (failing to remember what happened, having to start up again, vicious cycle…). I’ve gotten to the point where it isn’t worth it to torture myself (repeatedly!) through something if I just don’t like it. It’s not being a Bad Reader, I’ve decided, it’s being a Discerning Reader. ;)

  • 11. dailywordsandacts  |  May 8, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    What a great idea! I’ve seen other sites do similar things with Pevear and Volokhonsky’s War and Peace translation. I’ve always been so impressed with their work.

    • 12. Corey  |  May 10, 2010 at 5:13 am

      Thanks! It does seem to be the case that Pevear generally wins at translation!

      • 13. KT  |  May 10, 2010 at 9:36 pm

        He also translated my copy of Anna Karenina, which is impressive. Yay Pevear!

  • 14. Shannon  |  May 11, 2010 at 10:36 am

    Oh, I’m so glad you posted this — I was about to tackle The Three Musketeers. Now I know which translations to avoid. I just read The Count of Monte Cristo for the first time and loved it.

    • 15. Corey  |  May 13, 2010 at 9:05 am

      Terrific! I’m so glad this was helpful for you!

      I’ve only read the Count once but I definitely loved it, too. It was so much more complex (in a very good way) than I was expecting!

  • 16. Scott Avery  |  March 21, 2012 at 11:56 pm

    Hey Corey, I enjoyed and was intrigued by your Dumas sampling, excellent idea!

    I can’t imagine a novel I enjoyed more than Pevear’s “Musketeers”. I bought a nice new paperback in London (first week it came out in paper) and read it on holiday in the Czech Republic that summer. Wonderful!

    Have you read any of the sequels? Apparently the Oxford “Twenty Years After” is the Robson. There’s no translator info Gutenberg’s ebook. Don’t have much hope for more Pevear Dumas.

    • 17. Corey  |  March 29, 2012 at 11:23 am

      Glad you liked it! Reading the full Pevear is still on my list, lo these years later, sadly.

      In terms of the sequels, I read the Oxford “Twenty Years After” and “The Vicomte de Bragelonne,” but didn’t make it through “Louise de la Vallière.” I’m very frustrated with myself since I was so close to making it to The Man in the Iron Mask, which is supposed to be great. Have you read it by chance?

      In the meantime, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for more Pevear Dumas. :)

  • 18. Sarah Says Read  |  July 13, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    I was searching Google for something about which translation of The Three Musketeers would be the best and this helped A LOT. I heard really good things about the Pevear one, but I was worried that he might have modernized or dumbed it down too much. I’m going to go with that one! (This is my first time reading this novel.)

    Thanks so much for this post!

    • 19. Corey  |  July 15, 2013 at 10:46 am

      I’m delighted to hear this was helpful to you and I hope you enjoy the Pevear! It’s a marvelous novel and it’s always pleasantly surprising when a new translator gets it just right.

  • 20. Amir Ayat  |  December 22, 2015 at 3:23 am

    Thanks for sharing your reflections on these translation.

  • 21. Paul S.  |  June 10, 2016 at 5:56 pm

    I recently read The Three Musketeers in an Odhams Press edition from the 1930s which I have since ascertained is the Robson translation (originally published not in 1895 but 1853). I’ve now compared the opening paragraphs of Twenty Years After in Robson’s translation with a couple of others and found the same as yourself with the earlier book. There is a certain verve to his translation combined with his Victorian phraseology which I find highly enjoyable. However, a rather sniffy entry in the DNB says he translated various books “without much skill”. He lived from 1785 to 1863 and was a schoolmaster until over fifty. He then devoted himself to literature but eventually fell on hard times. The publisher Routledge raised a public subscription for him, but he died before enjoying the benefit of it. Still, I bet he has given more pleasure through his work than the DNB’s contributor!

    • 22. Corey  |  June 13, 2016 at 4:09 pm

      Whoa, “without much skill” — pretty harsh, DNB! Thanks so much for the background on Robson; I’d never read about him and always love to hear more about the lives behind literature. I am likewise happy to think that Robson has brought more happiness into the world than the clearly embittered DNB contributor. :)

  • 23. Ron D'Agostino. D.O.  |  April 12, 2017 at 1:37 pm

    I could read 10x the length of your great article. I just spent 1.5hr reading about trans of ttm and yours was the only art that compared and contra translators. The high-brow reviews of the pevear ed(e.g. New York Times ) spent the whole review with their trendy arch interpret of the story with virt no discuss of trans as such! I will certainly read your site hence.
    Respectfully, Ron


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