DECEMBER 1, 2021
“ON THE MORNING of April 16, Doctor Bernard Rieux left his office and stumbled upon a dead rat in the middle of the landing. In the moment, he pushed the creature aside without much thought and continued down the stairs. But once he reached the street, it occurred to him that the rat didn’t belong there.”
Barely a half-dozen pages into Albert Camus’s novel The Plague, the stage set of everyday life begins to falter and fall into pieces. From Rieux’s first encounter with a dead rat — a bloated corpse bleeding in a place it had no business to be — the horror mounts. Soon, it is not one, not hundreds, but thousands of dying rats bursting from the city’s bowels, lurching across the streets and sidewalks, and collapsing next to the bloated and bleeding bodies of their dead brethren.
The sight of this rat fall was sickening, of course, but also unsettling, as if they were heralds of an unthinkable yet unstoppable fate crowding upon the city. “If only you could picture the shock in our little city,” Rieux observes, “overcome in a matter of days, like a healthy man whose thick blood suddenly revolts.” Very soon, the city’s residents begin to die from the same disease that devastated the rat population. Finally, the city officials, who had for too long blinded themselves to events, issue an emergency ordinance: “Declare a state of plague. Close the city.”
Nearly two years ago, when cities and countries across the globe began to close in the face of the novel coronavirus, interest in The Plague exploded. While sales of most fiction teetered during the first months of the pandemic, weekly sales of Albert Camus’s novel more than tripled in the United States. Sales also surged across Europe — tripling in Great Britain and Italy — as they did in Asia, with 360,000 additional copies printed in Japan while it became one of South Korea’s best-selling books. Even in France, a nation that can be especially hard on its writers, sales of the novel more than quadrupled in the spring and summer of 2020.
Not bad for a book its author at first dismissed as a dud. “I’ve the idea the book is a total failure,” Camus concluded upon completing the final draft in 1946. The following year, when in the first three months of publication 96,000 copies of this failure were snapped off the shelves of bookstores, Camus insisted in a radio interview that his “most popular books do not really reflect my thoughts or me.” In a letter to his friend Michel Gallimard, he sighed, “The Plague has more victims than I expected.”
Despite Camus’s ambivalence, countless readers have found the novel does reflect, in vivid and visceral fashion, their own thoughts. It did in 1947, and it does in 2021. How could it not? As we try to master our current plagues, viral and ideological, we want to forget what the book tells us we must not forget: “[T]he plague bacillus never dies or disappears.”
If it is true that every generation needs its own translation, it is past time that we had a new English version of The Plague. In part, this is because Stuart Gilbert’s 1948 version, the one read by countless English speakers, is less a translation of La Peste as it is a paraphrase — and a sloppy one at that.
There is nothing wrong with paraphrase, defined by John Dryden as the golden mean between the narrow path of metaphrase and the boundless plains of imitation. To paraphrase, for Dryden, is to translate with latitude: to keep the author “in view by the translator, so as never to be lost, but his words are not so strictly followed as his sense, and that too is admitted to be amplified, but not altered.”
Confident he was amplifying Camus’s language and meaning, Gilbert instead often altered them beyond recognition. In a recent review of the translation, Peter Carpenter reveals its many sins of commission and omission. While he notes the dropping of entire phrases and paragraphs — though he fails to mention that Gilbert also omitted the crucial epigraph from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe — Carpenter focuses on the textual mistakes and misrepresentations. Just as he did with his earlier translation of The Stranger, Gilbert “embroiders” the original language. In his effort to render the novel into English, Gilbert instead rends both its simplicity and beauty. So much so, Carpenter concluded in 2011, that “American and Canadian readers have yet to read the novel as Camus conceived it.”
Ten years later, we can finally read the work as Camus meant it to be read. Laura Marris’s new translation of The Plague is, quite simply, the translation we need to have. In her translator’s note, Marris writes that she “worked to restore Camus’s original restraint, so that a reader can feel the sincere emotion it provokes.” Her finished work is a marvel of clarity and poetry. Take, for instance, the closing of the novel, when the narrator reflects while his fellow men and women celebrate the end of the plague in their city.
Au milieu des cris qui redoublaient de force et de durée, qui se répercutaient longuement jusqu’au pied de la terrasse, à mesure que les gerbes multicolores s’élevaient plus nombreuses dans le ciel, le docteur Rieux décida alors de rédiger le récit qui s’achève ici, pour ne pas être de ceux qui se taisent, pour témoigner en faveur de ces pestiférés, pour laisser du moins un souvenir de l’injustice et de la violence qui leur avaient été faites, et pour dire simplement ce qu’on apprend au milieu des fléaux, qu’il y a dans les hommes plus de choses à admirer que de choses à mépriser.
Here is Gilbert’s take:
And it was in the midst of shouts rolling against the terrace walls in massive waves that waxed in volume and duration, while cataracts of colored fire fell thicker through the darkness, that Dr. Rieux resolved to compile this chronicle, so that he should not be one of those who hold their peace but should bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people; so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.
Gilbert never fails to replace clarity with clutter. Where there were shouts, there is now the waxing of massive waves; where there were fireworks there are now cataracts of colored fire; and where there was the decision to tell a story, there is now the decision to compile a chronicle. Where there wasn’t darkness, now there is. More importantly, where there were commas, there are now semicolons and colons, turning the passage’s spare yet lyrical clauses into a series of didactic bullet points. What was spare now sprawls, and what was simple now staggers.
In effect, Gilbert is a repeat offender: what he did to The Stranger he does to The Plague. In his 1989 translation of The Stranger, Matthew Ward revealed the novel’s original strangeness and wonder. Marris, in turn, uncovers The Plague’s original character. Consider her rendering of the full passage:
Amid the shouts that redoubled their force and their span, reverberating for a long time at the foot of the terrace as the multicolored bursts rose more frequently into the sky, Doctor Rieux decided to undertake the tale he concludes here, so he wouldn’t be one of those who keeps silent, so he could bear witness on behalf of those plagued people, to leave at least some memory of the injustice and the violence done to them, and to write simply about what can be learned in the middle of scourges, that there is more to admire in humans that there is to scorn.
There is more to admire in Marris’s rendition, too. Written to be read by all of us, not only “les hommes,” the entire translation reflects the restraint shown in the above passage. Marris gives us a work of simplicity that does not rewrite, but instead reveals the original text, as true to Camus’s meaning as to his means of expressing it. The work, in short, is marked no less by ethical than by artistic integrity.
When it comes to Camus, this is as it should be. For him, as for Rieux, there is a vital connection between morality and language. To express oneself clearly and truthfully is a moral duty. When Raymond Rambert, a Paris journalist, comes to Oran to report on the living conditions of the local Arab and Berber communities, he tries to interview Rieux. The doctor, who knows the wretchedness of their condition, asks Rambert if he “could tell the truth.” When the journalist demurs, Rieux refuses the interview. What else can he do, he explains, determined as he is “to refuse injustice and concessions.” At roughly the same time, Camus posed a question in his journal, “What is the ideal for a man prey to plague?” He then warns his imaginary interlocutor that others “will laugh at the answer.” It is, quite simply, “honesty.”
This same ethical imperative holds for Rieux’s comrades, in particular Jean Tarrou. He is forever scarred by his youthful experience of witnessing his father, who was a prosecutor, condemn a man to death. His father, Tarrou recalls, “growled immense sentences that kept on crawling forth like snakes” to hide the act’s enormity: separating a man’s head from his body. Ever since this experience, Tarrou came to understand that “all human sorrows came from not keeping language clear.” Sorrows we, too, have known over the past few years, in part from the repeated failure of public figures to keep language not just clear, but also attached to reality. As Rieux warns us, the sorrows born from twisted language will never go away for good, but as this new translation reminds us, that is no reason not to try to get words right.
Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. He is the author of numerous books and articles on French intellectual history. His latest, Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague, will by published by University of Chicago Press in April 2022.