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Tue Apr 21, 2020, 08:15 AM

"From below, from basements, from cellars, from sewers they rose..."

As I've remarked a few times in this space, in this lockdown I'm translating Camus' La Peste (The Plague) from French into English, appropriate in these times.

I found this paragraph - presaging the coming human plague, where he describes massive numbers of rats crawling of from under the city dying - despite being grotesque, to be quite evocative and profoundly metaphorical, and in some ways, relevant, more than half a century after Camus's work was published, to the "rise" of Repuplicans in Washington.

My translation:

But in the days that followed, the situation worsened. The number of rodents picked up was increasing and every morning the harvest was more abundant. On the fourth day, the rats began to come out to die in groups. From below, from basements, from cellars, from sewers they rose, stumbling in long lines to waver in the light, wobbling, turning on themselves and dying close to people. In the night, in the alleys or in corridors, one could hear their distinct cries of agony. In the morning, in the suburbs, one found them spread among themselves in the gutters, a small bloom of blood on their snouts, some swollen and putrid, others stiff and with their whiskers still erect. In the city, one encountered them in small heaps on the landings or in courtyards. They also came alone to die in administrative halls, on the terraces of cafes, sometimes in school yards. Our stupefied citizens found them in the busiest places. The Army square, the boulevards, the boardwalk by the sea, now and then were fouled. Cleaned at dawn of the dead animals, the city found them again in larger and larger numbers during the day. On the sidewalks, more than once an evening pedestrian would feel the squishing mass of a fresh dead corpse beneath his feet. One could say that the very ground where our houses stood was purged of its charge of the putrescence allowed to rise to the surface in boils and pus, where heretofore, it had worked internally. One should imagine the shock to our little city, so peaceful until then, and then convulsed in a few days, like a man in good health whose blood took to coagulating in total revolt.

The original French:

Mais dans les jours qui suivirent, la situation s’aggrava. Le nombre des rongeurs ramassés allait croissant et la récolte était tous les matins plus abondante. Dès le quatrième jour, les rats commencèrent à sortir pour mourir en groupes. Des réduits, des sous-sols, des caves, des égouts, ils montaient en longues files titubantes pour venir vaciller à la lumière, tourner sur eux-mêmes et mourir près des humains. La nuit, dans les couloirs ou les ruelles, on entendait distinctement leurs petits cris d’agonie. Le matin, dans les faubourgs, on les trouvait étalés à même le ruisseau, une petite fleur de sang sur le museau pointu, les uns gonflés et putrides, les autres raidis et les moustaches encore dressées. Dans la ville même, on les rencontrait par petits tas, sur les paliers ou dans les cours. Ils venaient aussi mourir isolément dans les halls administratifs, dans les préaux d’école, à la terrasse des cafés, quelquefois. Nos concitoyens stupéfaits les découvraient aux endroits les plus fréquentés de la ville. La place d’Armes, les boulevards, la promenade du Front-de-Mer, de loin en loin, étaient souillés. Nettoyée à l’aube de ses bêtes mortes, la ville les retrouvait peu à peu, de plus en plus nombreuses, pendant la journée. Sur les trottoirs, il arrivait aussi à plus d’un promeneur nocturne de sentir sous son pied la masse élastique d’un cadavre encore frais. On eût dit que la terre même où étaient plantées nos maisons se purgeait de son chargement d’humeurs, qu’elle laissait monter à la surface des furoncles et des sanies qui, jusqu’ici, la travaillaient intérieurement. Qu’on envisage seulement la stupéfaction de notre petite ville, si tranquille jusque-là, et bouleversée en quelques jours, comme un homme bien portant dont le sang épais se mettrait tout d’un coup en révolution !

The more things change, the more they stay the same, n'est pas?.

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Reply "From below, from basements, from cellars, from sewers they rose..." (Original post)
NNadir Apr 21 OP
mercuryblues Apr 21 #1
Laelth Apr 21 #2
NNadir Apr 21 #3
Laelth Apr 21 #4
NNadir Apr 21 #5
Laelth Apr 21 #6
NNadir Apr 21 #7
Laelth Apr 21 #8
lindysalsagal Apr 21 #11
lindysalsagal Apr 21 #9
NNadir Apr 21 #10

Response to NNadir (Original post)

Tue Apr 21, 2020, 08:30 AM

1. Swap out rat for MAGAt and you are onto something

They are self fulfilling a prophesy.

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Response to NNadir (Original post)

Tue Apr 21, 2020, 08:39 AM

2. Nice translation.

Might I suggest replacing the word, putrescence, above, with the word, rot?

Very apropos.


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Response to Laelth (Reply #2)

Tue Apr 21, 2020, 08:55 AM

3. I took some liberty with this word in the translation already.

The French word is "humeurs." This refers to the historical belief in medieval times in the theory of "humours" which argued that disease was the result of an imbalance of fluids in the body.

Camus' novel is not historical - there was an outbreak of the plague in Oran in the 19th century, about a century before he wrote the novel but not in the 1940s - but of course, the bubonic plague had decimated Europe, the Middle East and Asia in medieval times, when this theory held the most sway. (There was a medieval French physician who actually took a view more consistent with modern theories of disease with respect to the plague as I recall, but his name escapes me.) I feel that he may have been referring to that theory in choosing that word; perhaps I'm wrong.

In other parts of the novel, Camus mocks a character, a writer who cannot finish anything because he is always searching for exactly the right word. I wonder if it was self-mockery, because writing is very, very difficult, and I have to believe that he was also very careful with his choice of words and sometimes agonized over them.

Pus was believed to be evidence of "humours" in this medieval theory of disease. The French word "humeurs" can literally translated as "mood," and thus in some sense is a double entendre, but I have chosen putrescence, with some liberty, trying to interpret what I think Camus may have meant.

It is not easy to translate such a magnificent writer as Camus, one feels almost profane in doing it, but this is my best thought on the subject. Every translation, even a good one, loses something.

Thanks for your suggestion, but in my translation, I'm going to leave it "putrescence" for the reasons I stated.

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Response to NNadir (Reply #3)

Tue Apr 21, 2020, 08:59 AM

4. Clearly, you have thought about it.

Just adding my 2 cents. Perhaps “stench?” “Putrescence” just doesn’t roll off the tongue in English.

Either way, you have produced a lovely, and highly ambitious, translation.



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Response to Laelth (Reply #4)

Tue Apr 21, 2020, 11:41 AM

5. Thank you for your kind words.

Perhaps an awkward, jarring, ugly word is appropriate here though.

Appreciating your suggestion, I think I'll leave it as it is.

I don't want to stray too far from the original text to be more poetic; I already may have gone too far.

The pleasure of translating this work is that you really have to think about it on a much deeper level than if you merely read it, so I appreciate your reflections.

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Response to NNadir (Reply #5)

Tue Apr 21, 2020, 12:57 PM

6. You have my respect for even attempting Camus.



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Response to Laelth (Reply #6)

Tue Apr 21, 2020, 03:47 PM

7. I am hardly an expert in the French language, but to me his writing seems more straight...

...forward than other French texts I've attempted. Occasionally there will be a sentence that's very complex, but being a writer as great as he clearly was, he was able to execute these trenchant sentences that remain highly evocative. Camus is actually easier than some French to which I've been exposed; and he's certainly easier than anything I've ever tried to translate from German.

It's a silver lining on the Covid cloud for me, that I was inspired to look again at this text and that my son, now being educated in classes that moved online and who thus has come to live with us as his university has shut, was home to encourage me to go back to reading French texts, which I have not done for many years. Even when I was reading a fair amount of French, it wasn't for aesthetic purposes, it was business and scientific stuff.

It's easier to do this work with some help from the internet tools we have these days as well as help from my son; these give some short cuts since it's easy to get a better sense of the language. While computers mangle language, they do save time by suggesting things, and one can read many other examples in other texts simply by googling.

My son, who took lots of formal French in high school, where he was kind of the academic star in that discipline, learned very credible Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Italian and a few other languages that I may be forgetting that he speaks and reads just using internet tools and discipline. (He also learned to play the piano at a fairly high level off the internet.)

I actually haven't read literary works since I was a kid; everything until now has been technical stuff or history. I probably read the Gilbert translation of "The Plague" thirty or forty years ago. Looking at it now, that translation doesn't strike me as being as good as it might have been.

I am astounded by the spare and in many ways frightening beauty of this exercise, the magnificence of Camus' work, particularly this work in this time, and I'm very glad I was inspired to do this.

Every time I really end up getting my head around the text, I'm kind of in awe of Camus. The brilliance is overwhelming.

It's exceedingly powerful stuff, and quite timeless.

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Response to NNadir (Reply #7)

Tue Apr 21, 2020, 04:06 PM

8. German is vastly more difficult, admittedly.

Theoretically, I am competent in both French and German translation pursuant to the requirements of my Ph.D. program, but the truth is that my German professor took it easy on me and passed me on a terrible translation of Nietzsche’s “Die Nasten.” German is much, much harder than French.

Obviously, linguistic skills run in your family. I am certain that you are very proud of your son. My elder daughter I convinced to study Spanish—mercifully, because it’s so useful. My younger daughter, however, insisted upon French. I steered them both away from German.


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Response to Laelth (Reply #8)

Tue Apr 21, 2020, 05:18 PM

11. Nein. German is quite easy.

You learn the verbs and then all the little nouns, and you just mash everything together into great big long words.

Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän, In English, it becomes four words: "Danube steamship company captain."

Donau : danube river
dampfschif: steam
fahrts: ship (travel)
gesellschafts: company

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Response to NNadir (Original post)

Tue Apr 21, 2020, 05:14 PM

9. Sounds better in french.

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Response to lindysalsagal (Reply #9)

Tue Apr 21, 2020, 05:16 PM

10. I agree. No translation can do justice to it. n/t.

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