Albert Camus: the dazzle of translated words
Author Albert Camus wrote, of course, in the French language and unfortunately my proficiency in that tongue is not good enough to discuss him in his native dialect. You might argue therefore that it’s not very sensible to consider his work on a blog dealing with English words, but I would suggest otherwise. Specifically, it’s interesting to look at a couple of translated versions of his works (rendered in English by Stuart Gilbert in Penguin Modern Classics editions) and consider his use of language in the context of his subject matter. As both books are interpreted by the same translator it’s possible to compare the styles used to capture the type of narrator in each work.
Camus was born in French Algeria of parents with Alsatian and Spanish heritage, and the setting for his most famous books, The Outsider or The Stranger (L’Etranger) and The Plague (La Peste) is the land of his birth. The former book is the one most readers will have heard of, and Camus’ use of language in the work is inventive and an intrinsic part of the narrative. The lead character Meursault’s speech and narrations reflects his personality; the coldness of his nature is reflected in the flat, matter of fact account of his life. From the unemotional, almost indifferent, opening line “Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure” through to the end of the story, there is no change in his dispassionate viewpoint and Camus’ ability to capture personality through language is evinced in that one line.
A slightly world-weary voice
In his other great work The Plague the story is mostly told by one single unnamed participant in the action, whose identity is not revealed until the end. Again, Camus brilliantly captures a slightly world-weary voice, someone who’s seen a lot of life; there is an attempt at detachment from the book’s main character, but the language betrays the man’s basic humanity with a warmth that isn’t present in The Outsider. In fact, the specific style of the narrator seems to me to give away his identity and I suspect anyone reading the book closely would have a good idea of who is telling the tale well before the end.
An important factor that connects these books is that they are told in the first person so use of language is vital to the success of the storytelling and how the reader relates to the book. That first person narrative with its use of a particular style of language gives the account an immediacy, which works well in The Outsider where the viewpoint is solely that of Meursault and the words need to convey the detachment of his character. However, Camus stretches his use of language a little in The Plague to include wider viewpoints from other characters like Tarrou, with quotations from his journal, and this allows the author to inject that warmer, less detached voice. These extra individual personas add variety to the narrative, allowing Camus to use language as a tool to reveal the personalities of those trapped in the plague town.
An obsession with language gone wrong
Interestingly, Camus not only makes use of a particular type of language to communicate to the reader the kind of person his narrator is; in The Plague, he also features a character who finds it particularly difficult to express himself and has an ongoing struggle with words throughout the book. Grand, a lonely clerk, has ambitions to write and spends all his spare time endlessly refining and rewriting the opening sentence of his magnum opus. He is incapable of deciding the perfect form of his story and seems doomed never to complete it. This continuous battle with the written word is perhaps an illustration of an obsession with language gone wrong; or could perhaps be symbolic of the failure of language to ever completely communicate. This failure is also picked up by the author through the character of Dr Rieux; attempting to write a letter to his wife, he finds that the words cannot express his feelings and are completely inadequate to impart what he and the other townsfolk have been going through. In extreme circumstances, language is of no use at all.
The white heat of Algeria
As I mentioned earlier, both of these books are set in Algeria and the location itself is pivotal to the stories. One of the most striking uses of language in both books is in the descriptions of climate; in each, the blinding sun and heat of the middle of the day dazzles the characters almost beyond endurance.
The description is full of words like shimmer, dazzle, blaze, and bright, which emphasize the extremity of the Algerian climate. And in The Outsider this brightness plays a pivotal role in Meursault’s actions, becoming what he claims as the main factor in his killing of the stranger at the beach. Phrases like ‘sun-drenched countryside’, ‘that blue-white glare overhead’, and ‘the dazzling impact of the light’ recur through the novels, reinforcing the stark harshness of the landscape and the almost hostile nature of the sun, which is described in The Plague as having ‘stalked our townsfolk’. Again, Camus’ use of language is striking and gives the landscape and climate a life and a force of its own within the story.
Considering these two books in terms of the kind of narrative their words provide made me really appreciate the work that went into rendering them in English. It’s a tribute to the skill of the translator that they can carry these differences into a version in a different language which still retains a distinctive voice, together with the individual characters of each protagonist. Camus proved to be an expert at using language and words to communicate the personality and temperament of his main players so it’s no surprise he’s still such a highly regarded author!