Lost In Translation And Existentialism

The Discrepancies Between The Stranger And L’étranger And An Existentialist Conversation

I sat down to read L’étranger for the first time a few springs ago, and every so often I reread the first few pages or chapters aloud.

The flow of …

Aujourd’hui maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.

Camus, Albert. L’étranger. Éditions Gallimard, 1942, p.1.

… is something that has burned into my memory.

Reading both the English and French version of the novel evokes vivid images and a world I constructed and fabricated so clearly sophomore year. Rereading the first few pages of this book had become an almost obsessive behavior, but it was comforting because it transported me to a world that paralleled a time in my life that felt hopeful and purposeful (which was somewhat ironic). I associated the way Meursault would hold a cigarette, the vast expanses of Algerian beaches, the bright lights of the funeral home, and the red sores of Salamano’s dog with the end of my sophomore year in an inextricable way.

When I picked up this book in English for the first time, I was off put. The same images that came with the rhythm of the French version that I had read aloud repeatedly ceased to appear. It was strange, so I would blink, and attempt to read again and conjure up the world of Meursault. I think that as I continued to read, but there was always a certain uneasiness that followed. Which maybe was an appropriate accompaniment for the book.

This anxiety that I am missing something surfaces everytime I read a book that I know was originally in a different language. Anna Karenina should be in Russian, Norwegian Wood should be in Japanese – what is slipping through the cracks of the language barrier that I will never be able to grasp? I trust modern translators, and I know that popular translations are meticulously constructed to preserve the original meaning. But I also know that there will always be something missing – which makes me want to learn more languages. But then I wonder if learning these languages outside of a native context will skew my understanding.

Nevertheless, last school year I hadn’t thought of Meursault for a while until 2020 had upturned all of our worlds in March.

Similarly, I recall turning to Huis Clos (No Exit) by Jean Paul Sartre in order to explain the absurdity and relentlessness that this year. I prominently recall a list of existentialist vocabulary that prefaced the play in our thin paperback copies.

L’absurde – Reality is absurd because we recognize our inability to explain its existence. The outside world exists without apparent justification, foundation or purpose.

La nausée – Nausea is the feeling of repulsion that takes us when we become aware of the absurdity of reality.

L’angoisse – Anguish is the normal condition of those who have become aware of their total liberty, and the fact that there are no universal values that can justify the choices they have made.

L’authenticité – A man who has grasped and accepted the fact that he is free, who has realized what his situation is, and who has, within that situation, chosen to engage himself in the world around him so as to affirm his liberty, is an authentic person.

Le choix – Man is condemned, because he is free, to choose what he is going to be, by his daily actions. This choice also implies the attitude of the Others and hence is another source of anguish.

La liberté – To be free is to recognize one’s complete independence; to make one’s own life through one’s own initiative; to reject any idea of absolute Good or absolute Evil and to accept no judge or mentor to save one’s own conscience.

I remember writing that I was overcome with la nausée while driving in my car, listening to Dreams by Fleetwood Mac last spring. I had taken to driving long distances with my Dad as a form of escapism. I would drive along rural highways and never get out of the car, and that gave me a lot of time to be pensive. I felt as if I was hit by something so large and overwhelming that is was indescribable. It sunk in my stomach like lead. And everything around me seemed to take on a new lens as irrelevant and frivolous. As a went through the sequence of trying to justify the turbulence that had uprooted my junior year (before March, I had also had a difficult and unusual year), I realized that searching only made it worse.

It was cringely nerdy, but I had to take out my copy of Huis Clos in order to explain and document this feeling that had overwhelmed me on the drive. I realized that this was la nausée, but this brutal experience had taken me one step closer towards la liberté. It was something I had to grapple with in order to move away from the brink of hopelessness. Which I sometimes fear removes its authenticity. I can’t use it was a means to escape something, because that is just as harmful. I think I am grappling with my relationship with l’absurde everyday, but not in too conscious a way. It is a balance that I will be trying to find for the rest of my life.

2 thoughts on “Lost In Translation And Existentialism

  1. I think that this is a really interesting topic. As someone who has only read the English language version, It leads me to wonder what I am missing. Some of my favorite books have been translated from other languages. What if I read them in their original language and didn’t like them? What if I loved them in their original language? It is like when you see a movie dubbed into English. Something seems off. The voice doesn’t match the person.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sam S

    Very interesting points. It’s interesting to consider some of the translation conundrums which you bring up. The role of the translator is, in some sense, not just a transcriber but an author in their own right. For some books perhaps it is appropriate to just maintain meanings but for others sometimes it is even more appropriate to preserve the rhythm even if it means sacrificing the meaning. Where and how that line is drawn (perhaps it is more of a blur than a line) is a questions that translators have grappled with for ages and continue to grapple with today. It’s interesting to consider, for instance, that Gayatri Spivak, a renowned modern philosopher, was brought to the international stage partly do to a translation of Derrida’s “On Grammatology,” an already gargantuan tasks before considering the fact that one of Derrida’s greatest strengths is the way he manipulates not just meaning but language itself to reveal new things.

    Liked by 1 person

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