Due to questions about the merits of one translation over another, and just how much the Vizetellys chopped from the original Zola novels in the Rougon-Macquart cycle, I decided to write a post comparing passages from Zola’s L’Assommoir. I’d say L’Assommoir is one of the naughty ones, and that means the 19th century censors probably had a whooping fun time tutting over it while slyly slobbering over the salacious bits.
The first quote is from the copy I read. It’s published by Oxford World Classics, and the translator is Margaret Mauldon. In the section “notes on the translation,” Mauldon states:
L’Assommoir is a notoriously difficult text to translate. No translation, however faithful its rendering of the novel’s gutter slang and obscenities, could possibly recreate the impact of that language on the nineteenth century reader.
That gives it away right there: gutter slang and obscenities. Now we’re talking….
When I started the reading the series, I found that the Vizetelly translations were dismissed as “bowdlerized,” and this was discouraging. I almost didn’t want to bother reading the cycle since so many of the novels were only available in the Vizetelly versions.
Most of what I’ll term the ‘better‘ novels in the series have been translated–some more than once, and a couple of new translations appeared since I started reading the cycle in 2007 ( I finished in 2010). Fortunately, I didn’t let myself be put off by the Vizetelly translations. I should add here that I read other translations when available, but if the Vizetelly version was the only thing out there, then that’s what I read. BTW, when I started reading the Rougon-Macquart series, I thought Vizetelly translations were altered on some whim, but a bit of digging told me that the Vizetelly family paid dearly for their commitment to publish Zola. Discovering how they were dragged into court on obscenity charges put a different light on the subject. Henry Vizetelly was even sent to prison for his ‘crime.’
So here we have it: some books in the cycle are ONLY available in Vizetelly. Be grateful for what you can get. If you can read another translation, then I strongly encourage it. And here to make a point are two comparison quotes from L’Assommoir. As a matter of explanation, Gervaise operates a laundry. She’s married to Coupeau who’s turned to booze following a roofing accident. Coupeau strikes up an unfortunate relationship with Gervaise’s ex-lover Lantier, and he moves into the household. Both men lay around while Gervaise slaves away, and eventually both men have sex with Gervaise who simply becomes worn down and lacks resistance.
I compared the Mauldon translation with the Vizetelly version that’s FREE on my kindle. Here’s Mauldon:
Gervaise, meanwhile, was quite untroubled on this score, because such filthy ideas never crossed her mind. It even came to the point where she was accused of being cold-hearted. The family couldn’t understand why she was so down on Lantier. Madame Lerat, that inveterate meddler in affairs of the heart, now dropped in every evening; Lantier’s attractions were irresistible she declared, and even the poshest of ladies would fall eagerly into his arms. As for Madame Boche, had she been ten years younger, she wouldn’t have answered for her virtue. An unacknowledged but relentless conspiracy was spreading and spreading, slowly pushing Gervaise towards him, as if all the women around her must satisfy their own need by giving her a lover.
Here’s the Vizetelly version (from my Kindle)
Gervaise lived quietly indifferent to, and possibly entirely unsuspicious of, all these scandals. By and by it came to pass that her husband’s own people looked on her as utterly heartless. Mme Lerat made her appearance every evening, and she treated Lantier as if he were utterly irresistible, into whose arms each and every woman would be only too glad to fall. An actual league seemed to be forming against Gervaise: all the women insisted on giving her a lover.
Just one paragraph but the first has quite a different implication and addresses the idea that Gervaise’s sex life is a matter of scandal but also that she’s a surrogate for the unsatisfied sexual appetites of her female acquaintances. Sex is in the air and not just for Gervaise.
Here’s a second quote. The incident takes place when Gervaise and Lantier return home to find Coupeau drunk. It’s an important scene as Gervaise has so far resisted Lantier’s advances, and on this night her bed is fouled by Coupeau’s vomit:
‘Christ Almighty!’ muttered Lantier when they were inside. ‘Whatever’s he been doing? The stink’s revolting.’
And indeed it stank to high heaven. Gervaise who was hunting for matches, kept stepping in something wet. When she finally managed to light a candle, a pretty spectacle lay before them. Coupeau had vomited his guts out; the room was covered in vomit; the bed was plastered with it, the carpet too, and even the chest of drawers was splashed. And what’s more Coupeau had fallen off the bed where Poisson must have dumped him and was lying right in the middle of his filth, snoring. He was sprawled in it, wallowing like a pig, with one cheek all smeared, breathing foul breath through his open mouth, while his already greying hair brushed the puddle surrounding his head.
‘Oh, the swine, the swine!’ Gervaise kept repeating, fuming with indignation. ‘He’s got everything in a muck … No, not even a dog would have done that, a dying dog’s cleaner than that.’
They neither of them dared move or take a step. Never before had the roofer come home so pissed or got the room into such an unspeakable state. Consequently, the sight was a harsh blow to any feeling his wife might still have for him. In the past, when he’d come home just a bit tiddly or absolutely plastered. she’d been sympathetic rather than disgusted. But this, this was too much; her stomach was heaving. She wouldn’t have touched him with a barge pole. The mere thought of that lout’s skin close to hers was as repugnant to her as if she’d been asked to lie down beside a corpse that had died of some foul disease.
A powerful passage indeed. Now here’s the Vizetelly version thanks to the censors:
Gervaise stood aghast at the disgusting sight that met her eyes as she entered the room and saw where Coupeau lay wallowing on the floor.
She shuddered and turned away. This sight annihilated every ray of sentiment remaining in her heart.
Not much comparison. So again: if there’s a newer translation of Zola out there grab it. Most of the Rougon-Macquart novels that lack a newer translation are the lesser novels (exceptions in my view and those in dire need of re-translation are The Conquest of Plassans, Money and His Excellency). And don’t blame the Vizetellys. Blame prudery.