Zola Translations

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.



Filed under Fiction, Rougon-Macquart, Zola

72 responses to “Zola Translations

  1. Impressive. And I thought Scott Moncrief’s translation of Proust was bowdlerized !! That’s nothing compared to this.
    I want to see the French text. Can you help me and tell me where these quotes are located in the book. (Shame on me I haven’t read L’Assomoir)
    How is your French doing? Have you tried Balzac in French? Many words look like English ones, you know, especially in classics.

    • You can find an eText in French at Project Gutenberg:

      It’s available in several formats, including ePub and Kindle.

    • Both quotes come from Chapter 8. The last quote is right before the end of the chapter.

      I bought a copy of Therese in both English and French, and I’ll get to it when I’ve finished a big project I’m currently working on. No I haven’t read Balzac in French. Oh the shame!

    • The first quote is about mid-way in Chapter VIII:
      Cependant, Gervaise vivait, tranquille de ce côté, ne pensait guère à ces ordures. Les choses en vinrent au point qu’on l’accusa de manquer de coeur. Dans la famille on ne comprenait pas sa rancune contre le chapelier. Madame Lerat, qui adorait se fourrer entre les amoureux, venait tous les soirs; et elle traitait Lantier d’homme irrésistible, dans les bras duquel les dames les plus huppées devaient tomber. Madame Boche n’aurait pas répondu de sa vertu, si elle avait eu dix ans de moins. Une conspiration sourde, continue, grandissait, poussait lentement Gervaise, comme si toutes les femmes, autour d’elle, avaient dû se satisfaire, en lui donnant un amant.

  2. An interesting tidbit about L’Assommoir is that the first five chapters were once published as a tract against alcohol.

  3. Guy, Madame Vauquier, thanks for the references. The first quote is of course better translated by Mauldon.
    It’s surprising I haven’t read this one at school: it’s one of the teachers’ favourite.
    PS : Madame Boche ? Is she a hateful character ? Boche is the French word for Jerry.

    • The Boches are nasty. But then most of the characters in the book are unpleasant to one degree or another. Madame Boche is a gossip but more than that she is part of the cohort who suck from Gervaise’s labour, & contribute, with glees, to her moral degradation and decline.

  4. Thank you for that – that was fascinating.

    My French is poor – far too poor to attempt to read an entire novel in the language. And, while I enjoy comparing translated passages of Flaubert to the original text, I have not tried that with Zola. My first encounter with Zola was back in the 1970s, when I read the Penguin Classics translation of “Germinal”, translated by Leonard Tancock. That was soon followed by Tancock’s translations of “L’Assommoir”, “La Bête Humaine”, and “La Débâcle” (all in Penguin Classics); and also the Penguin Classics editions of “Nana” (translated by George Holden) and of “La Terre” (translated by Douglas Parmée). These were all uniformly superb. I believe Penguin Classics have now withdrawn the Tancock versions (except for his translation of “La Débâcle”, which is still going strong), and have replaced them with newer translations (“Germinal” by Roger Pearson; “La Bête Humaine”, translated as “The Beast Within”, by Roger Whitehouse; and “L’Assommoir”, translated as “The Drinking Den”, by Robin Buss).

    Tancock believed that a translation ought to make the same impact on the modern Anglophone reader as the original text did on the French readers of Zola’s time. So, for instance, when Coupeau is suffering from delirium tremens and is having hallucinations, his speech is quite liberally peppered with four-letter f-words – not something one would normally expect to see in a volume of Penguin Classics! But it is certainly very powerful. Indeed, I have nothing but praise for all the Penguin Classics versions that I have read.

    More recently, I read Brian Nelson’s translations of “Pot-Bouille” (translated as “Pot Luck”) and “Au Bonheur des Dames ” (translated as “The Ladies’ Paradise”), both in Oxford World Classics. These translations also seemed to me quite splendid. Indeed, Oxford World Classics have been doing Zola proud in recent years, with new translations of “La Curée” (“The Kill”) and “Le Ventre de Paris” (“The Belly of Paris”), both translated by Brian Nelson; and “L’Oeuvre” (“His Masterpiece”) translated by by Roger Pearson. These three I haven’t yet read. In addition, Oxford World Classics also publish fairly modern translations of “L’Assommoir” (translated by Margaret Mauldon), “La Bête Humaine” (translated as “The Beast in Man” by Roger Pearson), “Germinal” (translated by Peter Collier), and “Nana” (translated by Douglas Parmée). Penguin Classics have weighed in with their own new translation, by Robin Buss, of “Au Bonheur des Dames”, which they title “The Ladies’ Delight”.

    There are also two fairly recent translations of “La Rêve” (“The Dream”) – one translated by Michael Glencross for a small publishing house called Peter Owen Ltd, and the other translated by Andrew Brown, and published by Hesperus Books.

    These are all the modern translations that I am aware of, although I’d be happy to hear of others. By my reckoning, that leaves another eight novels of the series that have not been translated lately. Hopefully, Penguin and Oxford – or maybe some of the smaller publishing houses – will get round to it.

    It’s virtually impossible to pick ut a favourite from the ones I’ve read: “Au Bonheur des Dames” is the only one that I found slightly disappointing: the rest are all, without exception, magnificent. I suppose I have a personal leaning towads “Nana” and “La Terre”, although the closing chapters of the latter still gives me nightmares.

    In the meantime, I am certainly grateful for what we have, will be investigating the Vizetelly versions.

    • I read the Vizetelly The Dream as that was the only one I could find at the time. Pity as I like Hesperus editions. But then again I wasn’t that hot on this novel. I thought it was one of the poorer ones along with the sins of Abbe Mouret, The Joy of Life & Doctor Rougon.

      I read the Goldhammer translation of the Kill. I don’t have a comparsion, but I really liked how it flowed.

      My favs: Nana, The Earth, L’Assommoir, and Pot-Bouille.

  5. Thank you for your work in this post-it went a long way toward answering any questions I had about the translations-

  6. Interesting post although I am not likely to ever read Zola in a translation but it reminds me of my reading of Sebald in German and the many questions I get to whether the translations are OK. I guess not as everyone who reads Sebald in English states that he writes fluently and he is one of the most exaseparting authors in German because he doesn’t write fluently.
    Translating is an interesting business but I’m glad at present I don’t do it daily anymore. Did you know that of all the translators those who translate fiction are paid the least whereas when you translate any specilized language you are paid very well? I admire dedicated translators, I really do.
    What is very interesting is the fact (Bookaroundthecorner just mentioned this in her post on Chase) that often the translation feels older than the original. Don’t you have bilingual editions of the classics. In Germany you also get original versions with most of the translation of the vocabulary below which is great. Even people who are not yet fluent in a language can still read in the original.

    • Yes I can get bilingual editions of the classics but they are limited to certain titles.

      I have a great deal of respect for translators too.

    • The translation sounds older than the original when the translator isn’t good enough or doesn’t have enough time to complete his task. I have a lot of respect for translators too.
      I’m still convinced translations made by writers are better. Chandler’s translation by Boris Vian is wonderful and not old at all.
      That would be great to have original texts with some help on the vocabulary. But in France, most of the books in English are British or American editions. That’s where the kindle is a real help: you can look for the translation of a word on demand and without any effort. And you can read outside the house, which you can’t really do with paper editions, unless you enjoy carrying around a heavy dictionary.

  7. Definitely fascinating. I’m travelling right now so I can’t print this, but I will on my return. It’s very handy to see the translations side by side. That second excerpt is remarkable. I wouldn’t have even guessed at vomit from the Vizetelly.

    The Mauldoon in both cases has much more impact. Well done Oxford World Classics.

  8. Thanks to Guy and Madame Vauquer, here is the second quote, in French:
    “- Fichtre! murmura Lantier, quand ils furent entrés, qu’est-ce qu’il a donc fait ici? C’est une vraie infection.
    En effet, ça puait ferme. Gervaise, qui cherchait des alumettes, marchait dans du mouillé. Lorsqu’elle fut parvenue à allumer une bougie, ils eurent devant eux un joli spectacle. Coupeau avait rendu tripes et boyaux; il y en avait plein la chambre; le lit en était emplâtré, le tapis également, et jusqu’à la commode qui se trouvait éclaboussée. Avec ça, Coupeau, tombé du lit où Poisson devait l’avoir jeté, ronflait là dedans, au milieu de son ordure. Il sy étalait, vautré comme un porc, une joue barbouillée, soufflant son haleine empestée par la bouche ouverte, balayant de ses cheveux déjà gris la mare élargie autour de sa tête.
    – Oh! le cochon ! le cochon ! répétait Gervaise indignée, exaspérée. Il a tout sali… Non, un chien n’aurait pas fait ça, un chien crevé est plus propre.
    Tous deux n’osaient bouger, ne savaient où poser le pied. Jamais le zingueur n’était revenu avec une telle culotte et n’avait mis la chambre dans une ignominie pareille. Aussi, cette vue-là portait un rude coup au sentiment que sa femme pouvait encore éprouver pour lui. Autrefois, quand il rentrait éméché ou poivré, elle se montrait complaisante et pas dégoûtée. Mais, à cette heure, c’était trop, son coeur se soulevait. L’idée seule que la peau de ce goujat toucherait sa peau, lui causait une répugnance, comme si on lui avait demandé de s’allonger à côté d’un mort, abîmé par une vilaine maladie.”

    The second translation is faithful. It’s awful to type, it’s so well described and powerful that it gives me nausea.

    • lin lobb

      Neither translations are anyway near as good as the original.
      Why if your translating do you not want to translate properly not just tell an approximate story?
      Would you like to read Jane Austin in modern English?
      I have two translations of “Germinal” ( which I can’t lay my hands on right now) one is at least 30 years old and one is recent….. the recent one is like reading a trash magazine it bears no resemblance to the era in which Zola was writing nor his style and surely that is the atmosphere one should, amongst other things try to represent of an authors writing.

  9. This is a pivotal scene in the book as basically Gervaise cannot sleep in her bed due to all the vomit. Lantier then takes Gervaise to his bed–something he’s been angling at for months. She gives in: exhaustion, resentment, soiled bedding. You name it.

    The full quote gives a better sense of what Gervaise saw when she came home, and I suspect we are as full of disgust as she is–although we don’t get the full thrust of the stench that assailed her.

    I knew it was vomit, but Max mentioned that he couldn’t tell, and after rereading the Vizetelly quote I can see what he means. I wonder how many times Vizetelly had to chop away to please the court. There’s certainly not much left of the original quote.

    Anyway, a pivotal scene as this is the beginning of Gervaise’s moral degradation. So the vomit is an important factor.

    • Reading the passage again, I understand why this has been cut off in Vizetelly’s victorian Great Britain. Too bodily and filthy.
      French publishers used to publish censored books in the Netherlands. Did Bristish publishers do the same?

      • You could get the unexpurgated versions in French. Publishing in private book clubs was another way of getting around the issue of censorship.

        • I hadn’t thought of this : the potential British readers of Zola at the time probably came from upper classes and could read French. Speaking French was part of a good education, wasn’t it?

          • Yes, and that’s where the class thing comes in. If you’re educated (upper class at the time), then you can read ‘dirty books.’ This, of course, raises many questions: the upper classes making decisions for the rest of the country, & then there’s the implied idea that the upper classes can “handle” the heat.

            I know I’ve said this before but the situation reminds me of the trial surrounding the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and the infamous quote made by the chief prosecutor when he asked if this was the sort of book “you would wish your wife or servants to read.” And that was 1960.

            • You mean men from the upper classes. They treat women and people from other classes as children. They consider they have no free will and no brain to make their own judgment. Very irritating.
              What you quote about the trial around Lady Chatterley’s Lover is revolting. I don’t think it was forbidden in France. Have you seen the film version by Pascale Ferran?

        • Really glad I found this post! Great comparison, and some great comments.

          No idea if anyone’s still even looking at this thread, but adding to what’s been said elsewhere, I can’t recommend King’s “Garden of Zola” highly enough – copies are routinely available on eBay, and it’s a cracking read. Most of it is a well-written biography (worth the money in itself), but there’s a chapter at the end surveying Zola’s complete catalogue and listing (and critiquing) every English translation that existed at the time of publication. Although it’s from 1978 and therefore missing the entire ‘new generation’ of Zola translations, it’s still an invaluable resource for all the translations that were made before then, especially the Vizetellys.

          (Thanks to King – who includes all sorts of information about the Vizetelly family and even excerpts from the trial – we know that *Henry* Vizetelly (the father) was jailed for publishing obscene material, whereupon *Ernest* Vizetelly (the son) took over the translation duties for new books and also censored his father’s earlier translations for publication (alterations which required some extensive re-writes so as not to require every page to be expensively re-typeset) So some of the Vizetelly translations – including “Money”, which at the time of writing is still the only English translation of that novel for anyone wanting to read the full cycle – have been doubly bowdlerised!)

          However, one of the things King underlines – and I was grateful! – is that Vizetelly only got into trouble at all because he was mass publishing. There were 6 contemporary translations done for the Lutetian Society (by top-drawer translators like Havelock Ellis and Texeira de Mattos) which are much more faithful and still very readable; up until very recently, Texeira de Mattos’ 1890s version of The Kill was still the definitive English translation for anyone wanting to read the whole cycle.

          (On a similar note, the Elek Books hardback versions from the 1950s are expensive second-hand, but for the novels that don’t yet have a good in-print new translation, the difference between their His Excellency, Zest For Life and Doctor Pascal and the Vizetelly texts is like night and day.)

          The worst of the Vizetelly Zola translations has got to be “Fruitfulness” (Fecondité, 1899); the source – a didactic tract about the importance of reproduction, thinly dressed up as a novel – isn’t anywhere near Zola’s best work in the first place, but the translation is astonishingly poor, and the resulting book – a sex-ed pamphlet which contorts out of its own way to avoid ever talking about sex – is possibly the most pointless thing ever written. Vizetelly’s own foreword freely admits he’s paraphrasing Zola’s words “in the hope the reader can understand the general drift of M. Zola’s narrative”. Gosh, Ernest, you’re spoiling us.

          Anyway, we waited for years and years and finally got Pot-Bouille and a new version of The Kill, now we have The Fortune, we’re soon going to have Money… perhaps it won’t be much longer before the entire cycle is available in modern English translations. I can’t wait.

          • People come to this thread from time to time.

            When I started reading the R-M cycle, many of the newer translations were not yet available, so I read new translations when I could and the Vizetelly translations when that was all there was. It seems to be a widely held mis-conception that the Vizetellys willingly churned out these hatchet jobs, and the reasons behind this (censorship, prison, financial disaster) don’t seem to glue to the story. As a result the Vizetellys get an undeserved bad rap. I did some background reading on what happened to the Vizetellys for their translations, and I have a lot more respect for what they went through.

            I like the fact that private book clubs could have modern translations into English–it was just the Vizetellys that got into trouble. For some reason I think of the 1960 obscenity trial of lady Chatterley’s Lover when the prosecutor asked whether or not this was a book “you would wish your wife or servants to read.” The upper crusties protecting the masses from themselves! So it was alright to have a copy of Zola if it came from a private book club, but to be sold for a member of the public to read…. what is the world coming to?

            I have Fruitfulness on the shelf and it sounds as though I shouldn’t be in any rush to read it. Oh well, they can’t all be winners.

            Thanks for the comment.

  10. leroyhunter

    Very interesting discussion. Thanks for all the extracts & comparisons.
    I’ve made a list of all the Zola translations available to try and keep track of my options. How sad is that? Anyway I figured it’s better to have the info to hand as I make my way through the cycle.

    The extracts from the Viztelly versions make me wary. I wonder what the best way to read them is: get to all the “good” translations, leave the Viztellty versions till last? Hope new translations appear in the meantime? Read them in order and just suck it up about the cuts / elisions?

    • I read somewhere that the best way is to read them in the order things take place. I didn’t do that and read them as Zola wrote them. I’m glad I did that as the books were mixed up that way–some wonderful, some so-so. It’s possible to read 4-5 Zolas and think :”what the hell,” and give up. It’s also possible to read another 4-5 and expect the rest to be just as phenomenal.

      Personally, I wouldn’t leave the Vizetellys till last, but my reasoning here is that the Vizetelly-onlys are the weaker novels in the series. I mentioned that earlier. A couple SHOULD be retranslated, but some of the Vizetellys are weak. Ok, perhaps they’re better in French, but the overall tepid subject matter doesn’t exactly excite me.

      I’ll put it this way: some of the novels in the series are among the greatest novels ever written. Some are mediocre-weak (not ALL the Vizetellys). If you leave the weak ones till the end, well, it won’t be much fun, and by the time you finish, you may be cursing Zola.

    • You might want to read The Fortune of the Rougons first as it is about the common ancestor. I don’t think there is a modern translation though, only the Vizetelly one. If you can’t locate a paper copy, there is a free etext at Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5135

  11. leroyhunter

    Good advice Guy. I’m prone to completism and I’d like to get through them all. It just nags that you’re not getting “that Emile Zola feeling” from every book (to misquote Jack Lipnick).

  12. I think he gets a bit preachy in some of the weaker novels. It’s that scientific determinism–throughout the series of course, but sometimes he works it too much. I’ll be interested to see which ones you end up loving.

  13. I’m a completist too, so I can’t wholl avoid the Vizetelly’s. That scientific determinism, yes, overwhelmed Therese Raquin (though that book had other problems – structure and a descent into the ludicrous by the end).

  14. Brian

    Do you have an opinion as to which are better, the translations by Vitzelly or the ones done for the Comedie d’Amour Series. These are the two I keep finding digitally (if I can find anything more recent, I take that). It seems to me that Vitzelly is more readable, but given the examples you have above…I’m wondering if I’m wasting my time with Vitzelly.

    • Hello Brian: Who translates the Comedie d”Amour series? As you know the Vizetelly translations are FREE for the kindle (project G). Some of the Rougon-Macquart series have not had recent translations, but my personal choice would be to opt for newer translations if they are available.

      I saw a Brian Nelson translation of The Belly of Paris available for the kindle on Amazon, and a translation of the Kill by Goldhammer just to name two versions.

      • lin lobb

        Why do you think the newer translations are better?
        The only one I have read was dire, recent translation of “Germinal” No feeling of the time it was written in.

  15. Brian

    Hello again Guy: I’m looking at A Love Episode right now. Comedie d’Amour version of this was translated by C.C. Starkweather, in 1905. Oddly, there doesn’t seem to be a Vizetelly translation of this for free–although $1 isn’t too much to pay for a superior translation.

    I’ve begun the Starkweather version and don’t find it too awful, but I’d like to be sure I’m getting the best, most complete edition I can get digitally. Any thoughts?
    Thanks again.

  16. The Starkweather version is the free version of the Kindle, right?

    Honestly, for me The Love Episode landed in the ‘ok’ range of Zolas. I don’t think it’s been retranslated, so you are probably looking at the latest version.

  17. Lin: Optimum would be for me to read the original French but that isn’t happening, at least not now as I am brushing up my French and have a lot of work to do.

    I think some new translations can belabour a point and it’s often just a matter of semantics. In the case of the Vizetelly translations, the first in English, in some of the more controversial books (and quite a few were considered dodgy), too much was slashed from the text. The last quote from L’Assommoir gives a good example of that. The French poster here says that the Mauldon translation was much closer to the orginal Zola.

    Which translation of Germinal did you read?

  18. So that’s why I studied foreign languages at university – to avoid translations like that!

  19. Jonathan

    Thanks for this blog Guy. It contains a lot of useful information for the Zola-reader or Zola-reader-to-be. I thought I’d just add a bit of info about English translations that I’ve found useful in my journey through the series. By the way, I’m currently near the end of my 18th R-M book.

    When I’d only read a few books of the series I discovered a really useful book written in 1978 by Graham King. The full title is ‘Garden of Zola: Emile Zola and his novels for English readers’. It’s predominately a biography, but it is full of literary criticism and other useful information such as a chapter on the Vizetellys, censorship and their trial. It really makes you appreciate what they went through. Anyway, there is also a chapter detailing all of the English translations of all of Zola’s major works. Given that this book is over thirty years old it is out of date; however it made me realise that a lot of the minor books of the series were translated in the 1950s and were published by Elek Books. Thus providing an alternative to Vizetelly.

    King gives good advice as regards the Vizetelly translations – which ones are ok and which ones should be avoided etc. For example King states that the Vizetelly translation of ‘Doctor Pascal’ is ‘totally damned by Vizettely’s awful, pedestrian prose’ whereas the Elek Books translation is ‘intelligent, sensitive and a pleasure to read.’ King, however approves of the Vizettely translation of ‘The Conquest of Plassans’.

    My approach has been that where possible I have read a new translation. If there’s not one available then I have searched out one of the Elek books. Luckily enough I found some mouldering away in my county’s reserve store and the others I bought for about £5 on eBay. This has meant that the only Vizettely that I’ve had to read is ‘Money’, which I liked by the way. These are probably easier to find in Britain than the U.S. though, but readers may want to search them out. Please note that these translations are over fifty years old now and are a little dated themselves.

    For the record the titles of the Elek book translations are: (3) Savage Paris; (4) A Priest in the House; (5) The Abbé Mouret’s Sin; (6) His Excellency; (8) A Love Affair; (12) Zest for Life; (14) The Masterpiece; (15) Earth; (17) The Beast in Man; (19) The Debacle; (20) Doctor Pascal.

  20. When I started writing about the series, there didn’t seem to be a lot of info on the web. Since then, there appears to be an upsurge in interest–as well as a few new translations.

    The King book sounds invaluable. BTW, I thought the Conquest of Plassans read well, so it seems I wasn’t too far off about that.

    Before I read about the Vizetellys, I had what I think was a fairly common attitude to them: how could they have bowdlerized Zola… how dare they??? And then of course after digging around a bit and reading what they went through as a family, you can’t help but respect them.

    My approach was a new translation and if that wasn’t possible then Vizetelly, but then I didn’t know about the Elek book translations. I’m hoping that all 20 will make it to a new translation (go Brian Nelson!) before long.

  21. Andy H

    Just a comment on this, I just finished “The Drinking Den” and I read the following translation:


    This has Vizetelly’s name all over it but it’s not the censored one above. At the same time it’s not the first, longer translation either. The “vomit scene” for example is on page 259 and is not either version mentioned here.

    Glad I’m able to find info on this, I really enjoyed this book and plan to read more Zola!

    • Thanks for the comment–always happy to meet another Zola fan.

    • Jonathan

      Glad you like L’Assommoir. it’s truly a superb book. You can’t go far wrong by following it with ‘Nana’.

      From the link it looks like you read the original (Henry) Vizetelly translation from 1884 which is supposed to be pretty good. I think this was the first Zola translation that they published. It wasn’t until after the publication of ‘The Earth’ in 1887 that they ran into trouble with the authorities. Subsequent publications were then edited by Ernest Vizetelly and were heavily censored.

      • Andy H

        I have to say, I’ve read Dostoevsky, Dickens, Hardy and a host of other classic novels and this was the darkest, grittiest and grimiest (in a good way) I’ve read thus far. If there’s translations that are MORE brutal than the one I read, I would be surprised! I also found the book quite easy to read.

        I will take the advice here and try to read newer translations when I can, but I have to say this Vizetelly translation I found quite enjoyable and I’d read others *IF* I knew it wasn’t watered down or censored. Is there a place you can find info on this? Are all of the Viz. translations up to 1887 OK, at least in terms of censorship?

        On another note, I think I’d actually like to go back and read The Fortunes of the Rougons next — from what I understand (from Wikipedia) Viz. made a translation in 1886, then revised it in 1898 and really messed it up. The 1886 version is on Google Books here…


        So I wonder if this one is OK, because the only other one is the Oxford Classics edition translated by Brian Nelson.


      • I just checked my kindle (free) version of this and it says ‘translated by anonymous. Makes you wonder how many translations are out there.

  22. if you have a choice, I’d go with Brian Nelson every time. The book Émile Zola, Novelist and Reformer: An Account of His Life & Work
    By Ernest Alfred Vizetelly goes into the translation issues & efforts, & the trial and prison sentence for Henry Vizetelly

    • I know Vizetelly translated and then translated again trying to please the censors so I’d guess (not sure) that if anything the earlier versions would be ‘better’ as you indicate. The Earth screams potential censorship problems but some of the novels can’t have been as offensive as others. The ones with the raw sexuality must have given the Vizetellys and the courts palpitations.

  23. Tony

    Thank god for Brian Nelson. I bought his new translation of ‘The Fortune of the Rougons’ at Christmas and wasn’t disappointed. I hope he translates the remaining titles. The Margaret Mauldon translations are also excellent.

  24. Tony

    Just discovered that OUP are releasing a new translation of ‘Money’ in March 2014. Translated by Valerie Minogue. Can’t wait….

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