Burton Raffel has produced a generally accurate but, I think, coarse and inappropriate translation of Le Rouge et le Noir. To this English reader, his frequent use of specifically American idioms is startling. It is peculiar, in a work so much about nineteenth-century European snobbery and social constraint, to come across the term "high school"; to hear casual dialogue like "Sure, he looked at you" and "Oh, fine"; to find nouns like "hick" and "bumpkin" and "high society." There is no particular reason to think that idioms current elsewhere in the English-speaking world would be more appropriate, but Raffel's choices are so clearly rooted in a more democratic viewpoint that one of the subtle effects of the novel is lost. To have socially unequal characters say, "Sure, he looked at you," is to introduce an alien note of breezy democracy to Stendhal's agonizingly stratified world.
Overall, Raffel appears to be not quite at home in Stendhal's world. Instead of using common and suitable idioms, he often resorts to peculiar inventions of his own: "Monsieur Valenod, when he met Monsieur de Rênal, cut him cold" (for "cut him dead"); and, five lines later, "Monsieur Valenod was what's called, three hundred miles from Paris, a slick operator" (for, no doubt, "cool customer"). Occasionally he just doesn't know something factual and hasn't troubled to inquire. For example, he has one character, Signor Géronimo, say, "I used to go to the little theater at San Carlino," as if San Carlino were a town; it is, in fact, the smaller of the Naples opera houses. In a social context the address "M. le Maire" is translated as "His Honor the Mayor," which is actually reserved for formal occasions. These might seem snobbish objections, and probably they are. But in a book that is to an excruciating degree about social distinctions, it doesn't do to be free and easy with the finer points.
Even when there is nothing obviously wrong, Stendhal's distinctive tone is missing from Raffel's translation, and the prose is somewhat stolid. True, Raffel commits no blunder as jaw-dropping as that of a previous translator, Margaret Shaw, who ruthlessly reduced Stendhal's exactly tentative first sentence, "La petite ville de Verrières peut passer pour l'une des plus jolies de la Franche-Comté" ("The small town of Verrières could be considered one of the prettiest of Franche-Comté"), to "The little town of Verrières is one of the prettiest in Franche-Comté." However, numerous slips, expansions, and lazy vaguenesses have a cumulative effect. The worst of these is at the end, where "elle mourut en embrassant ses enfants" ("kissing her children, she died") is translated as "she died while hugging her children"—wrong register and, to my ears, peculiarly abrupt.
Stendhal continues to tempt translators, although his density, subtlety, and disconcerting streak of vulgarity will keep him a special taste among readers. Even in an unconvincing translation like this one some of his quality is visible. But a writer devoted to the specific realities of his time and place, and sensitive to social and psychological nuance, deserves not to be brazenly transposed into the language and style of a civilization so remote from his own.