Lost in Translation

Stendhal had an extraordinary degree of swagger—a word so completely appropriate to him that it's worth unpacking what, exactly, it means. "Swagger" suggests confident worldliness; it suggests magnificence and opulence; it might be applied to people who, though perhaps not amiable, command a certain respect. Most important, it implies an element of mild absurdity, even though—as distinct from "bluster," say—it reluctantly admits that the confidence has some solid basis. Swagger is the boasting of a man who, though he may exaggerate, has plenty to boast about.

In his greatest novels Stendhal dashes forward like a hussar, which Auden said only poets do; he is as direct and blunt in style as a gentleman is in conversation. His two masterpieces, Le Rouge et le Noir and La Chartreuse de Parme, along with several of his other works and fragments (Lucien Leuwen, his life of Rossini, his treatise on love), combine psychological intimacy with a thrilling cosmopolitanism. They are often highly sophisticated and modern in their presentation of individual desires and behavior, yet they never venture far from an extrovert's enthusiasm for melodrama. The width and richness of his interests remain unmatched among European novelists.

Recommended Reading

Few can rival the sheer intellectual power of Stendhal at his best. The opening pages of La Chartreuse de Parme, which set in motion a supremely assured account of a tumultuous passage of European history that unfolds with sustained and mounting irony, surpass anything even in War and Peace. The astonishing energy of Le Rouge et le Noir springs from its ability to take a sordid tale of seduction, attempted murder, and punishment and illuminate it with larger considerations (think of the ways in which Othello transforms its source—a cheaply sensational and scandalous true-life anecdote). Le Rouge et le Noir demonstrates how personal ambition and sexual infatuation can be directed by the dream of becoming Napoleon. Apparently, certain of Stendhal's emotions were directed in similar ways: after his death the writer Prosper Mérimée said that Stendhal "always seemed convinced by the idea, much canvassed under the Empire, that any woman may be taken by storm and that it is up to every man to attempt it." Stendhal's excellent biographer Jonathan Keates, after quoting Mérimée, makes explicit the model of "thrusting, restless imperial acquisitiveness provided by that ultimate totem Napoleon Bonaparte." Certainly, like many other novelists of nineteenth-century European realism, Stendhal felt his imaginative pulse quicken whenever he thought of Napoleon. La Chartreuse de Parme moves into a higher register of power and strangeness as it approaches the Battle of Waterloo, capturing both that conflict's heroism and its absurdity.

The two principal novels seemed to come out of nowhere: La Chartreuse de Parme was, famously, written in no more than seven weeks. Where they came from in reality was a series of failed and incomplete projects, from the near masterpiece Lucien Leuwen to brilliant ideas scribbled down and hardly moved forward. Stendhal's life was one of aggressively taken risks and engineered encounters with the great. Best known, perhaps, was his passing acquaintance with Byron in Milan in 1816 —an episode that has had Stendhalians and Byronists facing off ever since over who said what to whom.

In addition to providing a compelling view of historical change among individuals, Stendhal's novels are stylistically so seductive that they have tempted a wide range of translators to undertake versions in English. There is certainly something English about his prose: he was one of those French writers of the period who saw in the virtues of English a means of combating the strictness of classical French style. Among his early projects was an idea for a Smollett-like Life and Sentiments of Silencious Harry, along with the inevitable Shakespeare-like dramas. But he has proved difficult to translate, and I know of no entirely satisfactory English translation of Le Rouge et le Noir. His brisk directness tends to become inelegant lumpiness; his brilliantly varied and natural dialogue is easily reduced to a steady formal tone. He was not the most fastidious of prose stylists; as he wrote in one of his aides-memoire to Lucien Leuwen, "One must sacrifice graceful elaboration to vigor of style." There is a lot in his best books that, like Balzac's writing, can survive even the roughest recasting, but he presents a considerable challenge to the ambitious translator.

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.