Friday, March 25, 2011

Voice is Choice

I'm re-reading Albert Camus' novella The Stranger right now, for a variety of reasons. I don't speak French and so I only know the work through English translations. Specifically, I know it from the 1946 Stuart Gilbert translation, which I read way back in college. That's not the edition I have at home, however. The edition I'm currently reading is newer: the 1988 Knopf edition translated by Matthew Ward. From the very first page, I realized that Ward's translation was going to be quite different from the version I first read. I'll give you the opening passages from both editions.

From the 1946 translation by Stuart Gilbert:

Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.

The Home for Aged Persons is at Marengo, some fifty miles from Algiers. With the two o’clock bus I should get there well before nightfall. Then I can spend the night there, keeping the usual vigil beside the body, and be back here by tomorrow evening. I have fixed up with my employer for two days’ leave; obviously, under the circumstances, he couldn’t refuse. Still, I had an idea he looked annoyed, and I said, without thinking: "Sorry, sir, but it’s not my fault, you know."

From the 1988 translation by Matthew Ward:

Maman died today. Or yesterday, maybe, I don't know. I got a telegram from the home: "Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours." That doesn't mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.

The old people's home is at Marengo, about eighty kilometers from Algiers, I'll take the two o'clock bus and get there in the afternoon. That way I can be there for the vigil and come back tomorrow night. I asked by boss for two days off and there was no way he was going to refuse me with an excuse like that. But he wasn't too happy about it. I even said, "It's not my fault."

Gilbert's language is more formal than Ward's; he uses longer phrases and is perceptibly less immediate (compare his "which leaves the matter doubtful" to Ward's "that doesn't mean anything.") Ward's translation seems to me to be a very American version of the narrative, with his clipped rhythms and less complex sentence structure.

Gilbert also translated the edition of The Plague that I read, and so my idea of Albert Camus is more-or-less based on Stuart Gilbert's idea of Albert Camus (I'll have to see who translated the edition of The Fall I read). Peter Newmark has written critically of Gilbert's "jigging up" of Camus' text and the problematic nature of translation in general, but today I'm not interested in the challenges of translation. What I'm thinking about lately is word choice and the enormous effect it has on writerly voice. Reading the recent Camus translation just sort of spurred me on to write this post today. (Apologies for not making this a Friday Filler, Davin.)

I've been noticing that, no matter if I'm writing from a first-person or a third-person point of view, or if I'm writing about people from the 16th century or the 21st century, I tend to use the same set of words in the same sort of ways in a great many cases. And while I try to expand my working vocabulary all the time (because I like to learn new words), I have noticed that one thing that creates boundaries around my vocabulary is a refusal to use certain words at all.

There are some words that I just don't like, and some words that I absolutely hate with a hatred usually reserved for use by totalitarian dictators considering their political enemies. My novels and stories are mostly free of current slang, for example. I just don't like it on the page. That's really more a stylistic choice, though.

No, the words you won't find in my writing are words that I just, for whatever reason, don't like the sound of. I'll use "vomit" but I'll never use "puke." I'll say "bellow" but never "holler" and rarely "yell." And "crappy" yes but "shitty" no. I have no idea why, except that I don't like the sound of "shitty." Possibly, in general, I tend to lean more toward Latinate words and away from Anglo Saxon words, but I'm just guessing. Surely "I should prefer not" and "I don't want to" mean the same thing, but they are spoken by two different voices and Melville's Bartleby would be less compelling and enigmatic had he said "I don't want to." (What? You haven't read Bartleby the Scrivener? Off you go to find it on Project Gutenberg or on the Melville House website. It's short so you've got no excuse.)

Anyway, I've been thinking about how writerly voice is partially defined by the words we won't (or should prefer not to) use. I know that the list of words I refuse to use is as long as my arm but--maybe because I don't use them--I can't think of many right now. Which is sort of irritating, you know? Here I am trying to make a point and I can't come up with any examples. Oh, "garbage." I don't like that word. I prefer "trash" or "rubbish." Go figure.

You? Words you can't stand/won't use? Thoughts on word choice as influence on voice? Too obvious? Why do I waste your time with posts like this? Hey, maybe this is Friday Filler after all!


  1. Interesting post. I've never considered what words I won't use, although I do look for and try to minimize crutch words, which seem to vary for each novel I write.

    I try to pay attention to the cadence of the sentence, and give a rhythm to it in addition to the meaning. Two suitable words, one is one syllable, the other is three syllables...which sounds better? Which sounds better with the rest of the words in the sentence?

    I miss the mark a-plenty, but that's what revisions are for.

  2. I favor Anglo-Saxon words, and therefore avoid long, obscure latinate words (even great ones like "callipygian"), because I don't want them to stand out from the rest of the narrative.

    Also, it was striking how different the voice was in those two versions of The Stranger. I read the book in the Gilbert translation and find the Ward translation somewhat lacking -- it seems too colloquial and modern without the breezy unemotionality of the Gilbert translation -- but that's probably my bias talking.

    A few other words on translation: chapeau, hoed, kofia, cappello, klobouk, sombrero.

  3. I have a real problem with some translators, the way they choose to rewrite and interpret the text. In French the opening paragraph is:

    Aujourd'hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier je ne sais pas. J'ai reçu un télégramme de l'asile: «Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués.» Cela ne veut rien dire. C'était peut-être hier.

    which Google translates as:

    Today, Mom is dead. Or maybe yesterday I do not know. I received a telegram from the asylum: "Mother died. Funeral tomorrow. Distinguished sentiments." That does not mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.

    If I was translating this – ignoring for the moment the fact I only have two years of French under my belt and that was a long time ago – I would be aiming at keeping the sentence structure as close as possible to what Camus used. Even after all these years I know that maman is an informal way of referring to your mother, i.e. ‘mum’ or ‘mama’ or ‘mom’ or something like that; Mère is what she is, Maman is who she is. But it’s not that simple. In English it’s acceptable to call our mother ‘Mother’ but a Frenchman has that option and maman has to do. That’s why I tend to agree with Ward’s decision to leave the word untranslated although looking at Meursault’s relationship with his mother I can’t really see him calling her ‘Mum’ or ‘Mummy’ so I can’t object to Gilbert’s choice either really. But why change the order of the words? And both do it. Surely the opening sentence should read: “Today, Mother died.”

    Also telegrams are notoriously curt so when Camus write, Mère décédée it should be translated “Mother deceased,” rather than “YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY.” You have to also bear in mind when this book was written. Language in general was more formal then. You could argue all of this to the cows come home of course and decisions have to be made. When I write book reviews I quite often have a look at the text in its original language if I can locate it and I’m often surprised by the choices made by translators some of whom effectively rewrite the texts they’ve been given and I’m not sure I approve.

  4. This post is not filler. :)

    I love poetry, so word choice and rhythm and sound are really important things to me as I write. I found that I made sure to be in a different mindset when I wrote Cinders compared to Monarch. Obviously they are different genres, different time periods, and although I still hate the same words and tend to use the same structures, etc., I did consciously choose some slang for Monarch because it fit there. It altered the characters and skewed them into more believability, in my opinion.

    I later discovered that my father-in-law didn't like that I used the word "okay" in Cinders since that word didn't come about until much later than the time period I was implying in the novella. I agreed with him. I ended up taking that word out when I went in to fix typos in the next version I uploaded (ah, the joys of self-publishing).

    I agree that little things like this are really important to voice.

  5. I was the same way. I would have never used puke or shitty. For me, most of the decision is synesthetic-based. These two words are much too vivid for me, and their existence bothers me.

    Lately, I've been trying to use the vocabulary I dislike as a tool to create more variation. I'll have a character or two use a bunch of the words I don't like. To me it gives them a different voice. It's sort of a dumb thing to do since the set of words I don't like probably aren't connect in any way, so giving them all to one character probably isn't "accurate", but that's what I do.

    I was going to write a very similar post next week, Scott, except instead of words, I was thinking about objects. I hate putting cell phones in my stories, for example. I still have some of my characters going to pay phones.

  6. This post is nearly brilliant, Mr. Bailey.

    First of all, because I know well the experience you describe with The Stranger. I took a college course in which we used the older translation. I later taught the same course and found the students using the new one. It was such a dramatic difference between the two that I had to actually start teaching out of the new one.

    Incidentally, I've had more than one Francophile tell me that the old translation is more true to the tone and flavor of the original text, and one industry insider tell me that they understand the new translation to be deliberately skewed to their perception of the American college student as a target audience.

    Second, your point about voice and word choice is really great. I think I would take it one step even further: in addition to the words you choose, voice is affected by your approach to choosing those words.

    In other words, it's not even just that you and I might love and hate different words. It's that you might prefer certain words because of their sound or structure and I might prefer certain words because of nuances in their meaning.

  7. Plus, yay, I had a moment to participate in the LitLab,

  8. @Domey - I have actually gone to pains in a couple of pieces to figure how to make it believable that a person is going to a pay phone. I even have two of them in Sublimation.

  9. Domey, cell phones and the internet and iPads and Kindles and that sort of technology don't figure in my writing, because none of it interests me and I don't really like any of it. Or, rather, I really don't like any of it and I don't want to pollute my stories with them. Pay phones are sexy. Cell phones aren't. Books are sexy. The Kindle iPhone app isn't. All this digital technology is lacking in romance and art and I'll have none of it in my stories, which is why I have no plans to write anything that's set in current day. Which is weird and twitchy of me, but that's the way of it.

  10. Rick, we all miss the mark a-plenty, I think, and thank goodness for revisions. I've only lately become aware of the idea that *not* doing something leaves its fingerprints--so to speak--on our art just as much as the things we do.

    Jabez, that's interesting that you favor Anglo-Saxon vocabulary. I love words like callipygian (I remember when I learned that word, even), and I like the flow and easy rhythm of long strings of Latinate words.

    I'm also biased towards the Gilbert Stranger. The Ward is fine, but it seems a bit...well, I'm not sure what. He defends his choices in the introduction, which I just read this morning, but I might argue with him that if he's going directly for an "American" voice, he should use "Mamma" or "Mommy" instead of "Maman," which has connotations in the original French that disappear in English. So it's a weird translation.

    Also, people have just this morning begun offering me lists of six words for hats. What's sparked that, I wonder?

    Michelle, I think slang is okay in other people's books, but I feel they immediately date my stuff so I avoid it. I am of two minds about things like "okay" in Cinders. I think the rules don't necessarily apply in fairy tales. Have you read My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me yet? There is a wide variety of approaches to voice in that collection.

    Domey, I know what you mean about the disturbing vividness of some words. Some words just make my skin crawl. I'm not sure about putting words I hate into my characters' mouths. I'll think about that.

    Nevets, I think you're right about "an American Stranger for American students." About which, I must only say, Grrr Argh.

    And yes, why we make the choices we make while writing is likely just as important as what those choices are. I'll think about that one.

  11. LOL - Great post, Scott! I am a Camus addict, have been for years. He was a major influence on my young adulthood. I know most kids were reading Judy Blume and I was busy reading about shooting a guy because the sun was glaring. Like you I read the Gilbert version. I don't care about the rest... but it should start with "Maman died today." It's just not acceptable to me to start The Stranger with the word "Mother."

    Most of my word choices seem to steer away from words that I find pretentious, because pretension in books makes me rage. I want the writing to be comfortable, like the narrator were someone you would talk with over coffee. I end up using more of the Anglo-Saxon words than the Latinate...which is ironic because I studied Latin for years. ;P

    Your post reminded me of this article on The biggest word I hate is moist, but for that very reason I use it in key sentences. The words that grate on you probably grate on someone else too, so they can be useful to evoke the right response. That article is hilarious, though.


  12. I'm very happy to see that so many people have read The Stranger. The French title is L'Étranger, which is what I was called a lot in Paris. So, even that translation has some additional connotations with it in English that might not be there in French.

    I always say that Anna Karenina is my favorite book. But I've only ever read it in English, by translators, so it's possible I don't like the actual Tolstoy at all.

    (Sorry, T, I know that's not true. Just making a point.)

  13. Tara, "moist" is a foul word, an ill word and I dislike it. Sometimes--and I realized this after Domey's earlier comment--I have used a word I dislike because there was something happening in the story that made me unhappy. These sorts of choices are pretty personal and I wonder how well they translate to readers, though. You might find my prose to be very pretentious, which would baffle me because I'm really exceedingly humble. No, really, I am.

    Domey, yes L'Étranger has connotations of foreignness, not just someone you don't know, right?

  14. Scott, regarding the title, yes.

    And, I also agree that the word choices are often strictly personal. That was a hard lesson for me to learn. Not everyone sees the number 9 as angry. That was a surprise to me.

  15. 5 is an angry number.

    Q. Why was 6 afraid of 7?

    A. Because 7 8 9.

  16. See, I just got some cursory feedback on a flash I entered in a contest, and one reviewer said they HATED the word "liminal." I quite like it. Why would you single out one word in 500 for especial opprobrium? (I just said "especial opprobrium.")

    I didn't get that. What's so bad about "liminal"? It said exactly what I meant it to in context.

    Perhaps they just didn't like my voice. Or they didn't know what it meant. Either way, I kind of shrugged and moved on with my life.

    I have no idea if this has anything at all to do with your post. *shrugs*

  17. I think your reviewer misused "liminal" in a paper and was humiliated by a jackass professor and now the word brings up all that bad feeling no matter the context so you become a second-generation victim of the jackass professor. I think there's a lawsuit in there somewhere.

    I think it's totally apropos this post.

  18. Jim Murdoch: For some reason, your comment was caught in blogger's spam filter. Apparently French is suspicious. Which is a shame, because you brought some interesting sidelights to the discussion.

    All translastion is necessarily a paraphrase. I don't think that novels are translated "line by line" so much as the translator must work over the MS again and again to find a consistent voice, just like a novelist must do.

    I will say that to me, in English, "Mother died today" is a stronger opening sentence than "Today Mother died."

    I should add that, having now read Ward's translation, I'm fine with it. The Bailey Stamp of Approval, et cetera.


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