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Translating the Postcolonial in Multilingual Contexts

Judith Misrahi-Barak
Srilata Ravi

The Mediterranean as/in Translation

From The Stranger to The Outsider: The different English translations of L’Étranger, the Postcolonial Reception of Camus’ classic, and the Memorialization of Camus in Post-Imperial France

Delphine Munos


A French writer born on North African soil and a pied-noir who both opposed the O.A.S. and the F.L.N., Albert Camus has always enjoyed a problematic status in post-imperial France. Taking its cue from Mona Baker, who argues that ‘translators (...) play a crucial role in both disseminating and contesting public narratives with and across national boundaries’, this essay explores the various English translations of L’Étranger and situates them in relation to different epochs of reception of Camus’ classic, both in France and abroad, with a special focus on prevailing interpretations, in each of these phases, of the relationship between Camus and his native Algeria.

If my initial aim is to discuss the relative invisibility of the French Algerian colonial background of L’Étranger in pre-1990s English translations of the novel, I also wish to examine the problematic ways in which the growing influence of the postcolonial paradigm in a post-1990s Anglophone context has brought L’Étranger’s colonial background centre stage, with the paradoxical result, not of elucidating, but of obscuring the most incisive colonial and postcolonial aspects of the novel. Finally, I wish to show that Sandra Smith’s recent translation of Camus’ classic creates a web of new meanings that participate in opening a space through which the protagonist of L’Étranger can be seen both as an ‘outsider’ and an ‘insider’ to French Algeria—a space that might reach backward and forward, with a potential for complicating the pieties of early post-colonial readings of the novel and of post-imperial France alike.

Texte intégral

1A French writer born on North African soil and a pied-noir who both opposed the O.A.S. and the F.L.N., Albert Camus has always had a problematic status in post-imperial France, a country where the taboos surrounding the Algerian War have been kept alive by left- and right-wingers alike. On the one hand, right-wing French politicians have recurrently appealed to pied-noir ‘nostalgéria’ to justify their stubborn stance of non-repentance as regards the 130 years of colonization in Algeria (which also extends to the Chirac government’s attempt, in 2005, to invoke the so-called positive role of French colonization). On the other, influential left-wing figures such as Pierre Nora have participated in a climate of intellectual atrophy by joining what British historian Perry Anderson called in 2004 ‘union sucrée’, that is, sugar-coated, and self-indulgent, versions of the French colonial past—witness Nora’s influential Lieux de Mémoires, in which, Anderson rails, ‘the imperial history of the country (...) becomes a non-lieu’ (np). The difficult, even impossible, memorialization of Camus and his work in today’s France was evidenced again on the eve of the writer’s centenary. In 2012, the project of a major Camus exhibition in Aix-en-Provence for Marseille-Provence European Capital of Culture 2013 was stalled, following on the brutal eviction of its curator, French Algeria historian Benjamin Stora, by arch-conservative Aix-en-Provence mayor Maryse Joissains-Masini, and the consequent underhanded appointment of middlebrow philosopher Michel Onfray, before the latter’s final decision to back off from what he called ‘la pétaudière’ (the madhouse).

2Taking its cue from Mona Baker, who argues that ‘translators (...) play a crucial role in both disseminating and contesting public narratives with and across national boundaries’ (4–5), this essay explores the various English translations of L’Étranger and situates them in relation to different epochs of reception of Camus’ classic, both in France and abroad, with a special focus on prevailing interpretations, in each of these phases, of the relationship between Camus and his native Algeria. If my initial aim is to discuss the relative invisibility of the French Algerian colonial background of L’Étranger in pre-1990s English translations of the novel such as those by Stuart Gilbert in 1946 and Matthew Ward in 1989, I also wish to examine in detail the problematic ways in which the growing influence of the postcolonial paradigm in a post-1990s Anglophone context has brought L’Étranger’s colonial background centre stage, with the paradoxical result, not of elucidating, but of obscuring the most incisive colonial and postcolonial aspects of the novel. Finally, I wish to contextualize Sandra Smith’s recent translation of Camus’ classic within a broader frame of contemporary attempts to problematize the pigeonholing of Camus as colonialist, decades after Said’s pronouncement that Camus’ novel was informed by an ‘incapacitated colonial sensibility’ (1993: 176). Lawrence Venuti has argued that ‘the intertextual and interdiscursive relations that a translation establishes are not merely interpretative, but also potentially interrogative’ (2013: 182). My hypothesis is that Smith’s translation strategy, which includes clearer intertextual references to the Bible and the re-humanization of Meursault, creates a web of new meanings that participate in opening a space through which Camus’ anti-hero can be seen both as an ‘outsider’ and an ‘insider’ to French Algeria—a space that might reach backward and forward, with a potential for complicating the pieties of post-imperial France.

3Although L’Étranger was published in 1942 in occupied Paris, the main part of the text had been written and researched by Camus in Algeria from 1937 to 1940. The storyline is well known. In the late 1930s, Meursault, a pied-noir bureaucrat, murders an unnamed Arab on a beach in Algiers for no real motive. He then awaits a death sentence following a nonsensical trial which centres less on his crime than on his past inability to display grief at his mother’s funeral. Camus suggests that L’Étranger can be encapsulated in one sentence only: ‘In our society any man who doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral is liable to be condemned to death’ (Camus 2000: 118).

4Upon its publication, L’Étranger enjoyed a tremendous critical success in France. Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1943 ‘explication’ of L’Étranger, which read the novel mostly through the prism of Camus’ philosophical essay Le Mythe de Sisyphe, constituted in this respect a blessing and a curse, in that it established Camus’ reputation on the one hand, but on the other, tended to read the novel as a mere exemplar of the philosophy of the Absurd. Sartre’s comments on Camus’ unadorned style, in particular his apt use of the passé composé to emphasize Meursault’s immediacy of perception and poor sense of causality, were hugely influential. However, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, scant critical attention was paid in France to the ways in which L’Étranger might reveal sociological or even imperialist aspects of the pre- and post-war period. In their discussions of Camus’ first novel, critics such as Maurice Blanchot, Nathalie Sarraute, and Alain Robbe-Grillet, mostly kept to discussions that centred on aesthetic and philosophical matters, in particular on the ways in which Meursault’s apparent lack of consciousness was problematized by Camus’ peculiar aesthetics of exteriority. Thus L’Étranger was first read ‘in a supposedly universal but in fact Western European context, as a manual of how an individual may live in a world without authentic values’ (McCarthy 2012: 13). Needless to say, the specifically Algerian features and colonial context of L’Étranger were not even dismissed as irrelevant by French critics at that time, they were simply ignored, along with matters relating to French Algeria at large. Thus the ‘other 8 May 1945’, that is, the Sétif and Guelma riots against French rule which are now deemed to have constituted the undeclared beginning of the Algerian war (1954-1962), hardly got any coverage in the mainland French press. Only Camus published, in the Resistance newspaper Combat, ‘Crise en Algérie’, a series of eight articles in which he begged for political reforms to oppose the injustices of colonialism and contextualized the Sétif massacres (in which a hundred Europeans were killed or atrociously mutilated, and thousands of Arab Algerians were massacred by French authorities in retaliation) in light of the appalling economic situation of the Arab and Berber populations in French Algeria.

  • 1 Joseph Laredo’s 1980 translation of L’Étranger will be briefly discussed at the end of this essay.

5In his essay Camus postcolonial?, Dominique Combe suggests that, until the early 1990s, a period marking the start of the institutionalization of postcolonial studies, the reception of Camus’ work in an Anglophone, in particular U.S., context, did not markedly differ from its reception in France, with influential monographs on Camus such as that by U.S. scholar Germaine Brée focusing on the writer’s brand of universalist humanism only. The fact that the first English translation of L’Étranger in 1946 and its most recent version in the late 1980s1 are situated at either end of the emergence of a major paradigm shift—the postcolonial framework—begs questions as to how Gilbert’s 1946 and Ward’s 1989 translations accommodate the French Algerian colonial context of Camus’ classic.

  • 2 In Part 2, as Meursault reminisces about his first days in prison, his noncommittal ‘En réalité, je (...)
  • 3 In keeping with Sartre, André Abbou argues that the syntax of L’Étranger duplicates Meursault’s fee (...)

6Much critical attention has been paid to Gilbert’s first rendition of L’Étranger, which was published in the U.S. and the U.K., respectively, as The Stranger and The Outsider for reasons solely pertaining to the editing of the book. Gilbert’s translation is generally deemed to be a ‘personalized piece of work’ (Du Plessis 1992: 206) or ‘strange Stranger’ (Helen Sebba), with a clear tendency to embellish, even paraphrase, Camus’ novel. Critics have remarked that Gilbert adds or deletes sentences of his own choosing,2 alters the paragraph format and sentence divisions of the source text, and generally amends the terseness of Camus’ prose—all of which ‘lend (s) the text an aesthetically smooth feeling of undisturbed continuity’ (Du Plessis 1992: 207) which is clearly at odds with L’Étranger’s ‘dissociative’ syntax.3 Most problematic is that Gilbert’s adornments not only alter, but also rationalize or personalize events that are left unexplained, even unclaimed, in the text, which results in misrepresenting Camus’ characters, not least Meursault. One of the most problematic instances of Gilbert’s adornments takes place in a passage immediately preceding Meursault’s killing of the Arab, as he walks along the beach, apparently aimlessly, with a gun is his hands. At that point, Gilbert’s addition, ‘I wasn’t going to be beaten’ (37), imparts an intentionality and a competitiveness to Meursault that is wholly absent from the original. Worse, it falsifies Meursault’s disconnected mood as his ever-increasing feeling of oneness with his surroundings paves the way for the hallucinated yet exterior rhetoric through which he will narrate his murder of the Arab—in ways that obscure the possibility, present in the original, that Meursault’s act boils down to an unconscious expression of racial hatred.

7Equally distorting is Gilbert’s choice of a relatively high register of language. On the opening page alone, Camus’ famous incipit ‘Aujourd’hui, maman est morte’ is rendered as the more aloof ‘Mother died today’ (4); the colloquial ‘L’asile de vieillards’ (9) is translated as ‘The Home for Aged Persons’ (4); Meursault’s basic apology to his boss ‘ce n’est pas ma faute’ becomes the convoluted ‘Sorry, Sir, but it’s not my fault, you know’ (4). Importantly, Gilbert’s use of a high register domesticates the local flavour of French Algerian street language that is characteristic of Belcourt, the working-class Algiers district where Meursault resides (and where Camus was raised). As he prepared for L’Étranger, Camus jotted down scraps of conversation that he overheard in Belcourt, most of which were later attributed to Meursault’s neighbour, the pimp Raymond Sintès (cf. Abbou 2006: 1248). Although Ballard notes that none of the first three translators of L’Étranger are able to retain the original flavour of French Algerian slang—notably when it comes to translating Sintès’ bellicose ‘je vais te mûrir’ (Ballard 2000: 28–29)—it remains that, more than his successors, ‘Gilbert seems ill at ease with the earthy, working-class flavour of L’Étranger’ (McCarthy 1988: 107), which further disconnects Gilbert’s version from the original context of Camus’ novel.

8It is perhaps no wonder, then, that in his comparison of Gilbert’s 1946 and Ward’s 1989 translations of L’Étranger, Venuti praises the latter for adhering closely to Camus’ ‘brief, simple sentences’, which endows Ward’s prose with a ‘familiarity and directness’ (2013: 18) that is noticeably absent from Gilbert’s more ‘Britannic rendering’ (Ward, cited in Venuti, 2013: 18). But the suggestion that such directness might give better visibility to the novel’s French Algerian context does not appear to range among Venuti’s concerns. In fact, the critic’s choice of Ward over Gilbert owes to ‘American’ matters of intertextuality and stylistic affinities only. In keeping with Du Plessis, who remarks that ‘L’Étranger was deliberately patterned after an American expository style’ (206), Venuti reminds us that Camus drew the inspiration for his novel from ‘the hardboiled or tough-guy prose of writers such as James M. Cain (and Ernest Hemingway)’ (2013: 17). Drawing on Jean-Jacques Lecercle’s notion of ‘remainder’ as ‘that which remains excessive to any totalizing system of meaning’ (Davis 2014), Venuti argues that Ward’s simpler and closer translation ‘releas (es) a literary remainder that leads the English-language reader to an American narrative tradition, to Hemingway, Dos Passos, Faulkner, Cain’ (2013: 18). Consequently it ‘produces a stylistic analogue for Camus’ experiment’, that is, ‘a heterogeneous mix of linguistic and cultural forms, both American and French’ (2013: 19).

9Surprisingly for a theorist who campaigned for ‘minoritizing’translation (2013: 2), through his exclusive focus on L’Étranger’s ‘American’ style, Venuti himself here appears to leave unquestioned the same kind of ‘ethnocentric reduction of the source text to receiving cultural values’ (2008: 15) that he bemoans elsewhere. True though it is that Ward’s version is relatively ‘foreignizing’ for an American audience because it hybridizes American forms with a more foreign—in fact more French—‘philosophical density’ (2013: 19), as Venuti argues, his claim that Ward’s translation ‘communicat (es) an understanding of the French text that is available for French readers’ (2013: 19) is simply untenable. Indeed, well beyond matters relating to stylistic affinities with American forms, French readers of L’Étranger are made well aware, too—and from the novel’s very first page—of its French Algerian colonial context. As Ballard remarks, the simultaneous presence of proper names such as Marengo and Algiers in the seemingly innocuous sentence ‘l’asile de vieillards est à Marengo, à quatre-vingt kilomètres d’Alger’ at the start of the book already speaks volumes about ‘the dual nature of the Algeria of those days’, when ‘an indigenous element (...) expressed in native names such as Alger’ coexisted with ‘imported names’ such as Marengo which ‘flagged up French (imperial) history’ (21). Indeed Ballard adds: ‘The name Marengo may not mean much to the average English speaker, but for many French people, it is connected with classroom memories of a victorious campaign in Italy by Napoleon’ (21).

  • 4 I here refer to Jacques Villon’s painting and Jacques-Henri Lartigue’s photograph which are used, r (...)

10Associated as it is with the culture-specific hidden meanings of proper names, translation loss appears here to be inevitable. A first conclusion could thus be drawn: the relative invisibility of the French Algerian context of L’Étranger in pre-1990s English translations of the novel is a matter of shared responsibility, one part owing to the impossibility of translating cultural referents, the other owing to the translators’strategies—namely Ward’s resolve to emphasize L’Étranger’s ‘American’ style, or Gilbert’s tendency to embellish the terseness of Camus’ prose. However, a closer look at the paratexts of these two versions (as well as that of their different editions) paints a somewhat different picture and makes clear that the French Algerian context of L’Étranger was deliberately relegated to the sidelines after 1950. It is indeed striking that, from 1946 to 1974, the British editions of L’Étranger (based on Gilbert’s translation) all included an Introduction by Cyril Connolly which clearly faces up to, and to some extent makes up for, issues of translation loss, by situating L’Étranger in French Algeria and by associating the novel with a ‘pagan and barrenly philistine (Mediterranean) culture’ (5) which has little to do with the French Mediterranean. Importantly depicting Camus as ‘an Algerian’—that is, one who is ‘not a French colonial, but a citizen of France domiciled in North Africa, a man of the Mediterranean, an homme du midi yet one who hardly partakes of the traditional Mediterranean culture’ (5)—Connolly’s Introduction was originally written for the 1946 edition of L’Étranger. This edition flags up an Algerian context, too, and is in fact ‘unique in its portrayal of the murdered Arab rather than the psychological disturbed narrator’ (Baines 2013: np). Yet, it is worth noting that even if Connolly’s Introduction was reprinted in the subsequent editions of The Outsider in the period 1957-1974, the dust jackets of post-1957 editions (as well as the covers of the post-1980 editions based on Joseph Laredo’s translation) turned increasingly abstract, using art work that similarly depicted the isolation of a faceless man in the midst of unrecognizable surroundings.4

11The possibility that post-1974 English editions of L’Étranger would rather perform some back-pedalling on issues of translation loss rather than meddle with the French Algerian colonial context of Camus’ novel was further evidenced by Peter Dunwoodie’s 1993 Introduction to Ward’s The Stranger. Ironically for a scholar who, five years later, published a monograph entitled Writing French Algeria, the seventeen pages of Dunwoodie’s Introduction chiefly contextualize Camus’ novel by shifting the ground of analysis to ‘the vicissitudes of occupied France’ (xi) and the philosophy of the Absurd, while devoting a single noncommittal paragraph only to ‘the influence of Camus’ native Algeria’ in his ‘ (neo-pagan) valorization of the natural world’ (xviii). Dunwoodie’s apparent resolve to sidestep issues linked to the French Algerian context of L’Étranger is doubly ironic if one considers that his Introduction was published in the same year as Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, in which the colonial context of L’Étranger not only returns, but does so with a vengeance. In fact, at about the same time as English translations of L’Étranger started ‘forgetting’ the novel’s French Algerian context, another ‘forgetting’ of French Algeria was taking place from across the Channel and the Atlantic. Of course, it is impossible to gauge the extent to which these instances of forgetting impacted on each other. But it is possible to trace the ways in which scenarios which were summoned up in the early 1960s to perfect the ‘French forgetting’ would later travel across the Channel, and then, across the Atlantic, in ways that would forget, too, to revaluate these exports in light of their original political context.

12As U.S. historian Todd Shepard argues, in 1961, as the outcome of the Algerian war became predictable in mainland France, the 130-year-old slogan ‘Algeria is France’ gave way, almost overnight, to a ‘Tide of History’ motto according to which decolonization in general, and the Algerian Independence in particular, started to be perceived as ‘necessitated by the logic of History itself’ (7). The construction of some all-good-again Frenchness was further consolidated by the Orientalist stereotyping of pied-noir identity, which naturalized the comforting beliefs that ‘only (pied-noir) “fascists” (...) had opposed Independence’ and that ‘the Algerian experience had been an unfortunate detour, from which the French Republic had now escaped’ (Shepard 2008: 11). That the all-too-easy conflation of ‘pied-noir’ and ‘right-wing extremist’ has proved instrumental in keeping the meaning of decolonization at bay in France is further evidenced in Pierre Nora’s Les Français d’Algérie, a book in which the historian conveniently refashions Sartre’s and Fanon’s dialectics of ‘French colonizer’ and ‘Algerian colonized’ around an opposition between ‘Metropolitan Frenchmen’ and the ‘French of Algeria’. Recently dismissed by American historians because it ‘synthetiz (es) a self-righteous anti-pied noir discourse’ (Shepard 2008: 195) and is ‘devoid of scholarly apparatus’ (Prochaska 2006: 258), Nora’s book depicts pied-noirs not only as a ‘deeply racist and fundamentally irrational’ (Shepard: 89) tribe with a repressed desire for genocide (cf. Nora 1961: 186–187), but also as one who lacks some ‘precious Western essence’ (Nora 1961: 51)—in short, David Carroll ironizes, as a community that is French ‘in name only’ (24). So, to return to my above suggestion that French scenarios associated with the forgetting of French Algeria might well have travelled across the Channel, and later, the Atlantic, without being reassessed in relation to their original political context, it is indeed striking to find clear traces of Nora’s original assumption that Meursault’s killing of the Arab in L’Étranger expresses ‘the troubling confession of a historical culpability which takes on the appearance of an anticipation’ (Nora cited in O’Brien: 191), first in Conor Cruise O’Brien’s 1970 monograph on Camus, and then, in Edward Said’s 1993 Culture and Imperialism. Regrettably, the wider implications of Nora’s pseudo-Freudian portrait of Camus as a pied-noir writer who, through Meursault, is honest enough to express the genocidal urge of its people—one that is usually ‘repressed’ through the intervention of some French-Republican super-ego (cf. Nora 1961: 187)—will be left equally unexamined by this first generation of postcolonial critics. But the image will be recycled. And it would be quite some time before historians such as Steven Englund and Anderson take Nora to task for his ‘forgetting’ of the French colonial past in Lieux de mémoires.

  • 5 Like ‘French Algerian’, the phrase ‘pied-noir’ is misleading, in that both terms erase the diverse (...)

13It is clearly necessary to briefly turn to Said’s influential discussion of Camus’ novel in Culture and Imperialism in order to assess the extent to which the Algerian question and the equation between ‘Camus’ and ‘colonialist’ have become significant in post-1990s Anglophone readings of L’Étranger. In an attempt to position Camus as a ‘late imperial figure’ (208), Said strategically starts with contextualizing Camus’ birth in 1913 in Mondovi by drawing on Prochaska’s discussion of the conflicting accounts of the history of the neighbourhing city of Bône by Algerian patriots and French colons (cf. 207). This introduction sets the tone; Said’s goal is to read Camus’ novels as ‘interventions in the history of French efforts in Algeria, making and keeping it French’ (212). Rather logically, Said’s hypothesis that Camus’ novels ‘very precisely distil the traditions, idioms, and discursive strategies of France’s appropriation of Algeria’ (223) first requires him to postulate the writer’s unadulterated Frenchness—indeed ‘his entirely French upbringing in Algeria’ (210) and his ‘French antecedents’ (216)—in apparent dismissal not only of the pied-noir writer’s mixed Spanish and French origins,5 but also of the class-specific redefinition of Frenchness that Camus’ upbringing in the working-class Algiers district of Belcourt might entail. It is no wonder, Said argues, that ‘the tendency is for readers to associate Camus’ novels with French novels about France’ (212). For Said, this tendency is not due to the tunnel vision intrinsic to Eurocentric critics, in France or abroad, who showed little interest in France’s southern départements. Rather, this tendency owes to the fact that, in Camus’ novels, the ‘choice of an Algerian locale seems purely incidental to the pressing moral issues at hand’ (212). But there is more to it than just that. For if there is a real motive, after all, that might explain Camus’ choice of locating L’Étranger and La Peste in Algeria even as their ‘main reference (...) has always been construed as France generally, and more particularly, France under the Nazi Occupation, ’Said adds, ‘the choice is not innocent’ (211). It can only be, as Said argues after O’Brien’s ‘agile attempt at demystification (of Camus)’ (209), that ‘much in the tales (e.g. Meursault’s trial) is either a surreptitious or unconscious justification of French rule or an ideological attempt to prettify it’ (211).

14There would be much to say about the problematic aspects of Said’s unsparing portrait of Camus as a closet colonialist and about his ‘contrapuntal’ reading of Camus’ novels as ‘interventions’ in the history of French colonialism. In what follows, however, my interest lies more in the ways in which the premises of Said’s reading—that Camus is absolutely French, and that his novels are directly ‘affiliated (...) with the colonial venture’ (212)—not only indirectly (and counter-productively) intersect with the pieties of post-imperial France, but also obscure important aspects of L’Étranger that might get easily lost in translation. Arguably, the most problematic aspect of Said’s argument is that the colonizer/colonized binary upon which it rests overlaps with his insistence on Camus’ absolute Frenchness. By ignoring that the colonizer/colonized binary is complicated here by a third factor—the fact the pied-noir community also occupies an in-between position between mainland France and the Arab Berber population—Said tends to evacuate the role of the metropole in enforcing colonialism in French Algeria, in an unfortunate move that ends up duplicating the post-1961 scenario through which France has conveniently forgotten French Algeria, as was suggested above.

15McCarthy’s suggestion that L’Étranger is about class as much as it is about race is fruitful in this context (cf. 37–45), because it repositions Meursault at the complex intersection of two sorts of tensions—racial tensions between the European settlers and the Arab and Berber population on the one hand, and class-based tensions between the pied-noir community and mainland France on the other (the latter importantly being replayed within the community, between the ruling class of colons who identifies with France and a working class for whom France is a convenient yet skin-deep pole of identification only). Nowhere is the ambivalence intrinsic to working-class pied-noir identification with Frenchness depicted more clearly than in Camus’ Le Premier Homme. In this largely autobiographical novel which was published posthumously, Jacques Cormery, a working-class pied-noir orphan who represents Camus’ alter-ego, contrasts his feeling of Frenchness with the one expressed by Didier, an upper-class schoolmate whose family is rich enough to own a holiday home in France. For Didier, the patrie is clearly identified with France. For Jacques, however, who has never travelled to France and lives in poverty in Algiers, ‘cette notion de patrie [est] vide de sens’ (226). Likened by him to an ‘absence’, to a ‘God’ who is accountable to no one but who can lord over the destiny of all, Jacques feels that his Frenchness is all but an abstraction, that he is, in fact, ‘un citoyen théorique d’une nation imprécise’ (227).

16The famous philosopher Jacques Derrida, who is himself a Jewish native of French Algeria, commented on the ‘very marked social gap’ between the ‘the figure of the French of France and the French of Algeria, ’ within which the former is made to stand ‘higher on the ladder’ (1992: 204). As suggested above, in L’Étranger, this ‘very marked social mark’ emerges at the level of language, through the ways in which Meursault and the pimp Raymond Sintès stick to local forms of French Algerian street language to affirm a common identity. Evidence of Meursault’s dis/identification with mainland France abounds in the text, and ranges from his dislike of Paris (‘C’est sale. Il y a des pigeons et des cours noires. Les gens ont la peau blanche’ (70)), to his wariness towards representatives of metropolitan authority, among whom the magistrate and prison chaplain who challenge the protagonist’s atheism. More importantly, however, Meursault’s strange Frenchness—indeed his sense of himself as a ‘theoretical citizen of an imprecise Nation’— reaches a climax in the midst of a trial during which ‘the victim of the crime and the crime itself are largely ignored or forgotten’, a ‘paradox’ which ‘has simply been ignored by critics or explained away in various and conflicting ways’ (Carroll 2007: 27). What Carroll suggests is that Meursault’s arrest over murder causes him to lose (possibly temporally) his privileged place as a French citizen in colonial society. To the further extent that the trial mainly focuses on Meursault’s apparent lack of grief during his mother’s funeral and on his refusal to turn to God to atone for his crime (s), the trial takes place, Carroll aptly argues, not to further inquire into the protagonist’s deed, but ‘to put (Meursault’s) right to French identity into question’ (32). Carroll adds:

Meursault is a subject for conversion (or, in colonialist terms, assimilation), which means that were he to declare his belief in the Christian God, he would regain his status as a French Algerian (...). In rejecting Christianity (...) he is in effect refusing French identity itself and the possibility of being assimilated (back) into French society.
(33, emphases in original)

  • 6 Much to Camus’ concern, the Blum-Viollette proposal collapsed after French Algerian mayors resigned (...)

17Seen in this perspective, Camus invalidates the colonial myth that ‘Algeria is France’ through the ever-expanding cracks in Meursault’s skin-deep brand of Frenchness. What is more, the fact that Meursault can regain his privileged status in French colonial society only if ‘he declares his belief in the Christian God’ is of major significance in a French Algerian context in which Muslims and Jews could theoretically embrace French citizenship since 1865 on the condition that they abandon their ‘Koranic and Mosaic local civil status’—meaning their religions (cf. Shepard 2006: 28–29). The suggestion that Meursault’s apparently nonsensical trial is very much about Camus’ criticism of the politics of Frenchness in colonial Algeria is further evidenced when looking at the dates framing the writing of L’Étranger; 1937, which marked the Popular Front’s Blum-Viollette proposal to extend French citizenship to Muslims of Algeria,6 and 1940, which saw Vichy France revoke Algerian Jews’ French citizenship through the abrogation of the 1870 Crémieux Decree. To put it shortly, L’Étranger is very much postcolonial—in ways that critics working within the field of postcolonial studies have paradoxically tended to overlook. And to the extent that the postcolonial aspects of the book are deeply woven into the earthy fabric of Meursault’s pied-noir identity and into the Christian themes and lyrical imagery of the novel, ‘translating the postcolonial’ here requires to retain both—a straddling of extremes that most English translations of Camus’ classic proved uncomfortable with, until very recently.

  • 7 The original reads ‘Il m’a semblé que le ciel s’ouvrait sur toute son étendue pour laisser pleuvoir (...)

18It is for this very reason that Smith’s 2013 translation of L’Étranger needs to be welcomed as one that might have the potential of complicating early postcolonial readings of the novel. By contrast to Gilbert, Smith appears to be undaunted by the terseness of Camus’ style, reproducing his fast-paced, ‘dissociative‘ (Abbou) syntax to the letter, even when it comes to retaining the many empty phatic formulas giving some local flavour to Sintès’ speech (cf. 26). Smith also restores the ambiguity inherent in Meursault’s sense of rebirth as he awaits his execution and feels that ‘he open (s) (him) self for the first time to the tender indifference of the world’ (111), while Gilbert (76) and Laredo (117) had clearly missed the mark by translating tendre by ‘benign’ in the same passage. By her own admission, through her understanding of ‘porte du malheur’ by ‘fatal door of destiny’ (54), she gives much better account, too, of the ‘wealth of associations’ (Camus 2013: vi) that are connected to the word malheur in the famous metaphor for Meursault’s gun shots, ‘frapper sur la porte du malheur’ (95), which is a significant improvement from Laredo’s ‘door of unhappiness’ (60). Unlike Ward, who used the foreignizing ‘maman’ at the risk of distancing Anglophone readers, and in contrast to Gilbert (4) and Laredo (9), who went for the more aloof ‘Mother’, Smith translates Camus’ famous incipit ‘aujourd’hui maman est morte’ (9), as ‘My mother died today’ (3), which re-humanizes Meursault through the use of the possessive pronoun. Perhaps more importantly, Smith aptly restores the numerous Biblical allusions of L’Étranger, the presence of which within the text gives more weight to Meursault’s final rejection of Christianity, which is itself linked to his refusal to be ‘assimilated (back) into French society’, as suggested above. At the end of Part 1, just after Meursault fires his gun for the first time, the apocalyptic tones7 which had been downplayed by Laredo’s translation—‘the sky seemed to be splitting from end to end and raining down sheets of flame’ (60)—are retained in Smith’s version, in which the sky ‘pours its fire down upon (Meursault)’ (43). Last but not least, the ways in which Meursault eventually positions himself both as an ‘outsider’ and an ‘insider’ to French Algeria by paraphrasing Jesus’ last words on the Cross in St John’s Gospel—‘pour que tout soit consommé’ (186)—finds a clear intertextual equivalent for the very first time in Smith’s rendition, which ‘retains the translation of this sentence in the King James Bible’ (vii).

19Finally, it appears that Smith’s translation is also invaluable simply because it coincided with other books inviting us to reconsider the actuality of Camus’ Algerian legacy from a non-French perspective—among which Kamel Daoud’s Meursault, contre-enquête, a retelling of Camus’ classic which was published in Algeria in the same year, and Arthur Goldhammer’s translation, for the first time in English, of Camus’ Algerian Chronicles. As Anglophone readers are finally acquainted with Camus’ stand, at the time of the Algerian War, in favour of a ‘voluntary federal regime in which (...) each Arab will obtain the privileges of a free citizen’ (176), and as they discover in Daoud’s novel a rewriting of L’Étranger that not only grants Meursault’s victim a name and a story, but also laments contemporary Algeria’s increased religiosity, they are compelled, too, like Daoud’s protagonist, to ‘read (L’Étranger) in a certain way, tilting it sideways as though to make invisible details fall out’ (132). In 2012, when Benjamin Stora, the founding curator of the major Camus exhibition for Marseille-Provence European Capital of Culture 2013, was given the sack by arch-conservative Aix-en-Provence mayor Joissains-Masini, it first appeared that the specificity of Camus’ liberal pied-noir voice would still remain silenced in today’s France for quite some time. However, Stora did not let Joissains-Masini have the last word. In 2013, the historian indeed published Camus brûlant, in which the writer is portrayed as a figure who allows the building of bridges between France and Algeria. It is to be hoped, too, that retranslations, re-readings and rewritings of L’Étranger will generate renewed insights into the politics of Camus’ novel, with a potential for disrupting sugar-coated versions of the French colonial past.


Works Cited

Abbou, André. ‘L’Étranger: Notice’, in Albert Camus, Œuvres complètes I. Paris: La Pléiade, 2006; 1243–1264.

Anderson, Perry. ‘Union sucrée’. London Review of Books online. 23 September 2004. Accessed 30 November 2015.

Baines, Phil. ‘Albert Camus’ The Outsider and its Covers’ Stories— gallery’. The Guardian online. 7 November 2013. Accessed 30 November 2015.

Baker, Mona. Translation and Conflict: A Narrative Account. London and New York: Routledge, 2006.

Ballard, Michel. ‘In Search of the Foreign: A Study of the Three English Translations of Camus’ L’Étranger’, in On Translating French Literature and Film II, Myriam Salama-Carr, ed. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000; 19–38.

Camus, Albert. Algerian Chronicles. 1958. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.

Camus, Albert. Le premier homme. Paris: Gallimard (Folio), 1994.

Camus, Albert. L’Étranger. Paris: Gallimard (Folio), 1942.

Camus, Albert. The Outsider. 1942. Trans. Joseph Laredo. 1983. London: Penguin, 2000.

Camus, Albert. The Outsider. 1942. Trans. Sandra Smith. London: Penguin, 2013.

Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. 1942. New York: Knopf, 1946.

Camus, Albert. The Stranger. 1942. Trans. Matthew Ward. New York: Knopf, 1989.

Carroll, David. Albert Camus the Algerian: Colonialism, Terrorism, Justice. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

Cohen, William B. ‘Pied-Noir Memory, History, and the Algerian War’, in Europe’s Invisible Migrants, Andrea L. Smith, ed. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press; 129–145.

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1 Joseph Laredo’s 1980 translation of L’Étranger will be briefly discussed at the end of this essay.

2 In Part 2, as Meursault reminisces about his first days in prison, his noncommittal ‘En réalité, je n’étais pas réellement en prison les premiers jours: j’attendais vaguement quelque événement nouveau’ (113) is deformed by Gilbert as: ‘In point of fact, during those early days, I was hardly conscious of being in prison; I had always a vague hope that something would turn up, some agreeable surprise’ (46).

3 In keeping with Sartre, André Abbou argues that the syntax of L’Étranger duplicates Meursault’s feeling of alienation in that it ‘dissociates’ rather than organizes the text through ‘cascaded enumerations’, juxtapositions and ‘neuter coordinating conjunctions’ (See Abbou, ‘Notice’, 1246).

4 I here refer to Jacques Villon’s painting and Jacques-Henri Lartigue’s photograph which are used, respectively, for the covers of the 1966 and 1983 Penguin editions of The Outsider. See Baines, ‘Albert Camus’ The Outsider and its covers’ stories’.

5 Like ‘French Algerian’, the phrase ‘pied-noir’ is misleading, in that both terms erase the diverse origins and histories of a group who were automatically or willingly naturalized as French from the 1840s onwards, but hailed from places as diverse as Malta, Spain, Italy, Germany, and other European countries. What is more, Algerian Jews, whose community had been present in Algeria for more than 2000 years at the time of Independence, also became French citizens as a result of the Crémieux decree of 1870 (the decree was annulled by Vichy France in 1940, and it is only in 1943 that Algerian Jews regained their citizenship). Although William B. Cohen notes that, ‘since (the Algerian) independence Algerian Jews have moved away from identifying with the pied-noir community’ (136), it is worth mentioning that 120000 members of the Jewish community of Algeria ‘repatriated’ to France in 1962. In fact, the term ‘pied-noir’ only started to qualify Algerians of European origin and Algerian Jews in the years immediately preceding the repatriation of this population to France, a country where the majority of them, and their ancestors, had never set foot. Thus Frederick Cooper writes that, ‘To the extent that [pied-noir] returnees “had” a collective identity, it stemmed from the exclusive focus on the moment of expulsion, exile, and repatriation and occluded the diverse trajectories that had brought settlers to Algeria’ (Cooper 2003: 181–182). For the sake of simplification, I will nonetheless use terms such as ‘pied-noir’, ‘French Algerian’ and ‘Algerian of European origins’ interchangeably.

6 Much to Camus’ concern, the Blum-Viollette proposal collapsed after French Algerian mayors resigned en masse.

7 The original reads ‘Il m’a semblé que le ciel s’ouvrait sur toute son étendue pour laisser pleuvoir du feu’ (95).


FRS-FNRS/University of Liège
Is an F.R.S.-FNRS postdoctoral researcher in the English Department at the University of Liège (Belgium). She has published in the field of American and postcolonial literatures, diaspora studies, and South Asian studies. Among her recent publications are the monograph After Melancholia: A Reappraisal of Second-Generation Diasporic Subjectivity in the Work of Jhumpa Lahiri (Rodopi, 2013), and ‘Mapping Diasporic Subjectivities’ (2014), a special issue of South Asian Diaspora that she guest-edited with Mala Pandurang. Forthcoming is the guest-editing (with Bénédicte Ledent) of a special issue of the Journal of Postcolonial Writing, which is entitled Minority Genres in Postcolonial Literatures.

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