Ask a Book Question #77 (The Red and the Black in Translation)

January 19, 2010 | 7 books mentioned 7 2 min read

Ralph wrote in with this question:

I am a frequent The Millions reader and have a question. Can you suggest the best translation of Stendhal’s The Red and The Black or, perhaps, which translation or edition is considered “definitive”? I believe Scott-Moncrieff’s translation was long considered definitive, but there is a more recent translation by Burton Raffel. I’m interested in a recommendation from a trusted source.

coverChoosing a literary translation tends to be a matter of taste, but according to our researches Burton Raffel‘s translation of Stendhal‘s under-appreciated novel The Red and the Black seems the most promising. By some accounts, Raffel’s our greatest living translator. He has made a business of bringing overlooked “great books” (Don Quixote, The Canterbury Tales, Pere Goriot, Gargantua and Pantagruel, most of Chretien de Troyes‘ writings) back to life by recasting them in a contemporary American idiom.  Modern Library’s rather sexy cover of Raffel’s The Red and the Black testifies to his approach.  A lot of readers like Raffel’s style—Michael Wood quite liked his Don Quixote when he reviewed it at the LRB, and Elif Batuman, our occasional contributor and consulting scholar on the European novel, also recommends it.  Raffel’s translations are funnier than his rivals’ and they read more easily—but this comes at the expense of precise literal accuracy.  If you’re a stickler for literal translations, Raffel might not be for you.

For a more detailed take on Raffel’s The Red and the Black and rival translations, we present this excerpt from Allen Barra‘s Salon review, featured on Powell’s Review-A-Day, which offers, among other things, a comparison of Raffel’s translation with C.K. Scott Moncrieff‘s noted 1926 version of Stendhal’s classic:

Yet if some modern readers have been slow to come to Stendhal, a possible reason is that his best novels don’t read as modern as they feel. The famous C.K. Scott Moncrieff translation for Modern Library was first published in 1926. Margaret R.B. Shaw’s 1953 translation for Penguin reads like a translation of an 18th century novel.

The new translation by Burton Raffel rocks. Or, more precisely, it’s a blast, which is exactly how Raffel (a distinguished professor of humanities at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette who has also dragged Balzac’s old warhorse, Pere Goriot, kicking and screaming into the 21st century) has Julien describe his own life: “‘If you give me twenty francs,’ he says to a visitor while awaiting his trip to the guillotine, ‘I’ll tell you, in detail, the story of my life. It’s a blast.'” Raffel restores to Stendhal the quality that, in the words of V.S. Pritchett, makes “each sentence of his plain prose” read like “a separate shock.

Let’s compare two different versions of the oft-quoted passage on Julien’s narcissism, translated first by Moncrieff then by Raffel:

— “Julien’s life was thus composed of a series of petty negotiations; and their success was of far more importance to him than the evidence of a marked preference for himself which was only waiting for him to read it in the heart of Madame de Renal.”

— “Julien’s life was thus composed of a series of petty negotiations, and their success concerned him far more than the signs of special affection he could have read in Madame de Renal’s heart, if only he had bothered.”

Thanks to outdated translations, Stendhal has spent the last few decades languishing in the twilight realm of the praised but unread. Now, thanks to Raffel’s translation, Julien Sorel can begin haunting the 21st century.

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Virginia. She is a winner of the Virginia Quarterly's Young Reviewers Contest and has a doctorate from Stanford. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Times, In Character, VQR, Arts & Letters Daily, and The Daily Dish.


  1. I found an old Collier Books edition at the used bookstore, but it was marked-up, moldy and about to fall apart. I’ll be replacing it with the Raffel translation. I was a little worried about the “It’s a blast”-style, but you’ve convinced me otherwise.

    Thanks for the suggestion!

  2. So now, thanks to this excellent post, I’m sitting here at the office, pondering and obsessing over which translation I have back home. Considering that I picked up my copy at a free book swap, I’m guessing I have the Scott-Moncrieff. I assume I’ll enjoy the book either way.

  3. i only started warming up to translations recently; i’ve always felt that translations could never match the originals, and though i still think that way, i’ve resigned myself to the fact that reading translations is better than nothing. (i have never been able to master a language other than those i grew up with.)

    That said, i’m not comfortable with the idea of ‘updating’ translations, unless they’re the sort of ‘update’ that brings a text closer to the spirit (not necessarily the letter) of the original, mainained in the context of the original. That a text should be brought ‘kicking and screaming’ into this or any century…that seems unfair to the original text. Any text, after all, is necessarily the product of the time and place of its writing, and should (imho) be treasured as such. After all, if translations are living things that need to be updated, doesn’t that imply that original (i.e., untranslated) texts need to be updated as well?

  4. A helpful piece, but what on earth possessed Ms. Wilkinson to publish two English translations side-by-side without the French original for comparison? Like, how on earth would I know which translation is better without having the French to compare it to? Raffel’s translation adds an explicit remonstrance to the narrator’s treatment of Julien that is at best latent in Moncrieff’s–one wonders if it is in Stendhal or not, not which one makes for easier comprehension.

  5. This recommendation is scandalously irresponsible. Raffel’s version shouldn’t even count as a “translation”. It’s a retelling for kids who want their MTV. Moncrieff was a translator of genius. But for those who want something more contemporary (in a 19th century novel?), I highly recommend Roger Gard’s accurate and very readable recent translation for Penguin.

  6. A responsible answer to this question would include comparisons of all the major translations since Montcrieff. A cursory glance at amazon shows that there are at least six: Gard, Adams, Parks, Keates, Raffel, Slater. There are probably more. Therefore i boo: BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

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