The Canterbury Tales (Modern Library)

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

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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.

Choosing 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.

A Year in Reading: David Ebershoff


David Ebershoff’s most recent novel is The 19th Wife ( He is an editor at large at Random House.It’s not easy to boil down my reading life of 2008 to a few favorite books, so I’ll do what I tell my writing students to do: find a narrative structure to accommodate your story. In this case, I’ll name one new novel, one new non-fiction book, one favorite classic, and then hook several big fat asterisks to the whole thing.****Favorite New Novel of 2008That’s easy: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. Not only is it an engrossing narrative, not only does the novel show remarkably deft plotting, not only does Sittenfeld write with uncommon wisdom and compassion, not only does she create a voice for a figure – Laura Bush – who has been, in many ways, voiceless to the American public – these aren’t the only reasons I love love love American Wife. On top of all this, I endlessly admire this novel because it asserts an important role for fiction in the national dialogue. While many people have wasted time groaning over the novel’s impotence in 21st century culture, Sittenfeld has slyly insisted that the novel can have a vital, in fact unparalleled, place in public debate. This wonderful novel does something rare: it matters.Favorite New Non-Fiction Book of 2008This is harder, because I read non-fiction pretty whorishly. But the book that has stayed with me the longest is White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Through the lens of this unusual literary friendship, Brenda Wineapple, who is a friend of mine, reveals Dickinson in an aptly artful and original way. Wineapple brilliantly glosses dozens of Dickinson’s poems, opening them up to me, one by one, in ways I’ve never known. By the end of the book, Wineapple has taken us to the core of Dickinson’s creative process – right into the glow of her famous white heat.Favorite Classic of 2008I started the New Year with James Cain’s triple crown of Depression-era noir and cruelty, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce. If you’ve ever said to yourself, I haven’t read a good book in a long time, well, here you go. It’s pretty much impossible to start one of these books and not finish it. The first two are crime novels, with writing as strong and clear as Hemingway’s. Mildred Pierce isn’t really a crime novel, although it’s often thought of one because the film adaptation (Joan Crawford took home her only Oscar playing MP) was recast as a crime story. Cain’s Mildred Pierce is the story of woman who bets everything on chickens and pies in order to save her crumbling family. His portrait of economic depression is vivid, moving, and regrettably relevant to our day. If you’re in a book group, put it on your list right now.****Now for the asterisksBecause I spend a good deal of my time working as an editor-at-large at Random House, it’s hard for me to talk about the books of 2008 without talking about the books I edited, so you need to understand my endorsements below in that context, yet I try to edit books I love and these books all sit tightly in my reader’s heart. I’d feel weird naming any one of these as my favorite, but each is a favorite in its own way.The Story of Forgetting: A Novel by Stefan Merrill BlockBeautiful Children: A Novel by Charles BockThe Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer in a new unabridged translation by Burton RaffelBallistics: Poems by Billy CollinsThe Christian World: A Global History by Martin MartyFair Shares for All: A Memoir of Family and Food by John HaneyMore from A Year in Reading 2008

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