How can we translate the first line of Camus’ The Stranger into English?

There are few opening words as well known as those of The Stranger, by Albert Camus. A simple and equally lapidary phrase: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte”.

The opening of a book, its first words, are crucial.  But there are few opening words as well known as those of The Stranger, by Albert Camus. A simple, beguilingly simple, and equally lapidary phrase: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte”. Well, you might, say, it’s so simple that no translation is required. But it’s not that easy…

Such an easy phrase to translate…

Regardless of the language you are learning, it is more than likely that, even as a beginner, you can translate this very simple phrase: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte”. And yet … And yet, since 1946, the year in which The Stranger was first translated into English, we are still asking ourselves the following question: how can we translate this first sentence correctly? At least, this is what Ryan Bloom reflects upon in a very interesting article, published in The New Yorker.

The different translations of the opening words of The Stranger

Gilbert Stuart was the first to translate the novel by Camus into English. How did he translate its opening words? “Mother died today“. In 1982, Joseph Laredo and Kate Griffith produced another translation of this work. While they translated title otherwise (The Outsider versus The Stranger), they nonetheless opted to retain Stuart’s translation of the opening sentence: “Mother died today“. In 1988, an additional version of this phrase emerged: Matthew Ward translated it as “Maman died today“. Why and what changes?

How do you translate “maman“?

What changes it is that mother is not a translation of “maman”. It is the translation of “mère“. The term mother denotes a distance, a certain coldness that is not the case with “maman”. So, why not use mommy? Mommy is certainly warm and familiar, but it sounds too childish. For it is in those first words that our relationship with Meursault is born. How does he talk about his mother? What kind of person is he? Is he cold and distant, or warm yet childish? It so happens that the main character of the novel is neither one nor the other: “maman”, lies halfway between mother and mommy. Therefore, Matthew Ward’s idea of keeping the French term is accurate and perfectly understandable to an English-speaking reader.

The word order is also important

There is one more problem to be addressed: the word order. Whether for a literary translation, a financial translation or a legal one, the word order may involve different nuances or changes in meaning. The phrase “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte” helps us to gain a deeper insight into what Meursault is like. Anyone who has read The Stranger knows just how much this character dwells in the present. For him, everything is present, everything is now. Everything is aujourd’hui, the first word of the novel. It is followed, in space and in order of importance, by “maman“. Both for Camus and Meursault, maman is very important. It lies in the middle of the sentence, literally between the present moment and death, just as she occupies the center of the character’s life. And there is a logical sequence: life aujourd’hui, the loss of maman, death – morte. Death, the logical and inevitable end of everything. Therefore, the translation of the opening words of The Stranger should be: “Today, maman died.”

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This article has been written by Mathieu

Mathieu was born in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. After studying Literature and Linguistic Research, he moved to Argentina where he is currently a translator and a web editor.