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Lust at first sight and to hell with the consequences.

February 10, 2014 15 comments

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain. 1934. French title: Le facteur sonne toujours deux fois. Translated by Sabine Berritz.

Next thing I knew, I was down there with her, and we were staring in each other’s eyes, and locked in each other’s arms, and straining to get closer. Hell could have opened for me then, and it wouldn’t have made any difference. I had to have her, if I hung for it. I had her.

Cain_facteurFrank Chambers is our narrator. He’s in his twenties, has lived across the country as a hobo and ends up at Twin Oaks Tavern, a diner and gas station along a road. The owner Nick Papadakis needs help and hires him to serve gas and take care of cars. Frank isn’t interested in the job but the food is great and he needs a place to crash. That’s until he spots Cora, Nick’s wife. Between them, it’s lust at first sight. He discovers that she married Nick to have a place to live in. She doesn’t love him at all and she’s even disgusted by him. Frank and Cora have an affair and eventually decide to murder Nick.

To me, Frank and Cora are like wild animals. They don’t think about the future, they act to satisfy their immediate needs. He stays at the diner’s for food, she marries Nick to be off the streets. Once their need changes, they change of attitude. They have no gratitude, no moral compass. Nick is a nice guy, generous, welcoming. He may sound a little stupid but he’s a good man. Cora and Nick call him The Greek and look down on him because of his origin. (She doesn’t want to be called Mrs Papadakis) Racism is rampant there, and their attitude towards him illustrates what Gary said about racism. It’s when they don’t count. Nick doesn’t count. His death doesn’t count, he’s not their equal, is that so morally reprehensible to kill him? I saw Frank and Cora as cold blooded murderers and not at all as people accidentally led to crime. That’s what happens in Build my Gallows High, not in The Postman Always Rings Twice.

As always, I have trouble writing about crime fiction. I have things to say but most of what I’d like to write about the plot and the characters is full of spoilers. My rule is not to ruin the book for another potential reader, so spoilers aren’t an option.

However, I have things to say about the French translation. I bought a paperback copy published by Folio Policier and the translation by Sabine Berritz dates back to 1936. I’m not judging Ms Berritz, she probably did her best given the context. It was a time when crime fiction like this was trash literature, when publishers didn’t hesitate to accommodate books for their public and when translators might not have had the wages and time necessary to do a thorough job. I’m just disappointed that Folio sells that great novel in such a poor translation. They could afford a new one, the book is less than 150 pages long. It’s not like retranslating War and Peace! When I reached page 16, I went to the Kindle Store to buy the original. The French version was unbearable. I switched between the electronic version in English and the paper version in French as I was on a plane and e-books aren’t allowed during take-off and landing. The French translation is bad, there’s no other word. Some things are ludicrous now but forgivable. For example, words like corn-flakes or bacon are in English and in italic, like miso in a book translated from the Japanese. Now, we have adopted these words in French. What made me really laugh out loud is the footnote to explain what Coca-Cola is. I had the same experience when I read On the Road in a 1950s translation. Again, it reminded me how our country got americanised during the 20thC. At least, that’s understandable given the time and even interesting, from a “historical” point of view. But what is absolutely unbearable is the tone of the translation: the overabundant use of argot that didn’t age well (boustifaille, c’est bath…); the explosion of exclamation marks when there are none in the original and worst of all, paragraphs mixing different levels of language for no reason.

« Ça n’me creuse pas l’estomac, ça! Ça n’me fera pas m’arrêter ici pour essayer de croûter. Elle vous fait perdre de l’argent cette enseigne et vous n’en savez rien » when the original is “Well, Twin Oaks don’t make me hungry. It don’t make me want to stop and get something to eat. It’s costing you money, that sign, only you don’t know it.” The “vous n’en savez rien” doesn’t agree with the previous “ça n’me fera pas”. A “vous en savez rien” would have been better, in my opinion. Then I noticed a « Je m’en retourne », which sounds like 19thC French poetry, not crime fiction, when the original is a simple “I’m going back”.

There are crimes in this book but the translation is almost a crime to literature as well. Please Folio, have someone retranslate this! This book is fantastic in the original and doesn’t sound as fantastic in French.

Max has read it recently and he’s a bit more positive than me about the characters. Have a look at his excellent review here.

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