The Outsider/The Stranger by Albert Camus

I think, like most other book bloggers, I am not going to write a review of every single book I have ever read. I cannot even imagine how much work that would be. But one of the reasons why I decided to write a review on Camus’ work is because it seems to have gone through a name change. When talking to my mother about this book she was surprised to learn that the title on my Penguin Classics version was ‘The Outsider’ and not ‘The Stranger’. This made me consider some interesting points about the text that becomes lost in translation. I recently attended the Society of Young Publishers Conference in Oxford, where a point was made about how only 4% of books released are translated pieces. Growing up in a bilingual household it’s interesting to hear the different word association people have with things. Whilst it is fantastic that works like Camus are translated, it does highlight that reading a text in translation will never have the same impact as in the original language. And maybe that’s why there is so little push to increase the number of books translated each year. But let’s get on with the review.

The protagonist is named Meursault, a Frenchman, who lives in Algiers. Just by knowing this you can already see where the title comes from, he is already a foreigner because he is a Frenchman living in Algeria. He’s a peculiar character, to say the least. The opening line of the novel “Mother died today. Or maybe it was yesterday, I don’t know” suggests from the beginning that he’s going to be a controversial character. To anyone reading the book who has experienced human emotions, it is chilling that someone cannot remember the date of their mother’s death. Especially when that day was recent. A point on the difference one’s translation can make to a text is shown in the slight change Sandra Smith made to Joseph Laredo’s original 1982 translation. In Laredo’s translations, he writes the first line ‘Mother died today’. However, in Smith’s translation she inserts a possessive pronoun, ‘My mother died today.’ This massively changes the tone set for the character. Instead of sounding distant and cold, there is a sense of personal shock. A better book reviewer than me would most likely read both translations and try and see the difference but I do not think myself so skilled in the art of linguistics to be able to properly pick them up. For anyone that hasn’t read the Sandra Smith translation though, I will add that in her translator’s note she does add that she changed the name of the book because in French étranger can be translated as ‘outsider’, ‘stranger’, and ‘foreigner’. Smith concludes that Meursault is all three and that using the word ‘outsider’ encapsulates all of these possible meanings rather than using ‘stranger’ which is less definitive. I hope this isn’t starting to sound like an English essay, I just find it quite interesting so thought other people would too.

Meursault throughout the book remains completely detached from his emotions, both in his platonic and romantic relationships. By Camus’ assessment in 1955 of the character ‘in our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death’. Instead of character progression, some could argue that in this book we’re seeing more a character regression. Without spoiling anything, by the end of the book, Meursault has gone on to make some questionable life choices. Life choices that I’m hoping most of us would not make. As this was the first book of Camus’ that I had read I was slightly unprepared for the turn that the plot took. I will comment though on the last line as it doesn’t spoil anything. Camus writes ‘I opened myself for the first time to the tender indifference of the world’. Despite all of the shortcomings of the character throughout the book, this line undoubtedly made me feel some pity for him. I think as humans we can all attest that at some point we have felt the insignificance of our existence, and have reflected on how big this world is.

Overall, I would recommend reading this to anyone interested in expanding their foreign literature collection. Having only read Sandra Smith’s translation I cannot recommend which is better, but if you love one of them maybe you’ll be inspired to read the other translation.

Until next time, happy reading!

-S

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