Albert Camus’ 100th birthday

Arjun Sajip 7 November 2013

Chances are, you’ll have read some of his work; if this isn’t the case, you’d better get on it, pronto. He’s the James Dean of philosophy, the Jack Kerouac of Absurdism, the Albert Camus of world culture. And it’s his 100th birthday today, so don’t forget to wish him, or he’ll start to wonder what the point of it all is.

Actually, that was a joke. He’s fairly dead right now, lying six feet under in southeast France. But perhaps in commemoration of what would have been his 100th birthday, a new translation of his most famous work – L’Étranger (The Outsider) – was released by Penguin in paperback form last week.

Months ago I interviewed the translator, Sandra Smith, for an article that tragically never came to fruition. I’d attended an absorbing talk in which Smith had discussed the difficulties and pitfalls of translating. The spectre of nuance is one that rarely leaves the shoulder of the best translators; said spectre has elicited some fascinating changes in Smith’s new, illuminating edition. The translation of the famous opening (“Aujourd'hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas”) has shifted from “Mother” to “My mother”, as Smith perceives more humanity in the narrator than have other interpreters of this odd, existential alien. Whether or not this is a reflection of Smith’s more maternal impulses, it adds a compelling nuance to proceedings. Her expansion of some phrases (such as “la porte du malheur”) is imaginative yet faithful to the spirit of the original, and her version contains some inspired touches: the last sentence of Camus’s original text had a quasi-Biblical tone that had, until now, been lost in translation. From my admittedly novice understanding, it seems like Smith’s version is the definitive translation of this seminal text.

Undoubtedly, Camus has had a phenomenal impact on our understanding of our place in the world and our role in The Grand Scheme Of Things. But what made him so impressive, and his influence so pervasive, was his condensation of colossal concepts into clipped, comprehensible prose. It was easy to understand, if not to comprehend; he eschewed the perverse stylistic wankery of Kant, Kierkegaard, and twentieth-century continental philosophers, while managing to build on and maturate the existential neuroses of predecessors such as Kafka.

Shame, really, that he had to die at 46, like Orwell – another great writer who opted for simplistic prose to tackle the meaning of modern existence. Their stars burned bright.