The Conquest of Plassans Translation Comparison by Guy Savage

The Conquest of Plassans, the fourth novel in Zola’s Rougon Macquart series examines the issue of the “priest in the house.” Retired merchant Francois Mouret rents the second floor of his home to Abbe Faujas and his elderly mother. Mouret’s wife, Marthe, isn’t initially too keen on the idea, but ironically while Mouret becomes more uncomfortable with the priest in the house, Marthe turns increasingly to religion and becomes a fanatic.

It’s quite clear that religion and the priest assume a sexual dimension in Marthe’s life. Here she is reacting to a lecture from the Abbe:

She felt a pleasure in his harshness. That iron hand which bent her, and which held her back upon the edge of the adoration in the depths of which she would like to annihilate herself, thrilled her with ever renewed desire. She remained a neophyte, making but little advance in her journey of love, being constantly pulled up, and vaguely divining some yet greater bliss beyond. The sense of deep restfulness which she had first experienced in the church, that forgetfulness of herself and the outside world, now changed, however into actual positive happiness. It was the happiness for which she had been longing since her girlhood, and which she was now at forty years of age, at last finding; a happiness which sufficed her, which absorbed her for all the past-away years, and made her egotistical, absorbed in the new sensations that she felt within her like sweet caresses.”

That translation was by Vizetelly, but here’s the new translation from Helen Constantine in the Oxford World’s Classic edition of The Conquest of Plassans:

“She was happy to receive these blows. The iron hand that ruled her, the hand which kept her on the brink of this continual adoration, in whose depths she wanted total annihilation, was whipping her with a desire that was constantly renewed. She was still a novice, she was descending into love one step at a time; she would be brought up short, guessing she might plunge deeper, ravished by this slow journey to other joys yet unknown. The great peace she had first experienced in the church, that forgetting of the outside world and of her own self, was transformed into an active pleasure, into a blessed state which she could bring about, which she could reach herself. It was the happiness she had vaguely desired from girlhood, and which she was now finding as a woman of forty. It was a happiness which satisfied her, which gave back all the beautiful years which had passed her by and made her live for herself alone, attentive as she was to all the new sensations that wakened her innermost being like caresses.”

The second translation uses far more sexual imagery, with words such as “plunge deeper,” “desire,” and “ravished.” The first translation makes the point that religion is a love-substitute for Marthe, but this could be agape in its nature–worshipful & chaste, and there’s the sense that Marthe, in some ways, doesn’t quite understand what she’s experiencing: “She remained a neophyte, making but little advance in her journey of love, being constantly pulled up, and vaguely divining some yet greater bliss beyond.”  The second translation, however, conveys the idea that religion is an orgasmic experience for Marthe, significantly, “one she can even reach herself.” This passage then shows that religion (and the Abbe) may fill a need for Marthe, a gap in her life, but that need is inherently sexual. Zola, tracing the poisonous hereditary through the Rougon-Macquart family focused on madness & alcoholism, but there’s also the pleasure-loving side of this family as seen through Nana, one of Paris’s most sought after prostitutes, and her earthy mother Gervaise, who finds herself in a ménage a trois with two men who share her body, her home and her labor. In Marthe, we see sexuality repressed and perverted; add madness to the recipe and it’s a recipe for disaster.


4 comments on “The Conquest of Plassans Translation Comparison by Guy Savage

  1. Jonathan says:

    Helen Constantine’s translation certainly reads better as well, it’s more fluid. Whereabouts in the book does this section appear? As I read the Elek book version it might be interesting to compare it with these two translations.

    I think I’ll have to read Constantine’s version at some point though as it looks good. I’ve just finished some of Zola’s short stories and I’m in the mood for reading more Zola – I’m just a Zola junky!


  2. Guy Savage says:

    It’s chapter 15. Zola is an amazing writer. After finishing the R-M cycle, I’m in awe of the multiple worlds he created–the miners, the farmers, the slums and shops of Paris. Is there anyone else quite like him out there?


  3. Jonathan says:

    Oh, and here’s the same section from the Elek book version called A Priest in the House:

    She was happy under these blows.This iron hand bowing her down, checking her at the brink of continual worship, in which she would so gladly have plunged, lashed her on to ever fresh desire. She remained the neophyte, descending by slow degrees into love, only to be arrested, guessing at depths beyond, feeling all the delight of this slow journey towards joys she had yet to know. The feeling of deep restfulness that she had experienced at first in church, forgetfulness of the world outside and her own self, was changing now to an active enjoyment, a happiness that she could call forth, that she touched. It was the happiness vaguely longed for ever since her childhood, which she was finding now at forty – a happiness that sufficed, that flowed into the sweet dead years, made her live an egotist, busy with all these new sensations waking in her like caresses.


  4. Guy Savage says:

    The “joys she had yet to know” harks back to the Vizetelly and steers away from the orgasmic (rapture) hints of the Constantine translation.


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