It is my good fortune to be reading Zola’s Rougon-Macquart Cycle just as Oxford World Classics is releasing new translations of this wonderful series of books. The Conquest of Plassans (La Conquête de Plassans) (1874) is hot off the presses, arriving here in Australia when I was just about to embark on the sixth novel in the recommended reading order, using the old Vizetelly translation on The Hated Kindle. In this Sensational Snippet from Chapter 5, you can see how the new translation by Helen Constantine has so artfully captured the malice between mother-in-law Félicité Rougon and her daughter Marthe’s husband, Mouret:
Félicité kissed Marthe on the forehead as if the latter were still sixteen. She then extended her hand to Mouret. Their usual mode of conversation had a sharp edge of irony.
‘Well,’ she asked with a smile, ‘have the police not been to arrest you yet, you old revolutionary?’
‘Not yet,’ he replied, also with a laugh. ‘They are waiting until your husband gives them the order.’
‘Oh, very funny, ‘ Félicité replied, her eyes blazing.
Marthe appealed to Mouret with a pleading look; he had certainly gone too far. But he was off and there was no stopping him.
‘Good gracious, what can we be thinking of? Here we are receiving you in the dining room? Let’s go into the drawing room.’
This was one of his usual jokes. When Félicité came calling, he assumed her affectations. It was no good Marthe saying they were fine where they were, she and her mother were obliged to follow him into the drawing room. There he took enormous pains opening the shutters, arranging the armchairs. The drawing room was never used and its windows remained closed more often than not; it was a large unused room, in which stood furniture with white covers yellowed by the damp from the garden.
‘This is terrible, ‘ Mouret murmured, wiping the dust from an occasional table, ‘Rose [their servant] leaves everything in such a state.’
And, turning to his mother-in-law, in a voice laced with irony:
‘Please forgive us for receiving you like this in our poor little residence … we can’t all be rich.’
from The Conquest of Plassans, by Émile Zola, translated by Helen Constantine, Oxford World Classics, 2014
Compare this with the Vizetelly version:
Félicité kissed Marthe on the forehead and then gave her hand to Mouret. She and her son-in-law generally affected a mocking tone in their conversations together.
‘Well,’ she said to him with a smile, ‘the gendarmes haven’t been for you yet then, you revolutionist?’
‘No, not yet,’ he replied with a responsive smile; ‘they are waiting till your husband gives them the order.’
‘It’s very nice and polite of you to say that!’ exclaimed Félicité, whose eyes were beginning to glisten.
Marthe turned a beseeching glance upon Mouret. He had gone too far; but his feelings were roused and he added:
‘Good gracious! What are we thinking of to receive you in the dining-room? Let us go into the drawing-room, I beg you.’
This was one of his usual pleasantries. He affected all Félicité’s fine airs whenever he received a visit from her. It was to no purpose that Marthe protested that they were very comfortable where they were; her husband insisted that she and her mother should follow him into the drawing-room. When they got there, he bustled about, opening the shutters and drawing out the chairs. The drawing-room, which was seldom entered, and the shutters of which were generally kept closed, was a great wilderness of a room, with furniture swathed in white dust-covers which were turning yellow from the proximity of the damp garden.
‘It is really disgraceful!’ muttered Mouret, wiping the dust from a small console; ‘that wretched Rose neglects everything abominably.’
Then, turning towards his mother-in-law, he said with ill-concealed irony:
‘You will excuse us for receiving you in this way in our poor dwelling. We cannot all be wealthy.’
Zola, Emile (2012-11-23). Complete Works of Emile Zola (Illustrated), The Conquest of Plassans, Chapter 5, Delphi Classics. Kindle Edition
It makes a big difference, doesn’t it?
Author: Émile Zola
Title: The Conquest of Plassans
Translated by Helen Constantine
Publisher: Oxford World Classics, 2014
Source: Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press
Direct from Oxford University Press and good bookshops everywhere.