Robin Buss' The Count of Monte Cristo

Robin Buss’ translation of The Count of Monte Cristo opens with this quote:

‘Ah, a children’s novel,’ a Russian film-maker remarked when I told her that I was translating The Count of Monte Cristo. The comment was not intended to be disparaging, merely descriptive; and many people, in different cultures, would tend to agree with the categorization.

As an adult I have become interested in revisiting those great classics recommended to me early in my reading experience. There are so many:

  • The Count of Monte Cristo
  • The Three Musketeers
  • The Mutiny on Board HMS Bounty
  • Treasure Island
  • Oliver Twist
  • Great Expectations
  • Huckleberry Finn
  • Captains Courageous

…and so on. Already I had been tricked in my youth by the Great Illustrated Classics into thinking I’d read these books, not realizing in my naivete that adapted versions for children existed. Even later, when I read the “real” versions found in my high school library, notable for their greater heft and utter lack of woodcut illustrations, I did not realize how far I may still have been from the original. Buss lists some of the missing pieces:

On the other hand, there are not many children’s books, even in our own time, that involve a female serial poisoner, two cases of infanticide, a stabbing and three suicides; an extended scene of torture and execution; drug-induced sexual fantasies, illegitimacy, transvestism and lesbianism; a display of the author’s classical learning, and his knowledge of modern European history, the customs and diet of the Italians, the effects of hashish, and so on; the length would, in any case, immediately disqualify it from inclusion in any modern series of books for children.

Of course, any translation may lose some essence of the original, but I was not aware the degree to which contemporaneous translators may have edited for content, as Victorian prudes were wont to do. Or how they simply may have removed whole sections, perhaps as an oversight, perhaps as a way to reduce their workload. This is especially true for Dumas, whose works were written in an era where greater length meant more profit. Buss lays this out in stark fashion, pointing particularly to those Victorian translations as being incomplete, incorrect, and out-of-date in their use of the English language. By contrast, a modern French reader would not find, to paraphrase Buss, the creak of the Victorian stage or the whiff of its gaslights in the original book, even today.

Here’s another quote from Buss’ introduction, regarding the tendency for such classics to be “for children:”

What we see here, interestingly enough, is a stage in the process of transforming Dumas’ text into something simpler, less complex, less rich in allusions, but more concentrated in plot and action. The 1846 translator already has an idea of what kind of novel this is, and that dictates what he, or she, can afford to omit: travelogue, classical references, sexual and psychological analysis, and so on. None of these is essential to the plot of a thriller, and if some of them will embarrass English readers, then why leave them in? The only problem is that, nearly 150 years later, we do not have quite the same idea of what is and what is not important. It was high time to go back to Dumas, entire and unexpurgated.

I did not realize this tendency in simplifying language in favor of plot. It makes some sense; the essential plot points are most easily conveyed across languages. As Buss points out, though, it is this tendency that relegates some of these classics to younger audiences outside their original literary environment.

I particularly enjoy foreign film and television, so the question of the quality of translation has become a common point of contention. Underneath this is layered my quadralingual1 lived experience, unintentionally transliterating idioms from one language to another or finding interesting the turns of phrase used in one language and not the other. It seems exceedingly obvious to me that viewers miss a good portion of nuance in any translation that does not understand the bridging action inherent in the task. If one language uses honorifics, for example, or has respect encoded in conjugation of words, it is not enough to translate those literally, or to even translate them readably. The translation must convey the context, which in subtitles may be possible but in spoken dialogue may be almost impossible in many cases.

Robin Buss understands this. Even in his time2, before the broad popularity of Japanese anime in the west and the explosion of streaming services offering access to foreign media, he sought vociferously to accurately capture the scope of the work, as he lays out in his introduction. At the time of this writing I’ve yet to actually read a word of his translation, but his introduction so impressed me, I’m quite eager to dive into his version of The Count of Monte Cristo. I am only sad to discover he did not go on to adapt other works of Dumas, including The Three Musketeers and its various sequels3, nor other notable French classics. Quite frankly, a number of English novels using dated and arcane language, though their original form, could do with a pass to update the language in an attempt to more accurately and broadly engage with modern readers. I would not be opposed to a new version of Great Expectations every 100-or-so years. Hopefully it would not take away from the appreciation of the original work, as some Shakespearean originalists may contend, but instead invite those who may have found such strict adherence to the form alienating.

I would like to find more translators like Buss and find ways to support their work. It seems to me classics are easy business for most publishers, reprinting public domain works on cheap paper with new cover art, quickly destined for the dollar section at your local bookstore and the dusty shelf soon after that. These deserve works of true scholarship, of people who straddle the line between cultures, languages, and time periods, who understand the nuance in every phrase, the depth of every reference. I do not know how to do it, but I would like these works to continue to live with audiences in their original medium, not in periodic adaptations that do so much to alter the work, they may as well not even have the same title.

  1. To be more mathmatical, I may only be bilingual, with my inability to read or write Armenian, my half-forgotten high school French, and my rudimentary Japanese 

  2. he passed away in 2006 

  3. it turns out the Man in the Iron Mask doesn’t technically exist in the way most people think it does