Culture

Émile Zola’s ‘L’Assommoir’ Gets Rediscovered in Translation

Culture

Émile Zola’s ‘L’Assommoir’ Gets Rediscovered in Translation

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The original French text: Un instant, elle souffla devant la porte. Il se battait donc avec une armée! Quand elle entra, ça croissait et ça embellissait. Coupeau était fou furieux, un échappé de Charenton! Il se démenait au milieu de la cellule, envoyant les mains partout, sur lui, sur les murs, par terre, culbutant, tapant dans le vide; et il voulait ouvrir la fenêtre, et il se cachait, se défendait, appelait, répondait, tout seul pour faire ce sabbat, de l’air exaspéré d’un homme eau chemardé par une flopée de monde. Puis, Gervaise comprit qu’il s’imaginait être sur un toit, en train de poser des plaques de zinc. 

Il faisait le soufflet avec sa bouche, il remuait des fers dans le réchaud, se mettait à genoux, pour passer le pouce sur les bords du paillasson, en croyant qu’il le soudait. Oui, son métier lui revenait, au moment de crever ; et s’il gueulait si fort, s’il se crochait sur son toit, c’était que des mufes l’empêchaient d’exécuter proprement son travail. Sur tous les toits voisin?, il y avait de la fripouille qui le mécanisait. Avec ça, ces blagueurs lui lâchaient des bandes de rats dans les jambes. Ah! les sales bêtes, il les voyait toujours! Il avait beau les écraser, en frottant son pied sur le sol de toutes ses forces, il en passait de nouvelles ribambelles, le toit en était noir. Est-ce qu’il n’y avait pas des araignées aussi! Il serrait rudement son pantalon pour tuer contre sa cuisse de grosses araignées, qui s’étaient fourrées là. Sacré tonnerre! il ne finirait jamais sa journée, on voulait le perdre, son patron allait l’envoyer à Mazas. Alors, en se dépêchant, il crut qu’il avait une machine à vapeur dans le ventre; la bouche grande ouve te, il soufflait de la fumée, une fumée épaisse qui emplissait la cellule et qui sortait par la fenêtre; et, penché, soufflant toujours, il regardait dehors le ruban de fumée se dérouler, monter dans le ciel, où il cachait le soleil.

Charlotte Mandell‘s translation: She caught her breath for a minute in front of the door. He was fighting against a whole army in there! When she went in, things were going from bad to worse. Coupeau was raving mad, an escapee from an insane asylum! He was thrashing about in the middle of the cell, tearing at everything—himself, the walls, the ground—tumbling over, punching out at emptiness. Now he was trying to open the window, now he tried to hide, defended himself, called out, answered, making this racket all by himself, desperate as a man caught in a nightmare about throngs of enemies. Then Gervaise realized that he seemed to think he was on a roof, setting zinc tiles in place. He would use his mouth as a bellows, move the irons in the furnace, kneel down and smooth his thumb over the doormat, thinking he was soldering it. Yes, his trade was coming back to him as he was dying; and if he was shouting so loud, if he was clinging to his roof, it was because some idiots were preventing him from doing his work properly. On all the neighboring roofs the rabble were shouting insults at him. And then those blackguards were letting loose hordes of rats between his legs. Ah! The filthy vermin, he saw them everywhere! In vain he tried to crush them, stamping his foot on the ground with all his strength; more swarms came through, the roof was black with them. And weren’t those spiders too? He clawed at his pants roughly to kill the fat spiders hidden there against his thigh. Damn and blast! He would never finish his day’s work, they wanted to get rid of him, his boss would send him away to Mazas Prison. Then, as he was hurrying, he thought he had a steam engine in his belly; his mouth wide open, he breathed out smoke, a thick smoke that filled the cell and went out the window; and, bent over, still puffing, he watched the ribbon of smoke unfurl outside and rise up into the sky, where it hid the sun.

Mark Polizzotti‘s translation: She paused behind the door to catch her breath. He was battling an army! When she went in, it grew louder and more complex. Coupeau was out of his mind, an escaped lunatic! He thrashed about in the middle of his cell, hands flailing every which way, at himself, the walls, the floor, knocking things over, hitting thin air. He moved to open the window, to hide, to defend himself; he called out, answered back, making a racket all on his own, with the exasperated look of a man beset by a mob. Then Gervaise understood: he believed he was on a rooftop, installing zinc tiles. He blew air through his mouth, rearranged the irons in the stove, knelt down to run his thumb over the edges of the slab, as if welding it. Yes, on the verge of death, his trade was coming back to him; and if he shouted so loud, if he struggled there on his rooftop, it was because those scoundrels were keeping him from doing his job properly. On all the neighboring roofs, the bastards were tormenting him. And to make matters worse, they were tossing swarms of rats between his legs. Oh, he could still see the filthy vermin! No matter how many he crushed, no matter how often he stamped his feet on the ground, new hordes kept coming; the roof was black with them. And what if there were spiders to boot! He gave his trousers a rude squeeze to kill the fat arachnids that had burrowed against his thighs. Damn it to hell, he’d never get through his day! They were trying to ruin him, and his boss would send him to Mazas. So, picking up speed, he imagined he had a steam engine in his belly; from his gaping mouth flew billows of smoke, a dense fog that filled the cell and poured through the window. And leaning out, still huffing, he watched the ribbon of smoke unfurl in the outside air, rising in the sky until it blotted out the sun.