The Budapest Times has been an occasional Simenon reader for decades, both the “Maigrets” and the acclaimed “psychological” novels. It has been a generally rewarding occupation. Simenon had a rare gift for getting inside the mind of his characters, but he did pump out his books, fast and short. It is part of their appeal but it is reasonable to wonder whether more revision might have been to their benefit.

There are about 30 Simenons on The Budapest Times shelves, less than 10% of his output, but we’ve read others too, here and there. Of the five new “Maigrets” we have received from the ongoing Penguin Classics monthly reissues, we already had this one, “Maigret Goes to School”.

It is the 44th Maigret in the reissues, which are chronological. The book was called “Maigret a l’école” when it was first published in French in 1954. Our neat little hardback in very good condition with an unspoiled dust jacket appears to be a first edition of the first English translation, published by Hamish Hamilton in 1957. It was translated by Daphne Woodward. The new Penguin paperback is translated by Linda Coverdale. These are both new names to us. We compared parts of the text.

Woodward: They strolled along the Quai des Orfevres, went up the big staircase, and once again Maigret paused. Rat-face was still there, leaning forward, his long, bony hands clasped on his knees. He looked up at Maigret with what the chief-inspector felt to be a reproachful expression.

Coverdale: They went along Quai des Orfevres, up the great staircase, and, once again, Maigret paused. Rat-face was still there, leaning forwards, his long, bony hands clasped in his lap. He looked up at the inspector, who thought he saw reproach in the man’s eyes.

Woodward: His was a curious story. He came of a well-known family at Toulouse, and on the insistence of his parents he had gone to the Polytechnique, where he acquitted himself more than creditably. And then, instead of choosing between the army and a business career, he had opted for the constabulary and decided to read law for two years.

Coverdale: His was a curious story. His family was well known in Toulouse. At the urging of his parents he had attended the École Polytechnique, and done more than honourably there. Then, instead of choosing between the army and industry, he had opted for the gendarmerie as well as two years of law school.

Woodward: The women had gone home and, except for a few who came from distant farms, had probably taken off their black dresses and best shoes by this time. The men were still there, as though this were fair-day, and were overflowing from Louis’ inn on to the pavement and into the yard, where they stood, putting down their bottles on the windowsills or on an old iron table that had been left outside all winter.

Coverdale: The women had gone home and, save for a few who lived at distant farms, they had probably already changed out of their black dresses and good shoes. As for the men, they remained, as on a country-fair day, spilling out of Louis’ inn on to the pavement and into the courtyard, where they could be seen setting their bottles on a window ledge or on an old iron table that had spent the winter there.

Without an original French copy and a French person who speaks English at hand to read it and compare, we cannot say which translation is more accurate or “better”. But they are certainly different, and there is an effect. Coverdale seems to be a little snappier, zippier, perhaps slightly more modern for a 2017 reader.

What we can say is that, whichever, what we want to read is the essence of Simenon, not a very close approximation of him, or a lightly tidied-up version, even if he may be a bit clunky at times. If he is clunky (or elegant) in French, we want him to be clunky (or elegant) in English, whether it be 1957 or 2017.

Final comment on the problematic issue of translations: how is it that our Hungarian friend was unable to enjoy “Három ember egy csónakban”, the Hungarian translation of the genuinely funny “Three Men in a Boat” by Jerome J. Kerome? No sense of humour or off-kilter translation? And how can Hungarians say that their version of “Winnie the Pooh” is better than the English original? It is not the translator’s job to “improve” the original.

Whatever, in “Maigret Goes to School” it's the first day of spring and everyone, the police included, is in a holiday mood. The sun is out. The rat-faced man referred to above is sitting patiently in the waiting room.

When Maigret gets round to talking to him, the chief inspector discovers that he is a schoolmaster from a seaside region of France who is suspected of having killed an unpleasant old woman, his neighbour, who is hated by all the village. He's come to ask the famous detective for help. There's no evidence that he did the murder but he and his wife are as disliked in the village as the old hag: the wife has a scandalous past and, just as bad in the villagers’ eyes, they are seen as outsiders from a different area.

Will Maigret come back with him, he pleas, and find the real murderer? It’s not Maigret’s jurisdiction but he can spare a few days, he comes from the countryside himself and, as it’s a visit to the coast, he likes oysters …

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