“Retch” is a strong word. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “to make the sound and movement of vomiting”. Horrifying as news of a headless corpse may be, it is difficult to imagine many people actually retching without actually seeing the thing, and especially, as Simenon’s imagination notes, a nurse, who would be more hardened.

The Budapest Times bookshelves hold an earlier copy of “Maigret and the Headless Corpse”, this one published in Great Britain 50 years earlier in 1967 and translated from the French by a certain Eileen Ellenbogen. After Maigret delivers the bad news to the nurse/daughter, Ellenbogen’s translation is “Was it perhaps because she worked in a hospital that she did not even blench?” The Oxford Dictionary again: “To blench: to make a sudden flinching movement out of fear or pain.” Without an original French copy of the novel, published in France in 1955 as “Maigret et le Corps sans Tete”, we cannot check which translation, “retch” or “blench”, is closer to the word used by Simenon. But the alarm bell was justified. In our opinion, the two words just don’t carry the same weight.

Whoever is nearer the mark – Simenon/Curtis or Simenon/Ellenbogen – we checked a few other parts of this newly translated novel, 1967 versus 2017.

Chapter One in the Eileen Ellenbogen version is titled “The Fouled Propeller”, and opens: “In the faint, grey light of early dawn, the barge lay like a shadow on the water. Through the hatchway appeared the head of a man, then shoulders, then the great gangling body of Jules, the elder of the two Naud brothers. Running his hands through his tow-coloured hair, he surveyed the lock, the Quai de Jemmapes to his left, and the Quai de Valmy to his right. In the crisp morning air he rolled a cigarette, and while he was still smoking it, a light came on in the little bar on the corner of Rue des Récollets.”

Chapter One in the Howard Curtis version is titled “The Naud Brothers’ Discovery”, and opens: “The sky was just starting to lighten when Jules, the elder of the two Naud brothers, appeared on the deck of the barge, first his head, then his shoulders, then his big lanky body. Rubbing his as yet uncombed flax-coloured hair, he looked at the lock, Quai de Jemmapes on the left, Quai de Valmy on the right. A few minutes went by, time enough to roll a cigarette and smoke it in the coolness of the early morning, before a light came on in the little bar on the corner of Rue de Récollets.

Further, Ellenbogen: “Naud, without a word, glanced out of the window at the sky, which by now was tinged with pink. The slates and tiles of the rooftops and one or two paving stones below were still, after a cold night, coated with a translucent film of rime, which was just beginning to melt here and there. Nothing seemed quite real, except the smoking chimney pots.”

Curtis: “Robert Naud merely looked through the window at the pink-tinged sky. The chimney pots on the roofs were the first thing in the landscape to take on life and colour. On the slates and tiles, and on some of the cobbles on the quayside, the cold of the last hours of night had left a thin layer of frost that was starting to fade.

And so it goes on: two “versions” of “Maigret and the Headless Corpse.” Simenon (1903-1989) wrote 75 Inspector Maigret novels and Penguin Classics is reissuing the whole lot, one a month, in order. This is the 47th in the series and came out in September this year. Penguin Classics’ selling points – apart from Simenon’s huge sales – are that for the very first time all 75 books are coming under the umbrella of a single publishing house, plus they all have uniform front covers, cropped from the work of photographer Harry Gruyaert, of the famous Magnum agency. And, the new translations . . .

These latter, Penguin says, are “by some of the best translators working today, including David Bellos, Anthea Bell and David Coward”. Nonetheless, The Budapest Times has been left confused by the difference between the old and new efforts to bring Simenon to English-language readers.

Finally, we came across some clarity in an article about Penguin’s republishing venture written by Ian Sansom, who is an author unknown to us, in Britain’s respected “New Statesman” magazine. Discussing the reissues, Sansom writes: “Like Simenon [a man with a spirit of excess], Penguin has not stinted. This is not a gimmick but a serious enterprise. ‘Pietr the Latvian’ [first published in May 1931, and which Simenon claimed was the first true ‘Maigret’, after the detective or someone like him made minor earlier appearances in other stories] is translated by David Bellos, one of the world’s greatest translators. The next book to be published in the series is a translation of ‘The Late Monsieur Gallet’ (‘M Gallet décédé’) by Anthea Bell, another of the world’s greatest translators. After that is ‘The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien’ (‘Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien’), translated by Linda Coverdale. And so on.”

Sansom continues: “This sort of quality and commitment is a long way from Simenon’s treatment at the hands of his previous English translators, notably Geoffrey Sainsbury. As Pierre Assouline notes, ‘From the very beginning Sainsbury freely altered names, psychological profiles, details and even plot elements when he considered them inappropriate, implausible or contradictory. The results of his ‘re-creation’ were duly submitted for the author’s approval, which was always forthcoming. And for good reason: Simenon did not understand a word of English’.”

The Budapest Times bows to Mr. Sansom’s knowledge, though we have no idea if Eileen Ellenbogen is as equally deserving as Geoffrey Sainsbury of such dismissiveness. And we still find it hard to imagine that nurse actually retching. Nonetheless, the scales now seem tipped in favour of Penguin’s new translations.

We advise: just enjoy another solid “Maigret” read, from crime to arrest. Although he never did find that head.

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