"Madwoman" is an ironic title. For three days a little old lady has been seen hesitantly approaching the entrance to Police Headquarters at the Quai des Orfèvres on the Îsle de la Cité in Paris. On the first day she doesn’t say anything to the duty officer outside and leaves. On the second day she asks him, "This is where Inspector Maigret has his office, isn’t it?" but leaves again. Finally, on the third day she plucks up the courage to enter.

Things were different in those days: you could wander into Police Headquarters basically unchallenged, without fear that you might be wearing a suicide vest. She is Madame Antoine de Caramé and has lived at 8b Quai de la Mégisserie for 42 years. She is 86 years old, widowed for 12 years. She makes her way up to the first floor and tells old Joseph, the usher, that she has something of the utmost importance to communicate to the Chief Superintendent. It is a matter of life and death; she has a feeling she is in danger.

Inspector Lapointe tells her Maigret is busy, so he will see her. She informs Lapointe that at least five times in the past fortnight she has returned to her flat to find that things have been moved slightly; picture frames hanging crooked, vases turned back to front. She has the only key, there is no other sign of an intruder and nothing has been taken.

Further, when she is out, shopping or going to sit in the Tuileries Gardens, she believes someone is following her. After she’s left Police Headquarters, Lapointe tells Maigret she is mad but it’s a quiet kind of madness; she’s very calm, very in control.

Sometime later, Maigret heads out the main gate after a day’s work. Resisting the impulse for a soothing aperitif in the Brasserie Dauphine, he heads for home at the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir. He’s only gone a few metres when the tiny figure of a woman steps into his path. He immediately realises who she is.

They walk along together and Maigret hears her story. She begs him to come and see her, and he says he’ll do his best to fit it in, this week if possible, perhaps at the beginning of next week. The inevitable (in crime fiction land) happens: two days later she is found murdered in her flat, suffocated. Maigret, naturally, wishes he’d taken her more seriously. The game is afoot, as first Shakespeare and later Sherlock Holmes uttered.

Regular readers of The Budapest Times will know that the 75 "Maigret" books have been reissued one a month chronologically since 2013 in new translations. One of the ways in which we like to amuse ourselves at The Budapest Times is to compare a new Penguin translation with an earlier edition from the several we have on our bookshelves. As the reissue series draws to its close, "Maigret's Madwoman", number 73, is the final book for which we have an older translation, done in 1972 by a lady named Eileen Ellenbogen.

The new Penguin translation is by a gentleman named Sian Reynolds, and, as with a couple of earlier "Maigret"s, we are astounded at how the same French text can be translated so differently. To give some examples, selected at random, firstly the opening paragraph of the book:

"Flanking the main gate of Police Headquarters, Constable Picot stood guard on the left, and his old friend Latuile on the right. It was about 10 o’clock on a fine morning in May. The sunlight was dazzling and Paris was aglow with colour, like a pastel painting," (Ellenbergen)

"Duty Officer Picot was standing to the left of the arched doorway at Quai des Orfevres, with his colleague Latuile to the right. It was about 10 o’clock. On this May morning, the sun was shining and Paris was bathed in pastel colours." (Reynolds)

Or:

"Already the residents were pouring out of their flats and gathering on the landing and staircase. The Public Prosecutor’s men would be arriving at any minute, not to mention the stretcher-bearers from the Forensic Laboratory." (Ellenbergen)

"The tenants were already assembling on the stairs and landing. The men from the prosecutor’s office did not stay long, and the forensic team took the body away on a covered stretcher." (Reynolds)

Or:

"They moved the table and took up the rug, to satisfy themselves that nothing was hidden under it. Having done so, they returned the table to its original position and carefully put back the ornaments, a large seashell with ‘Dieppe’ carved on it, an earthenware plant pot, and a fake bronze statuette of a schoolboy in a sailor suit with a satchel on his back." (Ellenbergen)

"They lifted the table and pulled up the rug to make sure nothing was hidden there. They then replaced the table, which was covered with a sort of lacy cloth. They took care to put the objects from it back in their correct place: a large seashell with ‘Dieppe’ written on it, a china shepherdess, and a pseudo-bronze statuette of a schoolboy, satchel on his back, dressed in a sailor suit." (Reynolds)

Three random pieces. Was the sun "dazzling" or merely "shining"? The doorway became "arched"? The men "would be arriving" or they had already done so and gone? What happened to the "sort of lacy cloth" and was there "an earthenware plant pot" or "a china shepherdess"? Without Simenon’s French original, it is impossible to know.

And does it matter? Of course it does, to the purist, anyway. In The Budapest Times article on the Penguin reissue of "Maigret and the Headless Corpse" in November 2017, we again had an earlier translation to refer to. This also was by Eileen Ellenbogen, in 1967, and when the new Penguin translator, Howard Curtis, became aware of our article, he wrote to say that, "at least to judge from the paragraphs quoted in the article, Ms Ellenbogen seems to have been not so much inaccurate as guilty of rewriting", and "there are both additions and omissions in the older translation. In general, I can assure the writer of the article that my version of these two paragraphs is far closer to the original French".

The Budapest Times responded that we could now feel confident the new Penguin translations are the much preferred read, and we were sad to discover that our trusted earlier versions could be so unreliable; in fact, inexcusable. "Penguin in the case of Maigret would have been justified in blowing its translating trumpet a little, to better advise readers," we felt.

It is all academic, really. The new Penguin "Maigret"s can be bought now at Libra and Best Sellers bookshops in Budapest. Older translations will only occur in dusty second-hand shops. As far as we can find out, Eileen Ellenbogen is now deceased.

Post-script: The other five books chosen by Granada for the first series were "Maigret Goes Home" (L'Affaire Saint-Fiacre, 1932), "Maigret and the Burglar’s Wife" (Maigret et la grande perche, 1951), "Maigret Goes to School" (Maigret à l'école, 1953), "Maigret Sets a Trap" (Maigret tend un piège, 1955) and "The Patience of Maigret" (La Patience de Maigret, 1965).

The second series of six was "Maigret and the Night Club Dancer" (Maigret au "Picratt's", 1952), "Maigret and the Hotel Majestic" (Les Caves du Majestic, 1942), "Maigret on the Defensive" (Maigret se défend, 1964), "Maigret's Boyhood Friend" (L'ami d'enfance de Maigret, 1968), "Maigret and the Minister" (Maigret chez le minister, 1954) and "Maigret and the Maid" (Félicie est là, 1944).


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