“The Hatter’s Ghosts” by Georges Simenon (published by Penguin Books)
The art of cutting long stories (and words) short
“An abstract word will always have different shades of meaning in the head of two readers: they will never interpret it in the same way,” Simenon opined. “So I always endeavoured to use only ’material’ words: a table, a chair, the wind, the rain.
“If it rains, I write, ’It rains’: you will not find in my books drops of water that transform themselves into pearls, or I don’t know what. I want nothing that resembles literature. I have a horror of literature. For me, Literature with a capital ’L’ is rubbish.”
Simenon was born in Liege, Belgium, in 1903 and he began working on a local newspaper as a reporter at age 16. At 19 he went to Paris determined to be a successful writer, and, legend has it, he began typing some 80 pages each day, or around 70 words a minute nonstop, hammering out all that now mostly forgotten pulp fiction under 16 different pseudonyms in the 1920s (disguised as Christian Brulls, Jean du Perry, Georges Sim, Jacques Dersonne, Luc Dorsan, Georges-Martin Georges, Gom Gut, Gaston Vialis… ).
It was during this period that French lady of letters Colette reportedly offered the young Simenon some guidance: “Just one piece of general advice from a writer has been very useful to me,” he recalled. “I was writing short stories for Le Matin, and Colette was literary editor at that time. I remember I gave her two short stories and she returned them and I tried again and tried again. Finally, she said, ‘Look, it is too literary, always too literary. Suppress all the literature and it will work’.”
So he followed her advice, wholeheartedly, later telling a Paris Review interviewer that if he came across an especially beautiful sentence in his own writing, he did something very odd (there usually is something very odd about Simenon). He cut it. “It’s what I do when I write, the main job when I rewrite.”
What do you mean by “too literary”, the interviewer asked? “What do you cut out, certain kinds of words?” Simenon replied: “Adjectives, adverbs and every word which is there just to make an effect. Every sentence which is there just for the sentence. You know, you have a beautiful sentence – cut it. Every time I find such a thing in one of my novels it is to be cut.”
Simenon wrote in French and apparently pruned partly with the deliberate aim of being translated into the largest number of languages and being understood by the greatest number of people. He believed that it was precisely his lack of adornment that made his books read in so many countries that had nothing in common, such as, for instance, Saudi Arabia, China, Japan or Russia. He is the third-most-translated francophone author, after Jules Verne and Alexander Dumas.
There are various guestimates of the number of languages into which he was translated, with a consensus of 50-55. Including, we add, Hungary (though he mostly seems to be out of print these days, with plenty of second-hand copies around). It might seem, then, that it could be thought his writing must be easy to translate, but according to some of the team who tackled the new translations of the 75 “Maigret” novels for Penguin Books between 2013 and 2020, this is not always the case.
The “Maigrets” were originally published between 1931 (“Pietr-le-Letton”) and 1972 (“Maigret et Monsieur Charles”), and when one of the team, Ros Schwartz, was asked what was the most difficult thing to deal with in the fresh translations, she replied: “The biggest challenge is Simenon’s deceptively simple economy of language and to replicate his seamless style.”
Fellow translator Howard Curtis gave his answer: “Paradoxically, the very simplicity, precision and concision of Simenon’s style. The more flowery an author’s style, the easier it is to paraphrase or to gloss over nuances of meaning. But Simenon doesn’t give a translator anywhere to hide: he or she has to match the author with sentences as clear and precise as his are.”
And Sian Reynolds offered: “But I’d argue that the most difficult thing about translating Simenon is really his deceptive simplicity. You have to pick up what is going on under the surface. The temptation is to interpret, whereas the French text, which uses simple sentences and a fairly restricted vocabulary, only hints at what is happening or being expressed, leaving much unsaid. I think my fellow translators in the Penguin collection would probably agree.”
Many of the Simenons that have been published in English over the decades were in fact from Penguin (also from Hamish Hamilton, now part of Penguin), so why has the publisher basically condemned its own earlier translations in favour of fresh ones? After the reworking of the 75 “Maigret”s, we are now getting a new translation of one of Simenon’s romans durs (hard, or psychological, novels) every three months or so, with about 15 completed so far. “The Hatter’s Ghosts”, originally published as “Les fantômes du chapelier” in 1947, is the latest.
With most of Simenon’s 1920s output now disregarded, it was as the 1930s dawned that he decided he was ready to write under his own name, and “Pietr-le-Letton” (The Strange Case of Peter the Lett) introduced the imperturbable, pipe-smoking Parisian police inspector Jules Maigret to fiction. By 1972, when he wrote the last of his 400 or so books, he had sold hundreds of millions of copies in all those different languages and was world-known.
There is an odd tale about the translations (did we mention that there usually is something very odd about Simenon?). He didn’t speak good English at first (let alone any Saudi Arabian, Chinese, Japanese, Russian or Hungarian, etc), and he would just sign off on a translation without being able, or bothering, to check its quality. After the Second World War he moved from France to the United States for 10 years and his English improved. Simenon began to realise that he had not been well-served in that language.
He was apparently particularly upset at having been butchered by translator Geoffrey Sainsbury, who according to Simenon biographer Pierre Assouline, “From the very beginning… freely altered names, psychological profiles, details and even plot elements when he considered them inappropriate, implausible, or contradictory. The results of his ‘recreation’ were duly submitted for the author’s approval, which was always forthcoming. And for good reason. Simenon did not understand a word of English.
“(Simenon’s) newfound proficiency in English allowed him to begin an exercise he had long yearned to perform, checking some of the translations of his books. Where earlier he didn’t care, he now began to quibble… He was irritated to discover that translators had more trouble juggling past and present in the same sentence than he did. He noticed that they often altered his turn of phrase (for good reason), and he objected strenuously. If he, the author, had chosen to string words together in a certain order, it was deliberate. If the meaning wasn’t clear, that was deliberate, too. He knew, of course, that literal translations would be catastrophic. But he believed that his translators were taking too many liberties with the original.”
Here at The Budapest Times we have an old Penguin paperback from 1958 called “To Any Lengths”, which in fact is a Geoffrey Sainsbury translation of the Maigret book “Signé, Picpus” (Signed, Picpus), originally published in French in 1944. We don’t know who changed the title, Sainsbury or Penguin. According to the excellent Simenon website trussel.com, “The only English translation of this novel is by Geoffrey Sainsbury who treats Simenon’s French text in a wayward fashion, with additions, omissions and alterations. For example, early in chapter 2 when Maigret is accompanying Octave Le Cloaguen in a taxi from the Quai des Orfevres to the Boulevard des Batignolles, Simenon uses one route whilst Sainsbury uses another. A small point, but why change the route, as the main issue of this journey was Maigret observing Le Cloaguen’s reaction as the latter neared his home?”
Fortunately, we now have the new Penguin Books retranslation of “Signed, Picpus” from 2015 by David Coward. We trust that all these new Penguin English translations post-2013 are now the definitive versions, otherwise why bother?
Now it’s time to read the new edition of “The Hatter’s Ghosts”. Or re-read, because we have an earlier copy translated by one Nigel Ryan in 1956. We won’t count the number of different words Simenon employs but we will occasionally compare the two translations, by Ryan and the 2022 one by Curtis.
And we will definitely watch out for any sesquipedalianism. We throw in this word merely to show off because we only recently learned it. Appropriately, it means (and we apologise to knowledgeable readers who already know) the practice of using long, sometimes obscure, words in speech or writing. You know, polysyllabic stuff.