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Geoffrey Sainsbury's Maigret translations

Pierre Assouline
Simenon, a biography
Translated from the French by Jon Rothschild
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1997

Simenon, Geoffrey Sainsbury, and translation

pp 154-155

Another Englishman who played a pivotal role in the propaganda process was not a critic but a translator, Geoffrey Sainsbury, who introduced Simenon's work to the London publisher Routledge. The firm was so impressed by Sainsbury's plea that they agreed to publish detective fiction for the first time.

Once the initial moment of enthusiasm had passed, however, T. Murray Ragg, Routledge's managing editor, hesitated at taking the risk of signing a contract for twenty-six novels all at once. He felt that the four Maigrets already published by his colleagues at Hurst and Blackett were not a sufficient test. He therefore had Sainsbury translate La Tête d'un homme (1931), just to see. Experience had taught him that many French books lost their flavor in other languages."

The results of the experiment must have been felicitous, for Routledge soon took the necessary measures to become Simenon's exclusive publisher in Britain, intending to turn him into "an institution in the English language."

Like Gallimard in 1933, Routledge had to go through a point-by-point negotiation, especially on the question of the division of film rights. This author definitely had no need of an agent. Within a year, Routledge was satisfied that they had done the right thing: sales rose steadily, and the novelist regularly sent review copies of his books to British and American critics.

Simenon was no ingrate, and he soon offered his translator informal status as minister plenipotentiary: "What I'd like is for you to be, so to speak, Simenon in England," he told him after dinner one night. Sainsbury felt compelled to decline the offer, partly out of lack of, availability, but also out of pride. He considered himself an author in his own right, addressing his letters to Simenon "Dear Colleague." Had Simenon been swifter to recognize the nature of this misunderstanding, he might have saved himself much disappointment ten years later. In the meantime, however, he had full confidence in this man who carried the delicate notion of "translator-traitor" to fresh heights.

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 "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.

pp 255-256

[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 no longer satisfied to entrust the task to Denyse. He insisted on reading proofs before publication. There were arguments about what Maigret should be called. Simenon wanted "inspector," his translator "superintendent." A suggestion aimed at satisfying both British and American readers was "detective."

He was irritated to find 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. One of his major complaints was that he was often sent proofs when it was too late to make changes. He had a special horror of female translators: "They always put dirty words [sic] into my books," he complained, not without amusement. But things were far more serious when he found that additions or deletions had been made without his knowledge.

He was initially unaware that it was under the amicable pressure of T. S. Eliot that Herbert Read, his editor at Routledge in London, deleted a few shits from some of his Maigrets. Eliot and Read believed that British readers would be disagreeably surprised to encounter such vocabulary in high-class books

When he found out, he did not insist. On the other hand, he was furious when he realized that Geoffrey Sainsbury, his first translator and one of his most lucid critics, had apparently arrogated a genuine right of review over his work. Since Sainsbury lived in Colchester, Essex, their duel was conducted through the post. The translator not only stuck to his guns but further angered the author by citing his "inalienable rights" to Simenon's novels in the English language, even declaring his willingness to slay a living character if the supposed tastes of "his" public seemed to require it. Simenon vigorously rejected Sainsbury's claim to authorship by proxy.

The inevitable ensued when Simenon discovered with stupefaction what had happened to La Vérité sur Bébé Donge (1942) in translation. In 1952 he broke relations with Sainsbury, guilty of having gone so far as to act on the advice the novelist had given him at the beginning of their collaboration in the thirties: "Be my ambassador in Great Britain" — a suggestion Sainsbury had translated a bit too literally for the author's taste.

The 10 Sainsbury Maigrets

Only three have been republished in new translations

Geoffrey Sainsbury

1. La tête d'un homme
A Battle of Nerves (1939)
Maigret's War of Nerves
The Patience of Maigret (Bestseller Mystery)
2. Le chien jaune
A Face for a Clue (1939)
Maigret and the Concarneau Murders
& Linda Asher (1987)
Maigret and the Yellow Dog
The Yellow Dog
3. Un crime en Hollande
A Crime in Holland (1940)
Maigret in Holland
4. La danseuse du Gai-Moulin
At the "Gai Moulin" (1940)
Maigret at the "Gai Moulin"
5. La guinguette à deux sous
Guinguette by the Seine (1940)
Maigret and the Tavern by the Seine
Maigret to the Rescue (Mercury Mystery)
A Spot by the Seine (Philadelphia Inquirer)
& David Watson (2003)
The Bar on the Seine
6. Chez les Flamands
The Flemish Shop (1940)
Maigret and the Flemish Shop
7. Le fou de Bergerac
The Madman of Bergerac (1940)
8. Liberty Bar
Liberty Bar (1940)
Maigret on the Riviera
9. Signé Picpus
To Any Lengths (1950)
Maigret and the Fortuneteller
10. Les vacances de Maigret
A Summer Holiday (1950)
No Vacation for Maigret
& Jacqueline Baldick (1970)
Maigret on Holiday

(and numerous non-Maigrets: Girl in Waiting, Justice, The Murderer [L’Assassin], Poisoned Relations [Les Soeurs Lacroix], Strange Inheritance, The Strangers in the House, Black Rain, Aunt Jeanne [Tante Jeanne], The Burgomaster of Furnes [Le Bourgmestre de Furnes], The House by the Canal...)


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