Simenon, Georges: The Dancer at the Gai Moulin

This Month’s Book Group Meeting was rather different. Observing that we had read and discussed many books originally written in a language other than English, we extended our discussion to the art of translation.

The host welcomed two guests: Professors Sian Reynolds and Peter France. The Maigret book chosen (“La Danseuse du Gai-Moulin” – published 1931 in France) had been recently translated into English by Sian as “The Dancer at the Gai Moulin”. Peter was the editor of the “Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation”. Thus the evening provided an opportunity not just to discuss the Maigret book but also the wider question of translations of literature into English. This had been an issue the Group had grappled with on a number of occasions when non-English books had been discussed.

Simenon was born in 1903 and died in 1989. He led a colourful life, details of which you will find online. There were 193 novels written under his own name; 200 others written under 20 or so pseudonyms; 75 Maigret novels; four autobiographies; 21 volumes of memoirs. An average of four to five books a year; 80 pages a day; two weeks to write a book. At his death, world sales stood at more than 500 million copies in 55 languages, written in a vocabulary of no more than 2,000 words. And he claimed to have made love to 10,000 women, but was probably joking.

In financial terms, Simenon’s move to Maigret was a great success. In 1925, his earnings were 42,671 francs. In 1929, they were 135,460 francs. By 1931, they were 310,561 francs. By the mid-1930s, he was earning about a million francs a year. The figures matter: Simenon is one of the few serious writers whose achievements can be counted in numbers: a writer with a quantitative career, as well as qualitative achievements.

Penguin is now honouring Simenon’s spirit of excess with what seems like a lunatic project. It is publishing all 75 of the Maigret novels, one a month, in order and newly translated, over the next few years. It is the kind of project of which Simenon would heartily have approved.

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.”

Simenon’s son responded to this by saying that his father did understand English.

Simenon owed a lot to Geoffrey Sainsbury, his 1930s translator into English, but, as indicated, Sainsbury had played fast and loose with the books. At the end of his translation of “La Danseuse du Gai-Moulin” he had missed out Delfosse’s death in a mental hospital, any hint of syphilis, and Maigret’s meeting with Adele. As well as these omissions, Sainsbury never followed Simenon’s use of the historic present.

Each Maigret novel is presented as a battle, or a number of battles. There is the battle between characters that has led to the mysterious death with which each story opens; the battle between Maigret and other detectives, magistrates or politicians involved in the case (all obtuse, obstructive or incompetent); and the battle of wits between Maigret and the murderer. While all this is going on the inspector frequently has to struggle against appalling weather conditions, cycling tens of miles along muddy canal paths in pouring rain, fighting wind or snow, or labouring under suffocating heat. He is endlessly tempted by drink. Women seek to seduce him. Men try to buy him off. He is deprived of sleep, punched and shot at. He moves through crowds as though ‘fighting against a strong current’. Often it looks as though everything is ‘joining forces to unsettle him’, but he hangs on, his bull-like physique sustained by beer, sandwiches, pipe tobacco, the warm stove at police headquarters and the knowledge that at home his chaste wife is patiently preparing the kind of dish that won’t spoil however long it’s kept waiting. Then there is his genius.

It doesn’t show. On the contrary, Maigret’s greatest stroke of genius is never to reveal his genius. There is no brilliant conversation. For the most part he appears boorish, uninterested, disgruntled, absolutely resistant to theory, suspicious of advanced forensics, ‘devoid of subtlety’. When asked what he’s thinking he invariably replies that he doesn’t think. Asked about ideas, he tells us he has no ideas. Presenting himself as impenetrable – a ‘lifeless bulk’, with eyes ‘dull as a cow’, ‘burly as a market porter’, ‘a pachyderm plodding inexorably toward its goal’ – he becomes more of a mystery than the mystery itself. The only intelligence that’s occasionally allowed to cross his face is a mocking irony. It’s this quality that will be fatal to the murderer, who is drawn into a battle of wills he can only lose.

Maigret proceeds by enforced proximity. He goes to the scene of the crime, which usually takes place in a small, well-defined community, at the centre of which there is very likely a seedy hotel where Maigret will book a room. He hangs around bars with the suspects, visits their homes alone and uninvited, eats with them, walks and talks with them. He establishes who’s an insider and who’s an outsider, who’s sexually satisfied and who isn’t, which women are attractive and which plain or plain ugly, whose ambitions are thwarted, who has delusions of grandeur and power. If there’s a pretty maid he may ask her bluntly whose mistress she is. When he thinks he has his man he sticks to him like a limpet, waiting for him to break down. This is a figure who often turns up in a Maigret novel: the suspect who panics, is hysterical, can’t face the truth. The book we were discussing contained many of these themes though Maigret was absent, at least as a participant, for a considerable part of the book.

There was general agreement that ‘The Dancer at the Gai Moulin’ was not a great detective story/thriller: the book did not have much depth with a thin story and a widely implausible plot full of holes. Maigret dumping the body in the laundry basket was more Fawlty Towers than detective fiction. Nonetheless the group had enjoyed the book and some characters, eg Adele, were convincing. The translator made the point that the book had to be considered in the context of 1931 when it was written. Every thriller of that period she had read was no better and equally implausible particularly as regards police procedure. (At a previous meeting the Group had discussed Eric Ambler’s ‘The Mask of Dimitrios’ which was also a 1930s thriller and had been regarded as a superior example of its type.)

Unlike modern detectives Maigret was not a tortured soul. Maigret was still very popular amongst British readers, helped no doubt by the TV series starring Rupert Davies in the 1960s and Michael Gambon in the 1990s. At the Christian Aid book sale held annually in Edinburgh, Simenon was the foreign author everyone wished to buy. No doubt the ease of reading Maigret with its limited French vocabulary was a contributory factor.

Sian indicated that she had translated three Maigrets for the new Penguin series. All of them had headless women on the cover! Sian had attempted to use the language and slang of the 1930s, though this would have been very difficult for an earlier period, but no doubt she had used modern dialogue unconsciously. There was much detailed discussion of the principles and technique of translations. Several members queried why Sian had used certain words and expressions.  Sian said a good translator should neither introduce nor suppress material. Translation required reading the text until you fully got it. You should always translate into your first language, though a few people were genuinely bilingual.

Sian made the point that there was a huge difference, greater than in English, between spoken and written French. The French had a strong sense of decorum in written language. English also had more words from which to choose and made extensive use of idiom, slang and ambiguity. Some words used by Simenon were no longer used for the same meaning so old dictionaries were important sources. Similarly the internet might be necessary to ascertain some modern expressions. Sian’s current translation was of a young French punk rocker’s book. She was also reviewing a new translation of Proust, which seemed to be for people who also knew French. Few people would read the book in both languages.

There was discussion of the growth of translations into American English. This was probably unavoidable given market conditions though Penguin and Oxford Classics provided a rich diet of translations into British English.

Should translators be creative writers also? It was noted that Hilary Mantel had approved the stage and TV scripts of Wolf Hall.

Peter France indicated that there were very different views on how to do translations. Translations of poetry were very different. He had been involved in collaborative translations of poetry where some translators did not know the original language. It was important to think of the reader. Dialect was very difficult to translate. For example Burns translations into Russian were very good in themselves but not accurate Burns.

There was general thanks to Sian and Peter for making the evening an enjoyable and instructive one for the Monthly Book Group.