Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 19, 2019

(Re-reading) His Excellency Eugène Rougon (1876), by Émile Zola, a new translation by Brian Nelson

I have been re-reading His Excellency Eugène Rougon (Son Excellence Eugène Rougon) because I have a lovely new OUP edition, translated by Brian Nelson.  I’m not going to review the novel again because I’ve already reviewed the Vizetelly translation as part of my Zola Project to read the entire Rougon-Marquet series, but I do want to comment about why it’s so much more enjoyable to read a new edition than a freebie from Project Gutenberg.

I admire the whole concept of Project Gutenberg, and I’ve read plenty of their titles that I couldn’t otherwise source.   The wonderful team of volunteers at PG have saved many titles from oblivion, and these titles are free, which makes them accessible to all budgets. But there are limitations with some titles, and the Vizetelly translations of Zola’s novels are particularly problematic…

I call them Vizetelly translations, but actually, Vizetelly was the publisher and although Brian Nelson says in his Translator’s Note that His Excellency was translated by Henry Vizetelly’s son Ernest in 1897, Wikipedia says that it’s not known who the translator was.  That’s probably just because WP hasn’t caught up with the scholarship, but it is true that Gutenberg editions sometimes don’t #NameTheTranslator because translators weren’t acknowledged in the original editions. In the case of Zola, it may be that anonymity was desired, perhaps by a lady translator, because Zola was considered salacious and as Vizetelly learned to his cost, it wasn’t just risky for a lady’s reputation… there were worse consequences than that.

Henry Vizetelly (1820-94) was fined and imprisoned for three months in 1889 over the publication of La Terre, which was considered offensive. Subsequent editions of all of Zola’s novels were heavily edited by his son Ernest Vizetelly (1853-1922) in order to avoid further prosecutions. (Source: The Books of Émile Zola)

In the case of His Excellency the 1897 translation is after Henry’s gaol term, so it falls into the category of ‘heavily edited’.

So it’s not just that contemporary readers of Vizetelly have to adjust to reading a 19th century English version of 19th century French.  It’s also that the novels were self-censored, as it were.  Sometimes this prudishness doesn’t much matter.  The missing details of Clorinde in scandalous (un)dress holding court to a coterie of admiring men while an artist paints her as Diana the Huntress, are hardly significant. OTOH readers would understand something completely different about a lovers’ relationship from Nelson’s use of the word ‘enslavement’ when referring to a woman wearing a dog collar and a badge inscribed with ‘I belong to my master,’ compared to Vizetelly’s coy ‘servitude’.  Even though I read the Vizetelly back in 2014, I became quite adept at identifying text that had been cut or sanitised.  ‘I bet that’s not in Vizetelly!’, I found myself saying, and each time I was right.

But also, there are details which make no sense to a modern reader without explanatory notes.  For example, when Rougon is being told about a plot to assassinate the emperor, his informant suddenly says:

‘It’s planned for tomorrow night… They aim to assassinate Badinguet outside the Opera, as he is going in.’ (p.185)

Huh? thinks the modern Australian reader, who is this new character Badinguet and what has he got to do with anything?  The Gutenberg edition on my Kindle leaves me none the wiser, but Brian Nelson’s Explanatory Notes helpfully explain that Badinguet was a derisive nickname for the Emperor.  Louis-Napoleon had made two unsuccessful attempts at a coup before his triumphant third attempt, and was imprisoned after the second one. He escaped in disguise as a labourer by name of Badinguet. It’s not just a clever bit of French history thrown in at random: Zola is showing that this Emperor is still widely held in contempt.

I don’t often re-read books but this new translation based on the original French was a real treat. Extra features of this edition which enhanced my reading so much compared to the Kindle edition of the Vizetelly translation, include an Introduction; the Translator’s notes; a Bibliography, a Chronology of Zola’s life, and a Family Tree of the Rougon-Macquart, and Explanatory Notes.

PS I should add that there was a 1958 translation by Alec Brown for Elek Books, but my experience with Brown’s translation of La Bête Humaine was that it was utterly unreadable so my advice is to avoid Brown’s translations at all cost.

Author: Émile Zola
Title: His Excellency Eugène Rougon (Son Excellence Eugène Rougon)
A new translation by Brian Nelson
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, OUP (Oxford University Press), 2018, first published in 1876, 333 pages (not including the Explanatory Notes)
ISBN: 9780198748250
Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press.

Available from Fishpond: His Excellency Eugene Rougon (Oxford World’s Classics) and from OUP. (Not the easiest site to navigate to find the rest of the Zolas, but if (from the Oxford World’s Classics home page) you click on Show More, and then Click on View All Titles, and then choose search ‘from Z to A’ all the Zolas in OUP editions come up, one after the other.)

Cross-posted at The Books of Emile Zola.


  1. […] Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers. […]


  2. Yes, I agree with you. I only go to Project Gutenberg if I can’t source books elsewhere – even English language ones – because, as you say, there are often notes and/or useful introductions in published versions.


    • Occasionally, I find the original French ones there, and then I can check the original against a translation that seems dubious.
      And PG Australia can be a source of early Australiana, though you have to know what to look for.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I like PGA particularly for explorers journals. It’s a bit hit and miss for our early novelists, but there are some good ones there.


        • Contributing to PGA, I think, may have fallen victim to university budget cuts. I had a query from the US about a book a while ago, and my enquiries at one of the SA universities found that at that time (a year or so ago) there wasn’t anyone in charge of such things. Presumably someone coordinates the site and maintains its digital apparatus, but with my limited resources, a phone call to SA was all I could do, and that led nowhere. I should have tried to follow it up but …

          Liked by 1 person

  3. You make a very good case for nice shiny new translations with good notes – and I’m pretty much with you for most of the time! :D


    • I think it depends on how familiar we are with the author. I don’t need Intros &c for authors I studied at university, but I knew nothing about Zola till I started reading him. And even then, I read Germinal without really understanding his genius. It wasn’t until I saw the TV series The Paradise and so borrowed the OWC edition of The Ladies’ Paradise and read Brian Nelson’s intro, that I fell in love with Zola and conceived my Zola Project:)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Actually, we Jane Austen lovers will often buy a new edition of on of her novels just for the introduction! Most of us have more than one copy of most of her books.


  4. I admire the work you do in identifying new translations and translators. It is very helpful to we more general readers. I hadn’t thought about Project Gutenberg other to be extremely grateful that it exists, and to whinge about minor annoyances in proof reading (Brent of Bin Bin books for instance). I’m a fan of re-reading. Like Sue I look out for editions with new introductions and I appreciate annotated (English) texts for the same reasons you like good translations.


    • Ah well, it was no hardship. Ages ago when I first started reading Zola and wanted to read a book and not a Kindle, I contacted OUP about whether they had any upcoming translations of the ones that appeared to be available only in the original C19th English translations. They were lovely: they sent me a copy of every translation that they had, and they’ve kept sending me new ones as they’ve been published. And Brian Nelson, who lives here in Melbourne and now Emeritus Professor, has been doing sterling work on the remaining titles, I keep meaning to nag Monash into nominating him for an AO.


  5. I’ve delayed in commenting on this because I was reading the book at the time you published your thoughts. I’ve become a huge fan of Brian Nelson through his introductions to the various Zola titles I’ve read. Often I don’t read the explanatory notes but with this one I found I really needed them. The OWC editions are the only ones I’ve read – wish they’d issue all of the Zola books!


    • They have, I’ve got the whole set, and the only one that isn’t an OWC edition is The Dream, and I plan to get that one and re-read it too.
      Interestingly, The Dream is translated by Paul Gibbon who’s an Australian too, and so is Julie Rose who translated some of them as well.


      • I shall have to have another look because I’ve clearly missed some of these OWC versions. I think I have about half of the series so a way to go yet to complete my set


        • They look lovely all together on the shelf:)


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