Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 25, 2022

The Assommoir (1877), by Émile Zola, a new translation by Brian Nelson

Weeks before I listened to this very interesting webinar about ‘The Art of Reviewing Literature in Translation’, I had referred — in this #6Degrees of Separation — to Brian Nelson’s new translation of  Zola’s The Assommoir (L’Assommoir) and specifically mentioned reading the Translator’s Note:

I have just received a brand new translation of it by my favourite translator, Brian Nelson, Emeritus Professor of French at Monash University. Published by Oxford World’s Classics, it has the same Introduction by Robert Lethbridge as the 1995 Margaret Mauldon translation, but (of course) the Notes on the Translation are new, referring to the difficulty of translating C19th French slang and to a change of approach. Where Mauldon writes that she aimed for an English equivalent not of recent vintage to convey the vigour of the original, Nelson asserts the importance of writing for a contemporary audience, aiming to use vigorously colloquial contemporary language. So I am looking forward to see how these differences are manifested in the new translation.

So, listening to the webinar, I was interested to hear that at least one prominent (i.e. paid) reviewer had complained about an aspect of translation that had been specifically explained in a Translator’s Note.  Quite rightly, this not bothering to read the Translator’s Note was judged by the panel to be shabby behaviour, but that behaviour made me realise how far I have come in thinking about translated literature since the early days when I began reading it via the home of translated fiction, Stu’s blog Winston’s Dad.


First up, yes, translators feel strongly that reviewers should acknowledge that a book is translated and has a translator.  So that’s a tick for me, because I’ve been doing that for years.  But then it’s a question of how it’s acknowledged.  It’s not just a matter of #NamingTheTranslator, it’s a matter of acknowledging that the work is a co-creation which emerges when a translator reworks the original text and recreates it. That’s not something I’ve always acknowledged, and what’s more, I don’t agree entirely that a translator can or should, to use an example from the webinar, change culturally specific Israeli jokes into something else more accessible.  Firstly, there is always Google; secondly, there can be explanatory notes; and thirdly, whose alternatives do we get that aren’t culturally specific to somewhere else anyway?  Those of us who live in The Rest of the World all know how often there are tiresome assumptions that we are familiar with US culture.  (Anyone learning languages with Duolingo has to put up with this all the time).

Whatever about that, if you — whether reader or reviewer — are at all interested in the reviewing of translation, this webinar is a helpful guide to doing it well, though the speakers were all at pains to say that all reviews of translated fiction are welcome, because it isn’t reviewed enough and nobody wants to discourage potential reviewers with exacting standards…

So in the spirit of the suggestion that reviewers of TL should be ‘daring’ I’m going to assert that Brian Nelson’s translation of The Assommoir is a ‘new book’ in the sense that the panel explained it.  It is a co-creation with Zola, reworked for contemporary readers.  The most obvious aspect of this is the use of contemporary language as an interpretation of Zola’s use of 19th century French slang.  It is, as we often tag it, ‘robust’!

Reading a new translation for review has been a different kind of reading for me.  I already know this powerful story of a woman from the French underclass who starts out well but lapses into moral and financial decline, and you can read my review of the Margaret Mauldon translation here. So I was reading partly for the pleasure of re-reading, but also to note differences in the translation.  This is a kind of reading that scholars and editors do, but I don’t pretend to have that kind of expertise.  For me, comparing the text line-by-line would have killed the pleasure of reading it, but when I came across sections that seemed to me to be new or different or more modern, I compared the two texts.

But first, of course, there’s a different cover, and much as I liked the melancholy of the portrait by Edgar Degas in the Margaret Mauldon edition, ‘The Absinthe Drinker’ also by Degas more acutely depicts the sodden couple and their degradation.  They are together, and yet alone, separated by their addiction and the squalor of their lives.  To me, this new cover represents the way that Coupeau’s role in the novel and the social milieu are integral to Garvaise’s downfall, along with her own fatal flaws.

I admit to being disappointed that this new edition retains the Introduction and Notes by Robert Lethbridge.  I am unabashed fan of the clarity and accessibility of Brian Nelson’s no less comprehensive introductions, which were — from the time I first encountered the one for The Ladies Paradise — the catalyst for me to read the entire Les Rougon-Macquart Cycle.  As far as I can tell, the Introduction and Notes in The Assommoir/L’Assommoir are pretty much the same, except that quotations from the novel in the new edition use the Nelson translation, and there are amendments to some of the Notes as well. (For example, in the notes about the allusion to Pascal, mentioned on p. 89, there is additional information about the poet and song-writer Béranger as an ironic cultural counterpart.) 

There is a world of difference in the Translator’s Notes:

The Assommoir, transl Brian NelsonL’Assommoir, transl by Margaret Mauldon
The act of translation is an empathetic act in the sense that it allows translators to become the authors they admire, to recreate through language the narratives they love. This is doubly true in the case of L’Assommoir, insofar as the central effect of the novel itself is empathy: that is to say, the reader is invited to enter the character’s world, to see and feel the world as they do. This effect is created partly by the phenomenological quality of Zola’s writing: the sensory immediacy that informs his characters’ relationship with their environment. The effect is greatly heightened, however, by Zola’s astonishing invention of a narrative voice that absorbs into itself the thoughts and feelings of the characters. L’Assommoir is a notoriously difficult text to translate. No translation, however faithful its rendering of the novel’s gutter slang and obscenities, could possibly recreate the impact of that language on the nineteenth century reader. Today’s readers have become accustomed to slang and are no longer shocked by obscenity. It follows that much of the original of L’Assommoir to command attention by its unorthodox and audacious language is lost forever—and lost, of course, not simply in translation but to readers of the original text as well.

I see myself as a student encountering this book for the first time as a set text, and I know which one makes me want to read the book.  Not the edition that asserts a sense of loss, but the one that lures me with a promise of empathy.

So, onward with my reading of the edition that does not attempt to recreate French slang that was outmoded and obscure even in Zola’s day, but rather conveys the vigour of the original without introducing incompatible English or American connotations.  

An early example of the difference occurs when Gervaise is warding off Coupeau’s advances.  Gervaise is talking about her contemptible lover Lantier who abandoned her as soon as they got to Paris, leaving her with two small children to support: 

The Assommoir, transl Brian NelsonL’Assommoir, transl by Margaret Mauldon
‘Don’t be silly!’ Gervaise was saying to Coupeau. ‘Sex is all you think about! Of course I loved him… But after the awful way he walked out…’ (p.34)‘Don’t be silly! What a dirty mind you have!’ Gervaise was saying to Coupeau. ‘Of course I loved him… Only, after the horrible way he left me…’ (p.37)

Here’s another example, from the rank humidity of the laundry, where Clemence has stripped off her bodice because of the heat:

The Assommoir, transl Brian NelsonL’Assommoir, transl by Margaret Mauldon
‘Clemence, put your bodice back on,’ said Gervaise. ‘Madame Putois is right, it’s not decent… People might start thinkin’ my shop is something else altogether.’
So Clemence got dressed again, grumbling as she did so. What a fuss about nothing! As if passers-by had never seen a pair of tits before! And she took out her annoyance on the apprentice, squinty Augustine, who was standing next to her ironing easy stuff like stockings and hankies; she pushed her and knocked her with her elbow. But Augustine, with the sly bitchiness of an ugly duckling always being picked on, got her own back by spitting on her dress from behind, without anyone seeing. (p. 125)
‘Clemence, put your bodice on again,’ said Gervaise. ‘Madame Putois is right, it isn’t decent… People’ll take my shop for something it’s not.’
So the great tall girl got dressed again, grumbling. What a lot of bellyaching! Hadn’t the passers-by ever seen a pair of books, then! And she worked off her anger on the apprentice, that cross-eyed Augustine, who was standing beside her ironing plain things like stockings and handkerchiefs, she pushed her, bumping her with her elbow. But with the peevish, shifty nastiness of an ill-favoured drudge Augustine spat on the back of her dress, without anyone seeing, in revenge. (p.139)

The songs are different too.  This one is a washerwoman’s song, capturing in the Nelson translation both the drudgery of the work and the way the women expressed their sorrows:

The Assommoir, transl Brian NelsonL’Assommoir, transl by Margaret Mauldon
‘Thwack! Thwack! Margot at the wash….
Thwack! Thwack! Swings her beater— slosh…
Thwack! Thwack! Washing from her soul…
Thwack! Thwack! Misery black as coal….’ (p.28)
Bang! Bang! Margot’s wash she’s thwacking,
Bang! Bang! With her beater smacking,
Bang! Bang! Washing out the stain,
Bang! Bang! Of her heart’s black pain. (p.31)

Of course, this is not about picking out snippets to compare a different choice of words.  For most of my reading I was wholly absorbed in the story even though I’d read it before.  I was more conscious this time of Goujet, the gentle giant whose love for Gervaise is unrequited while Gervaise refuses him from the moral high ground of ‘respectable’ marriage when really, it’s her her lazy habits and easy-going ways that keep her mired in degradation.  And —having read Nana since first reading L’Assommoir— I was more alert to the portrayals of Gervaise’s daughter in this novel.  It is quite heart-breaking to read about the birth of this child, her father’s delight and Gervaise’s prescient anxiety about the risks girls faced in a city like Paris, and then to come to the end of the novel where we see Nana beginning her life as a prostitute, entering high society in a grand carriage as her alcoholic mother dies pathetically in abject poverty.  

The new edition also has a much expanded Bibliography, and the Chronology of Zola’s life has slight differences. 

Highly recommended.


Webinar: ‘The Art of Reviewing Literature in Translation’ (NBCC), featuring Tara Merrigan, Samuel Martin, Shelley Frisch, Emma Ramadan, Kevin Blankinship, Jeremy Tiang.

‘The Absinthe Drinker in a café’, by Edgar Degas: National Gallery of Victoria.

Author: Émile Zola
Title: The Assommoir (L’Assommoir)
Translated from the French by Brian Nelson, with an Introduction and Notes by Robert Lethbridge, and a map of the setting and a family tree of the Rougon-Macquarts. 
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, 2021, first published 1877.
ISBN: 9780198828563, pbk., 411 pages
Review copy courtesy of OUP, with thanks to Brian Nelson.

Cross-posted at The Books of Émile Zola


  1. This seems to be a major quandary for translators of old novels as well as for those who write fiction which is set in the past. Do you use the language of the time and place presented in the work, or do you use modern-day language? I do not have an answer to this quandary.


    • I don’t either, but I think we know when it works.
      (Purists, of course, will never be happy!)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Your juxtaposition of the two translations is enlightening Lisa. I’d also go with the introduction that entices me to read further – the negative one is off-putting. Have you read this in the original French? I’ve never forgiven myself for not studying French and Latin as well as German – if only I had the time over again I’d do all three!


    • It’s interesting, isn’t it, when you see them side-by-side… and I’m quite pleased with myself that I’ve figured out how to do tables to do it.
      I have read one of Zola’s short stories in French, but never one of his novels, and because of the slang, this one would be one of the last I’d tackle even if/when I felt more confident.
      Just today, I came across a post at The Untranslated, which explains how he taught himself to read in multiple languages. It’s quite a long post, ( but basically what he does, after working through a couple of text books is to read short stories, noting all the words he doesn’t know, and then he reads the same story 10 times so that by the time he gets to the 10th reading, he knows the vocab. I’m thinking that instead of slowly working through short French novels, I could try doing what he did with Maupassant’s short stories.
      But *chuckle* I still need to learn my French verbs!


  3. Really interesting Lisa! I don’t know the answer to the dilemma either, except to say that we read Dickens as he wrote, we don’t translate him into modern English, so I often prefer to read a translation that feels as contemporary as possible to the original. But that’s not set in stone…


    • That’s true, we don’t and that’s true of Austen and Thackeray and Hardy et al.
      The thing is, unless you can read the source language, it’s not an option to have a ‘pure’ translation. As Nelson explains in the Translator’s Note, even the word Assommoir has so many other connotations besides being a place for drinking, so translating it into simple correspondences such as The Dram Shop etc loses those meanings.
      The art, and I think Nelson achieves it, is never to lose the sense of this being a C19th novel, firmly grounded in its place and time.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That’s very interesting. I recall the online book group that first “educated” me on the matter of translation too, first piqued my interest enough to go looking for more information about it and learning how many translators see these issues differently too, within that community. Like you, I would have preferred the idea of feeling onside with the story as a translated co-creation, but surely there are some readers who would appreciate the direct and historical tone of the other translator too. Maybe they’re less likely to be reading and chatting about books on the internet though? Heheh


    • To be fair, I was perfectly content with the previous translation by Mauldon, and I should also say I’ve come across some awful translations of Zola because the first English ones were so heavily censored for Victorian sensibilities. So it’s been great that OUP took on the project of issuing the entire cycle in new translations, and I do like Brian Nelson’s more contemporary approach.

      Interesting in what you say about other readers… a lot of our time online is time wasted and lost forever, but I can honestly say that my bookish time online has been enormously beneficial. I have learned so much about world literature and ways of thinking about it, and I like to think that blogs like yours and mine help to spread the word about our literatures, lesser-known than the dominant ones but fantastically good!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Yet to read this. Enjoyed your discussion.


  6. It’s a hard one I feel no matter what you do it is a situation where some me isn’t happy I often think there needs to be different versions of the same book in translation to appeal to differ readers it is about getting people to read the books so some people will alway like a book that feels like it was closer in terms of its Language and use of slang to its own time and another that uses modern slang it’s about drawing readers in as for me I happy with either I read translators notes a lot more than I once did and have long championed naming the translator on every review has the translator mentioned


    • Indeed you have Stu, translators have always been properly acknowledged on your blog, and you are a great ambassador for translated fiction!


  7. The whole translation issue is endlessly fascinating to me too.

    I got very caught up in it when I was reading Les Mis, a chapter a day, a few years ago. I ended up with 3 different translations, one was very formal, one was too colloquial for my tastes and the one I ended up reading all the way through was somewhere in the middle.

    In the end, as readers, that’s all we can do, is search out the options, then pick the translation that gels with us best at the time.


    • I can relate to that because I tried and failed with War and Peace until I found a translation that worked for me…


      • Yes, my first reading of W&P in my twenties was not very edifying thanks to the translation, but Anthony Briggs’ more recent translation worked much better for me.

        I’ll be reading another Zola in April – your post has been a timely anticipation booster!


        • Some of those early translations were not great…


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