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Obama, Romney and the many misinterpretations of Albert Camus

Op-Ed

The opening lines of his book, 'The Stranger,' are famous — and even a bit problematic?

June 10, 2012|By John Kenney
  • The French author Albert Camus, shown here in illustration, is best known for "The Stranger."
The French author Albert Camus, shown here in illustration, is best known… (Nancy Ohanian / For The Times )

For the modern American reader, few lines in French literature are as famous as the opening of Albert Camus's "L'Étranger": "Aujourd'hui, maman est morte." Nitty-gritty tense issues aside, the first sentence of "The Stranger" is so elementary that even a schoolboy with a base knowledge of French could adequately translate it. So why do the pros keep getting it wrong?

—Ryan Bloom, newyorker.com

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President Obama today weighed in on the translation of Algerian-born French writer, Albert Camus' seminal work, "The Stranger." The president announced that "like most Americans, the first sentence of 'The Stranger' has never quite seemed right to me." After consulting with the French ambassador to the United States, NATO, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a schoolboy with a basic knowledge of French, the president said in a news conference that he was confident the line should be read this way: "Our understanding is that Mother may have passed away today, though it might have happened yesterday. I think it would be foolish to judge what happened before the facts are in. Obviously we mourn the loss. We find solace in her memory. Critics of Mother, including my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, have said Mother may not have died, that she was merely quite ill, and that her illness, while tragic, is another example of the cost of healthcare in this country. Fortunately she was French and covered by that system."

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Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney, who spent time in France as a missionary, angrily disagreed with Obama's translation of the first sentence in Albert Camus' novel "The Stranger." Romney, speaking to a group of schoolboys with a limited knowledge of French and no understanding of who Albert Camus was, said, "Did Mother die today? The president says she did. How can we know for sure? Besides an autopsy report from the French police and her son as eyewitness, all of which we learn about later in the novel, we have no proof of her death, any more than we do of global warming…. Look … look … the question isn't whether Mother died today. For all we know it could have been yesterday … or maybe she's not dead, maybe she's lost…. Old people get confused sometimes. The word for lost in French is perdu … like the chicken … funny…. The point is that I agree with capital punishment, even for elderly French mothers, and by agree I mean disagree if I have to, depending on the day, the hour or the minute, or whether there's a French person in the room. Any French people here today?"

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Fox News host Megyn Kelly said that President Obama's recent translation of the first sentence of Albert Camus' novel "The Stranger" was yet another example of how out of touch he was with the American people and L'Académie Française. Kelly said she sat down with a French dictionary and a bottle of white burgundy and found a "fair and balanced" translation of the sentence. Kelly read the sentence on air, surrounded by schoolboys who spoke no French, only Spanish. "Mother died today as a result of President Obama's death panels, proving once again that 'Obamacare' — and this president personally — will idly stand by as millions of elderly people die needlessly, be they French or otherwise."

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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran, spoke at the United Nations today, announcing a new Farsi translation of "The Stranger" by Albert Camus. Ahmadinejad, speaking to a largely empty General Assembly, said that the proper translation should read as follows: "If Mother died yesterday — and there is no proof of this — it was most likely a Zionist plot, and why is he a 'stranger' just because he has no feelings or feelings that are 'aberrant' or 'bizarre' or not 'founded in reality.' Little bunnies, little bunnies, look how they run…. Did you not see them?"

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Israel reacted angrily today to Ahmadinejad's translation of Camus' "The Stranger." Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office issued a statement saying the Iranian leader "has once again shown his delusional nature and complete ignorance of Camus' oeuvre. Even someone with no knowledge of ancient Aramaic knows that the sentence should read 'Mother didn't die today. She said she thought she might as well be dead since no one ever called her.'"

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In a surprise move, JP Morgan Chase announced it has made a new translation of Camus' "The Stranger." The translation, read by CEO Jamie Dimon at a Senate hearing, is as follows: "Mother did not die, she was merely misplaced. Lost actually. We've lost upward of 2 billion mothers, and that number could go up. These things happen, and to regulate mothers and their lives is, to me and anyone with a brain, foolish, and if you don't get that, maybe you should get lost."

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The New York Post reported today that the correct translation of the opening sentence of Albert Camus' book "The Stranger" should read: "Algerian mother killed by son in brutal murder; French police are holding Dominique Strauss-Kahnfor questioning."

John Kenney's first novel, "Truth in Advertising," will be published this fall.

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