Special VWOP feature: American Detective Fiction: The Translations Were Too Short


Hey, folks! This is something I’m really excited to present.

The French Série noire translations of American crime fiction novels, along with American film noir, were hugely influential on French New Wave directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Melville. (The shot above this post is from (sort-of) Parker adaptation Made in U.S.A. directed by Godard. On the beautiful Anna Karina’s chest is the Série noire edition of Horace McCoy’s Adieu la vie, adieu l’amour, which I believe to be Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.)

French readers weren’t getting the whole story, though…

This piece was was published in L’Express last year. This translation, by Karin Montin and Conan Purves, is published with permission. Thanks to Jérôme Dupuis and L’Express for permission to reprint, and thanks to Karin and Conan for translating. Apologies to all for the delay in getting this great article out to the English-speaking world.

American Detective Fiction: The Translations Were Too Short

Jérôme Dupuis (L’Express), published October 24, 2012, at 10:40, updated October 25, 2012, at 10:40


Translated by Conan Purves and Karin Montin

Do you really think you’ve read Chandler, Hammett and Westlake? The French translations of these masters of noir fiction were often cut by a third and rendered in a fifties slang incomprehensible in 2012. Publishers have finally begun the big job of restoring them to their proper form!

l'express 1

This original edition of a Ross Thomas novel shows the cuts made by Série noir translators
Jérôme Dupuis/L’Express

It’s kind of funny. In 1967, the mythic Série noire released a translation of Ross Thomas’s The Cold War Swap [Un petit coup de main], a decent spy novel set against the backdrop of the Berlin Wall. On page 123, two American agents wonder how the Russians had been able to turn their colleague Cooky. “They knew all about his horrible secret,” says one. The other reveals, shaken, “He was gai.” [In French, gai still has the older English meaning. For homosexual, the anglicism “gay” is used.] Forty-five years later, it’s time to out the agent. Cooky may have been a happy-go-lucky guy, but the important thing is that he was homosexual, gay. Which explains how the KGB had a hold on him. And that’s how a simple translation error of a single vowel can make a crime novel incomprehensible.

Or take the character from James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss [Chien ivre, published by Fayard] who ends up in a “bar sans toit,” a roofless bar, rather than topless, which is not quite the same thing. Beyond easy mockery, these examples reveal how crime fiction was for a long time the poor relation of French translation. But things are changing. This autumn, publishing house Rivages decided to completely retranslate two of Jim Thompson’s best (The Killer Inside me [L’assassin qui est en moi] and The Getaway [L’Échappée], which inspired the gripping Sam Peckinpah film [Guet-Apens] with Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw), while Gallmeister will produce brand-new translations of the deliciously Bogartesque Lew Archer series by classic author Ross Macdonald.

The new translators were taken aback, to say the least, when they looked at the work of their predecessors. “I figure the Série noire version of the Killer Inside Me, released in 1966, was missing twenty-four percent of the original text, which had been purely and simply cut out!” says Jean-Paul Graties, the highly respected translator of Thompson’s work (and incidentally of Elmore Leonard’s recent books). “Chapters 17 and 25 were gone, as well as many of the protagonist’s inner monologues, which make up the heart of the book.”

Jacques Mailhos, renowned multiple award-winning translator of Edward Abbey, says the same about the works of Ross Macdonald: “A third of Moving Target [Cible mouvant] was left out of the Presses de la Cité version published in the Fifties. It’s not the same book.”

“Cut anything psychological”

Are there skeletons in the crime novels’ closets? “The paradox is that the Série noire introduced us to Chandler, Hammett and Himes, but didn’t treat them as respected authors,” laments François Guérif, founder of Rivages/Noir, an imprint that has published many heavyweights of the genre. To understand, we need to take a little detour through the basement of Gallimard, where Marcel Duhamel first founded Série noire in 1945. At the time, mysteries were known as “romans de gare,” or train station novels, sold cheaply and designed for the famous metal spinning book racks. As a result, they couldn’t be longer than 250 pages. So it was very simple. If a Chandler was too long, Duhamel, the boss, ordered the translator to “cut anything psychological!” And that’s how a masterpiece like The Long Goodbye wound up a third shorter in French.


Ross Thomas original: A rewritten bridge passage Jérôme Dupuis/L’Express

Ross Thomas original: A rewritten bridge passage
Jérôme Dupuis/L’Express

We went to see the original English manuscripts used by the Série noire translators. They’ve been kept for almost thirty years in a reserve collection at the Bibliothèque des littératures policières [library of police literature], known as Bilipo, a stone’s throw from the Panthéon. It must be said that the “culprits” left clues all over the scene of the crime: entire pages, destined to be cut, are crossed out in felt pen (see photo)! At times, to avoid utterly confusing readers after deleting passages, a bridging paragraph was added in (see photo). Several years ago, Catherine Chauchard, Bilipo’s chief curator, had fun showing the tremendous Donald Westlake* the copy of his novel God Save the Mark [Le Pigeon récalcitrant] with 45 pages slashed by a felt pen. The American master’s response: “What? They dared to do that?”

Original edition of a Donald Westlake: A crossed-out page Jérôme Dupuis/L’Express

Original edition of a Donald Westlake: A crossed-out page
Jérôme Dupuis/L’Express

They did worse, dear Donald. Translations from the fifties have not aged well! In Albert Simonin’s time, the slang of Pigalle was all the rage.* “If, in The Thin Man [L’Introuvable], Hammett wrote about a young woman with a “body in powder blue sports clothes,” she became a a chick in a tight blue suit [“une poulette . . . le châssis moulé dans un tailleur bleu”]. French crime fiction fans referred to this as an “Arletty translation.”* Jean-Paul Gratias discovered several gems in The Killer Inside Me. To describe “the second prettiest rear end in West Texas,” the translator at the time spoke of a sensational derrière [“pétoulet sensass”]. Girls are mice [“souris”], lawyers are mouthpieces [“débardots”] and to cause a scandal was to raise a hell of a stink [“faire une rebecca de tonnerre”].” Another curiosity: the French translation appeared in 1966 and referred to the Kennedy assassination. There was just one problem: Jim Thompson published the book in 1952, 11 years before the incident in Dallas. In the English copy at Bilipo, somebody has added Kennedy’s name, crossing out a reference to McKinley, who was assassinated in 1901.

Translators paid a quarter of today’s rates

“Sometimes the changes were absolutely crazy.” Claude Mesplède, author of the encyclopedic Années Série noire, smiles. “In 1951, the imprint translated Frank Kane’s Dead Weight under the title Envoyé, c’est pesé! The story pits the cruel Red Chinese against the good nationalists. Exasperated by this basic anti-Communism, the French translator made the Reds the good guys and the nationalists the bad guys! The translator used the pseudonym Luc-Paul Dael, but eventually let it slip to the press that it was an anagram of his real name. He was actually Paul Claudel, uptight author of Le Soulier de satin (The Satin Slipper) and a former ambassador to Peking!”

Conversely, the Ross Macdonald translations from that period, published by Presses de la Cité, suffered from a neutralizing treatment. “It’s as if they flattened his style,” observes publisher Oliver Gallmeister, the man behind the new French versions of Lew Archer’s 18 adventures, which will be issued at the rate of two per year.

Translator Jacques Mailhos agrees.“Macdonald’s ferocious animal metaphors and deceptive adjectives are what make him so interesting.”

“I find these accusations unfair.” Aurélien Masson, the current boss of Série noire and distant successor to Marcel Duhamel, is irritated. “The slang has a certain charm, a certain patina. After all, fifty years from now, today’s translations may well be totally outmoded in turn. No version is definitive. At the time, almost everyone considered mysteries to be a subliterature. They were read on the train by casual readers. The translators were also very poorly paid.”

Marcel Duhamel’s financial records from the late 1940s show 50,000 francs, the equivalent of 1,500 euros (US$1,900) today for the translation of a single Série noire novel. In comparison, today’s translators make 19 or 20 euros (US$26) per 1,500-character (about 300-word) page, which works out to about 6,000 euros (US$7,700) for a complete Ross Macdonald or Jim Thompson novel, four times what their colleagues from the fifties would have made.1

New Versions: A Selling Point

“What shocks me is not that that Chandler and Westlake were badly translated fifty years ago, but that Folio Policier and 10/18 continue to sell these parodies of translations in 2012!” counters François Guérif. The same could be said of David Goodis or Chester Himes, still being published by Gallimard in their vintage translations, while Fitzgerald and Joyce have new translations.

“It’s true,” acknowledges Julie Maillard, head of Folio Policier. “We can’t afford to undertake such a project for our pocket editions. But even if we aren’t making a big fuss about it, we are tidying them up, as we did in August with James Hadley Chase’s We’ll Share a Double Funeral [Tu me suivras dans la tombe]. For Hammett, we’re using the recent translations produced for the prestigious Quarto series for our pocketbooks.”

Make no mistake, behind these (perfectly justified) quarrels among purists are hidden (perfectly practical) editorial interests. Some accuse François Guérif and Rivages of brandishing these truncated original translations in order to “poach” the authors. Gallimard, for instance, had been planning a Quarto edition of Jim Thompson’s works before his classic titles packed up and left for Rivages, which, to be fair, had been publishing his previously unreleased titles for 25 years. The Quarto edition has now been called off. “His family preferred it to be us,” Guérif comments with Hammettesque dryness.

So the new versions (which are, indeed, excellent) also serve as a selling point. “First complete translation,” proclaims the cover of L’Echappée [The Getaway]. “For the first time, complete and unabridged,” confirm bold letters on the back cover. And for those who still haven’t got it yet, page 6 says, “An incomplete translation of this book appeared under the title Le Lien conjugal in the Série noire in 1959.”

Many big names from the Série Noire have switched to Rivages over the years. Along with Thompson, there are Donald Westlake, Elmore Leonard and even Ross Thomas, creator of the very “gay” Cooky. Thomas is lucky: his novels have been translated by the great Jean-Patrick Manchette, who has perfectly reproduced his ironic, sharp, gay dialogue. Gay as in witty.

1. Marcel Duhamel’s unpublished archives, Bibliothèque des littératures policières.

*Translator’s notes

It is so awesome that they refer to Westlake as “l’immense Westlake.”

The word poulette doesn’t actually appear in L’Introuvable, but was probably used in other translations.

Simonin was a French author and playwright, whose works included Touchez Pas au Grisbi, made into a classic French gangster film. Pigalle is Paris’s seedy neighborhood, known as Pig Alley to American GIs after WWII.

Arletty was a French singer and actress known for her colloquial Parisian style of speech. She starred in Les Enfants du Paradis and Hôtel du Nord, among many other films.


Ross Macdonald, Before and After

“Look,” I said. “I am rhinoceros-skinned and iron-hearted. I’ve been doing divorce work in L.A. for ten years. If you can tell me anything I haven’t heard, I’ll donate a week’s winnings at Santa Anita to any worthy charity.” The Drowning Pool, New York: Vintage eBooks.

Passage from Cadavre en eau douce [The Drowning Pool], translated by Igor B. Maslowski, Presses de la cité, 1954 (reissued by 10/18 in 1998)

“Sachez pour commencer que rien de ce que vous allez m’apprendre ne pourra m’étonner. Je suis dans le métier depuis une dizaine d’années, m’occupant principalement de divorces. Dans ces conditions, j’en ai vu de toutes les couleurs.”

Same passage translated by Jacques Mailhos, Gallmeister, 2012

“J’ai une carapace de rhinocéros et un coeur en acier trempé. Dix ans que je fais dans le divorce à Los Angeles. Si vous pouvez me dire une seule chose que je n’aie pas déjà entendue, je promets de faire don d’une semaine d’honoraires à n’importe quelle bonne cause le jour de la Sainte-Anita.”**

**Translator’s note

Santa Anita is a racetrack, so the French translation mentioning St. Anita’s day is wrong.

Game: Match each English to the title of the French translation

A. The Long Goodbye (Raymond Chandler)

B. The Diamond Bikini (Charles Williams)

C. The Dum Dum Murders (Carter Brown)

D. Pop. 1280 (Jim Thompson)

E. The Five-Cornered Square (Chester Himes)

1. 1275 âmes

2. Loin de Ris-Orangis!

3. La reine des pommes

4. Fantasia chez les ploucs

5. Sur un air de navaja



A. The Long Goodbye (Raymond Chandler) > 5. Sur un air de navaja

B. The Diamond Bikini (Charles Williams) > 4. Fantasia chez les ploucs

C. The Dum Dum Murders (Carter Brown) > 2. Loin de Ris-Orangis!

D. Pop. 1280 (Jim Thompson) > 1. 1275 âmes

E. The Five-Cornered Square (Chester Himes) > 3. La reine des pommes