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On Translations of Le Fantôme de l'Opéra

June 21, 2005, Literature
Last edited on January 16, 2006

A second addendum to the article O.G. - or - the Angel of Music.

Raoul Faces the Phantom by Greg Hildebrandt (1988); click for more information (on the web site of the Spiderwebart Gallery)

When I wrote the other entry I had no access to the Internet. But the thing about the unnamed translator let me no rest, and I did a quick google search. Thereby I stumbled over a very nice web site that goes under the stupendous creative name PhantomeoftheOpera.info. It is a huge collection of articles, essays, pictures, information on several musical and motion-picture adaptations, translations, and much more.

A quick text comparison has shown that the translation of my copy has been done by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos in 1911, according to Phantom Literatur -- A Guide To Acquisition.

Apart from the original text Le Fantôme de l'Opéra by Gaston Leroux, which was indeed written in French (and published in 1910), there seem to be three different translation to the English language right now:

Quite interesting is the essay Lost In The Translation: Gaston Leroux's Phantom Novel -- And What the Translators Have Done to It by Carrie Hernández, the author of the aforementioned web site herself, in which she compares differences of the former three English translations: "[...] a comparative analysis of those three [translations] and the striking, often shocking, differences between them."

Hernández claims that Teixeira de Mattos' translation is far from being unabridged. His translations of the chapter titles are in part rather compact, Leroux's chapter five, entitled Suite de «la loge n° 5», is completly missing from his translation, although Teixeira de Mattos "combined the material from both chapters four and five under the single title of chapter four," and even worse: "Whole passages—some of them the most beautiful in the book—are missing from the Teixeira de Mattos translation." Her conjecture as to why he made those omissions are as egregious as prosaic:

I cannot be certain why he chose to do this, though throughout the course of making some of the translations myself, I discovered that the passages that gave me the most trouble were simply missing from the Teixeira de Mattos translation. I am concluding, then, that he was faced with some sort of problem and can only conjecture as to what that problem might have been. To chop out paragraphs of the most difficult-to-translate passages from Leroux could signify that he was under pressure to complete the translation quickly and didn't have time to suffer through the tedious hours of finding some English-language equivalent to a French-language idiomatic expression. Whatever the reason, the omissions are at times nearly unbelievable in their blatancy.

Cover of the 1994 Puffin Classics edition of The Phantom of the Opera

Apart from these and even more considerations my pristine verdict remains: I really enjoyed the English of Teixeira de Mattos' translation! But Hernández comments made me curious, I conclude that I should try one of the newer translations. The French original is out of question for me, in the first instance I would have to learn French, and I'm sorry but I really do not appreciate the sound of French. (Several years ago I began to learn, decadent that I am, another language just because of the sound of it: Italien. With adequate and clear pronunciation it can truly be marvellous. But more on this in a later article. . .)

Comparing the short excerpts in the essay, I would prefer the adaption by Wolf over the translation by Bair. The latter seems to be of a simpler, more straightforward language that I do not enjoy that much. Compare for example this section of Bair's translation (in chapter 13 of the original text, entitlled La lyre d'Apollon):

We said nothing more to each other for the rest of the evening. He took a harp, and he, the man's voice, the angel's voice, began singing Desdemona's love song to me. My memory of having sung it myself made me feel ashamed. Music has the power to abolish everything in the outside world except its sounds, which go straight to the heart. My bizarre adventure was forgotten. The Voice had come to life again and I followed it, enraptured, on its harmonious journey; I belonged to Orpheus's flock! it took me into sorrow, joy, martyrdom, despair, bliss, death, and triumphant nuptials.

to Wolf's version:

That evening, we exchanged not a word. He took up a harp and began to sing with his man's voice, his angel's voice, the romance of Desdemona. He made me ashamed to remember that I, too, had sung it. My dear, there is a virtue in music that can make you feel that nothing of the external world exists except those sounds that strike the heart. Forgotten was my bizarre adventure. Only the voice existed, and intoxicated, I followed it on its harmonious voyage; I was one of Orpheus' flock. The voice led me through grief and joy, through martyrdom and despair, through delight, through death and triumphant marriages.

Cover of Leonard Wolf, The Essential Phantom Of The Opera (I Books, 2004)

I like it when the ordinary word order is changed on emphasis grounds, as in the first sentence of Wolf's translation "That evening, we exchanged not a word." or in "Forgotten was my bizarre adventure." It may be a harsh comment but the other translation reminds me a little bit of simplified English in contrast. But, on the other hand, this is just my liking. . .

Oh, by the way, the whole quoted section, that even consists of some additional lines, is translated by the following two sentences in Teixeira de Mattos' adaptation:

That night, we did not exchange another word. He sang me to sleep.

Unfortunately, Hernández comes in her further analysis of style to the conclusion that Wolf's translation is "probably the least poetic [work]". And in the section regarding "translation of idiomatic expressions" she writes:

Unfortunately, Wolf's "word-for-word" translations are often further from Leroux's actual meanings than those of Bair.

[. . .]

Unfortunately, this odd tick of Wolf's—translating always for each word, rather than for the meaning of the entire expression—permeates the entire work so that certain sentences have lost their original meaning. For this reason, reading his translation does not give one a good representation of either Leroux's poetic flow or his actual meaning.

Cover of Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier, The Phantom of the Opera (Black Coat Press, 1st edition, 2004); artwork by Dave Taylor

Sadly, the newest translation by Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier, published in 2004, has not been analysed in Hernández' essay, as the latter has been written in the year 2000. Being a naive person, I assume that both translators must have felt that the existing translations are not satisfying. Perhaps they were successful in their, assumed, enthusiastic attempt.

Well, actually there is a Discussion and Interview with Jean-Marc Lofficier by Carrie Hernández. This new translation does sound interesting. The following section of the article will give you a hint of the book's kind, but make sure to read it yourself.

An adaptation rather than a straight translation, The Phantom of the Opera brought to English by Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier has a flow to it that none of the previous versions were able to achieve. As you may guess from the word "adaptation," though, the Lofficier Phantom is much less a word-for-word translation than any of those that came before it.

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