7

I am reading Le Comte de Monte Cristo, and the following sentence completely stumped me. I had to obtain an English translation to work out what it was saying.

— Oui, dit la marquise, sans que ce souvenir sanglant amenât la moindre altération sur ses traits ; seulement c’était pour des principes diamétralement opposés qu’ils [les pères des deux interlocuteurs] y fussent montés [sur l'échafaud de Guillotin] tous deux,

My translation of this was something like

  • "Yes", said the marquise, "without that bloody memory changing the slightest aspect of their features, it was only for diametrically opposed principles that they both climbed the scaffold"

The correct translation apparently is

  • "Yes", said the marquise, without that bloody memory changing the slightest aspect of her features; "it was only for diametrically opposed principles that they both climbed the scaffold"

In English, it is entirely clear that the phrase after 'said the marquise' is from the narrator. But in French, where the guillemets are not placed around each piece of the marquise's speech, I could see no immediately obvious clue to that, and the natural interpretation seemed to be that it was the marquises's voice.

With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that 'ses traits' is grammatically wrong if it is referring to the two fathers, and should have been 'leurs traits'. But I find it hard to believe that one has to do grammatical forensic work like that to discover who is speaking, especially since people often speak ungrammatically. Is there an easier, more immediate way, to understand that the following phrase belongs to the narrator and not to the marquise?

, sans que ce souvenir sanglant amenât la moindre altération sur ses traits ;

Thank you very much for any suggestions.

I am really enjoying the book by the way. Dumas is great!

5

While I agree that the ‘incise’ in this passage is bordering on being too long to be in the ‘incise’ category and that, therefore, it is a possible source of confusion, I think the PRIMARY source of confusion comes from the questionable translation of “seulement” as “only” (i.e., "it was ONLY for diametrically…”) instead of as “but” (i.e., “BUT it was for diametrically …”) (Le Robert-micro - 4. [en tête de proposition] = mais) (cf. this translation).

Except for the “ses”/“leurs” issue, the translation using “only” could arguably make everything following “dit la marquise” read as a logical quotation in English, therefore making your interpretation plausible:

"Yes", said the marquise, "without that bloody memory changing the slightest aspect of their [sic] features, it was only for diametrically opposed principles that they both climbed the scaffold."

Translating “seulement” as “but,” however, would render your interpretation of the “quotation” awkward enough that it would be harder to mistake it as being one long quotation:

"Yes", said the marquise, "without that bloody memory changing the slightest aspect of their [sic] features, BUT it was for diametrically opposed principles that they both climbed the scaffold."

In fact, the “ses”/“leurs” issue could be made to disappear in something like the following “re-write” to the singular:

— Oui, dit la marquise, sans que ce souvenir sanglant amenât la moindre altération sur SES traits ; seulement c’était pour des principes diamétralement opposés que MON PERE y fût monté.

"Yes", said the marquise, "without that bloody memory changing the slightest aspect of HIS features, it was only for diametrically opposed principles that MY FATHER climbed the scaffold."

BUT this re-write would not resolve the “only”/“but” issue nor the confusion arising therefrom.

With “seulement” translated as “but,” as I think it should be, it becomes clearer that

without that bloody memory changing the slightest aspect of ‘SES’ features

does not logically flow with the rest of the quotation and that it can only be interpreted as the narrator’s description of HOW (the manner in which) the MARQUISE said what she said, which is a legitimate, albeit lengthy use of the ‘incise,’ and not as part of the Marquise’s description of HOW the CONDEMNED mounted the scaffold:

"Yes", said the marquise, without that bloody memory changing the slightest aspect of her features; "BUT it was for diametrically opposed principles that they both climbed the scaffold."

4

These pieces of text are called incises. While English uses quotation marks as separators, they are indeed directly mixed with the dialogue and only introduced by a comma. There are other specific rules with incises :

  • They must always start with a lowercase letter, even when following punctuation marks that would otherwise imply an uppercase.
  • The subject/verb order is reversed.

Incises are normally clearly distinguished by the verb/subject order, and by being only meaningful when originating from the narrator and not from the characters:

— Mon père était girondin, Madame, dit-il, c’est vrai ; mais mon père n’a pas voté la mort du roi ; mon père a été proscrit par cette même Terreur qui vous proscrivait, et peu s’en est fallu qu’il ne portât sa tête sur le même échafaud qui avait vu tomber la tête de votre père.

— Oui, dit la marquise, sans que ce souvenir sanglant amenât la moindre altération sur ses traits ; seulement c’était pour des principes diamétralement opposés qu’ils y fussent montés tous deux, et la preuve c’est que toute ma famille est restée attachée aux princes exilés, tandis que votre père a eu hâte de se rallier au nouveau gouvernement, et qu’après que le citoyen Noirtier a été girondin, le comte Noirtier est devenu sénateur.

— Ma mère, ma mère, dit Renée, vous savez qu’il était convenu qu’on ne parlerait plus de ces mauvais souvenirs.

— Madame, répondit Villefort, je me joindrai à mademoiselle de Saint-Méran pour vous demander bien humblement l’oubli du passé. À quoi bon récriminer sur des choses dans lesquelles la volonté de Dieu même est impuissante ? Dieu peut changer l’avenir ; il ne peut pas même modifier le passé. Ce que nous pouvons, nous autres hommes, c’est, sinon le renier, du moins jeter un voile dessus. Eh bien ! moi, je me suis séparé non seulement de l’opinion, mais encore du nom de mon père. Mon père à été ou est même peut-être encore bonapartiste et s’appelle Noirtier ; moi je suis royaliste et m’appelle de Villefort. Laissez mourir dans le vieux tronc un reste de sève révolutionnaire, et ne voyez, Madame, que le rejeton qui s’écarte de ce tronc, sans pouvoir, et je dirai presque sans vouloir s’en détacher tout à fait.

— Bravo, Villefort, dit le marquis, bravo, bien répondu ! Moi aussi j’ai toujours prêché à la marquise l’oubli du passé, sans jamais avoir pu l’obtenir d’elle ; vous serez plus heureux, je l’espère.

— Oui, c’est bien, dit la marquise, oublions le passé, je ne demande pas mieux, et c’est convenu ; mais qu’au moins Villefort soit inflexible pour l’avenir. N’oubliez pas, Villefort, que nous avons répondu de vous à Sa Majesté ;

Note that in the very same book, Dumas is separating the dialogue in two parts as the inserted narrative part is too large to be in the embedded incise category:

Et Danglars écrivit l'adresse en se jouant. « Oui, tout serait dit », s'écria Caderousse, qui par un dernier effort d'intelligence avait suivi la lecture, et qui comprenait d'instinct tout ce qu'une pareille dénonciation pourrait entraîner de malheur ; « oui, tout serait dit : seulement, ce serait une infamie. »

3

I am not sure there is an absolute rule. Let's say that if there is one, it is followed not very often. A. Dumas is the master in not respecting the rules, especially in this book. If I remember correctly, for instance he suddenly talks to the reader, in the middle of a sentence. Quite disturbing...

So I would say that, as in many languages, the context is the only rule. You rightfully noticed the possessive "ses": for a native speaker, this directly brings this part of the sentence as the author's, not as the marquise's.

Did that help?

  • 1
    Dumas is not breaking any rules in this excerpt. – jlliagre Mar 7 '15 at 23:15
  • Fair enough, addressing the reader it is not technically "breaking a rule". As the dialogue thing, as stated in the question, Dumas doesn't "break" any rule, but rather take advantage of all the freedom possible, by using very uncommon practices, such as those things. Balzac and other "grands auteurs" do it too, but within the whole french literature, they are exceptions. And when we were kids we were taught not to use those practices. – Lucile Mar 7 '15 at 23:24
  • Finally (getting more technical here maybe), the usual use of incises, is as the ones you have given in examples: the incise is short (commonly "dit-il"), and between 2 commas. Using a comma and continuing on the incise, as Dumas does, is very unusual. – Lucile Mar 7 '15 at 23:28
  • 1
    Damn it! from your link! "Proposition GENERALEMENT DE PEU D'ETENDUE"! Ask my teachers why they didn't want us to use long incise, but probably because it can lead to confusion, exactly as described in the question! It is not common to make incises of that length! urgh... – Lucile Mar 8 '15 at 0:12
  • 1
    Granted. However, "peu d'étendue" is subjective and "généralement" doesn't imply "toujours". While I certainly agree some incises can be ambiguous, that one is far from being confusing for a native French reader. – jlliagre Mar 8 '15 at 0:36

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