I am currently (and slowly) reading Camus' La Peste [Gallimard] in French concurrently with The Plague [trans. Robin Buss, Penguin] in English.

On p 6 of La Peste is this excerpt (emphasis mine):

Les hommes et les femmes, ou bien se dévorent rapidement dans ce qu'on appelle l'acte d'amour, ou bien s'engagent dans une longue habitude à deux. Entre ces extrêmes, il n'y a pas souvent de milieu. Cela non plus n'est pas original. A Oran comme ailleurs, faute de temps et de réflexion, on est bien obligé de s'aimer sans le savoir.

On p 6 of The Plague, however, it is rendered as (emphasis again mine):

Men and women either consume each other rapidly in what is called the act of love, or else enter into a long-lasting, shared routine. Often there is no middle between these two extremes. That, too, is original. In Oran, as elsewhere, for want of time and thought, people have to love one another without knowing it.

It's not like this changes the direction of the story in any noticeable way, but it has stood out to me as strange. Google Translate confirms that the French translates to ‘This is not original either’, so it's not just me mistranslating.

No doubt Mr Buss knows an awful lot more about translating from French than I do, and the book will have been through any number of editors, so I'd be surprised to find I had spotted an error on one of the first pages that they have missed.

Assuming then, that this is intentional, what might be the reason for it? It doesn't seem like an idiom that needed altering to make sense to English readers. My two theories are:

  • this is somehow related to verlan; or
  • I recall reading something years ago during a Charlie Hebdo controversy about French humour being very dependent on multiple levels of ironic meaning (I think it was in relation to a cover that characterised migrants as coming over to France just to have children, which was apparently skewering the far-right politicians pushing that narrative rather than the migrants themselves), so perhaps Buss and his finely-honed sense of French could tell that Camus meant the 'not' to be ironic, but that English readers wouldn't understand it.
  • Can you give us the previous sentence so that we understand a bit more about the context of this? My first feeling would indeed be irony (I would actually see the irony in the English version rather than the French one), but some more context would help confirm it.
    – Reyedy
    Commented Jun 16, 2020 at 9:17
  • @Reyedy I've added the surrounding quotations
    – 08915bfe02
    Commented Jun 16, 2020 at 9:27
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    I also thought first of irony, but I don't perceive it here , and, from my own reading of this novel, I don't remember it had such a tone. A possible explanation: the word "not" was dropped by mistake... OR.. Traduttore, traditore...
    – Greg
    Commented Jun 16, 2020 at 9:39
  • 1
    By the by, keep up the reading! I found that the summer I read La peste represented a significant gain in my understanding of French. It was a lot of work, but Camus' style is very good to have under your belt.
    – Luke Sawczak
    Commented Jun 16, 2020 at 13:50

1 Answer 1


I don't think there's any irony in the French version - the basic meaning is "and there's nothing new in that", isn't it? On that basis, if there's no mistake then it's the English version that's non-literal. Like Greg, I think the mistake hypothesis is far more plausible. You do find translation mistakes even in books from major publishers. I have one in which the English word "score", used in a musical context and meaning "partition", is translated as "résultat sportif" - so things do, um, slip through the net.

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    I agree. In the context of the introduction, it's impossible to read this ironically or as the translator wrote it. He does say that Oran is original, but hasn't revealed why yet: « À première vue, Oran est, en effet, une ville ordinaire ... » « On dira sans doute que cela n'est pas particulier à notre ville et qu'en somme tous nous contemporains sont ainsi. » « Cela non plus n'est pas original. À Oran comme ailleurs ... » The next paragraph then begins with what's original: « Ce qui est plus original dans notre ville est... » Hence both the positive and the "too" fail to make sense.
    – Luke Sawczak
    Commented Jun 16, 2020 at 11:52
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    I have a sneaking suspicion that Greg could be right about "not". We tend to avoid "too" in negative phrases; while not uncommon, the combination is actively avoided or rephrased to avoid clunkiness or ambiguity. ("I'm not going too": are you not going, like someone else who isn't; or are you not going, unlike someone else who is?) An editor could easily have overlooked that "not" is not the problem nor did it stem from a misreading of a double negative, but that the whole construction should have been different: "This is not original either" instead of "This, too, is not original."
    – Luke Sawczak
    Commented Jun 16, 2020 at 11:57

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