|Yoder Translates Swashbuckling Long-Lost Novel of Prolific French Author
December 13, 2007
Contact: Bill Giduz
Davidson College’s Lauren Yoder, who translated the work from French to English, is the first to admit that the history of Alexander Dumas’s final novel might be as good a story as the novel itself.
Dumas was one of the most popular French novelists of the mid-nineteenth century, celebrated as the author of the wildly popular “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo.” One could logically assume that the entire oeuvre of such a noted writer would be thoroughly catalogued and studied. However, Dumas’s last work, “The Last Cavalier: Being the Adventures of Count Sainte-Hermine in the Age of Napoleon,” was actually forgotten and lost for more than 100 years.
Yoder said that the prolific Dumas published more than 200 titles in his lifetime, employing help from a stable of literary assistants. Most were novels, but he also wrote essays, plays, and travel literature. But Dumas was a spendthrift, and his lifestyle finally doomed him. By the time he began “The Last Cavalier” in 1869 he was penniless and dying.
With no money, he was unable to hire assistants, and wrote “The Last Cavalier” entirely by himself. As with many of his novels, it was being published in serial form in a little known newspaper, Le Moniteur Universel. But Dumas died before completing the work and it fell into obscurity.
Finally in the late 1980s a noted French Dumas scholar, Claude Schopp, stumbled onto parts of the book while researching Dumas archives in Paris and Normandy. Schopp pieced the manuscript together, added some material where the work was incomplete, and published it in France in 2005.
The appearance of a new work by Dumas generated a lot of press in France, and caught the attention of New York publishing house Pegasus Books. Pegasus Books bought the English language rights to the book, and called on Yoder to translate the 1,000-page work—in eight months. Yoder had previously translated one other book for Pegasus, “The Angel’s Promise,” which used Mont St. Michel as the focus of a novel about love, archeology, and French history. He also translated for another publisher the African novel “Three Dreams on Mt. Meru,” which is set in Kenya and Tanzania. And along with colleague Alberto Hernandez-Chiroldes in the Spanish department, he translated a collection of tales from Cuba, called “Afro-Cuban Tales.”
Yoder began translating seriously only about ten years ago, but has been prolific and found a great deal of satisfaction in the work. “I like puzzles, and that’s what translation is all about,” he said. “There are so many things to keep in mind as you work. It’s not just the meaning of words, but the background, and the imagery. With every sentence you have to make a choice, and it’s rarely clear-cut. It’s fun playing with words, looking at ways something could have been said in French but wasn’t, and then imagining ways to say it in English, and finally making a decision.”
He has begun teaching a Davidson course in phonetics and translation in which students tackle some original translations rather than write only exercises. And now that “The Last Cavalier” is behind him, he is translating another book titled “The Messiah,” a historical novel based on a 16th-century movement to have Jews leave Europe and return to the Holy Land.
His translation of “The Last Cavalier” began with a reading of the book in French to get a general understanding of the size of his task. Because the story unfolds on the high seas, one difficult part of the job was learning nautical terms and elements of sailing ships he didn’t even know in English. He consulted several specialized dictionaries, and read 19th-century English books about sailing to help with those sections of the book.
|Lauren Yoder has taught French at Davidson since 1973.|
He set a goal of 30 pages a week, and got help with unfamiliar nineteenth-century French words and idioms from a dictionary of that era available on CD.
One primary challenge in translation, he said, is remaining consistent throughout the entire book. “When a given word can be translated several different ways, you need to remember hundreds of pages later the choice you made the first time, and use it again.” Ultimately, Yoder’s task was turning 19th-century French into 21st-century English, while retaining the flavor of a different culture and the style of Dumas. “The pleasure of reading a work written in a different country is that it invokes ideas, feelings, and values that the reader might not otherwise encounter,” he said.
Yoder has no illusions that “The Last Cavalier” will displace “The Count of Monte Cristo” or “The Three Musketeers,” but he claims that is an important piece of Dumas’s attempt to reconstruct the glorious history of France from the Renaissance to his own day.
Pegasus chose to adorn the book’s cover with Jacques Louis David’s famous melodramatic, colorful, flowing painting of Napoleon on his steed, and that image faithfully introduces the swashbuckling tale of adventure and lost love in its pages.
The fictional Count Sainte-Hermine belongs to a noble family in post-Revolutionary France that has sworn an oath of loyalty to the royal family. Just as peace seems to have returned to France and his marriage contract is being witnessed by Napoleon himself, the Count is called away suddenly by a declaration of war. The girl he has to leave at the altar dies pining away for him. The Count is captured but his life is spared on the condition that he leave the country. He fights boa constrictors and tigers in the jungles of Burma. He becomes a corsair pirate and hunts down English sailing ships. He participates in the famous Battle of Trafalgar and is the man who shoots Admiral Nelson dead.
“Dumas got paid by the inch, and died before he finished writing it, so there’s no true ending to the story,” said Yoder. “It sort of peters out with the Count fighting bandits in Italy.”
Reviewer Michael Dirda, writing for “Washington Post Book World,” wrote recently that “The Last Cavalier” is “full of melodrama and coincidence, shamelessly studded with every possible romantic cliche and period flourish.” Dirda concluded, however, that “it’s absolutely wonderful.”
Because Dumas was passionately interested in history and politics, Yoder said the book does provide insightful analysis of those aspects of French civilization. “The real benefit for me was gaining a deeper understanding of the Napoleonic years, and getting back to Dumas,” he said. “I loved reading ‘The Three Musketeers’ and ‘Count of Monte Cristo’ as a kid, and it was a pleasure to resurrect that feeling in another of his works.”
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,700 students. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. # # #
Posted By: Bill Giduz