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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain – C’est l’Amérique!

 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1876) French title: Les aventures de Tom Sawyer.

Tom Sawyer is so well-known that I’ll do us a favor and skip the summary part of my usual billets. I’ll focus more on my thoughts.

You might wonder why the title of this billet is The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain – C’est l’Amérique. Well, it explains why I’ve only read this classic now. Tom Sawyer is etched in my childhood memory as a Japanese anime I used to watch. The theme song was very catchy with a chorus that said “Tom Sawyer, c’est l’Amérique”. It’s the kind of sticky tune that stays in you mind all day when you’ve barely thought about it. Believe me, most of French people of my age remember this anime and know this song. And it was quite difficult to distance myself from the images flooding back and see Tom, Huck and Becky differently in my mind eye.

Reading Twain in the original helped keeping the anime images at bay but it was sometimes a challenge. Twain’s use of dialect made me pause and read carefully. I have a French translation of it and all is lost in translation and worse. The dialect is gone and the boys speak like a grammar book. In English, Huck makes a lot of grammar mistakes and comes from an outcast family, he can’t speak like an educated child but in French, he does. See an example here, an excerpt from the scene in the cemetery.

“I wish I’d said Mister Williams. But I never meant any harm. Everybody calls him Hoss.”

“A body can’t be too partic’lar how they talk ’bout these-yer dead people, Tom.”

This was a damper, and conversation died again.

Presently Tom seized his comrade’s arm and said:

“Sh!”

“What is it, Tom?”

And the two clung together with beating hearts.

“Sh! There ’tis again! Didn’t you hear it?”

“I –”

“There! Now you hear it.”

“Lord, Tom, they’re coming! They’re coming, sure. What’ll we do?”

“I dono. Think they’ll see us?”

“Oh, Tom, they can see in the dark, same as cats. I wisht I hadn’t come.”

“Oh, don’t be afeard. I don’t believe they’ll bother us. We ain’t doing any harm. If we keep perfectly still, maybe they won’t notice us at all.”

“I’ll try to, Tom, but, Lord, I’m all of a shiver.”

– Oui, j’aurais dû dire monsieur Williams. Mais je n’ai pas voulu le froisser : tout le monde l’appelle le vieux.

– On ne fait jamais attention à ce qu’on dit des morts, Tom.

La réflexion de Huck jeta un froid ; le silence régna de nouveau. Tout à coup, Tom saisit le bras de son camarade.

– Chut!

– Qu’est-ce qu’il y a? demanda Huck, le cœur battant.

– Chut! Tiens, on entend quelque chose. Tu n’entends pas ?

– Si. Ils viennent, ça c’est sûr. Qu’est-ce qu’on va faire ?

– Sais pas, tu crois qu’ils nous voient ?

– Pas de doute ; ils voient dans le noir comme les chats. Je voudrais bien être ailleurs, moi.

– Allons, du cran. Je ne crois pas qu’ils nous en veuillent ; nous ne faisons rien de mal. Peut-être que si nous ne bougeons pas ils ne nous remarqueront pas.

– Je veux bien essayer de rester tranquille, Tom, mais je ne réponds de rien : je tremble comme une feuille.

I know that dialects are hard to translate but using spoken language. Here’s my suggestion :

– Oui, j’aurais dû dire monsieur Williams. Mais je n’ai pas voulu le froisser : tout le monde l’appelle le vieux.

– On ne fait jamais attention à ce qu’on dit des morts, Tom.

La réflexion de Huck jeta un froid ; le silence régna de nouveau. Tout à coup, Tom saisit le bras de son camarade.

– Chut!

– Qu’est-ce qu’il y a? demanda Huck, le cœur battant.

– Chut! Tiens, on entend quelque chose. Tu n’entends pas ?

– Si. Ils viennent, ça c’est sûr. Qu’est-ce qu’on va faire ?

– Sais pas, tu crois qu’ils nous voient ?

– Pas de doute ; ils voient dans le noir comme les chats. Je voudrais bien être ailleurs, moi.

– Allons, du cran. Je ne crois pas qu’ils nous en veuillent ; nous ne faisons rien de mal. Peut-être que si nous ne bougeons pas ils ne nous remarqueront pas.

– Je veux bien essayer de rester tranquille, Tom, mais je ne réponds de rien : je tremble comme une feuille.

– J’aurais dû dire monsieur Williams. Mais c’était pas méchant, tout le monde l’appelle le vieux.

– On doit toujours faire attention à ce qu’on dit des morts, Tom.

La réflexion de Huck jeta un froid ; le silence régna de nouveau. Tout à coup, Tom saisit le bras de son camarade.

– Chut !

– Qu’est-ce qu’y a, Tom ?

Ils se serraient l’un contre l’autre, le cœur battant.

– Chut ! Tiens, on entend quelque chose. T’entends pas ?

– Euh…

– Là, t’entends pas ?

– Mon Dieu, Tom, ils arrivent ! Ils viennent, c’est sûr. Qu’est-ce qu’on va faire ?

– Sais pas, tu crois qu’ils nous voient ?

– Oh Tom, pas de doute ; ils voient dans le noir comme les chats. Si j’aurais su, j’aurais pas v’nu.

– Allons, n’aie pas peur. Je crois pas qu’ils nous en veulent ; on fait rien de mal. Si on se tient tranquille, peut-être qu’ils nous verront même pas.

– J’veux bien essayer de rester tranquille, Tom, mais Bon Dieu, j’ai la trouille.

Feel free to comment, I’m always interested in discussing translation matters. I’m not surprised that the dialect disappeared, it’s frequent in French translations. After all, peasants from Wessex speak like a French bourgeois.

Besides this translation that I explored later, I enjoyed reading Tom’s adventures. I loved Twain’s sense of humor and side remarks scattered along the book, like this one:

If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.

As a reader, I felt as the accomplice of the writer, watching Tom’s adventures unfold like a movie. I didn’t remember the dark passages, about the murder in the cemetery, the trial and Tom and Huck’s subsequent fears. Tom is a loveable character, a mischievous child. As a parent, I sympathized with Aunt Polly but it’s hard to stay mad at Tom for a long time. His heart is in the right place.

Maybe the theme song of the anime was spot on: Tom Sawyer represents a kind America. Nature around St Petersburg is exotic for us, with the Mississippi river flowing by. I’m not a historian but what Twain describes seems different from life in France at the same time. Religion is very important in the village’s life. Sunday school gathers the children and Aunt Polly adds religious times of her own at home:

The sun rose upon a tranquil world, and beamed down upon the peaceful village like a benediction. Breakfast over, Aunt Polly had family worship: it began with a prayer built from the ground up of solid courses of Scriptural quotations, welded together with a thin mortar of originality; and from the summit of this she delivered a grim chapter of the Mosaic Law, as from Sinai.

The characters of Jim and Injun Joe are also typically American. The way Twain drafted “Injun Joe” made me cringe but I can’t judge a book written in 1876 with today’s set of values. And I don’t think it should be censored but it should come with a foreword to explain the historical context. These books help us see where we come from.

But if we set aside the setting, it remains a childhood book. Tom plays with his friends, imagines he’s a pirate, a robber or Robin Hood. He enjoys his freedom during the summer and dreads going to class. He loves wandering in the country around him and explore. He has a crush on Becky. Is he very different from the young narrator in La Gloire de mon père by Marcel Pagnol or the boys in War of the Buttons by Louis Pergaud?

In the end, Tom is a symbol of childhood, with its dreams, its own vision of the world, its innocence and its freedom of mind. Maybe that’s why a Japanese firm made The Adventures of Tom Sawyer into an anime that was so popular in France. His childhood has become part of mine.

  1. May 18, 2019 at 11:10 am

    Fascinating post. It is so interesting about the Japanese anime version. I never read this. Here in the United States this book is often called an inferior prequel to Huckleberry Finn, which is often called one of the greatest American novels ever written. I agree about Huckleberry Finn. I thought it wa an extraordinary book. That book also contained a major, anti – racist, humanist theme. Despite Twain’s characters using language that today would be deemed racist. I have always thought of giving this a try, maybe I will do so soon.

    Dialects and translations are a nearly impossible combination.

    Like

    • May 18, 2019 at 11:24 am

      Thanks Brian.

      I also have Huckleberry Finn as I have an omnibus edition of the four Tom Sawyer books. I’ll read it too, thanks for the recommendation.

      There are ways to at least, include spoken language in dialogues in dialect. It’s better than nothing. Here Huck speaks too well for the character. (and any French common speaker.)

      Like

  2. May 18, 2019 at 11:22 am

    I agree with Brian: Huck Finn is a better book, perhaps because it takes its outsider protagonist out of the constricting environment of Tom’s town. Huck is a free spirit; Tom just plays with the notion – he’ll end up as a bank manager. Translating slang and dialect must be a nightmare, an unenviable task. Idioms, for example, often have no equivalent, and approximations simply jar on the ear, semantic counterfeits

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    • May 18, 2019 at 11:27 am

      I totally agree with you about “Huck is a free spirit; Tom just plays with the notion” I can feel it in the ending of the first volume.

      I’m now very curious about Huck Finn. I can’t start it now since I have to read La Débâcle for my readalong with Marina Sofia and The Tapestries by Kien Nguyen for my Book Club, all this by the end of May.

      Yes, translating dialects must be a nightmare but a bit of spoken language doesn’t hurt and is a bit closer to the original.

      Like

  3. May 18, 2019 at 6:23 pm

    How interesting! Even with my limited French I can see how formal the translation is – which must very much lose the fun of the original.

    Like

    • May 19, 2019 at 5:12 pm

      Yes, the translation is formal, especially the use of “nous” instead of “on” and “ne…pas” instead of just “…pas”
      I agree with you, in French we miss the fun of the original language.

      I’m currently reading La Débâcle by Zola and the soldiers come from different backgrounds. It’s interesting to see how Zola wrote their dialogues. There are some “nous”, some “ne…pas”, some “on” and a lot of colloquial words.

      Like

      • May 19, 2019 at 5:13 pm

        That’s so interesting! I think the French I did at school (which is quite a long time ago… ) was very formal compared to the version my offspring learned….

        Like

        • May 19, 2019 at 5:42 pm

          Things have become less formal in France too.

          For example at work, sometimes we call clients or suppliers with their first name, something that was unthinkable when I started my career.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. May 19, 2019 at 12:05 am

    I agree with the guys above, Huck Finn is one of the Greats. But Twain is marvellous to read whatever he writes, because he is fresh, because he is observant, and because of his asides. I am an ignoramus at French but why do you persist with le vieux instead of Hoss. I much prefer my translations to persist with original names to retain the flavour of the originating country.

    Like

    • May 19, 2019 at 5:17 pm

      I really have to read Huckleberry Finn, then. You all agree to say it’s a great book.

      I agree with you description of Twain. I loved his witt.

      I wondered about Hoss vs “le vieux” I didn’t find a translation of “hoss” but I assumed it was a nickname of some sort. That’s why I kept the translator’s option. And I fully agree with you, I hate when names are translated. The association of French translators told me that it’s done according to the publisher’s wishes.
      Does that make sense to have a character named Louis instead of Ludwig in a German book? Certainly not.

      Like

  5. May 19, 2019 at 11:07 am

    I’m just trying to catch up with all the posts I’ve missed while I’ve been away. I think I’ve read Tom Sawyer, I know I’ve read Huckleberry Finn and thought it was a marvellous book. Of course there are elements that today are considered racist, but for its time, Twain’s thinking was progressive.

    Like

    • May 19, 2019 at 5:20 pm

      Another recommendation for Huckleberry Finn!! It’s definitely on the TBR soon.

      I’ve read a bit of Twain’s bio and he seemed progressive. He was born at a very interesting time for the US : He was in his twenties during the Civil War, then there were the changes in agriculture, the development of the West, the huge waves of immigrations from Europe and the industrialization of the country. Fascinating times.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. May 19, 2019 at 12:36 pm

    Really interesting post Emma. There’s a debate around dialect in novels where its argued that its patronising to attempt to present it and everything should be written in the same style, to let the reader do the work of recognising characters speak differently. I remember a lecture I had at uni many years ago where a very left wing lecturer argued that the apostrophe denoting missing letters from standard spellings of words in dialect was a marker of class oppression. But as a reader I like dialect presented because it does help me bring the different voices into my reading.

    I also had a cartoon introduce me to some classic literature – I first became aware of Dumas by watching Dogtanian and the Muskehounds as a child! I think it was Spanish and Japanese, dubbed into English. I loved that animation 😀

    Like

    • May 19, 2019 at 8:37 pm

      Thanks

      Re- “There’s a debate around dialect in novels where its argued that its patronising to attempt to present it and everything should be written in the same style, to let the reader do the work of recognising characters speak differently”

      Strange debate for me. If the author had wanted the reader to imagine the different ways of speaking, he wouldn’t have written anything in dialects in the first place.
      I don’t know if the apostrophe for missing letters is a marker of class oppression, but it helps the reader to get closer to the character and it gives the character more real substance.
      And if it is a marker of class oppression, then it’s useful to acknoledge said class oppression and not try to hide it under the carpet by banning the apostrophe that points it out.

      I have seen the Three Musketeers in cartoon too (the same one as you I believe, I remember the dog-characters)
      We also had Les Misérables. And Rémi sans famille.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. May 19, 2019 at 11:12 pm

    “Hoss” is a nickname, but it also means “horse.” So Hoss is likely to be a big guy, strong as a horse.

    You are right about the tradition – just like Pagnol and Pergaud. But Huckleberry Finn is something different. I think it started out as a “boy’s adventure book,” but it turns into something else. It took Twain years to finish it. He knew he was doing something different, even if he did not know exactly what.

    I have not read the two later Tom Sawyer books. One of them is a parody of Jules Verne! They have Tom’s name in the title, but they are narrated by Huck Finn. One of the great inventions of Twain was Huck Finn’s voice.

    If you are ever near Hannibal, Missouri, it is worth stopping for the Mark Twain / Tom Sawyer tourism. I do not know why you would be near Hannibal, though. Maybe you are canoeing down the Mississippi River.

    Like

    • May 20, 2019 at 9:54 pm

      So I was right, there was something impossible to translate in Hoss.

      I’ll read Huck Finn, I have to, after all these recommendations!

      I have the other two books too. I’m curious about the parody of Jules Verne.

      I don’t plan on visiting Hannibal soon but who knows?

      Like

  8. May 20, 2019 at 8:53 pm

    This is one of the first American books I read when I landed here. I couldn’t believe my luck the first time I went to a library here. There were all these books and authors I’d never heard of.
    Are you going to read any more Twain?

    Like

    • May 20, 2019 at 8:54 pm

      Yes probably Huck Finn, after all these recommendations. I have it on the kindle already.

      Like

  9. Vishy
    May 21, 2019 at 2:53 pm

    Beautiful review, Emma! ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ was one of my favourite books during my childhood. I have read it so many times. It has been a while though since I read it the last time. Now after reading your billet, I want to read it again now. I loved what you said about the translation. It is sad that the local dialect gets lost in translation. I am sure it is a problem when books get translated into English too. I don’t know how authentic the English translation of Raymond Queneau’s ‘Zazie in the Metro’ would be. I also loved what you said about how we shouldn’t judge a classic book written a long time back by today’s values. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Like

    • Vishy
      May 21, 2019 at 2:54 pm

      I didn’t know that there was a Japanese anime series based on Tom Sawyer. I can’t wait to watch it. Thanks for telling us about it.

      Like

      • May 21, 2019 at 9:09 pm

        It dates back to the 80es. I suppose you can find it on YouTube.

        Like

    • May 21, 2019 at 9:05 pm

      Thanks Vishy. It’s a great childhood book. For me it’s in the same category as “Swami and Friends”. It recaptures someone’s childhood and shares it with the reader and makes them think about their own childhood.

      About the translation: Not everything can be translated. Queneau must be difficult to translate, and JK Rowling too, in a way. The French translation of Harry Potter is wonderful. For example, the “sorting hat” is the “Choixpeau”, a word made of “choix” (choice) and “chapeau” (hat)

      I think we have to read classics with open eyes and read a bit about the context if needed. I’ll post soon about an exhibition I’ve seen in Paris and the curator made a decision regarding a topic like this.

      Like

  10. May 21, 2019 at 8:53 pm

    Shame on me, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Mark Twain. And I’ve never see any Japanese anime! I did enjoy the comparison between the original and the two translations. The published one does sound quite staid. The “allons, du cran” part is funny. It doesn’t really sound like the sort of thing a boy would say, more like something a blasé teacher would say. Also enjoyed your “Si j’aurais su, j’aurais pas v’nu” clin d’oeil to La guerre des boutons.

    Like

    • May 21, 2019 at 9:25 pm

      We can read them all, right? Think of all the fun you still have ahead of you!

      You’ve never seen any Japanese anime? Didn’t you watch Club Dorothée or something like that when you where little?

      Thanks for your comments on the translation. I knew the French readers would notice the “Si j’aurais su, j’aurais pas v’nu” 🙂 That’s a grammar mistake easy to make to show Huck’s lack of instruction.

      Like

      • May 22, 2019 at 1:56 pm

        No, I (we) didn’t watch that much TV or cartoons. Mostly we watched films on cassettes and La guerre des boutons was one of those. You’re right that it’s good I can still discover Mark Twain: I read Treasure Island for the first time recently and actually quite enjoyed it though I would never have thought of it when I was younger. It’s actually because of the publication of the new French translation (like yours with Twain it tried to adhere more closely to the original vocabulary) that I decided to read it and I’m glad I did.

        Like

        • May 26, 2019 at 11:58 am

          Well, you can catch up with the Tom Sawyer cartoon on YouTube!

          I have Treasury Island on the shelf too. I wonder if I’ll like it or if I’m too old for it. So I’m happy to know you enjoyed it, it’s a good sign.

          Like

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