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Guy de Maupassant: His work no longer  receives the attention it deserves from the English-speaking world

Guy de Maupassant is considered the greatest short story writer in French literature. He is often said to have defined the modern short story and influenced the likes of Chekhov, Maugham, Babel and O. Henry. In France, his work is studied at secondary schools and universities, as it is in England. But it is probably true to say that in the English-speaking world generally he no longer receives the attention he deserves.

Sandra Smith, who has previously translated Albert Camus’s The Stranger and Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française, argues that this is partly due to the fact that in the past translators were only required to deliver literal translations. In older translations of Maupassant, she believes, the lyricism and flow of style was lost. To illustrate the struggle of translation, she cites the translator Ollie Brock who wrote: “Imagine trying to cook the same meal twice with different ingredients. You wouldn’t manage it.”

Getting away from a reverence for the original text gives translators the chance to look beyond literal translations and find “emotional equivalents” that transport the reader into Maupassant’s time and place. This is how Smith’s new translation of “The Necklace” and other stories aims to reintroduce Maupassant to a new audience.

Maupassant was born into a minor aristocratic family in Normandy in 1850. When he was 11, his mother risked social disgrace by divorcing his philandering father. While still at school he met his mother’s friend Gustave Flaubert, who became his mentor. At Flaubert’s home he met Zola and Turgenev. He began identifying with realism and naturalism. In 1880 he published “Boule de Suif”, which is part of the new collection and a “masterpiece that will endure”, according to Flaubert. It was a success, so much so that Maupassant gave up his job as a civil servant and dedicated himself to writing.

Biographies point to 1887 as the year when signs of mental illness began to appear. His body, too, was deteriorating from a syphilitic infection. It was the same year that “The Horla”, also in this collection, was published. It is a terrifying story of anguish and the supernatural. In 1891, he wrote a letter to a friend saying that he was going mad, suffered from delusions, and that his brain was running out through his nose and mouth. A short time later he tried to commit suicide and was committed to a private asylum in Paris, where he died aged 42.

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September 24th, 2015
6:09 PM
V. S. Naipaul once said Maupassant was the greatest French writer: "...There is a character in a Chekhov play who talks about Maupassant and says his talent is almost supernatural, and I have to agree with that, because in nearly every story there is a complete life that is being displayed. And there are so many stories."

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