The Catcher in the Rye was published on July 16, 1951. A French version appeared two years later, perhaps the first translation into a major literary language. The translator was a young man, Jean-Baptiste Rossi, who had published his first novel three years earlier, in 1950, aged 19. He would go on to fame and fortune as a crime fiction writer, under the alias Sébastien Japrisot – an anagram of his real name.
Rossi was an obviously gifted and precocious young man. Coming from a somewhat dysfunctional family in Marseille, he studied at (and was expelled from) a Jesuit college, then at a lyceum, then at Sorbonne. It was as a university student that he finished his first novel, Les Mal partis, which became The False Start (as well as Awakening) in the Anglophone world. To quote his obituary in The Times (of London, 2003; the italics, accents and minor corrections are mine):
Les mal partis… is a remarkable, precocious achievement, and thanks to its risque theme of love between a 14-year-old boy and 26-year-old nun in wartime Marseilles, it proved something of a succès de scandale. Nelson Algren found it “more moving, more true and more profound” than Raymond Radiguet’s Le diable au corps… and when it appeared in America it sold 800,000 copies in three weeks. When it was republished in 1966, it was awarded a prize by a jury chaired by Jean-Paul Sartre.
Rossi had probably sold the rights to The False Start before it went on sale in America – else he wouldn’t have worked in advertising until the early 1960s (although I’m sure he wrote good copy). Also in 1950, he published a novella, Les visages de l’amour et de la haine (“The faces of love and hate”), but that was it for Rossi – his next major hit would only appear in 1962, signed “Japrisot.”
It’s not surprising that Robert Laffont, Rossi’s publisher, asked him to translate The Catcher in the Rye when it appeared in 1951. From The Times, once more:
…plans for a second Rossi novel, L’arlequin dans le miroir, were superseded by the insufficiently remunerative labours of L’attrappe-coeur [sic], a translation of J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye – an ideal project, given both of the authors’ empathy with the state of mind of disordered adolescence.
Before the Salinger project, Rossi (as “Robert Huart”) had translated eleven Westerns for Laffont – namely, five Hopalong Cassidy novels by Clarence E. Mulford, four post-WWII Hopalong Cassidy novels by Louis L’Amour, Trails by Night (1950) by Tom J. Hopkins, and Murder in the Outlands (1949) by James B. Hendryx. No doubt they sold well, but Rossi’s version of The Catcher flopped in France – unlike his own novels in America.
I have no idea if the poor sales had anything to do with the quality, or qualities, of Rossi’s French version. The consensus view is that Holden Caulfield’s narrative manner, especially his use of American juvenile slang from the late 1940s, lends itself rather uneasily to translation. As one critically minded observer remarked, Zazie was not yet in the Metro in 1953. At best, she was gestating in Raymond Queneau’s pataphysical womb – and so Rossi was not equipped with neo-French for dubbing Holden. This said and accepted, Queneau’s ideas could be gleaned from his collection of essays, Bâtons, chiffres et lettres, published in 1950. And, of course, Céline’s Voyage appeared in print when Rossi was still a toddler with a limited competence in any language.
I don’t expect to read L’Attrape-coeurs any time soon, but there are two minor subjects related to the Catcher I can still discuss more or less intelligently. First, its ingenious title, perhaps the first in a long line of more or less ingenious titles it would receive in languages other than English. Second, a translation error that wouldn’t be worth mentioning (all translators – good, bad, great, miserable – make errors, sometimes childish) if it hadn’t – so goes my theory – spawned a succession of translation blunders in other languages. (To be continued.)