The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

The Three Musketeers
By Alexandre Dumas
Translated by Lawrence Ellsworth
Pegasus Books, 2018

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For such an enduringly popular writer, Alexandre Dumas, pere, has been surprisingly ill-served by his English-language translators. This is nowhere more true than in the case of his most famous and endlessly-adapted novel, The Three Musketeers. That book’s original 19th century translators, conforming to the delicate sensibilities of audiences across the Channel and the Atlantic, excised much of the sex, gambling, and bloodshed from what was once a happily raunchy historical adventure, transforming it into a fun but politely Victorian story for boys.

It’s this reputation that Lawrence Ellsworth has come to correct in his new translation of The Three Musketeers, and it’s a task for which he comes particularly well-equipped. Ellsworth was responsible for last year’s rip-roaring translation of The Red Sphinx, a “lost” Musketeers adventure, where he proved himself remarkably adept at capturing the flavor and verve of Dumas’s prose. Now, his mettle having been tested and his translator’s stripes earned, he has taken on the most iconic and familiar of the old crowd-pleaser’s novels, here presented in its full, unexpurgated 800-page glory.

Readers, of course, might be forgiven a moment of doubt as to whether such an endeavor is strictly necessary. Bowdlerizations aside, hasn’t Dumas always seemed to be a writer without complication? His sentences are short, succinct, and limited to the vocabulary of the average French 6th grader (reflecting, perhaps, the typical profile of his his original French readership). His sentences are fully liberated from any hint of floridness or poetry; his characters do not converse so much as declaim exposition in turn. Shouldn’t such prose come close to translating itself?

Yet for the connoisseur of potboiler fiction, Dumas reveals himself to be a master of deceptive simplicity.  His prose might be free of complexity, but it has no shortage of style. Every page of The Three Musketeers is suffused with the author’s trademark narrative voice: his sly humor, his deadpan wit, and his endless supply of rakish panache. Even when the events in his tale turn absurd, cartoonish, or flatly unbelievable, Dumas never releases his charming grip on the reader. As he regale us with tall tales and implausible coincidences, he gives us a sly wink and a subtle grin from behind the page, reminding us that we're all in this absurd adventure together.

The plot of The Three Musketeers ought to be familiar enough, having been the inspiration for dozens theatrical, film, comic, and video game adaptations over the years. To make a very long and discursive story short, it concerns the adventures of the young, ambitious rustic D’Artagnan, who makes his way to 17th Century Paris to take up arms in the service of King Louis XIII. On his way, he makes the acquaintance of the three larger-than-life heroes of the story’s title, each drawn in bold strokes with his own defining ethos: serious, haunted Athos; fat, bon-vivant, but pricklishly sensitive Porthos; and church-obsessed Aramis. After an initial misunderstanding that results in a near-dual over insulted honor, D’Artagnan and the Musketeers are thrust into shared battle against agents of the scheming, ambiguous Cardinal Richelieu, and soon find themselves bosom companions in the king’s guard. The rest of the novel is a vast, episodic romp through French history, if history were conceived as a series of colorful set pieces replete with sinister secret agents, murderous mistresses, and earth-shaking battles that turn on a single moment. The novel is, in other words, a whole lot of fun.

The Musketeers themselves, with their unapologetic brawling, gambling, and womanizing, would be borderline criminal in Dumas’s own France, but here they are fully appropriate to the setting: as Dumas tells us after D’Artagnan attaches himself to a particularly well-heeled lady admirer, “Young cavaliers, as has already been shown, accepted gifts from their king without a qualm; in those times of easy morals it was no more shameful for them to accept presents from their mistresses, who often gave them souvenirs both precious and durable, as if trying to defy the transience of emotion with the solidity of gifts.” 

D’Artagnan, for his part, is a classic Dumas type: the brilliantly scheming hero, whose rampant ambition is tempered by the fact that his enemies are invariably in the moral wrong. He is quick, clever, and always one step ahead of the game. He is also one step ahead of the Musketeers who, though near the center of the book, nevertheless remain somehow distant and apart from the modern reader. They are heroes of a heroic age long gone. In D'Artagnan, as in his nemesis-cum-supervisor Richelieu, the modern age looms.

Thus, the test of a translator is his capacity to capture this characteristic interplay of the heroic and the ribald; the sincere and the ironic; the vanished past and the approaching present. And at this task Ellsworth succeeds, giving us a Three Musketeers with more clarity, energy, and simplicity than any previous English edition. To see why, we need only compare him to the last major translation of the novel, by Richard Pevear in 2006. Let’s take a look at how each translator renders the following short speech by Aramis, as he prepares to duel D’Artagnan near the start of the novel. Here is Pevear’s version: 

“Pardieu, Monsieur,” said Athos, “there’s a proposition that pleases me—not that I accept it, but it smells of its gentleman a league away. It was thus that valiant knights spoke and acted in the time of Charlemagne, upon whom every cavalier must seek to model himself. Unfortunately, we are no longer in the time of the great emperor. We are in the time of M. le cardinal, and three days from now it will be known, however well the secret is kept, it will be known that we are going to fight, and our combat will be opposed. Ah! but will those meanderers never come?” 

And here is Ellsworth:

“By God, Monsieur,” said Athos, “your proposition pleases me; I can’t accept it, but it savors of the gentleman a league off. That’s how the brave knights spoke in the time of Charlemagne, and every cavalier should make them his model. Unfortunately, we don’t live in the time of the Great Emperor, but in the time of Monsieur de Cardinal, and no matter how secret we kept it, within three days he’d know of our rendezvous and put a stop to our duel. Speaking of which, will these laggards never arrive?

Right off the bat, he has replaced the literal “Pardieu” of Pevear’s version (oddly untranslated, as if my some algorithmic fluke) with the obvious and straightforward “By God.” Likewise, “will these laggards never arrive?” is both more mellifluous and idiomatically correct than the clunky, “will those meanderers never come.” True, Ellsworth cheats a bit by removing the repetition of “it will be known” in the penultimate line (a possibly accidental slip of the pen, very much present in the original French), but the sin is atoned for by the overall directness and effectiveness of the passage. 
Ellsworth succeeds at capturing not only the indelible voice of Dumas, but spirit, humor, and heroic daring-do that gave the novel its immortality. Will equally vigorous translations of the novel’s two sequels, Twenty Years After and The Vicomte de Bragelonne soon follow? Let’s hope Ellsworth is up for the adventure.

Zach Rabiroff was an editor at Open Letters Monthly. He lives in Brooklyn and consumes books relentlessly.