I want to read the best English translation of The Plague!”

So you’re trying to make sense of the global pandemic and you want to read a book about another type of plague.

You’re not alone.

The COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic has boosted this classic back to the top of the bestseller lists.

The Plague: Translation History

There are two, soon to be three, English translations of The Plague by Albert Camus, the philosophical modern French classic that tells the story of a fictional deadly epidemic in the Algerian city of Oran. It was originally published in French in 1947 with the title La Peste.

1. Stuart Gilbert, 1948 (originally published by Hamish Hamilton)

2. Robin Buss, 2001 (originally published by Allen Lane)

3. Laura Marris, 2021 (being published by Knopf)

See below for excerpts and links that will help you do a comparison of translations of The Plague.

Do you want a particular format?

Which translation is “best” for you might depend on the formats in which it is available.

If you want an ebook, there are ebooks available from Gilbert, Buss, and Marris. So convenient!

If you want an audiobook, the only choice seems to be Gilbert.

If you want a paperback, you can choose between Gilbert and Buss. (In 2022 or 2023 maybe there will be a paperback of the Marris translation.)

If you want a hardcover, you can choose between Gilbert and Marris.

Can I get a FREE ebook of The Plague?

No. There are no legitimate, good-quality ebooks of The Plague available for free.

The Plague and other works by Camus are still under copyright in some places but not others, so the book sharks are posting cheap, lousy ebooks on Amazon.

Speaking of which… what is it with people putting an alligator on the cover? I’ve seen no less than three different versions with alligators! Or crocodiles, I can’t really tell. Neither creature lives where the story is set. Also stay away from that monstrosity featuring a guy with a bandaged head. It’s a rough transcription of the Gilbert translation.

1948 · Stuart Gilbert · The Plague

“Who Was Stuart Gilbert?”

He was an English literary scholar, a fan and friend of James Joyce, and a translator into English of some well-known French authors.

It seems twenty-first century readers find fault with his translations for being insufficiently modern and too loose. That we’re fussier about accuracy than we used to be and we don’t talk like we did decades ago is hardly Gilbert’s fault, but it may mean we read his work less, now that we have alternatives.

About the Gilbert translation of The Plague

Extract from the Gilbert translation of The Plague:

Get the Gilbert Translation

The Gilbert translation is available from Vintage as a paperback (ISBN 9780679720218, 320 pages) and an ebook (ISBN 9780307827807). It contains the translated text in five parts. Nothing else is included, except a list of books by Camus and a brief bio.

The stark black-and-white cover design by Helen Yentus is pretty cool. It’s one of a matching set of nine Camus book covers.

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Gilbert / Vintage

Get the Gilbert / Recorded Books Audiobook read by James Jenner

Unabridged, 10 hours and 52 minutes.

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Gilbert / Recorded Books

2001 · Robin Buss · The Plague

“Who was Robin Buss?”

He was a British writer, film critic, polyglot, and translator with a PhD in French Literature. His translations from French include:

  • The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  • Under Fire by Henri Barbusse
  • The Fall by Albert Camus
  • Therese Raquin by Emile Zola
  • The Princesse de Cleves by Madame de La Fayette
  • On Suicide by Emile Durkheim
  • Cesar Birotteau by Honore de Balzac

You might want to read his 2006 obituary in The Independent.

 

About the Buss translation of The Plague

Extract from the Buss translation of The Plague:

Get the Buss Translation

The Buss translation is available from Penguin Modern Classics as a paperback (ISBN 9780141185132, 256 pages). It contains the text of the Buss translation in five parts and an afterword by Tony Judt.

There are several other works by Camus available with this type of cover design.

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Buss / Penguin

Get the Buss Translation

The Buss translation is available from Penguin Modern Classics as a paperback (ISBN 9780241458877, 368 pages) and an ebook (ISBN 9780141395210). It contains the text of the Buss translation in five parts. I’m not sure whether this one has the Tony Judt afterword. There are a few works by Camus available with this type of cover design.

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Buss / Penguin

Get the Buss translation

Personally I can’t stand this “Penguin Essentials #102” cover… if you like it, it’s available as a paperback (ISBN 9780141049236, 304 pages). I’m not sure whether it has the Tony Judt afterword.

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Buss / Penguin

Get the Buss translation

The Buss translation is available as a paperback (ISBN 9780141045511, 264 pages). I think this minimalist “Popular Penguins” edition may only be available in Australia, but I believe it does have the Judt afterword.

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Buss / Penguin

2021 · Laura Marris · The Plague

“Who is Laura Marris?”

She is an American writer, poet, and translator. She teaches creative writing at the University of Buffalo. She has a website where you can learn more about her work.

She was already working on her translation of The Plague when the pandemic hit. Now she is working on a book of essays titled States of Plague: Reading Albert Camus in a Pandemic.

Get the Marris Translation

The Marris translation is being published in November 2021 as a  hardcover (ISBN 9780593318669, 352 pages) and an ebook (ISBN 9780593318676).

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Marris / Knopf

Further Reading

Albert Camus: A very Short Introduction by Oliver Gloag

Though he lived a tragically short life, Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature and left his stamp on European philosophy. This reference work is available from Oxford as a paperback (ISBN 9780198792970, 152 pages) and ebook.

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Gloag / Oxford

The Best Translation of The Plague by Camus

The Best Translation of The Plague by Camus

I know some French—but not, like, a lot—and I haven’t read both the existing English translations. Still, you asked, so here’s my answer.

I recommend the Buss / Penguin translation of The Plague.

  • It’s the one I read. I also read the Robin Buss translation of The Count of Monte Cristo. No complaints.
  • The Buss / Penguin edition of The Plague has a nice afterword by Tony Judt; as far as I know, the Gilbert / Vintage edition doesn’t have any special frontmatter or backmatter.
  • Various sources indicate that the Gilbert translation, being older, paraphrases more than the Buss translation.

Will the Marris translation supersede the previous translations?

  • No translation is perfect; presumably the Marris translation will be said to have made corrections and improvements. Otherwise why would there be a new translation?
  • Some people cling to whichever translation they read first because that translator’s voice sounds like the author’s voice to them, even though it’s not; some find that a more recent translation makes the text much more readable and enjoyable than it had been previously.

 

Psst! It’s not just a book about an epidemic…

The book can be read on the surface level as the story about a town in lockdown, but while the depiction is convincing, I’m pretty sure the author meant his readers to look deeper. The afterword by Tony Judt in my copy of The Plague says the book is a subtle but unmistakable allegory of wartime German occupation of France.

However, the specific danger that the characters face and the historical context in which the book’s audience originally read it don’t matter so much. What matters is the quiet, inner struggle of souls grappling with the eternal Problem of Evil. Why do bad things happen to good people, and how should we react?

A book review from 1948 says “The argument extends beyond the physical impact of the plague into metaphysical terrain” and calls the novel “a work of considerable significance and stature.”

In other words, like any good novel, The Plague has something to say to all people in all times and places.

 

For Discussion

Which translation have you read? Which book cover do you like the best? Have you read any other books by Camus? Let me know in the comments!