For the ordinary reader, a few lines in French literature are as famous as the opening of Albert Camus’s “L’Étranger”: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.” Stuart Gilbert, a British scholar and a friend of James Joyce, was the first person to attempt Camus’s “L’Étranger” in English. In 1946, Gilbert translated the book’s title as “The Outsider” and rendered the first line as “Mother died today.” Simple, succinct, and incorrect.
In later years ‘The Outsider’ gave way to ‘The Stranger’ and the first word of the opening to ‘Mommy’. A large part of how we view and ultimately judge Camus’s protagonist (Meursault) lies in our perception of his relationship with his mother. We condemn or set him free based not on the crime he commits, but on our assessment of him as a person. Does he love his mother? Or is he cold toward her, uncaring, even?
The truth is that neither “Mother” or “Mommy” ring true to the original. The French word “maman” hangs somewhere between the two extremes: it’s neither the cold and distant “mother”, nor the overly childlike “mommy.” In English, “mom” might seem the closest fit for Camus’s sentence, but there’s still something off-putting and abrupt about the single-syllable word; the two-syllable “maman” has a touch of softness and warmth that is lost with “mom.”
We’re still juggling about the opening, then imagine what the rest hold for us.
It’s your call, after all.