Review: Ellsworth Changed Dumas’ Three Musketeers in his Translation

Ellsworth’s translation becomes chaotic as his own vision for The Three Musketeers collides with what Dumas actually wrote…

by Ambra Gargini

In a tone that is often as outrageous as it is condescending, Ellsworth has repeatedly critiqued Dumas’ writing style and reception by his contemporaries. In the afterward to his translation of Dumas’ The Red Sphinx, Ellsworth invented a fictional Englishman who had just been confronted with one of Dumas’ novels for the first time. Ellsworth  wrote a long passage detailing this man’s negative thoughts about Dumas in which he claims that this “well-educated… Englishman” living “in the middle of the nineteenth century” would have found “[Dumas’] writing… rather vulgar” because, among other reasons, the non-existent Englishman would have decided that Dumas lacked “the hallmark of cultured literacy.”

The most damaging aspect of Ellsworth’s revisions is how relentless they are. Some changes are subtle while others are blatant but they are continuous and all of them contribute to erasing complexities and peopling the story with a brood of flat and melodramatic imposters. 

While some of what Ellsworth has the fictional Englishman say appears to be part of an attempt to create a narrative around the fact that some nineteenth century translators censored Dumas’ works, the majority of what Ellsworth has this character say has nothing to do with censorship or anything that (as far as I know) has any basis in reality. According to Ellsworth this Englishman would have concluded that Dumas didn’t write either “proper French” (whatever that is) or “solid… prose” (whatever that is). Ellsworth also claimed that when the fictional Englishman read one of Dumas’ novels for the first time he would have begun by crying out “What on Earth is it?” and ended by deciding that Dumas’ works “must be corrected.” 

One would assume that in composing insults for a fictional Englishman to level at Dumas, Ellsworth’s aim would be to refute these slanderous remarks in his own voice directly after he had made them in the voice of the Englishman. However, speaking in his own voice, Ellsworth doubles down on many of the non-existent Englishman’s claims about Dumas and his writing style. “Dumas wrote in scenes,” Ellsworth said, speaking in his own voice, “vivid set-pieces conveyed by sharp action and even sharper dialogue, punchy lines meant to carry impact all the way to the cheap seats at the back of the hall.” This statement has a remarkably similar ring to a line Ellsworth gave to the fictional Englishman in which the Englishman said that “[Dumas] writes in a disturbingly dynamic style, [that] propel[s] his story’s action… in sentences that are strangely short and direct. His theatrical dialogue is sharp, punchy and concise, almost like the way real people talk.” 

In Ellsworth’s rendition of The Three Musketeers, Dumas’ characters lose their complexity. D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, Aramis, Felton and, most of all, Milady are mere shadows of the three-dimensional characters created by Dumas.

It is hard to understand both why Ellsworth decided to narrate the thoughts of a non-existent Englishman and what he hoped the passage would illustrate. In his own voice, Ellsworth claims that Dumas’ characters “trembl[e] with passion,” and “practically leap off the page, their lines rapped out in a snappy patter.” It seems to have been Ellsworth’ goal to convince readers that Dumas produced action-packed stories conveyed by set pieces rapped out in staccato sentences with characters that spend every moment at the highest pitch of melodramatic excitement.

In the preface to his translation of Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, Ellsworth claims that nineteenth century translators changed the style of Dumas’ novels in their translations because “historical dramas at the time were expected to be told in the stiff, elevated diction of writers likes Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper, and the translators saw it as their job to render Dumas’s unconventionally active prose into the more passive style then prevailing.” Perhaps Ellsworth was thinking of Dumas’ “active prose” when he said that his characters “leap off the page.” 

Active prose.

In an interview¹ in 2016, Ellsworth referred to Dumas (a Black man) as a “gorilla.” Ellsworth had been asked to define who Dumas was. He responded by saying “Alexandre Dumas père, or senior, is the 900-pound gorilla of swashbuckler fiction…”

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Portia a bright-eyed, Blenheim (red and white) Cavalier King Charles Spaniel sits on a stone wall. Next to her there is a stack of translations of The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. Two blue Hokkaido squashes and four battered antique silver tankards are scattered on the wall. The scene is set in the soft, warm autumnal light after sunset.
Portia a bright-eyed, Blenheim (red and white) Cavalier King Charles Spaniel sits on a stone wall. Next to her there is a stack of translations of The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. Two blue Hokkaido squashes and four battered antique silver tankards are scattered on the wall. The scene is set in the soft, warm autumnal light after sunset.

Portia, with some of her autumn reads. Yes, they are all different translations of The Three Musketeers.

GHOST · DICKENS

When Charles Dickens died in 1870, he left his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, only half-finished. Although incomplete, the story remained extremely popular. Readers enjoyed trying to solve the mystery and at least two complete endings were written in the two years following Dickens’ death. Then, in 1872, an American named T. P. James came forward claiming that he alone could solve The Mystery of Edwin Drood because he alone could reveal the ending that Dickens had intended to write. 

According to James, the ghost of Charles Dickens had contacted him during a seance. In a very business-like manner, Ghost-Dickens had made an appointment in the first trance to speak further with James. At their next meeting, Ghost-Dickens revealed to James that he had selected him to transcribe the ending of Edwin Drood. James said that Ghost-Dickens encouraged him to profit from the work and gave him full rights to the royalties.

In 1873, Part Second of The Mystery of Edwin Drood by the Spirit-Pen of Charles Dickens Through a Medium, was published by James himself who—conveniently—happened to be a printer. According to James, Ghost-Dickens was thrilled with the way in which James had “transcribed” the ending of Edwin Drood and viewed James’ work with otherworldly approval. “You have no idea,” Ghost-Dickens reportedly told James, “how much interest this matter is exciting among the hosts by whom I am surrounded.”

The title page of Part Second of  the Mystery of Edwin Drood by the “Spirit-Pen” of Charles Dickens, through a Medium. Embracing, also,   that part of the Work which was published prior to the termination of the Author’s Earth-Life. Motto: "Cognito, ergo sum." Published by T. P. James, Brattleboro, Vermont, 1873.

James claimed to have sold over 30,000 copies of his version of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Copies of James’ version have been found in libraries across the United States. The Brooks Memorial Library even boasts a copy that appears to have been signed by Ghost-Dickens himself.

In fact, according to James, Ghost-Dickens was so pleased with James’ ability to relay the works of his “Spirit-Pen” that the two of them were already busy at work on their second collaboration. James revealed the exciting news in the Medium’s Preface to the now completed Edwin Drood, “I am happy to announce,” said James “that the first chapter of  [Dickens’] next work, — ‘The Life and Adventures of Bockley Wickleheap,’— is finished; and, opening with all the peculiar characteristics of its author, bids fair to equal anything from his pen while on earth.”

Review: Ellsworth Changed Dumas’ Three Musketeers in his Translation
A Bust of Charles Dickens sits on a Bookshelf Surrounded by his Works

A bust of Charles Dickens surrounded by his works.

However, as Rolf Parker reported in his article, A Haunting Mystery: Brattleboro’s T.P. James – Spiritualist, Writer … and Conman?, the enthusiasm expressed by Ghost-Dickens and the heavenly hosts for James’ talents was not shared by all his earthly critics.

“…some reviews were scathing. The New York Times reviewer wrote, ‘We cannot help being struck by… the miserable incapacity of the spiritual Dickens… It is now rendered quite clear that men’s talents are not always improved when men die. It is grievous to think that Charles Dickens, who was once so justly famous, can now write nothing better than the concluding chapters of this saddening book.’ ”


A Haunting Mystery: Brattleboro’s T.P. James – Spiritualist, Writer … and Conman?  by Rolf Parker, Brattleboro Reformer

GHOST · DUMAS 

When Lawrence Ellsworth told readers that he wanted to introduce them to “Dumas’s genuine voice,” he may have meant something other than bringing them a faithful translation.

“What was needed was a new English translation [of Dumas’ Musketeer novels],” said Dwyer Murphy, after interviewing Ellsworth in 2017.¹ “And who better to do it? Ellsworth was already working on a novel set in the same era; plus, he had Dumas’s voice in his head.” Much as T. P. James claimed to have been chosen by Ghost-Dickens to transcribe his post-mortem productions, Lawrence Ellsworth has claimed that his Dumas translations are over-seen by none other than Alexandre Dumas himself. 

Ellsworth has explained his translation process in the following way:

“When I convert Dumas’s tales into contemporary English, I’m not just translating his words, I’m collaborating with the writer himself… You might think that would be made easier by the fact that he’s been dead for 150 years and therefore can’t complain about my decisions, but you don’t have him talking in your head like he does in mine. He gets salty.”


Lawrence Ellsworth, Brooklyn Rail interview, 2020

A photo of The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas and translated by Lawrence Ellsworth (Pegasus Books 2018). The photo is dark and moody. The Three Musketeers sits on a pale stone wall overhung by tree branches. The other translations of Dumas' works stand on the wall behind, fading out of focus.
A photo of The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas and translated by Lawrence Ellsworth (Pegasus Books 2018). The photo is dark and moody. The Three Musketeers sits on a pale stone wall overhung by tree branches. The other translations of Dumas' works stand on the wall behind, fading out of focus.

Lawrence Ellsworth’s translations of Dumas’ “Musketeers Cycle.”

While Ghost-Dickens, working through James, was ready to write new novels, Ghost-Dumas, working through Ellsworth, appears content to simply oversee additional English translations of a handful of his works. If Ellsworth’s translations are, by any chance, an accurate reflection of the work of a spiritual Dumas, I can only say that in regards of the quality of Ghost-Dumas’ work, I concur with The New York Times’ description of Ghost-Dickens’ post-mortem productions — “It is now rendered quite clear that men’s talents are not always improved when men die.”²

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THE · THREE · MUSKETEERS  

From Alexandre Dumas, author of The Count of Monte Cristo, comes an enduring tale of friendship, disillusionment and betrayal. Richard Pevear said “We think of The Three Musketeers as a novel of action and adventure, of duels, skirmishes, galloping horses, and yet it is nine-tenths dialogue. The suspense comes most often not from what the characters are about to do to each other, but from what they are about to say to each other. It is based not so much on narrative action as on dramatic confrontation.” 

THE ELLSWORTH TRANSLATION

In this post, I compare Lawrence Ellsworth’s translation of The Three Musketeers with Dumas’ French text as well as with two critically acclaimed, 21st century English translations: Richard Pevear’s translation (Penguin Deluxe Classics, 2006) and Will Hobson’s translation (Vintage Books, 2014).

MILADY

In Ellsworth’s rendition of The Three Musketeers, Dumas’ characters lose their complexity. D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, Aramis, Felton and, most of all, Milady are mere shadows of the three-dimensional characters created by Dumas. In the introduction to his translation of The Three Musketeers, Will Hobson spoke about how important Milady’s character was both to the novel and to Dumas himself:

“Milady, after all, is so central that she is almost the book’s anti-heroine, or rather, another part of her creator. She comes from nowhere, like d’Artagnan, and fights her way to the top. She is the one imprisoned, like Dumas’s father and the Count of Monte Cristo; she is the one who has to tell a story to survive.”


Will Hobson, introduction to The Three Musketeers (2014)

It is remarkable that Ellsworth does not even mention Milady in the introduction to his translation of The Three Musketeers. Ellsworth minimizes many of the passages which create the most sympathy for Milady’s character and adds in unsympathetic passages that do not exist in Dumas. For instance, Ellsworth adds in a passage of his own invention in which Milady dreams of torturing d’Artagnan.¹

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Review: Ellsworth Changed Dumas’ Three Musketeers in his Translation

Lord de Winter introduces Milady to d’Artagnan, by Maurice Leloir

Ambra, seen in profile, holds a book open in one hand held up above her head which she looks at intently. She is wearing a black cardigan with a heart patch and a turquoise and white plaid shirt. She leans her back against an oak tree her long, dark hair flowing in the wind.
Ambra, seen in profile, holds a book open in one hand held up above her head which she looks at intently. She is wearing a black cardigan with a heart patch and a turquoise and white plaid shirt. She leans her back against an oak tree; her long, dark hair flowing behind her.

 Lost in a book

THE · LETTER

Milady faints after she reads a cruel letter from her lover. Her maid, Kitty, rushes forward to assist her. Milady, upset that Kitty has witnessed this moment of weakness, pushes Kitty away and stands on her own. “I thought madame was feeling unwell,” Kitty says, “and I wanted to help her.” Milady, with passionate dignity, asks Kitty if she has mistaken her for a weak female (me prenez-vous pour une femmelette?) “When I’m insulted,” Milady says, “I don’t feel unwell, I take revenge, do you understand?” (Quand on m’insulte, je ne me trouve pas mal, je me venge, entendez-vous!).

Inexplicably, Ellsworth decided to translate une femmalette (“a weak female”) as “some little housewife.” Not only is this an inaccurate reflection of the line Dumas wrote, it also alters the reader’s perception of Milady’s character. Ellsworth’s choice to replace “weak female” with “housewife” fails to make sense in the context of the rest of Milady’s speech, the time period in which the novel is set and the time period in which the novel was written. Dumas wrote The Three Musketeers in 1844. The story takes place between 1626-1628. 

Pevear

Pevear

translation 2006
  1. Unwell? I? I? Do you take me for a weak female? When I am insulted, I do not become unwell, I become vengeful! Do you hear?”

Pevear (2006) translation of The Three Musketeers, chap.xxxv

Ellsworth

Ellsworth

translation 2018
  1. Me fall ill? Me? Do you take me for some little housewife? When I’m insulted, I am not weak or ill—I am avenged! Do you hear me?”

Ellsworth (2018) translation of The Three Musketeers, chap.xxxv

Click “More” below to read the same passage as it appears in Dumas’ original French and in the Hobson translation.

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Alexandre Dumas in 1829, by Achille Devéria. Dumas sits on a fine upholstered sofa in an elegant lounging attitude.

 Alexandre Dumas in 1829, by Achille Devéria

PORTHOS

In the passage quoted below, Ellsworth alters the reader’s perception of Porthos’ character when he replaces the original, sophisticated lines that Dumas gave Porthos with commonplace phrases and clichés.

Hobson

Hobson

translation 2014
  1. “Yes,” Porthos said, nonchalantly, “she’s a friend of mine, a duchess, whom I have  great difficulty meeting on account of her husband’s jealousy, and who had informed me that, purely for the sake of seeing me, she would be visiting this wretched church today, in the depths of this godforsaken neighborhood”.

Hobson (2014) translation of The Three Musketeers, chap.xxix

Ellsworth

Ellsworth

translation 2018

“Yes, that’s a duchess I happen to know,” Porthos said offhandedly. “It’s a pain trying to see her, her husband’s so jealous. She sent round a note to say that she’d come today, here to this obscure church in a nowhere neighborhood, just to see me.”


Ellsworth (2018) translation of The Three Musketeers, chap.xxix

Alexandre Dumas in 1829, by Achille Devéria. Dumas sits on a fine upholstered sofa in an elegant lounging attitude.

 Alexandre Dumas in 1829, by Achille Devéria

Click “More” below to read the same passage as it appears in Dumas’ original French and in the Pevear translation.

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Lawrence Ellsworth, wearing a black pirate coat, red sash, big black belt, black pirate boots and spectacles, stands on the deck of a battleship reading his translation of one Alexandre Dumas' novels.

Lawrence Ellsworth reading one of his Dumas translations on the deck of a battleship, image credit: Lawrence Ellsworth

ARAMIS

In the following short passage, Ellsworth changed the humble “Ah,” which was Aramis’ exclamation in Dumas’ French text, and transformed it into the sensational and entirely inaccurate “But dammit all.” Adding still more melodrama to the scene, Ellsworth also adds in the line—“through teeth gritted with pain” which does not exist in Dumas’ novel.

Pevear

Pevear

translation 2006
  1. Ah, but they’re going to kill poor Porthos, when he comes along!” said Aramis.

Pevear (2006) translation of The Three Musketeers, chap.xx

Ellsworth

Ellsworth

translation 2018
  1. But dammit all, they’ll kill poor Porthos when he passes through,” said Aramis, through teeth gritted with pain.

Ellsworth (2018) translation of The Three Musketeers, chap.xx

Click “More” below to read the same passage as it appears in Dumas’ original French and in the Hobson translation.

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Review: Ellsworth Changed Dumas’ Three Musketeers in his Translation

D’Artagnan entering Meung, by Maurice Leloir

THE · NAME · OF · THE · ROSE

Ellsworth has not revealed why he removed certain passages of The Three Musketeers from his translation.¹  Much of the missing material deals with literary references and character analysis. Starting with the first sentence of the first chapter, Ellsworth omits Dumas’ reference to the Romance of the Rose. However Ellsworth might justify this change to Ghost-Dumas, it is clear that the earthly Dumas would not have approved. This literary allusion is of great significance and helps to establish d’Artagnan’s character.

Review: Ellsworth Changed Dumas’ Three Musketeers in his Translation

D’Artagnan entering Meung, by Maurice Leloir

Will Hobson, a critically acclaimed translator of The Three Musketeers, has said that Dumas, in all probability, changed the location of d’Artagnan’s first encounter with Rochefort from St Dié, where Courtilz’s Memoirs place it, to Meung for the sole purpose of referencing the Romance of the Rose.

“Courtilz… sets d’Artagnan’s first (mis)adventure at Saint-Dié on the left bank of the Loire… Dumas changes it to Meung… presumably to establish the literary credentials of his hero.

“…Romance of the Rose was the most popular of all medieval romances, an allegory of courtly love tracing the trials of [a character called] The Lover… Dumas’s subsequent allusions to Don Quixote emphasize the point: d’Artagnan is to be seen as the latest in the line of knights errant who seek to apply the chivalric code in different times.”


Will Hobson, annotations on The Three Musketeers (2014)

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Hobson

Hobson

translation 2014
  1. On the first Monday in the month of April 1625, the little market town of Meung, birthplace of the author of The Romance of the Rose, appeared to be in the throes of as full-blown a revolution as if the Huguenots had come to make it a second La Rochelle.


Hobson (2014) translation of The Three Musketeers, chap.i

Ellsworth

Ellsworth

translation 2018
  1. On the first Monday of the month of April, 1625, the town of Meung appeared to be in such a state of revolt it was almost as if the Huguenots had made it into a second La Rochelle.

Ellsworth (2018) translation of The Three Musketeers, chap.i

Click “More” below to read the same passage as it appears in Dumas’ original French and in the Pevear translation.

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Review: Ellsworth Changed Dumas’ Three Musketeers in his Translation
Portia a Blenheim (red and white) Cavalier King Charles Spaniel sits on a stone wall. Behind her, Lawrence Ellsworth's translation of The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas lies on the wall A ray of sunlight illuminates her face and bathes the oak trees and rosemary bushes in a bright morning light.

After helping me review several Dumas translations, Portia enjoys the sunshine.

D’ARTAGNAN

When five of the cardinal’s guards inform Athos, Porthos, Aramis and d’Artagnan that they are under arrest, the four friends decide to fight rather than let themselves be captured. D’Artagnan, who is the least experienced fighter, draws Jussac as his opponent. Jussac is an expert swordsman and a commander of the cardinal’s guards. In spite of all this, d’Artagnan is able to triumph because of his quick wits, his courage and his understanding of the art of fencing.

In the Ellsworth translation, this passage suffers certain crucial revisions which make d’Artagnan’s success seem little short of miraculous. Ellsworth removes the passage describing d’Artangnan’s understanding of fencing theory and replaces it with a line about d’Artagnan having an “instinct” for fencing.

Review: Ellsworth Changed Dumas’ Three Musketeers in his Translation

D’Artagnan dueling with Jussac, by Maurice Leloir

Hobson

Hobson

translation 2014
  1. D’Artagnan, compensating in theory for what he lacked in practice, responded with ever greater feats of agility.


Hobson (2014) translation of The Three Musketeers, chap.v

Ellsworth

Ellsworth

translation 2018
  1. D’Artagnan redoubled his nimble attacks; though short on experience, he had a profound natural instinct for fencing.

Ellsworth (2018) translation of The Three Musketeers, chap.v

Click “More” below to read the same passage as it appears in Dumas’ original French and in the Pevear translation.

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Review: Ellsworth Changed Dumas’ Three Musketeers in his Translation

D’Artagnan dueling with the Comte de Wardes while Planchet fights Lubin, by Maurice Leloir

THE · MASQUERADER 

D’Artagnan will fail to save the queen unless he can successfully pass himself off as the comte de Wardes to the governor of the port. It is unknown whether or not the governor will realize that he is an imposter. When d’Artagnan and his valet, Planchet, aririve at the governor’s house and the “Comte de Wardes” is announced, the reader is on edge to see what will happen next.

Dumas neatly builds the suspense in his narration by saying that “de Wardes was announced” and then informing us in a separate sentence that “d’Artagnan was ushered in.” There is a rhythm, an intriguing mystification and an excellent dramatic quality to Dumas’ narration of these events.

Review: Ellsworth Changed Dumas’ Three Musketeers in his Translation

D’Artagnan dueling with the Comte de Wardes while Planchet fights Lubin, by Maurice Leloir

Ellsworth quickly removes the mystique and sense of danger with which Dumas had imbued the passage by spelling out the action and saying in a very matter of fact way that “d’Artagnan had himself announced as de Wardes.” When reading Ellsworth’s adaptation, the reader does not experience the same anxiety for d’Artagnan’s welfare nor the same interest in the scene as when reading Dumas’ original version. 

Pevear

Pevear

translation 2006
  1. And the two set off with giant strides to the worthy functionary’s country house.
  2. M. le comte de Wardes was announced.
  3. DArtagnan was ushered in.

Pevear (2006) translation of The Three Musketeers, chap.xx

Ellsworth

Ellsworth

translation 2018
  1. And they set out at a trot for the estate of the worthy bureaucrat.
  2. D’Artagnan had himself announced as the Comte de Wardes, and was introduced to the governor’s study.

Ellsworth (2018) translation of The Three Musketeers, chap.xx

Click “More” below to read the same passage as it appears in Dumas’ original French and in the Hobson translation.

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Review: Ellsworth Changed Dumas’ Three Musketeers in his Translation

Isabeau at work on translation comparisons.

Review: Ellsworth Changed Dumas’ Three Musketeers in his Translation

Isabeau at work on translation comparisons.

ATHOS

Athos, Porthos, Aramis and d’Artagnan and their four valets race to Calais en route to London. If the diamonds, which Queen Anne imprudently gave to Buckingham, are not retrieved, then the cardinal will triumph and the queen will be lost. First one and then another of the small band falls victim to the ambushes the cardinal has set up to stop them. Finally, out of the eight only three are left: Athos, d’Artagnan and Planchet (d’Artagnan’s valet). When Athos goes to pay his bill at an inn, he also gets caught in one of the cardinal’s traps.

Dumas sets the scene by saying that Athos was sent to a low-ceilinged back room in which he found the innkeeper. Ellsworth adds in a sort of commentary track in which he appears to make the absurd implication that Athos should have realized he was walking into a trap because he had been asked to enter a low-ceilinged back room.

Review: Ellsworth Changed Dumas’ Three Musketeers in his Translation

Athos caught in the ambush, by Maurice Leloir 

Hobson

Hobson

translation 2014
  1. The innkeeper was in a low, back room, which Athos was sent through to.
  2. Athos entered, unsuspectingly and took out two pistoles to pay.

Hobson (2014) translation of The Three Musketeers, chap.xx

Ellsworth

Ellsworth

translation 2018
  1. Athos was directed toward a lower chamber in the back, which was strange, but it didn’t occur to him to be suspicious
  2. He found the room indicated and drew out two pistoles from his pouch to settle the bill

Ellsworth (2018) translation of The Three Musketeers, chap.xx

Click “More” below to read the same passage as it appears in Dumas’ original French and in the Pevear translation.

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ARGH!

POSSIBLE SPOILERS:

In my opinion, the following discussion of the death scene of a very minor character is not much of a spoiler. However, if you are a first time reader of The Three Musketeers, you may wish to skip ahead to the next section. 

Having accidentally drunk a cup of poisoned wine, Brisemont rolls on the floor in agony while unjustly accusing d’Artagnan of having poisoned him. Ellsworth’s revisions to this originally tragic scene, alter it to the point that it becomes almost farcical. Ellsworth inserts additional exclamation points, oddly placed italics and periodic cries of the piratical “Argh!” Oxford Languages defines “argh” as: an expression of strong emotion… often having a humorous intent. The effect of the whole becomes reminiscent of the mock-tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Review: Ellsworth Changed Dumas’ Three Musketeers in his Translation

D’Artagnan looks on helplessly while Brisemont dies in agony, by Maurice Leloir

Pevear

Pevear

translation 2006
  1. Ah!” he cried out on seeing d’Artagnan, “ah! it’s abominable! You seemed to grant me mercy, and now you’ve poisoned me!”

  2. I?” cried d’Artagnan. “I, you poor wretch? What are you saying?”

  3. “I say it was you who gave me that wine, I say it was you who told me to drink it, I say you wanted to revenge yourself on me, I say it’s abominable!


Pevear (2006) translation of The Three Musketeers, chap.xlii

Ellsworth

Ellsworth

translation 2018
  1. You!” he cried, seeing d’Artagnan. “Argh! You traitor! You pretend to pardon me, then you poison me!”

  2. Me!” cried d’Artagnan. “What are you saying?”

  3. “I say you gave me the wine, and you told me to drink it, because you wanted to pay me back! Argh! It’s horrible!”                                        


Ellsworth (2018) translation of The Three Musketeers, chap.xlii

Click “More” below to read the same passage as it appears in Dumas’ original French and in the Hobson translation.

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FELTON

POSSIBLE SPOILERS:

I don’t think this section contains any major spoilers but if you are a first time reader of The Three Musketeers, you may wish to skip ahead to the next section. 

In the passage quoted below, Dumas depicts Felton as feeling anger and anguish as he listens to Milady tell him about how she was sexually assaulted. Ellsworth’s bizarre changes to this passage alter it to the point where Felton’s reaction is no longer coherent.

Hobson

Hobson

translation 2014
  1. Felton listened without emitting any sound other than a muffled growl, but his marble brow ran with sweat, and his hand, hidden under his jacket, tore at his breast.

Hobson (2014) translation of The Three Musketeers, chap.lvi

Ellsworth

Ellsworth

translation 2018
  1. Felton listened without a sound except for a sort of suppressed moan, but the sweat streamed from his marble brow, and his hand, under his clothes, pawed at his chest.

Ellsworth (2018) translation of The Three Musketeers, chap.lvi

Click “More” below to read the same passage as it appears in Dumas’ original French and in the Pevear translation.

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Milady and Felton an illustration drawn by Edmund H. Garrett illustration for Alexandre Dumas' Three Musketeers. Milady, with the light hitting her fair hair and white dress clasps her hands and looks upward with an expression of angelic inspiration. Felton, dressed in a dark, heavy and awkward style, stands with his back to the light and looks at Milady with a fixed, intent expression.
Milady and Felton an illustration drawn by Edmund H. Garrett illustration for Alexandre Dumas' Three Musketeers. Milady, with the light hitting her fair hair and white dress clasps her hands and looks upward with an expression of angelic inspiration. Felton, dressed in a dark, heavy and awkward style, stands with his back to the light and looks at Milady with a fixed, intent expression.

Milady and Felton as drawn by Edmund H. Garrett for a limited edition of The Three Musketeers, Little Brown and Co, 1893 .

THE · FLEUR-DE-LYS

SPOILERS:

If you have seen a film version of The Three Musketeers—depending on how faithful the film was to the bookyou may be familiar with the passage discussed below. However, if you are a first time reader of The Three Musketeers, you may still wish to skip ahead to the next section. 

In The Three Musketeers, the only backstory important to the plot centers on the connection between Athos, Milady and the brand of the fleur-de-lys. Discussing the fleur-de-lys brand, Will Hobson has said:

“The practice of branding to identify (and punish) prostitutes and criminals of all sorts was widespread, and had been so for many centuries. It seems strange that the fleur-de-lys, a decorative emblem, and associated with royalty, in particular with the French royal family, should be used in France to mark criminals (known as fleurdeliser); possibly it was to indicate that the criminal was owned by the monarchy.”


Will Hobson, annotations on The Three Musketeers (2014)

One night, when Athos is more drunk than d’Artagnan has ever seen him, he tells d’Artagnan a story about a count who tries to kill his wife. In this story, the count discovers that his wife had been branded with the fleur-de-lys and, as a result, attempts to murder her. Though their identities are originally disguised (Athos tells the story in the third person), at some point it becomes clear that the countess is Milady and the count is Athos himself.

As Hobson has said, the fleur-de-lys brand was used to identify both prostitutes and criminals. In The Three Musketeers, it is plain both from Athos’ narrative and, later, from the testimony of the executioner of Lille that Dumas had no intention of implying that Milady was branded for anything other than being a thief. By contrast, when Athos is relating the motive for his crime, Ellsworth adds in a new line in which Athos says that the girl (Milady) was “a branded criminal—a thief, or worse”—apparently implying that Athos believed her to be a prostitute. 

Ellsworth’s implication that Athos believed Milady to have been a protitute alters Dumas’ overall vision for the story and adds a further negative aspect to Athos’ character and to his crime. The idea that Athos wanted to kill Milady because he thought she had been a prostitute gives the reader the false impression that Athos, and by reflection Dumas, held destructive prejudices regarding female sexuality.

In his rendition, Ellsworth makes many changes which give the reader a false impression of Dumas’ attitude towards women. For instance, in the passage quoted below, Ellsworth changes the epithet Athos uses to describe Milady from démon (“demon”) to “devil.” At another point in the story, Dumas has Lord de Winter call Milady a drôlesse;¹ which literally means a “joker” or a “rogue” but in the context of Lord de Winter’s line is best interpreted as a “hussy” or a “wench” (which is, respectively, how it is translated by Hobson and Pevear). Ellsworth changes this to the offensive word “bitch.”

Additionally, the meaning Ellsworth appears to assign to the word “Grand” —another of his additions to the passage quoted below—does not match any of the definitions of that word that I was able to find.

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Hobson

Hobson

translation 2014
  1. [Athos:] “The truth. My dear friend, the angel was a demon. The poor young girl had been a thief.”
  2. [D’Artagnan:] “And what did the count do?”
  3. [Athos:] “The count was a great lord; he had the right to administer low and high justice on his lands.”

Hobson (2014) translation of The Three Musketeers, chap.xxvii

Ellsworth

Ellsworth

translation 2018
  1. [Athos:] “Only the truth. My friend, the angel was a devil. The poor young girl was a branded criminal—a thief, or worse.”
  2. [D’Artagnan:] “What did the count do?”
  3. [Athos:] “The count was a Grand, one of the great nobles; on his land he had the right of the high and the low justice.”

Ellsworth (2018) translation of The Three Musketeers, chap.xxvii

Click “More” below to read the same passage as it appears in Dumas’ original French and in the Pevear translation.

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A photo of several English translations of The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. The books are half in shadow. They are stacked on a stone in the center of the photo. There are autumn leaves, green plants and and trees in the background.
A photo of several English translations of The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. The books are half in shadow. They are stacked on a stone in the center of the photo. There are autumn leaves, green plants and and trees in the background.

“Without any great fear of contradiction it may be said that no translated foreign romance has had so many editions published in the English speaking world as ‘Les Trois Mousquetaires’

“Without any great fear of contradiction it may be said that no translated foreign romance has had so many editions published in the English speaking world as ‘Les Trois Mousquetaires’” 

Douglas Munro 

· Readability ·

Like a community theatre director without enough actors to fill out the cast list, Ellsworth combines Mme d’Aiguillon’s role with that of Mme de Combalet’s. He randomly gives Mme Coquenard (Porthos’ mistress) a stutter and then, just as mystifyingly, takes it away again. When it came to the character of Milady de Winter, Ellsworth apparently felt that the sensitive English speaking public needed to be sheltered from hearing a female first name that might sound “odd” to them. So, he took it upon himself to save them and changed “Lady Clarick” to “Lady Clarice.” In the explanatory notes, Ellsworth wrote:

“Lady Clarice — Dumas gives Milady de Winter’s first name as Clarick, which, might have sounded English to Dumas, but looks and sounds odd to English speakers, so it’s rendered here as Clarice.”


Lawrence Ellsworth, explanatory notes for The Three Musketeers (2018)

If Ellsworth had known as much about English names and titles as Dumas had, he would have known that an English countess is never addressed as “Lady” followed by her first name. An English countess is addressed as “Lady” followed by her title name. Clarick was not Milady’s first name — it was one of her titles. 

One thing that each translator of The Three Musketeers must decide is whether or not they will translate the oaths. Pevear decided to keep them in French, which is a legitimate choice, and Hobson decided to translate them into English, which is also a legitimate choice. I would not have thought there was a third option but Ellsworth managed to find one. He both kept the oaths in French and translated them into English. In Ellsworth’s translation, characters will say an oath in English at one moment and then, in the next, they’ll say it in French.

In his translation, Ellsworth also makes the extremely unusual decision to leave parts of the dialogue in the original French. As the characters converse, they sprinkle their conversation with French words. The fact that Ellsworth would leave words in French in one line of dialogue and then translate the same words into English in another makes it hard to understand why he didn’t just translate those words in the first place. Having the characters speak in English interspersed with French didn’t so much give me the impression that they were speaking French as that they were speaking English interspersed with French. I would have found it far more convincing that characters were speaking French if they had just spoken English.

Sometimes Ellsworth calls Milady de Winter by her title, Countess de Winter, and her brother-in-law by his title, Lord de Winter (in accordance with Dumas’ French text). At other times, Ellsworth makes the inexplicable choice to remove the “de” from those titles and instead refers to them as Countess Winter and Lord Winter.

For a translator that complains at length about how nineteenth century translators made Dumas sound antiquated, Ellsworth uses a surprising amount of antiquated language in his own Dumas translations. Pevear has said that “Dumas’ style is terse and modern.” However, the same cannot be said for many passages in Ellsworth’s translation. Ellsworth garnishes his translation with needlessly archaic language (such as “in the toils,” “missive of passion,” “fares”  and “O”). These flourishes do not correspond to anything in Dumas’ French text.

· Character ·

Ellsworth’s translation becomes chaotic as his own vision for The Three Musketeers collides with what Dumas actually wrote. The most damaging aspect of Ellsworth’s revisions is how relentless they are. Some changes are subtle while others are blatant but they are continuous and all of them contribute to erasing complexities and peopling the story with a brood of flat and melodramatic imposters.

· Censorship ·

Ellsworth has complained at such length about nineteenth century translators censoring The Three Musketeers that I don’t feel I can close this review without touching briefly on the censorship that Ellsworth has enacted on his own translation of The Three Musketeers. Twice in Dumas’ text d’Artagnan and Rochefort kiss. Both times, Ellsworth removes the kiss from his translation. By contrast, Ellsworth not only does not censor heterosexual interactions in his translation, he actively sensationalizes them by adding in material that has no parallel in Dumas’ French text.

· Marketing ·

In 2019, Sylas K. Barrett wrote an article for Tor called All for One and All are Gay: Queer Heroism in Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. Ellsworth (as Lawrence Shick) posted a comment in response to this article in which he said:

“Hi, as Lawrence Ellsworth I’m currently editing and translating new, updated and annotated editions of all of Alexandre Dumas’s Musketeers novels — the first three are currently in print from Pegasus Books, with more on the way. As an older, straight white male I won’t presume to comment on the Musketeers’ appeal to folks of other orientations, but I would like to point out that our new versions are closer to Dumas’s original French language than the aging Victorian translations most publishers still have in print. Everyone’s interpretation of Musketeers is their own, but I think there’s real value, not to mention more fun, in our snappy new editions, which hew much more closely to Dumas’s genuinely dynamic prose. ”


Lawrence Ellsworth

· Accuracy ·

There is a reason why we all want to read translations written by people and not by robots. Translators bring their own unique personalities and viewpoints to their translations which makes their renditions come alive for the reader. However, there’s a crucial difference between a translator interpreting the original material and a translator rewriting the original material. In my opinion, Ellsworth crossed that line in his translation. 

Ellsworth has said that, a he writes his Dumas translations, he searches for “the parts” of Dumas’ novels that he feels were “important” to Dumas. According to Ellsworth, he takes “the parts… that [Dumas]… really wanted to convey” and then “put[s]” them “into 21st century accessible English,” because he wants to make Dumas’ works something that “anybody can enjoy without losing the feel of what [Dumas is] all about.”¹

Ellsworth is less accurate than Will Hobson (2014), Richard Pevear (2006) and William Robson (1853). Ellsworth is both more and less accurate than William Barrow (1846). Ellsworth is more accurate than Eleanor Hochman (1991), Lowell Bair (1984), Alfred Allinson (1903), Lord Sudley (1952) and Jacques Le Clercq (1950). (The translations are listed in order of accuracy.)

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Review: Ellsworth Changed Dumas’ Three Musketeers in his Translation
Alexandre Dumas' Three Musketeers Translated by Richard Pevear shown here in both the Penguin Deluxe Classics paperback edition and the Viking Hardcover edition. The two books stand at odd angles to each other on a ragged stone step. There are red gladiolas and golden sunflowers in the background.
Alexandre Dumas' Three Musketeers Translated by Richard Pevear shown here in both the Penguin Deluxe Classics paperback edition and the Viking Hardcover edition. The two books stand at odd angles to each other on a ragged stone step. There are red gladiolas and golden sunflowers in the background.

From left to right: the Penguin Deluxe Classics (paperback) edition and the Viking (hardcover) edition of Richard Pevear’s translation of The Three Musketeers.

THE · PEVEAR · TRANSLATION

2006

Richard Pevear rocketed to fame in 2004 when Oprah made the Pevear- Volokhonsky translation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina one of her book club picks. Originally from Boston, Pevear now lives in Paris and teaches at the American University of Paris. Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear are married. They have twice won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize — first for their translation of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and next for their translation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. They also won the first Efim Etkind Translation Prize for their translation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.

Larissa Volokhonsky stands holding Richard Pevear's arm as he sits beside her. The couple smile towards the camera. They both wear sweaters and are photographed in their study surrounded by framed pictures and books.

Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear, image credit: Random House

  • Penguin Deluxe Classics

    • Paperback & Kindle
    • Introduction, note on the translation and explanatory notes by Richard Pevear.
    • This is a large, deluxe paperback edition with acid-free, deckle-edged cream pages. The cover is made with high-quality watercolor paper.
    • Original cover illustrations by Tom Gauld covering the front and back covers as well as the inner flaps and the spine.
    • There are no interior illustrations.
    • The book stays open nicely.
  • Viking

    • Hardcover
    • Introduction, note on the translation and explanatory notes by Richard Pevear.
    • Original dust-jacket illustration by Barry Blitt.
    • The pages are not acid-free.
    • There are no interior illustrations.
    • The book stays open nicely.
    • This hardcover is out-of-print but can still be found second hand. You might try Amazon, Biblio or Abebooks.
Alexandre Dumas' Three Musketeers Translated by Will Hobson shown here in both the Vintage Classics edition and the BBC Books/Random House edition. The two paperback books stand up on their own on a ragged stone step. There is a Murano glass paperweight in the foreground and red gladiolas and golden sunflowers in the background.
Alexandre Dumas' Three Musketeers Translated by Will Hobson shown here in both the Vintage Classics edition and the BBC Books/Random House edition. The two paperback books stand up on their own on a ragged stone step. There is a Murano glass paperweight in the foreground and red gladiolas and golden sunflowers in the background.

From left to right: the BBC Books edition and the Vintage Classics edition (both paperback) of Will Hobson’s translation of The Three Musketeers.

THE · HOBSON · TRANSLATION

2014

Will Hobson is a translator, writer and stand-up comedian. His translation of The Battle by Patrick Rambaud won the Goncourt Prize and his translation of Being Arab by Samir Kassir won the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award 2007. The Collector of Worlds by Iliya Troyanov and Marilyn’s Last Sessions by Michel Schneider (a novel about Marilyn Monroe) are among Hobson’s translations from original French and German texts. Hobson is the author of The Redstone Inkblot Test and A Household Box: Knock Knock! Who’s There? We Are!

Will Hobson holds a book in his hands and looks above and to the left of the camera. He wears a dark sweater and spectacles and has a pensive expression.

Will Hobson, image credit: Pushkin House

Will Hobson’s translation of The Three Musketeers is my favorite translation of Dumas’ beloved classic.

  • Vintage Classics

    • Paperback
    • Introduction and explanatory notes by Will Hobson.
    • Original calligraphy cover art by Mark l’Argent.
    • There are no interior illustrations.
    • The pages are not acid-free.
    • The book stays open nicely.
  • BBC BOOKS/ Random House

    • Paperback, Kindle
    • Introduction and explanatory notes by Will Hobson.
    • BBC The Musketeers series tie-in edition featuring photos of actors from the series on both the front and back cover.
    • There are no interior illustrations.
    • The pages are not acid-free.
    • The book does not stay open on its own.
Review: Ellsworth Changed Dumas’ Three Musketeers in his Translation
Review: Ellsworth Changed Dumas’ Three Musketeers in his Translation

The Pegasus Books hardcover edition of Lawrence Ellsworth’s translation of The Three Musketeers.

THE · ELLSWORTH · TRANSLATION

2018

Lawrence Ellsworth is a live-action role-playing game designer, author and translator. While working at TSR Hobbies, Ellsworth developed and edited a number of titles for the Dungeons & Dragons LARP games. As Lawrence Shick, Ellsworth is the author of Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games. Ellsworth has attended the Taos Writers’ Workshop and the Algonkian Writers’ Workshop. He is also a member of the Historical Novel Society and was a featured speaker at the HNS conference in 2019. As Lawrence Ellsworth, he is the author of two Three Musketeers fan-fiction novels: The Three Mystic Heirs and The Three Monks of Tears which are known collectively as The Rose Knight’s Crucification. Ellsworth is currently writing a series of blog posts for Black Gate centered around classic swashbuckler films. Many of these posts were republished in his latest book: Cinema of Swords: A Popular Guide to Movies about Knights, Pirates, Barbarians, and Vikings (and Samurai and Musketeers and Gladiators and Outlaw Heroes).

Lawrence Ellsworth, translator of Alexandre Dumas' Three Musketeers, looks straight at the camera. His silver hair is almost to his shoulders and his mustache and got are also silverer. He is wearing a doublet and holding a rapier, photo by Nina Harwick.

Lawrence Ellsworth, image credit: Nina Harwick

  • Pegasus Books

    • Hardcover & Kindle
    • Introdution and explanatory notes by Lawrence Ellsworth.
    • This edition features an incomplete set of the Maurice Leloir illustrations. (There is one illustration per chapter.)
    • The book is sewn-bound and has deckle-edged pages.
    • The pages are not acid-free.
    • The book stays open nicely.

This post has not been sponsored in any way. The thoughts and opinions I have expressed are my own.