a review of the new Madame Bovary translation
I’ve recently come across three excellent articles, all about matters close to my own heart. I’ll mention the first one today and get to the two others either tomorrow or Monday.
The first is Julian Barnes’ Writer’s Writer and Writer’s Writer’s Writer from last week’s London Review of Books. This is not only a thorough and excellent review of Lydia Davis’ much-celebrated and much-discussed new translation of Madame Bovary, it is also a careful discussion of what literary translation is all about and what kind of choices translators must make.
With careful and good-natured severity (the best kind), he explains many of Davis’ choices and compares them to other, previous English versions of Madame Bovary. These comparisons are wonderful for a details enthusiast like me, as each reveals how the various translators interpreted or compromised the original.
I haven’t read Madame Bovary in translation, and I didn’t really plan to until reading this article, but as a translator I am now extremely interested in the choices that its previous translators have made. One choice that Davis made came as a surprise to me – she wanted to mirror Flaubert’s grammar and sentence structure as much as possible. This is a curious choice. Often a French sentence is a little turned around compared to an English sentence, not in terms of subject/verb or the big important parts of the sentence, but in terms of the little clauses and the commas. This is part of the musicality of French, and something that English doesn’t necessarily have.
As Barnes suggests, and I would agree, to keep Flaubert’s grammar in English is a risky decision. It keeps the translation accurate in one sense, but opens up a separate claim to inaccuracy. If a sentence reads awkwardly once it has been transformed into another language, this is a deep betrayal of a writer like Flaubert whose prose is anything but awkward. Which obviously makes Flaubert a most difficult writer to translate.
Barnes’ final critique of Davis is that she isn’t a great fan of Madame Bovary and he wonders whether it is possible to create a truly masterful translation when you are “out of sympathy” with the work. This is an excellent question. I would tend to say no. If you cannot find the beauty of the work in the whole, and not just on a sentence per sentence basis, I suspect your readers won’t either. But Barnes is ultimately fair with Davis, however, calling her translation “more than acceptable.”
For those of you who have read Davis’ translation, or any others, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.