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.

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Michelle

Reader, writer, translator, nature-lover, happy expat and concerned world citizen.

11 thoughts on “a review of the new Madame Bovary translation”

  1. Loved this article, thank you for linking it! The examples that Barnes provided are so fascinating, and really bring home how subjective all of this is. For instance I am very interested with the line about “Marianne dansant”. A contemporary French reader probably has no idea that she should conjure up Salomé, should English readers be at an advantage there? Should we translate Flaubert in 21st century French?
    Actually this echoes questions I had when reading Grossman’s Why Translation Matters. Did you read it? It is a short and entertaining book, with little to no theory, but it’s made a big impression on me. I am only just beginning to read about literary translation (rather than business or what have you), so it might seem obvious, but Grossman points out something that Barnes seems to be dancing around: translation is not purely an act of “betraying the least”, it is an act of rewriting. As such, the old opposition between “clunkiness” and “faithfulness” (which Davis herself makes) is a little short; it would be interesting to consider the specific nuances the translator brings to the story, what it tells about her own sensibility, much as we do not only judge an actor by how “faithfully” he interpreted a role, but also by how he illuminated it, how he made it more than it was. And what about the idea that some clunkiness is a good thing, because we are after all writing something foreign, and should therefore allow it to change us and our language a little? It means letting go of that perfect translation in the sky, and also once again means considerable expansion of the world of literature (doesn’t reading translations then becomes part of knowing a book, even if you are able to read it in the original?), but that is an idea that resonates deeply with me.
    Thanks again for the link, I would have missed it and now… I’m headed to reread the article. God I love Julian Barnes!

    1. Such a good question about ‘marianne dansant’…I have no answer. Such a hard call. And I hope Davis struggled with what to do. I haven’t read Grossman’s book, although I plan to. I’ve heard quite contrasting criticisms of it and I’d like to sort out for myself what she’s saying. And this notion of ‘rewriting’ is a tricky one – when I was first studying literary translation, I read some wonderful essays about the evolution of a reader’s/writer’s feelings toward translation. Early on, it was nearly purely rewriting, and changing a story to make it work in the new culture, it was almost a way of colonizing the source literature. But then things swung in the other direction and the goal was to make the target language as exotic as possible, to highlight hte fact that it was a translation. Nowadays, it seems we can’t decide what we want our translations to do…which is excellent because it provides such wonderful debate. If you are interested, there is a great collection of essays called Theories of Translation by Schulte and Biguenet, kindof a classic in the field. But also The Translation STudies Reader, edited by Venuti. An excellent discussion on lit. trans. through a series of essays.

      1. I’m really curious about your impressions of it. As I said, it really left a mark on me – I found her passion infectious – but I doubt it is very revolutionary, and writing down what I took away from it was a pretty rapid exercise.
        Thank you so much for the references. I find it very hard to get clear reading recommendations on the subject, and I’ve been a little discouraged with unrewarding attempts at random selection. These will go straight on my Christmas list!

  2. Translation is fascinating and I love to compare different translations. I wish I could read books of other languages in the original, but I am basically unilingual. I have just enough of a couple of languages to be able to evaluate translations of (very) short pieces with the aid of a dictionary. And I’ve had interesting conversations with one of the translators of my work. It would be so interesting if I could read the original as well as translations of a novel like Madame Bovary. But I agree that there has to be sympathy for and appreciation of the work.

    1. It must be fascinating to speak with the translators who work on your books, I suspect they have questions you might not have expected!

  3. I keep thinking about the question of whether you can do a great translation of a work you don’t really like. I guess I’m not entirely sure, but then again, I’ve never tried to translate anything, and so I don’t know what the process is like and how one’s prejudices would affect it. Your idea that it is necessary to be able to see the beauty of a work in order to do a good job of translation makes sense.

    1. I think it is possible to do a proper/correct translation of something, even if you think the work is lame. I suppose I do this all the time with the ridiculous marketing translations I have to do 🙂 but I don’t believe a translation will really shine unless the translator has an appreciation for what the original writer wanted to do. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think the translator must be a little in love with the work; at least this will make him/her work as hard as possible to be “true” to the work, however that “true” ends up interpreted.

  4. I love Julian Barnes – he is so smart. And this article is just perfect for you, verbivore! At my university, one of the things the students have to do is a translation project, and that’s often interesting, seeing which piece of French they’ll pick and going over the difficulties they encounter with them. The hardest kind of French to translate seems to be that pure, simple, unadorned style. Who’d a thought it? But it’s incredibly hard to make it sound natural in English.

    1. I’ve amassed a small trove of Julian Barnes novels and I plan to read them soon. I loved loved loved this article.

      I think its wonderful that the students must engage with translation while studying French. This wasn’t a part of my French studies, but I would have loved the challenge. And it does surprise me sometimes how difficult something is to turn into un-awkward English. In many ways French and English are not so different, but then suddenly the worst sentence comes along and it’s all a mess!

  5. This is so interesting — to learn more about what goes into a translation! I never realized all the decisions you have to make. I’m going to share this post with my book club friends — they’ll all like to discuss this when we read books that have been translated. (Madame Bovary was one we read a couple of years ago together, so they’ll find this particularly intriguing.) Thank you for sharing!

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