"Bovary" & le Mot Juste

New Criterion, October 2010 | Go to article overview

"Bovary" & le Mot Juste


Looking inside the cover of Lydia Davis's eagerly awaited new translation of Madame Bovary, the reader is greeted with a quantity of praise for Davis's 2004 translation of Proust's Swann's Way, a work that not only earned her a MacArthur "genius" grant but also caused her to be named a chevalier of the French Order of Arts and Letters--the official Gallic seal of approval. (1) Among the accolades Viking Penguin has included for Davis's Proust is one from Dave Eggers: "I think Davis's is definitive."

Definitive? Impossible: there is no such thing as a definitive translation. Not of any literary work. For translations--like art forgeries, curiously enough--are always recognizably a product of their period. They may seem neutral at first, but as the years go on, telltale features of the 1920s, say, or the 1980s, will appear. This is a problem even when the period happens to be the same as that of the original work: Victorian English has different speech patterns, different conventions, an entirely different flavor from the stripped-down mid-nineteenth-century French prose Flaubert labored over so painstakingly.

Davis has counted nineteen English Madame Bovary translations prior to her own. Some of them continue to enjoy great acclaim, like that of Eleanor Marx Aveling (daughter of Karl), for instance, written in 1886 and revised by Paul de Man in 1965, or Francis Steegmuller's 1957 version. And there is Geoffrey Wall's 2992 Bovary, which has long been available in the Penguin Classics edition but will soon be supplanted by Davis's. Numerous college professors are displeased by the fact that Penguin is dropping Wall's excellent Bovary. There is no need, they argue, for a new Bovary: it's simply a marketing ploy by Viking Penguin, who saw Davis as a hot property (so far as a literary translator can be a hot property!) and commissioned her to produce a new version so they could sell it all over again.

The professors may be right. The Wall version, after all, is first-rate, faithful to Flaubert's text, and admirably restrained: Wall never gave in to the temptation that has dogged so many translators, a wish to embellish and "improve" the original. His respect for the material is complete, and both his choice of vocabulary and his rendition of Flaubert's essentially inimitable rhythm is achieved with talent and stylistic discretion.

To translate Flaubert takes a confidence that amounts to audacity, for no author was ever so obsessed by style. "There are no noble subjects or ignoble subjects," the author reflected while writing Madame Bovary; "from the standpoint of pure Art one might almost establish the axiom that there is no such thing as subject--style in itself being an absolute manner of seeing things." How is such a style to be translated--and can it be? And what about Flaubert's identification of the best prose with poetry? "A good prose sentence," he wrote, "should be like a good line of poetry--unchangeable, just as rhythmic, just as sonorous. Such, at least, is my ambition." This immediately brings to mind the definition of poetry--a free one, I think--as that which cannot be translated. Is Madame Bovary poetry? Can it ever, really, be adequately translated?

Let's look at one passage--an important one in that it introduces Charles and Emma Bovary's visual world. It's a world that a painter, or someone like Flaubert with a painterly eye, might find beautiful but that is, above all else, gray. We know that this overall grayness is vital because Flaubert has said so. "The story, the plot of a novel is of no interest to me," he claimed in a conversation with the Goncourt brothers. "When I write a novel I aim at rendering a color, a shade." In Salammbo, he said, that shade was a vivid purple, whereas in Madame Bovary "all I wanted to do was to render a gray color, the mouldy color of a wood-louse's existence. The story of the novel mattered so little to me that a few days before starting on it I still had in mind a very different Madame Bovary from the one I created. …

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