Bouffées d’affadissement

Not long ago, I was chatting with an older friend who is a retired engineer and also something of a writer, but not of fiction. When he heard that I had just finished a translation of Madame Bovary, he said something like, “But Madame Bovary has ­already been translated. Why does there need to be another translation?” or “But Madame Bovary has been available in English for a long time, hasn’t it? Why would you want to translate it again?” Often, the idea that there can be a wide range of translations of one text doesn’t occur to people—or that a translation could be bad, very bad, and unfaithful to the original. Instead, a translation is a translation—you write the book again in English, on the basis of the French, a fairly standard procedure, and there it is, it’s been done and doesn’t have to be done again.

A new book that is causing excitement internationally will be quickly translated into many languages, like the Jonathan Littell book that won the Prix Goncourt five years ago. It was soon translated into English, and if it isn’t destined to endure as a piece of literature, it will probably never be translated into English again.

But in the case of a book that appeared more than one hundred and fifty years ago, like Madame Bovary, and that is an important landmark in the history of the novel, there is room for plenty of different English versions. For one thing, the first editions of the original text may have been faulty, and over the years one or more corrected editions have been published, so that the earliest English translations no longer match the most accurate original. (2) The earliest translators (as was the case with the Muirs rendering Kafka) may have felt they needed to inflict subtle or not so subtle alterations on the style and even the content of the original so as to make it more acceptable to the Anglophone audience; with the passing of time, we come to deem this something of a betrayal and ask for a more faithful version. (3) Earlier versions may simply not be as good in other respects as they could be—let another translator have a try.

Each version will be quite distinct from all the others. How many ways, for instance, has even a single phrase (“bouffées d’affadissement”) from Madame Bovary been translated:

gusts of revulsion
a kind of rancid staleness
stale gusts of dreariness
waves of nausea
fumes of nausea
flavorless, sickening gusts
stagnant dreariness
whiffs of sickliness
waves of nauseous disgust


Dante on translation

Nothing that is harmonized by the bond of the Muses can be changed from its own to another language without having all its sweetness destroyed.


Every generation needs a new translation

Wise people like to say, Every generation needs a new translation. It sounds good, but I believe it isn’t necessarily so: If a translation is as fine as it can be, it may match the original in timelessness, too—it may deserve to endure. In fact, it may endure even if it is not all it should be in style and faithfulness. The C. K. Scott Moncrieff translation of most of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (which he called, to Proust’s distress, Remembrance of Things Past) was written in an Edwardian English more dated than Proust’s own prose, and it departed consistently from the French original. Yet it had such conviction, on its own terms, and was so well written, if you liked a certain florid style, that it prevailed without competition for eighty years. (There was also, of course, the problem of finding a single individual to do a new translation of a three-thousand-page book—an individual who wouldn’t die before finishing it, as Scott Moncrieff had.)

Even though a superlative translation can achieve timelessness, that doesn’t mean other translators shouldn’t attempt other versions. The more the better, in the end.


Another pessimist: Auden on translation

When, as in pure lyric, a poet “sings” rather than “speaks,” he is rarely, if ever, translatable.


A swarm of flies

For a while I thought there were fourteen previous translations of Madame Bovary. Then I discovered more and thought there were eighteen. Then ­another was published a few months before I finished mine. Now I’ve heard that yet another will be coming out soon, so there will be at least twenty, maybe more that I don’t know about.

It happened several times while I was doing the translation that I would open a newly discovered previous translation of Madame Bovary and my heart would sink. I would say to myself, Well, this is quite good! The work I’m doing may be pointless, after all! Then I would look more closely and compare it to the original, and it would begin to seem less good. I would get to know it really well, and then it would seem quite inadequate.

For example, the following seems good enough, until I look at the original: “Ahead of them, a swarm of flies drifted along, humming in the warm air.” But they were flitting (voltigeait), not drifting—a very different motion—and they were buzzing (bourdonnant), as flies do, not humming. (“Warm air” is fine.)

Another example concerning insects occurs on the last page of the ­novel in a different translation: “Cantharides beetles droned busily round the flowering lilies.” Again, this seems fine until you check the French: “des cantharides bourdonnaient autour des lis en fleur.” Then you have to ask, why the gratuitous and rather clichéd addition of “busily,” which personifies the beetles—especially when Flaubert was at such pains to eliminate metaphor wherever possible?

If a translation doesn’t have obvious writing problems, it may seem quite all right at first glance, or even all the way through, if we don’t look at the original. We readers, after all, quickly adapt to the style of a translator, 
stop noticing it, and get caught up in the author’s story and vision of the world. And a great book is powerful enough to shine through a less than adequate translation. Unless we compare it to the original, we won’t know what we’re missing.


Halfway there

A badly written translation, we could imagine, has been abandoned in a state of transition. What is written is not natural English, it does not sound right, yet now it exists, its very existence seems to justify it. It is certainly a translation of sorts, because it is no longer French—it is now English. But it is not English as any gifted native English writer would write it.

It could be considered an earlier stage of a finished good translation. It needs some rewriting, some different vocabulary choices. But often it is left at that stage and published.


Another insect

Nabokov in his lecture on Madame Bovary discusses one of the early descriptions in the book, of the interior of the room in which Charles, on a visit, finds Emma sewing on a summer day. He quotes from the Eleanor Marx Aveling translation, making his own alterations:

Through the chinks of the wood the sun sent across the stone floor long fine rays that broke at the angles of the furniture and played upon the ceiling. On the table flies were walking up the glasses that had been used, and buzzing as they drowned themselves in the dregs of the cider.

He goes on to comment:

Note the long fine sun rays through the chinks in the closed shutters, and the flies walking up the glasses (not “crawling” as translators have it: flies do not crawl, they walk, they rub their hands) . . .

I was impressed, when I read this nearly thirty years ago—I was teaching a translation workshop and used passages from Madame Bovary to compare translations—by the care and objective, scientific precision of Nabokov the stylist and lepidopterist. I now paid more attention to flies. Certainly they seemed to walk. But what did it mean to crawl, anyway? I looked up crawl—more than once—in my Webster’s. In crawling, the body must also be in contact with the surface, not just the feet.

We must get to know our own language even better when we are translating. When we are writing our own work, our choices are less deliberate, more involuntary, at least in the first draft. It is our natural vocabulary that springs into our minds. As we translate, it is not our own choice that ­confronts us, but the choice of another writer, and we must search more consciously for the right words with which to convey it. It is then that we summon all the so-called synonyms in our own language, in the hope of finding just the right one. For of course they are not exact equivalents, they are all a little different, with different origins and different registers.

When we write our own work, we can be spontaneously, thoughtlessly confusing. But when we translate, we have to be deliberately confusing—­unless we translate closely and faithfully a confusing original.

And when we translate, as opposed to when we read passively, we can’t simply skip over the things in the original text that we don’t understand.


Collaborating with the dead

Madame Bovary is the first book I’ve translated that has already been translated many times into English. Since I looked again and again at about ­eleven of the other translations—a twelfth as I made changes for the paperback edition—I came to know them well.

It did occur to me from time to time, as I studied them—as I felt, in effect, surrounded by them as a group—that a group effort might be interesting. This translator is better informed than I am about French history (or rather, I later realized, looking more carefully, she found someone good to do her endnotes); that one is especially clever at dialogue; another seems to have a naturally rich vocabulary; and yet another is a decent writer and might give a useful critique of the style of my version: together we would produce a wonderful translation. Of course, the earliest of us lived in the 1880s, and most of the others, too, have died by now.


Independent wealth

If a translator is poorly paid, she must work quickly in order to earn anything like a living. If she is well paid, she can work more slowly. The independently wealthy can work as slowly as they like on a translation.

On one book, one of Maurice Blanchot’s interesting and difficult novels, I worked at a snail’s pace even though I was not independently wealthy and later calculated that for that book I had earned about a dollar an hour.


For the record

I thought I had first read Madame Bovary in my teens or early twenties, but I wasn’t sure. The answer to the question came via a strange coincidence that occurred around the same time my translation of the novel appeared. I received an e-mail from a woman who identified herself as the person who, with her husband, had bought the first house I owned, when I was in my early thirties. She told me that when she came to sell the house, after living there twenty years (I calculate that I would have been in my early fifties by then), she discovered an old journal of mine—and she confessed she had waited another ten years (by now I’m in my early sixties) before contacting me. Would I like it back? Of course. (To me, the answer is obvious, but I have discovered that some people, strangely, are not interested in their past, and some are horrified by the very thought of reading an old letter of theirs.) It dated from my early twenties. And when I read it, I found a list of books I had read over the previous months, in which time I had turned twenty-three. There, in the list, was Madame Bovary. But disappointingly, although I had comments for some of the other books, I said nothing about this one:

September 27, 1970

For the record, as we like to say: I graduated in June, to my great surprise, in general; since then, the four months have slipped by with nothing substantial to show for them.

My position now, at the end of September, is this: a great uncertainty about future and jobs, and a rather pervasive depression about it.

To mention some reading so as not to let it slip away out of ­memory: two books by Céline, which are Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment PlanGulliver’s Travels, which I intend to reread at some point. The Brothers KaramazovMadame BovaryOliver Twist; Dead Souls—and I only wish Gogol had written a great deal more. Some of Hebdomeros and I want to finish that, certainly, one of the most beautifully written in the purest of prose styles.


A love story

Although I say nothing in my journal about Madame Bovary, I know I was left with an impression of it that was more negative than positive. I had probably read it expecting something quite unlike what I got. I had probably come to it expecting . . . another Jane Eyre? I did not like the heroine, the story was depressing, and where was the style for which Flaubert was so famous? Now, knowing better, I can enjoy all of Flaubert’s little gibes. I can catch his irony, his poking fun at what he considered the stupidity of the bourgeoisie, the priesthood, the self-styled enlightened rationalist. But that was not what I was hoping for when I read it the first time. This love story—was not at all a love story. Or a very peculiar one, maybe the story of gentle, oblivious Charles’s abiding love for Emma.


Henry James on Madame Bovary

Anything drearier, more sordid, more vulgar and desolate than the greater part of the subject-matter of this romance it would be impossible to conceive.


Flaubert’s style

I wondered, as I read Madame Bovary for the first time (in English) all those years ago, and after I was done reading it: Where was the style for which Flaubert was so famous? Although even in high school I was aware of ­translators and translations, it never occurred to me that the reason I did not like the novel might have been not only its mostly unsympathetic ­ characters and its unmitigatedly gloomy story line but also the style of the translation.

There is great trust in translations, on the part of many people who don’t know any better and even many who do. Now that I’m aware of how many previous translations of Madame Bovary there are, and of the fact that none of them reproduces Flaubert’s style, whichever one I may have read at that time (and it was probably Steegmuller’s), I was not reading the novel in the style in which Flaubert wrote it.


Henry James on Madame Bovary

It is a work... in relation to which sincere opinion may easily have the air of paradox.

My sincere opinion: I find that if I do not love Madame Bovary as a whole—certainly not as I love Flaubert’s last, unfinished novel, Bouvard and Pécuchet—I do relish many parts of it, individual lines and whole passages, a good proportion of what is in the whole novel. I.e., I relish many parts of the book without relishing the whole.

In translating it, I embrace it actively, and I particularly relish the English results of certain passages, though others remain frustrating.


Henry James on Madame Bovary

To many people Madame Bovary will always be a hard book to read and an impossible one to enjoy.


But also

M. Flaubert can write nothing that does not repay attention.


Some factors determining the quality of a translation

The quality and nature of a translation (let’s say from the French) depends on at least three things: the translator’s knowledge of French language, history, and culture; his or her conception of the task of the translator; and his or her ability to write well in English. These three variables have subsets that can recombine infinitely, which is why one work can have such widely differing translations. Publishers selecting a translator seem to proceed on the assumption that the most important qualification is the first. “Let’s ask Professor X, head of the French department at Y!” Often they completely ignore the second factor—how will Professor X approach the task of translating?—and certainly the third—what is Professor X’s writing style like? All three factors are vital, but in many instances, if one has to rank them, the third—how well the translator writes—may be the most important qualification, followed closely or equaled by the second—how he or she ­approaches the task of translating—and it is the first that comes in last place, since minor lapses in a knowledge of the language, history, and culture may result in mistakes that are, in a beautifully written, generally faithful version, fairly easily corrected, whereas a misconception of the task of the translator and, worse, an inability to write well will doom the entire book through its every sentence.


Marx Aveling–de Man

Eleanor Marx Aveling, daughter of Karl Marx, produced the first translation of Madame Bovary, in 1888. What is known as the Paul de Man revision of the Marx Aveling translation (Norton, 1965, 2005) retains some of her old-fashioned or inappropriate vocabulary, such as heretofore, and conjure (for “beg” or “plead”). It integrates explanations or identifications into the text (“the Chaumière” becomes “the Chaumière dance hall”)—undoubtedly helpful to the reader, but a betrayal of the original—and the writing style regularly falters, the revision often enough making matters worse, as in this passage from the end of the book, concerning poor grieving Charles just before he dies:

and Charles was suffocating like a youth beneath the vague love influences that filled his aching heart. (Marx Aveling)

and Charles was panting like an adolescent under the vague desires of love that filled his aching heart. (de Man revision of Marx Aveling)

Quite apart from the comic absurdity of “panting like an adolescent” coming at a moment when we should be filled with Charles, it is important to retain the word suffocating because it recurs several times in the novel at times of ­intense emotion. (It happened, also, that the revisions of Kilmartin and Enright, while correcting certain problems in Scott Moncrieff’s grammatically irreproachable Proust, introduced new ones, including the occasional grammatical mistake.)

For a while, the Marx Aveling–de Man seemed to me the very worst translation out of the eleven. It isn’t—maybe it’s the second worst. But then, such a thing is hard to judge, because in certain specific passages, it is the worst. The Marx Aveling–de Man version exists for a couple of wrong ­reasons, and people buy it for another wrong reason. Wrong reason #1: Norton chose to use the Marx Aveling translation because it was in the public domain and wouldn’t cost anything (I’m assuming, or I was told—can’t remember which). Wrong reason #2 (I’m guessing here): they asked Paul de Man to revise and edit it not because he was conscientious and an excellent writer in English but because he had prestige, a reputation, scholarly intelligence. He then apparently handed most or all of the work over to his wife, and did not acknowledge her. Wrong reason #3: people buy the book not because it is an excellent translation of this important novel but because it has a useful apparatus of essays, et cetera—handy for a teacher, for instance. So, readers have a collection of useful material to read about the novel but are reading one of the most important novels in the history of the novel, and one of the most famous, in a less than excellent translation.


Flaubert’s letters

I read them to know him better and to hear him grumble, usually, about Madame Bovary and the experience of writing it:

My head is spinning with annoyance, discouragement, fatigue! I’ve spent four hours without being able to write one sentence. I haven’t written one line today, or rather I’ve scrawled a hundred! What atrocious work! What a bore! Oh, Art! Art!

Most of his letters were to his lover, the poet Louise Colet. He would write them after he was finished working for the day, usually at one or two in the morning. It was really too bad for all of us Flaubert enthusiasts and scholars, both amateur and professional, when they broke up two-thirds of the way through the writing of the novel.

I also read him to see what his style was like when it was spontaneously produced and probably uncorrected.


The other translations

I did not study the other translations during my first draft because I had to establish my own approach, my own style, and my own understanding of what I was reading before I could risk the rhythms and eccentricities of the others striking my ear and possibly creeping into my prose. (As when translating Proust’s Swann’s Way and most of the previous books I had 
done, I also did not read ahead more than a paragraph or at most a page, so that the material would be a surprise to me, and fresh.) Then, in the second draft, as I revised what I had written, I looked again and again at the previous translations—sometimes at all of them, in the case of a particularly sticky problem, but usually at five or six that were proving useful in different ways. Over time, I began inevitably to imagine the translators.


Joan Charles

The Joan Charles translation (an abridged Garden City Book Club edition from 1949) follows the original very closely—she wouldn’t dream of adding or omitting material with the writerly flair of, for instance, Francis Steegmuller (American, 1957) or Gerard Hopkins (English, 1948), authors of what were for a long time the two “classic” and most popular translations of Madame Bovary—one for each side of the Atlantic. Nor does she re­arrange the sentences much.


Joan Charles, again

For a while I liked Joan Charles—I saw her as prim, correct, neat, sober, honest, frank, clear-eyed. I thought of her as a sort of ally in what I was trying to do. I thought she was unjustly ignored and passed over by the later translators, who didn’t mention her. Then I became somewhat disillusioned, as she made the occasional mistake and tended to lapse into a rather wooden style. Eventually I came to see her as tight laced and humorless.


By Jove

It was not she, but several of the other translators, who put such a discordant exclamation into the mouth of Rodolphe, Emma’s first lover and a wealthy young landowner, who is made to say (now, this is France, in the 1830s), “By Jove!” (One of the most recent translators also has him say, on another ­occasion, “No way!”—bringing him immediately into the twenty-first century. And at yet another point, he says, “Good grief.”)

Should each of the major Translation Sins have a number? Shall we call this Number Six? (I haven’t yet decided what the first five are.) It is the sin of magically, but heedlessly, transferring the action, character, and dialogue into a different time and culture—in this case from the 1830s Pays de Caux in Normandy to England in, say, the 1930s, or whenever “by Jove” was most dashing and fashionable.


Translation Sin #7

Since several translators committed this sin at that particular spot, it may also be evidence of Sin #7 on their part: relying too trustingly on a previous translation. This is a tricky sin, of which I have been guilty myself. Certain translation situations are fairly desperate: What in the world is the author saying? Any amount of cogitating and searching—in reference books, online, in correspondence with smart native speakers—yields nothing. And here at hand is a group of reasonably intelligent minds, of whom one, two, three, four, and five have come to the same conclusion—or, more likely, opted to follow the example of the first of them. It is very tempting to do the same. I can also imagine the Translation Jury ruling that if six translators opt for it, it is not an unreasonable choice—I have the illusion, anyway, of safety in numbers. I yield to temptation and follow suit, but with a feeling of uneasiness that doesn’t go away. Usually I return to the problem and make an independent choice after all.


Constance Garnett

The solution adopted by Constance Garnett, the prolific translator of Russian, to the word, phrase, or passage in the original that utterly confounded her: leave it out.


Fine Editions Club: The World’s Greatest Books

The translation of Madame Bovary by Marx Aveling that I have is the Fine Editions Club volume, published in 1948. In the Member News flyer that came with the book (small format, four pages), no mention is made of the translator, though the illustrator, Laszlo Matulay, and the author of the introduction, Carl Van Doren, are both identified here. The brief description of the novel on the first page of the flyer is as follows:

Emma Bovary, wife of a country doctor, is beautiful, bored, romantic... unable to face reality. Here is her story, told with consummate skill in the inimitable French manner.

It is the last part of the quote that intrigues me. What is the “inimitable French manner”?

And that also brings us back, of course, to the differences among the translators of Madame Bovary. If there is an inimitable French manner, there is not one single manner of translating it. Marx Aveling’s close (if sometimes in­accurate or old-fashioned) approach is quite different from Francis Steegmuller’s elastic one: consider Marx Aveling’s “whilst she wrote” (en écrivant) compared to Steegmuller’s “as her pen flew over the paper”; or Marx Aveling’s “his feet were bare” (ses pieds étaient nus) compared to Steegmuller’s “his feet were innocent of stockings.” The latter style hardly conveys what the Fine Editions Club flyer describes as Flaubert’s “spare, unadorned prose.” The flyer adds some perfectly sensible and unarguable statements about the novel and then concludes that it well merits publication in the Fine Editions Club’s rich leather binding.

Marx Aveling’s was the translation that Nabokov used in teaching the novel at Cornell. For a while, I was convinced that Nabokov’s opinions about this translation, and his own suggested alternatives for certain words and phrases, must be correct—brilliant writer in English with profound understanding of French and this novel. And so I looked carefully at his lecture on the novel, collected in his Lectures on Literature.

Then I discovered that Nabokov’s teaching copy was housed in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library at Forty-second Street, and that I could go in and study it. So I took a notebook and went in, sat before the book with the usual fascination one feels in the presence of a historical artifact (no white gloves, but a felt-covered book stand and a watchful attendant), and began noting down his changes and comments. On my next trip into the city, I did better, carrying along my own copy of the book so that I could transfer Nabokov’s penciled marginal notes into it, in effect making a replica of his book. I did this perhaps two or three times, until I saw how very slowly the work was going and also began losing some of my confidence in the soundness of every opinion of Nabokov’s. I would come across instances of marginal notes that I did not agree with—either his understanding of the English choice did not seem quite right to me or his alternative seemed too far away from the original. (For instance, Marx Aveling’s “Once, during a thaw, the bark of the trees in the yard was oozing” is one correct ­solution for “Une fois, par un temps de dégel, l’écorce des arbres suintait dans la cour.” Nabokov’s replacement of “oozing” with “glossy with dampness” is perhaps nicer, but it inserts too much of a Nabokovian flourish, I think.) I abandoned my project, much though I would have loved to own a replica of Nabokov’s teaching copy of Madame Bovary.

I took a few more moments, however, to copy down some of the English words Nabokov had evidently found difficult. He had written them out with diacritical marks to indicate how they were to be pronounced should he have to speak them to the students: prívet, clématis, bígoted, pólypany, múltiple, cátechism, sólace, péctoral, Botocúdos, málleable, nastúrtium.



Smooth and flowing are not inevitably compliments when applied to a translation.

If a passage in the original is graceless or peculiar, then the translation must be graceless or peculiar in that spot, too.

But one could say the only justification for making a passage better than the original is a sort of mathematical one: In other places, the translation may unavoidably be worse than the original, therefore the improvement makes up the balance. You want to achieve a sort of overall equivalence, when all the parts are added up.