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 Plan. Gulliver’s Travels, which I intend to reread at some point. The Brothers Karamazov, Madame Bovary, Oliver 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.