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 and another prize in France and was so much talked about: Really! From the point of view of an SS officer? Well, I don’t know… It has recently been translated quite well into English, well enough so that it won’t need a new translation any time soon—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 150 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 example, 1) 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 of 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
whiffs of sickliness
waves of nauseous disgust
One truism I would argue with, however. Wise people like to say, wisely: 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 3,000-page book—an individual who wouldn’t die before finishing it, as Scott Moncrieff had. This problem Penguin solved at last by appointing a group to do it.)
But even though I believe a superlative translation can achieve timelessness, that doesn’t mean I think other translators shouldn’t attempt other versions. The more the better, in the end.