The Daily

On Translation

Why a New Madame Bovary?

September 15, 2010 | by

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
stagnant dreariness
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.

Lydia Davis' translation of Madame Bovary comes out on September 23. Over the next two weeks she will be writing for TPR Daily about the tasks and sins of the translator.



  1. Will @ AJRMS | September 20, 2010 at 3:33 pm

    I definitely plan to read your “Bovary” (enchanted by Steegmuller’s, exasperated by Mauldon’s), but please do not leave me in suspense: How did you translate “bouffées d’affadissement”!

  2. Lydia Davis | September 28, 2010 at 9:52 pm

    Sorry to keep you in suspense, Will, about my own translation of that phrase. Here is the passage, as I have it: “…all the bitterness of life seemed to be served up on her plate, and, with the steam from the boiled meat, there rose from the depths of her soul yet other gusts of dreariness.” Thanks for your curiosity!

  3. Sam T | September 30, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    Your colleague, James Woods, speculates on How Fiction Works about the phrase, ‘L’idée d’avoir engendré le délectait.’ ‘…pity the poor translator,’ he writes. ‘For English is a wan cousin of the French.’ I disagree. There are surely occasions when English outperforms its cousin, how did you get on. James Woods plays with ‘bad hip-hop’ to capture the rhyme. ‘The notion of procreation was a delectation.’

  4. Marion E Dawson | October 5, 2010 at 11:40 pm

    My comment about Lydia Davis’s translation of MADAME BOVARY is simple.
    I will buy a copy of my favorite novel
    which upon rereading seems always
    to give a fresh insight into the characters and stylistic richness.
    Cant wait to enter once more into the
    deluded self absorbed romanticist
    Emma,and the other characters Flaubert
    the first and perhaps most influential
    author he impales as the despised
    bourgoisee he wryly says he is part of
    C’est tout C’est moi aussi.

  5. Lydia Davis | October 6, 2010 at 2:35 pm

    Will, in his comment, asked about my version of the phrase I quoted. As I reread passages of the translation recently, I saw that what I sent in was an earlier version–the published one is “gusts of revulsion.” It’s a difficult phrase, and I’ll probably give it still more thought in preparation for the paperback edition. Thanks to everyone for your interest!

  6. N.E. Skinner | October 6, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    Lydia, the translation is beautiful. The word that keeps coming to me as I reflect on it is “light” The prose has the perfect weight for its own wings: light enough to soar, solid enough to hang together. As a reader I felt in good hands.

    I saw you read at the 92nd street Y and was so very fascinated by the comments you made about what Flaubert strove (?) to do with his prose (cut the metaphors!!) and characters, and transitions. Could have listened to you for hours.

    Haven’t had the pleasure of reading your short stories or novel, but am anxiously awaiting that treat!!

  7. Cynthia Gamble | November 14, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    Dear Lydia,
    I am so very interested in your new translation of Madame Bovary. Could you possibly email me? We discussed Proust in translation at Oxford, St Hugh’s College a few years ago.
    Cynthia Gamble

  8. Cynthia Gamble | November 14, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    Dear Lydia,
    We were on the panel at Oxford, St Hugh’s, about translation and Proust…
    Would love to be in touch about this.

  9. phb | October 2, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    I read Davis’s translation a few months ago and rather liked it. Had read some other translation previously. I did feel the urge to strangle her (Emma, not Lydia) after about page 18 but was comforted by knowing the end she would meet.
    Re-read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” shortly thereafter and was taken by the similarities in the personalities of Marie St. Clare and Emma Bovary. Stowe, of course, was much more straightforward in the telling of her story than Flaubert was.

  10. Sachu Thomas | December 4, 2011 at 10:47 am

    Lydia Davis! Lydia Davis! Lydia Davis! You are the simply the best when it comes to translations. Your Denon made my 2009, your Proust made my 2010, and this year your Emma. What is next?

  11. Sachu Thomas | December 4, 2011 at 10:50 am

    How much I pine for a translation of Flaubert’s letters (just ten fragments are not enough!) by the hand of Lydia Davis.

  12. Arthur Gottschalk | January 30, 2012 at 10:12 am

    Just having read for the second time FS’s wonderful translation I really must wonder, why? I would have enjoyed a critique of the previous work, explaining what was wrong with it. But since I’ve recently read a great biography of Flaubert and am now a dyed in the wool Flaubert fan, I’ll probably read yours as well.

  13. Adam Lyons | March 27, 2013 at 9:42 am

    I think Lydia Davis’s translation imposes too much style on the original – I prefer Wall’s translation – that one really seemed to live for me. It’s worth bearing in mind that Davis’s is written in American English too, if that makes a difference to you.

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9 Pingbacks

  1. […] look, to coincide with the first issue published under the guidance of Lorin Stein, and it also has a guest post by Lydia Davis, who will be writing on the site over the next two weeks about “the tasks and sins of the […]

  2. […] one among many reasons that Lydia Davis is offering a new translation of Madame Bovary. Check out this article in The Paris Review, where Davis explains why she decided to translate Flaubert (which must have […]

  3. […] Davis, the short story writer and translator, most recently of Madame Bovary, uses white space eloquently. In her short story, “Marie Curie, So Honorable a Woman,” Davis […]

  4. […] os leitores com um pequeno artigo escrito pela própria Lydia Davis ["Why a new Madame Bovary"]:; um artigo de Sam Anderson, no New York Books ["Knee-Deep in 'Bovary'"]: […]

  5. […] I read a great article by Lydia Davis on the benefit of having multiple translations.  I think I am inclined to agree […]

  6. […] In an article for the Paris Review discussing her translation of Madame Bovary, Davis demonstrates t…. A single phrase of Flaubert’s, ‘bouffées d’affadissement’, has variously been translated as: 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. […]

  7. […] to be that Lydia Davis’ most recent translation is the way to go. Ms. Davis actually wrote a terrific piece in the Paris Review about why she chose to tackle Bovary and what particular choices she made in […]

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