September 22, 2010 | by Lydia Davis
The existence of another, competing translation is a good thing, in general, and only immediately discouraging to one person—the translator who, after one, two, or three years of more or less careful work, sees another, and perhaps superior, version appear as if overnight.
I’ve been translating from the French for decades (I must enjoy it), and yet, until I translated Proust’s Swann’s Way a few years ago, mine was always the first translation into English of whatever book I was working on, with the predictable advantage and disadvantage that came with that fact: I had no other translation to consult if I was stuck; but no reviewer could compare mine unfavorably to another one.
In the case of Swann’s Way, however, there were two previous translations—one by C. K. Scott Moncrieff done during the 1920s and thirties, and one by an Irish-Australian, James Grieve, published in 1982 in Canberra and not available in the U.S. Few people had seen the Grieve version, but the partisans of the Scott Moncrieff were passionate, and it was no use arguing that his translation was written in a style quite alien to Proust’s and that his text was not nearly as close as it should and could have been (“jaws of Hell” for “entrance to the Underworld”?). To them, the translation simply was Proust.
Madame Bovary is the first book I’ve translated that has already been translated many times into English—as many as nineteen times, by my latest count—so it has been a fascinating experience and nothing like, even, working with one major existing translation, the Scott Moncrieff Proust. Since I have looked again and again at about eleven of the other translations, I’ve come 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 good 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.
I should add, apropos of “one, two, or three years of careful work,” that despite whatever I may say about the shortcomings of the other translations, I believe that each version I looked at was done with a certain amount of diligence—except perhaps for the Paul de Man revision of the Eleanor Marx Aveling. Translating is arduous, frustrating, time-consuming. Even a bad one can’t be dashed off.
Lydia Davis's translation of Madame Bovary comes out on September 23. For the next week she will be writing for TPR Daily about the tasks and sins of the translator. On October 4, she will be speaking at the 92nd Street Y.
See Also: “Survival of the Fittest”
See Also: Lydia Davis in Feed Magazine, from 2000