The Daily

On Translation

The Sins of a Translator

October 4, 2010 | by

I wrote the first draft of Madame Bovary without studying the previous translations, although I gathered them and took the occasional peek. Up to the front door would come Andy, our cheerful rural mail carrier, with yet two more packages—this time, Alan Russell’s Madame Bovary (a British Penguin Classic from 1950) and the volume of Flaubert’s letters that covered the period in which he was writing Madame Bovary. Reading the letters was a bright wide-open window on Flaubert the man—far better than any biography. I read them to know him better and to hear him grumble, usually, about the novel and the experience of writing it. Most of his letters were to his lover, the poet Louise Colet, and it was really too bad for all of us when they broke up two-thirds of the way through the writing of the book.

I did not study the other translations during my first draft because I had to establish 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 in translating Proust 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.

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 self-confident and rather presumptuous writerly flair of, for instance, Francis Steegmuller (American, 1957) or Gerald Hopkins (English, 1948), authors of the two “classic” and popular translations of Madame Bovary—one for each side of the Atlantic. Nor does she rearrange the sentences much.

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, humorless, thin as a rail. She must have lived through World War II in England, was perhaps in London during the Blitz, endured food rationing, etc. She was perhaps not very attractive, perhaps horsey? Bad teeth? Always in a cardigan sweater, putting shillings in the gas meter? Then again, this may be unfair—she may have been lovely.

It was not she, certainly, 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.)

Should each of the major Translation Sins have a number? Shall we call this Number Six? (I hope to get to the first five later, in a longer essay.) 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 Pays de Caux in Normandy in the 1830s to England in, say, the 1930s, or whenever “by Jove” was most dashing and fashionable.

Since several translators committed this particular sin in this particular spot, it may also be evidence of Sin Number Seven 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. Most often, then, my conscience is too noisy and I go back to the problem and make an independent choice, because if I don’t make my translation decisions independently, what is it all for, anyway? Still, Sin Number Seven is very tricky, and I saw many obvious instances of it in the other translations, as I tried to avoid it in my own.

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.

Lydia Davis's translation of Madame Bovary debuted last week. On October 4, she will be speaking at the 92nd Street Y.

See Also: “Trust and Betrayal

See Also: Lydia Davis in Feed Magazine, from 2000



  1. Robert Speirs | October 4, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    “Over time”?? Before doing another translation, perhaps Mademoiselle Davis should learn to avoid run-on sentences, too many question marks, too much “anyway”. Her bashing of Joan Charles betrays a pettiness and poverty of imagination that makes it necessary for me to rejoice that she won’t be translating anything I might write from English into some other language.

  2. Andy Lowry | October 4, 2010 at 7:48 pm

    If Mr. Speirs calls that “bashing,” he needs to get out on the internet more.

    I hope Ms. Davis does write up her thoughts on existing translations; I for instance like the new Penguin Bovary, but am also looking forward to hers.

    … Favorite Bovary translation trivia: Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor translated it into English, Paul de Man picked it up for the Norton Critical Edition, and AFAIK, that’s the version they still use today.

  3. Andy Lowry | October 4, 2010 at 7:51 pm

    … Great minds think alike; I missed that Ms. Davis had noted the Marx/de Man version in a Sept. 27 entry here. Obviously I need to read this blog more!

  4. Dave Barbu | October 5, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    Just to carp a little: the OED has “by Jove” used in this way as a mild exclamation as early as 1818, and I fancy it was popular throughout the nineteenth century, not just in the 1930s, as Lydia Davis surmises. This may therefore be a bad example of the kind of translation error that Davis describes otherwise so accurately.

  5. Lydia Davis | October 6, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    Thanks, Dave Barbu, for clarifying the history of “By Jove.” However, I would still, I think, hear it as too characteristically English to put in the mouth of a Frenchman.

  6. Guillermo Badenes | October 10, 2010 at 1:39 am

    Ms. Davis points out that “By Jove” sounds “characteristically English,” perhaps just like the other 115,000 words of the novel (except for the proper names and the few instances of the vernacular that add local color).
    Isn’t that what translation does: making a foreign text accessible to readers who cannot understand the original?

  7. Andrew Eastman | October 16, 2010 at 5:03 pm

    Isn’t that what translation does? Relieve our nettled minds of the nagging sense that foreign people writing in foreign languages might actually exist and not speak the world exactly as we do?

  8. Sylvia | October 18, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    I’m not sure I understood the last line of the text, the one which mentions Constance Garnett: does it mean Lydia Davis does the same (leaves words) or…? Because I don’t think she does. I would also like to know how and when did L. D. learn French. If anyone know, do tell.

  9. Stephen | November 16, 2010 at 9:47 pm

    I have been reading lots of translation lately. Kafka, Homer, Rumi; this piece has been very insightful as to the mindset of the translator. I wonder about updating the speech though. Ms. Davis prefers not to, but all the while reading epics like Homer and Virgil I cannot help but think “Wouldn’t it be great if this read more like a Stalone movie?” Some may call that criminal, but I feel like I could justify it. When one translates one takes something and turns it into something it is not. As I have learned, a “foreign” language is not simply a dialect of “English” that needs to be inverted, it is an entity in itself. This is why we are not taught by translation anymore but by immersion. So while we are taking a piece of writing and turning it on its head (once by translating it from ancient Greek, twice by transcribing it from an oral tradition) why not also turn the story into something as exciting for our time as it was for its time? Now on the other hand, something is not a classic because we continually change it to suit our needs.

    I guess what I want is something Taymor-esque. All the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare, plus motorcycles and orgies.

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  12. John Mager | May 7, 2015 at 9:29 pm

    Much ado about nothing. One must decide if the translation one is looking for fits with their ‘idea’ of the story, or their idea the writing. For example, I am interested more in the writing ‘style’ of Flaubert, and not so much the content of his book. By many accounts, Madame Bovary, as a book, is ‘so-so’…nothing exceptional.
    What makes the book so unusual was Flaubert’s literary intent.
    Either way, unless one speaks and understands French fluently (or is French), one has to go with the translation that best fits their particular psychology.

8 Pingbacks

  1. […] Lydia Davis On The Sins Of A Translator […]

  2. […] 4. How to translate Flaubert. […]

  3. […] Some thoughts on translation by Lydia Davis: 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. […]

  4. […] Hefner calls it “a great read,” and NPR hosts an excerpt. Davis reveals her approach in a Paris Review essay. Amazon | Barnes & Noble | […]

  5. […] at the Paris Review | More Chronicle & Notices. Tweet This Post This is filed under the following rubrics: […]

  6. […] In her presentation, Davis mentioned reading Flaubert’s letters not only to get a sense of who he was at the time he was writing Madame Bovary, but to also get a better overall understanding of him. She was inspired by several of them to write fiction: Ten Stories from Flaubert. And she also referred to the blog she wrote for The Paris Review—The Sins of a Translator. […]

  7. […] stories that she had “found” while reading Flaubert’s letters. As a translator of Madame Bovary, she read Flaubert’s letters to find his natural voice; the way he sounded when addressing […]

  8. […] elaborations that Flaubert had never intended, and also because she believes there’s room for multiple translations. In Davis’ version, the grandiloquence of that sentiment is stripped away to reveal something […]

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