The Daily

On Translation

Group Think

September 22, 2010 | by

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

4 COMMENTS

Survival of the Fittest

September 20, 2010 | by

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 this fall, so there will be at least twenty, maybe more that I don’t know about.

It happened several time 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 completely 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. (The “warm air” (air chaud) is fine.)

Another example concerning insects, on the last page of the book, from a different translation: “Cantharides beetles droned busily round the flowering lilies.” Again, this might seem all right 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,” personifying the beetles—especially when Flaubert was so careful to eliminate metaphor?

So, if a translation doesn’t have obvious writing problems, it may seem quite all right at first glance. We readers, after all, quickly adapt to the style of a translator, stop noticing it, and get caught up in the story. And the story itself is powerful enough, in a great book, so that it shines through a less than adequate translation. Unless we compare it to the original, we don’t know what we’re missing.

Of course we may have any number of translations of a given text—the more the better, really. We say to ourselves, complacently looking to Darwin, that they will compete with one another and the fittest will survive. But a significant problem is that the fittest will not necessarily be the best, although it, or they, may be. The ones that survive may be the best edited, and/or the best promoted, and/or the cheapest, and/or the ones accompanied by the most useful apparatus—survival may be helped by how much the publisher pays the chain bookseller to display the book prominently; or how cheap the paper and how low the other production costs may be, to keep the price of the book down; or how many smart academics contribute essays to the volume, to accompany a poor translation.

Here is an example of this problem from the past, as reported by William St. Clair in the TLS, April 6, 2007:

The Homer and Virgil to which most anglophone readers had access in the early nineteenth century were the Augustan versions made by Pope and Dryden a century before. And this was not because there had not been translations, some excellent, in the intervening decades, or because early nineteenth-century readers actively preferred the older versions, but because the legal abolition of perpetual intellectual property in 1774 enabled the Pope and Dryden translations to be profitably produced in huge numbers at low prices. They were abridged, adapted, anthologized in school books, and otherwise made available to a growing anglophone readership outside the elites.

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. On October 4, she will be speaking at the 92nd Street Y.

See Also: “Why a New Madame Bovary?

3 COMMENTS

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.

21 COMMENTS