The Daily

On Translation

Responding to Lydia Davis: Exercises in Style

October 8, 2010 | by

For the last three weeks, Lydia Davis has shared her thoughts and experiences in translating Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. She writes, “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.” We asked others to weigh in on the matter from their own work in the field. Here is what they had to say.

Edith Grossman, translator:

I admire Lydia Davis’s writing, and it is always extremely interesting to learn how another translator works, especially one as eloquent as Davis. I don’t often have the opportunity to read about another translator’s methods and attitudes toward the work, and I was intrigued by her essay.

The one point on which I disagree with her absolutely concerns reading other people’s translations. Although most of my translations, like hers, have been of texts not previously brought over into English, in the past few years I’ve had occasion to translate classic Spanish works, each of which has had countless versions in English. But it always seemed crucially important to me not to consult them or study them—to what end, I asked myself, when the point of a new translation is to be a new translation, with a fresh voice and a different point of view.

On the other hand, I agree with her absolutely regarding the importance of the translator’s ability to write the second language. Hearing the first text, and finding appropriate phrasing that recreates its tonalities and intention in the second, is the fundamental translating skill. Nothing else compares.

I’m curious about her not reading the entire text before beginning the translation. Even though she states her reasons, I still don’t quite understand why she doesn't. We are the translators, after all, not ordinary readers, and we have a different kind of obligation to the text.

I assume there are seven translating sins to match the seven mortal ones. I’ve never thought about this in terms of sins, deadly or otherwise, but I imagine the first—right up there with pride—is having a tin ear in English.

Wyatt Mason, translator and critic:

Every translation is an interpretation. As with all acts of literary criticism of which translation is only the most thoroughgoing, there are richer and poorer specimens. Not unreasonably, when a translation doesn't seem to cohere, when its parts do not quite cleave together, we look at its string of choices and worry its beads one by one. This is not heavy work. Any state trooper with a bilingual dictionary can ticket any translation for the betrayal of its original. A more complicated undertaking is to divine why, when a translation does cohere, it does cohere. The same trooper with the same bilingual dictionary will, as often as not, discover that the coherent translation is no less a word by word betrayal of its original than its incoherent demon twin. To succeed, then, a translation depends as much upon deliberate choices as upon indiscriminate magic. A steady accretion of dutiful particulars cannot alone compound into something finer than the merely finely wrought: Fine writing is not made by magic, only industry. The magic of the achieved work of literary art, whether borrowed or made, is always nested deeper than its visible pieces. The magic of the achieved translation, like its maker, and no less inexplicably, is that it is a thing that possesses a living soul, or does not.
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8 COMMENTS

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. Read More »

19 COMMENTS

Trust and Betrayal

September 27, 2010 | by

I first read Madame Bovary in my teens or early twenties. Although even in high school I was aware of translators and translations, it never, ever occurred to me that the reason I did not like the novel might have been not only its unsympathetic characters (whom Flaubert himself did not like), or the weak and relatively thoughtless heroine (I craved a strong, thoughtful model), but most of all the inadequate translation. There is great trust in translations on the part of many people who don’t know any better and even many who do. Now that I’m aware of how many previous translations of Madame Bovary there are, and how inadequate most of them are, I suspect I read a bad one.

The quality and nature of a translation (let’s say from the French) depends on three things, the first fairly obvious and the second two not quite as obvious: 1) the translator’s knowledge of French language, history, and culture; 2) his or her conception of the task of the translator; and 3) his or her ability to write well in English. These three variables have infinite subsets that recombine infinitely to produce the many different kinds and qualities of translations that we have. Publishers selecting a translator seem to proceed on the assumption that the most important qualification is the first. “Let’s ask Prof. X, head of the French Department at Y!” Often they completely ignore the second factor—how will Professor X approach the task of translating?—and certainly the third—what is Professor X’s writing style like? All three factors are vital, but in many instances, if one has to rank them, the third—how well the translator writes—may be the most important qualification, followed closely or equaled by the second—how he or she approaches the task of translating—and it is the first that comes in last place, since minor lapses in a knowledge of the language, history, and culture may result in mistakes that are, in a beautifully written, generally faithful version, fairly easily corrected, whereas a misconception of the task of the translator and, worse, an inability to write well will doom the entire book through its every sentence.

Eleanor Marx Aveling, daughter of Karl Marx, produced the first translation of Madame Bovary in 1888. The Paul de Man revision of the Marx Aveling translation (Norton, 2005, 1965) retains some of her old-fashioned or inappropriate vocabulary, such as “heretofore” and “conjure” for “beg” or “plead.” It integrates explanations or identifications into the text (“the Chaumière” becomes “the Chaumière dance hall”)—undoubtedly helpful to the reader, but a betrayal of the original—and the writing style is poor, the revision making a rather poor style even poorer. For a while it seemed to me the very worst translation out of the eleven. It isn’t. Maybe it’s the second worst. But then, such a thing is hard to judge, because in certain specific passages, it is the worst. Although Marx Aveling was not a brilliant writer, she was a better writer in English than de Man, so where he corrects a mistake of hers, the correction is often not as well written as the original mistake. (This occurred, also, in the Kilmartin and the Enright revisions of Scott Moncrieff’s Proust, where the original impeccable grammar of the earliest version is replaced by an “improvement” that introduces a grammatical mistake.)

The book exists for a couple of wrong reasons, and people buy it for another wrong reason. Wrong reason #1: Norton chose to use the Aveling translation because it was in the public domain and wouldn’t cost anything (I’m assuming, or I was told—can’t remember which). Wrong reason #2 (I’m guessing here): They asked Paul de Man to revise and edit it not because he was conscientious and an excellent writer in English but because he had prestige, a reputation, and scholarly intelligence. He then apparently asked his wife to do much of the work (this is rumor, but from a good source—I’d be happy to have it proved either right or wrong) and did not acknowledge her. Wrong reason #3: People buy the book not because it is an excellent translation of this important novel, but because it has a useful apparatus of essays, etc.—handy for a teacher, for instance. So readers have a collection of useful material to read about the novel, but are reading one of the most important novels in the history of the novel, and one of the most famous novels, in a poor translation.

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

See Also: “Group Think

See Also: Lydia Davis in Feed Magazine, from 2000

6 COMMENTS

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