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Posts Tagged ‘French’

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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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 »

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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

Jean-Christophe Valtat

July 26, 2010 | by

03 marks the beguiling English-language debut of the youngish French writer Jean-Christophe Valtat. The slim book was written in French, and has been published here in a sharp translation by Mitzi Angel, but Valtat writes also in English—or "some idiom that resembles English," as he puts it—including in his upcoming Aurorarama, to be published in August. “I like both languages, and how they blend at times, but what I write in French is different from what I write in English,” he tells me. “In French, I tend to ratiocinate. English is where my imagination takes me.”

The whole of 03 is a single, propulsive monologue—uninterrupted, even, by paragraph breaks. How important was it for you to make this a story that should be read in a single sitting?

It's less a story, maybe, than about getting frustrated by the impossibility of any story to happen. I always wanted the book to be short and filled up to the brim with frustration and anger, as if about to spill. I sometimes describe it as holding as much as can be held in a closed fist—it is supposed to reflect the intensity and urgency of teenage angst, and the way it feeds on itself relentlessly, in the hope of filling the surrounding emptiness. It should sound like when you talk too much in order to impress a girl, or, since in the book the girl is out of reach, like a mad-eyed, clenched-jawed hamster running in a wheel.

That girl is not just “out of reach,” of course, she’s retarded, and her disability is presented in an unusual, undomesticated way—it makes her an object of real desire. Is this just a trip to the terminal point in the literature of forbidden love and foreclosed lust—or something more?

There is some of that, of course. She works first as a mirror image of the narrator's own disability regarding love and lust. But on another level, she is an allegory of the general failure that he seems to observe in himself and in others, school kids or adults—and of the way prettiness and youth is doomed to be ignored or destroyed. And then, she is also the blank page or the screen that he uses to construct and project a way to understand others. As this is done through endless hypotheses, it is also the beginning of fiction. Most of what happens in one's head is fiction, after all.

In the book you offer, alongside that allegory, this one: “A young retarded boy asks his teacher if she wants to know the time, and without waiting for her reply he unzips his fly to reveal a watch he has strapped around his penis.” How would you characterize the relationship of these stunted characters to time?

The narrator is keenly aware that people are never fully their own contemporaries, mostly because of the annoying persistence of childhood, or because they're lagging behind a dream-image of themselves. In this respect, everybody seems to be stunted in some way or other.

But that seems less a regrettable state, in 03, than simply a mysterious one—almost sacred, and inviting examination. “The more I wanted to identify with her, the more I identified with myself; and the more I tried to understand her, the less, necessarily, I succeeded: the failure of an intelligent mind to grasp feeblemindedness was deep and dark, no less than the failure of a feeble mind to grasp intelligence, because intelligence got its shape by not understanding the thing it could never be.” The portrait of the girl emerges over the courses of the book only through “endless hypotheses,” as you put it—does that make it a failure?

I guess there wouldn't be a book if there wasn't in it a sense that fiction can work, a little. So, at some points, and though he will never know it, the narrator may get close to the understanding is looking for. I have no particular fascination for failure. In some respects the book is about avoiding it. It ends on a “farewell,” which I think is some sort of success—or profane salvation.

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