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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 »