Survival of the Fittest


On Translation

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?