The Sins of a Translator


On Translation

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.

It was not she, certainly, but several of the other translators, who put such a discordant exclamation into the mouth of Rodolphe, Emma’s first lover and a wealthy young landowner, who is made to say (now, this is France, in the 1830s) “By Jove!” (One of the most recent translators also has him say, on another occasion, “No way!” bringing him immediately into the twenty-first century.)

Should each of the major Translation Sins have a number? Shall we call this Number Six? (I hope to get to the first five later, in a longer essay.) It is the sin of magically, but heedlessly, transferring the action, character, and dialogue into a different time and culture—in this case from the Pays de Caux in Normandy in the 1830s to England in, say, the 1930s, or whenever “by Jove” was most dashing and fashionable.

Since several translators committed this particular sin in this particular spot, it may also be evidence of Sin Number Seven on their part: relying too trustingly on a previous translation. This is a tricky sin, of which I have been guilty myself. Certain translation situations are fairly desperate: What in the world is the author saying? Any amount of cogitating and searching—in reference books, online, in correspondence with smart native speakers—yields nothing. And here at hand is a group of reasonably intelligent minds, of whom one, two, three, four, and five have come to the same conclusion—or, more likely, opted to follow the example of the first of them. It is very tempting to do the same. I can also imagine the Translation Jury ruling that if six translators opt for it, it is not an unreasonable choice—I have the illusion, anyway, of safety in numbers. I yield to temptation and follow suit, but with a feeling of uneasiness that doesn’t go away. Most often, then, my conscience is too noisy and I go back to the problem and make an independent choice, because if I don’t make my translation decisions independently, what is it all for, anyway? Still, Sin Number Seven is very tricky, and I saw many obvious instances of it in the other translations, as I tried to avoid it in my own.

The solution adopted by Constance Garnett, the prolific translator of Russian, to the word, phrase, or passage in the original that utterly confounded her: Leave it out.

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

See Also: “Trust and Betrayal

See Also: Lydia Davis in Feed Magazine, from 2000