planned obsolescence: lydia davis’s new translation of bovary
The Times (the UK one) has put up a paywall, so you can’t read this article in its entirety unless you pay a pound or have a subscription, but this is from a feature piece on Lydia Davis from Saturday’s paper.
In late November Penguin Classics will publish Davis’s translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Why a new translation? There are many — Davis has counted more than 15. “I’ve found that the ones that are written with some flair and some life to them are not all that close to the original; the ones that are more faithful may be kind of clunky. So what I’m trying to do is what I think hasn’t been done, which is to create a well-written translation that’s also very close, very faithful to the French. The conventional wisdom is that we should bring to a translation what English has, and one of the things it has is these wonderful Anglo-Saxon words; but I tend to keep it more Latinate and closer to the French, and not draw on all those resources because I think they are very characteristic of English — but not of French.” It’s a remark of characteristic precision, and it’s clear she found the task, which took her three years, engaging. But then she says something that amazes me.
“I was asked to do the Flaubert,” she says, “and it was hard to say no to another great book — so-called,” she arches an eyebrow. “I didn’t actually like Madame Bovary.”
Really? I ask. Have you changed your mind? “Not really,” she says coolly. “I find what he does with the language really interesting; but I wouldn’t say that I warm to it as a book. I know a lot about his attitude too; he despised everybody in the book, and he despised their way of life and he had a horrible time writing it, because it wasn’t the kind of book he wanted to write. And I like a heroine who thinks and feels … well, I don’t find Emma Bovary admirable or likable — but Flaubert didn’t either.” She shrugs. “I do a lot of things that people don’t think a translator does. They think: ‘She loves Madame Bovary, she’s read it three times in French, she’s always wanted to translate it and she’s urging publishers to do another translation, and she’s done all this background reading . . .’ but none of that is true.”
This, my friends, is some upsetting bullshit. Now I like Lydia Davis’s work well enough (though I liked her more before I read the above paragraphs) and even prefer her translation of Proust to the Moncrieff. But the current Penguin edition of Madame Bovary – Geoffrey Wall’s – is an absolute masterpiece. I have taught with it for years, and it’s absolutely astounding how little corrective work I need to do to bring even the most sophisticated issues from the original text to a class reading (close reading!) the thing in English. The fact that I was brought up on this edition as an undergraduate before I had good enough French to master the original is one of those small inflective miracles of academic life – as the very start of my life’s work as a critic owes itself to things that I found – and could only have found – in Wall’s translation of the novel. I simply can’t imagine what Davis is going to do – what she needs to do – to improve on it. And in light of this I can’t help but think – actually, I know – that this is simply one of those cynical retranslations bent on fucking up the used-text market. That is, hundreds of lecturers in the future will be forced to say to their classes “No, I want you to have the current Davis translation, not that old one you found used on Amazon or at Oxfam.”
I’m not even going to go into Davis’s whole “I hate Bovary” thing except to say that her words are suggestive of someone who has read the book, well, without the requisite amount of subtlety – say the amount requisite amount to pass muster in my MA seminars. But to each his or her own, I guess. Still, doesn’t give a lot of confidence regarding the quality of the forthcoming translation, does it? (Just a bit more snark. I remember buying Davis’s Samuel Johnson is Indignant when it came out with high expectations, reading bit of it, and then returning it to the store where I bought it under the claim that I’d bought it as a birthday present for someone who already had it. I’ve only done this sort of move two or three times – it takes a certain special antipathy to make me not simply consign it to the “maybe later this year” pile rather than actually asking for my money back…)
But just to let the people at Penguin know right now: Once I get a chance this summer I will a) walk into a Waterstones and b) purchase a new, unmarked copy of Wall’s Bovary and c) return to the department office and d) fire-up the fancy pdf-generating photocopier and then finally e) scan the entirety of Wall’s translation into a pdf which f) in future years I will distribute to my graduate seminars. I just basically can’t see teaching this novel without it, and I’m here claiming some sort of pedagogical mandate as a justification. If, nay when I do so, I will take up a collection at the end of the seminars and send the proceeds to Wall.