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planned obsolescence: lydia davis’s new translation of bovary

with 15 comments

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 BovaryGeoffrey 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.

Written by adswithoutproducts

August 1, 2010 at 7:49 pm

Posted in fiction, flaubert

15 Responses

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  1. Wild cheer, applause, willingness to help with the scanning.


    August 1, 2010 at 9:21 pm

  2. Yeah, seriously! I am SO not kidding around. I teach Bovary every single year, take pride in kicking off a series of MA seminars with it, and will only ever teach with the Wall. Period. Penguin can come fucking sue me.


    August 2, 2010 at 5:05 pm

  3. Geoff Wall here. I just checked with Penguin. They plan to leave my version in print alongside the new one. No need to bootleg it yet. But hey guys thanks for your kind words…

    Geoffrey Wall

    August 4, 2010 at 11:52 am

    • Ah, very nice of you to stop by Geoff. Excellent news about Penguin leaving your edition in print. Literally not sure how I’d teach Flaubert the way that I do without it.


      August 5, 2010 at 12:17 pm

  4. I love the idea of returning a book under the pretext that I bought it as a present for someone who had it. Why do I never think of these things?

    Helen DeWitt

    August 4, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    • Helen,

      The other version that I use is “Oh, stupid me. I ordered it from Amazon well in advance and now I’ve got two….”


      August 5, 2010 at 12:16 pm

  5. I was really looking forward to Davis’ new translation of Madame Bovary, one of my favorites, but now I’m not so sure!!! why the heck would you want to translate a novel you don’t even like? would make it more of a chore than anything else!!! But now I want to get Geoffrey Wall’s translation!! I have read this novel 2 times, both different translations, so am looking forward to a 3rd translation; and not, sorry to say, Lydia Davis’!!!!.sorry, Lydia!!!


    August 17, 2010 at 3:43 pm

  6. Yeah it was the damnedest thing to say in an interview, and sort of reeks of attitude problem, doesn’t it? But yes! Go buy the Wall – you’ve missed out on your first two go rounds.

    The only other one worth reading, btw, but for other reasons (lots of reasons actually…) is the first: by Eleanor Marx, daughter of yep, him. See this:

    (I’m surprised no one’s written a novelization of EM’s life. Not my sort of thing to do, but I am occasionally tempted by the idea. It’d be like a super-meta Bovary…. What does it mean to reenact significant bits of that novel when you’re Marx’s daughter rather than EB?)

    (A few years ago I almost proposed, in the wake of AdB’s annoying book about Proust, an article that would have been called “How Flaubert Can Fuck Up Your Life.” Eleanor would have to have factored significantly as a case study….)


    August 18, 2010 at 11:32 am

  7. I want to say this without offending anyone or starting a fight — but I don’t see a problem with Davis disliking the book. Madame Bovary is my all-time favorite book; I’ve read it dozens of times and I’ve read most of the different translations (coincidentally, Wall’s is my favorite). But literature is subjective. Just because I think it’s perfect doesn’t mean that Davis has to share my opinion; nor does it mean that her translation is any less worthy just because she doesn’t like the story very much. Haven’t you ever read a book or seen a movie or listened to a band and thought, “I understand that this is good, but it’s simply not my taste”? It’s normal and completely fine. As a professional translator, I believe she did her best, and having read her blog I also believe she’s a very thoughtful translator. Why hold it against her because she simply doesn’t prefer this book?


    December 28, 2010 at 7:21 pm

    • No need to worry about a fight! But I dunno. Bovary is a work that, to my mind, at least deserves a huge amount of appreciation – if not adoration – on historical grounds if none else by anyone invested in the novel. I was a bit baffled to read this thing that LD wrote about it in that light….

      I’ve since reviewed the translation for a magazine. It’s good – but I simply can’t find a single moment of improvement on Wall’s version. Americanisms are traded in for Britishisms, and there are a few strange choices. But nothing about it, that I can see, is a real improvement.


      December 30, 2010 at 2:39 am

  8. I’ve read Bair’s, Wall’s, and now Davis’ translations of Madame Bovary – of those, I find Wall’s superior in every way. It’s simply stunning in its beauty and depth of perception.

    If you have time, could you speak a little bit more about your reasons for recommending Eleanor Marx’s translation as the only other worth reading?

    Thank you for your excellent commentary.


    January 22, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    • Bonnie,

      Well, the Marx is interesting – at least to me – because of who she was, what sort of things she was involved in, and the fact that – given all the rest – she chose to take up this particular project. I’m not an expert on it, but it certainly is an interesting story, all things considered.


      January 24, 2011 at 3:29 pm

      • Thank you for your reply. Yes, Marx’s story is interesting to me, as well. I’ve ordered a double-language edition of Madame Bovary which has the French on one page and Marx’s translation on the facing page, aligned paragraph-for-paragraph. I’ve read that Marx’s translation is very close to literal, so this will be twice the treat: a new (for me) encounter with Madame Bovary, and a way to improve my French. The cover of the book is awful, showing a modern-day woman who looks like she’s been on an 8-day bender, so I’ll just have to tape something over it.


        January 24, 2011 at 4:56 pm

  9. You are so, so right and I have been telling people this for a long time. So lovely to find others that took the care to see it. Geoffrey Wall’s translation is the best — Lydia Davis’s version misses so much. Fuck ‘new translation best translation’ publishing blitzes, people don’t know to treat them with the skepticism they deserve. And I still prefer Moncrieff’s Swann’s Way … Davis writes some truly wonderful fiction but they should stop giving her translation assignments for writers whom she herself says she doesn’t particularly care for, as with Proust AND Flaubert.


    January 27, 2019 at 2:57 pm

  10. Remember Wall’s ‘Charles wrote to Monsieur Boulanger that his wife was at his disposal”? I forget what Davis did there, but I remember that she utterly missed the joke.


    January 27, 2019 at 5:04 pm

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