Thursday, October 14, 2010

Madame Bovary: the first post

And so it begins. Frances from Nonsuch Book is hosting a group read of Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert to coincide with the release of Lydia Davis' new translation. The group is posting today about the introduction and Part 1, but I've decided to write about my past experience with the novel and offer a short translation comparison.

My first reading of Madame Bovary was in college. The semester, loaded with both organic chemistry and physics, was demanding. Near the end, and much to my current embarrassment, I resorted to SparkNotes. For the next 25 years, whenever Madame Bovary was mentioned, I felt a pang of nagging guilt.

In 2005, an online classics group that I co-owned chose to read Madame Bovary and provided an opportunity to finally assuage that guilt. My Vintage Classic edition featured Francis Steegmuller's 1957 translation. This time I read the book in its entirety, but still felt surprisingly neutral.

And here we are. It's interesting to read a novel when you are already familiar with the plot. The main focus is no longer on what happens next, and closer attention can be paid to other details. Normally, I would not consider a reread so soon, but group reads are far too tempting- plus I am fascinated by translation.  Whenever multiple options are available, I always read a chapter or two of each before choosing. Even so, I wonder what I am choosing. How can I possibly evaluate which one is closer to the author's actual writing style? Is my choice based solely on current language usage and readability?

Beginning Madame Bovary for the third time, I am especially interested to see how the translations differ. Here are the introductions of young Charles Bovary.

First, Steegmuller's translation from pages 3 and 4:
"The newcomer, who was hanging back in the corner so that the door half hid him from view, was a country lad of about fifteen, taller than any of us. He had his hair cut in bangs like a cantor in a village church, and he had a gentle, timid look. He wasn't broad in the shoulders, but his green jacket with its black buttons seemed tight under the arms; and through the vents of his cuffs we could see red wrists that were clearly unaccustomed to being covered. His yellowish breeches were hiked up by his suspenders, and from them emerged a pair of blue-stockinged legs. He wore heavy shoes, hobnailed and badly shined.
We began to recite our lessons. He listened avidly, as though to a sermon - he didn't dare even cross his legs or lean on his elbows; and at two o'clock, when the bell rang for the next class, the teacher had to tell him to line up with the rest of us."
Now, the same passage from Davis:
"Still standing in the corner, behind the door, so that one could hardly see him, the new boy was a fellow from the country, about fifteen years old, and taller than any of us. His hair was cut straight across the forehead, like a village choirboy's, his manner sensible and very ill at ease. Although he was not broad in the shoulders, his suit jacket of green cloth with black buttons must have pinched him around the armholes, and it showed, through the vent of its cuffs, red wrists accustomed to being bare. His legs, in blue stockings, emerged from a pair of yellowish pants pulled tight by his suspenders. He wore stout shoes, badly shined, studded with nails.
We began reciting our lessons. He listened to them, all ears, as attentive as though to a sermon, not daring even to cross his legs or lean on his elbow, and at two o'clock, when the bell rang, the teacher was obliged to alert him, so that he would get in line with us."
So will this new translation allow Madame Bovary to 'speak' to me in a way it never has before? We shall see...
Visit Frances for the list of participants and links to their posts.


  1. So interesting that many of us are re-reading and finding the latest experience very different from the last.

    Love that you chose to compare two translations here. Especially enjoyed the difference in feel that a jacket that pinches add to our picture of him. The suggestion that more is "pinched" about him than just his jacket.

    Thanks for reading along, JoAnn

  2. Sometimes I think I should try a different translation becuase I hated this book when I read it nearly 3 years ago.

  3. I was so glad to read the piece of translation from Lydia Davis which you posted here. I loved her translation of Swann's Way, and have not yet read Madame Bovary in her words. My copy is from Barnes and Noble's classic series, and I must say that I have no complain. Like you, this is my third time through, and I think that how I feel about a novel often hinges on what's going on in my life as I read. When I was sadly disappointed in love, I had much more compassion on her than I do now as a happily married woman.

  4. Please feel free to contrast more quotes from the different editions! I wanted to do that, but no longer have my earlier edition. So far, I'm finding Davis's version to be elegant.

  5. Based on the excerpts from the Steegmuller translation that readalong people have been posting, I'm pretty confident in saying Davis's is a lot closer to the original in terms of feeling, style, and the flow of the words. (Er, forgot to mention I'm reading it in French; not just spouting off. :-) ) Davis mentions in her introduction that Steegmuller "smoothed out" Flaubert, removing many of his stylistic idiosyncrasies, and that definitely seems to be the case in the excerpt you posted - all those commas in Davis's first sentence are in the original, for example, so the cadence in her translation is similar to Flaubert's: a little choppy, each clause qualifying the last.

  6. I remember that feeling of neutrality. Neutral seems such a fitting word, I have been looking for something to describe my experience with. I am rereading this one after reading it just 1,5 years ago, and like you I feel I now have more attention for other things besides the story. I'm enjoying my experience thus far.

  7. I love that you posted excerpts from the two translations - I much prefer the flow of the second, so I'll be going for that for sure when I finally get around to reading this.

  8. Wow, even though the gist is the same, the styles are so different. I always wondered why translations were such a big deal and seeing the comparison is fascinating. Out of interest to see what all the talk was about, I read Madame Bovary in my early 20s and, like Amanda, hated it. It is one of those books that has stayed with me because I had such an averse reaction to it. I am curious to read about your experience with it this time around.

  9. I echo Stacy's feelings regarding the translation. If memory serves me correctly, The Diary of Ann Frank is the only translation I've ever read and I haven't given the art any thought. It is definitely something to consider when choosing a copy to read isn't it!

    I'm going against what may be the popular choice though and say that I prefer the Steegmuller excerpts.

  10. Great to see both translations side by side; annoyed that my French isn't quite good enough to read this book in the original

  11. I am amazed that nearly everyone has read this book before. I haven't even read it once. I shall look out for it.

  12. I find it very interesting that each translation can be so varied from each other.

  13. I really enjoyed reading about the different reading experiences that you've had with this novel (and also the commenters' earlier experiences too); I was unsuccessful in my first attempt, just barely out of school, but I think I will continue to enjoy it this time around.

  14. I didn't care for MB when I first read it ages ago, and I wonder how much of that has to do with the translation. This reading is also helped by a lot more life experience.

  15. JoAnn, it's so interesting to hear that you're giving Madame Bovary a third try even though you've felt neutral about it once or twice before! Other than your translation interests, is there something about the novel that keeps bringing you back for more? Will be avidly looking forward to your future posts and, hopefully, future translation comparisons (I, too, find translation issues fascinating)!

  16. I have to admit when it comes to comparing translations, I will just go for the one that matches my reading temperament. I don't have enough knowledge to judge whether a translation is true to the original. I am fascinated by the differences in translations, though.

  17. I love the comparison of the two passages. What a great way to talk about the book. :-)

  18. What great insight and review! I must confess that I've not read Madame Bovary, but I'm loving reading everyone's posts and am now considering picking it up!

  19. Frances - I love the subtle differences found in each translation. Would love to be able to read in French though.

    Amanda - Madame Bovary has never been a favorite of mine, but I'm really interested to see if this new translation will make a difference.

    Bellezza - Don't know that I'm brave enough to tackle Swann's Way just yet, but I definitely agree that where we are in our own lives can influence reaction to a book.

    Amy - Oh, I will! Elegant is a perfect way to describe this translation.

    Emily - I'm so impressed you're reading this in French! I haven't read the intro, but had a feeling all the commas represented Flaubert's style. It's the italics that are bothering me though.

  20. Iris - Glad you're enjoying it so far... maybe focusing on other details will take away some of the neutrality this time.

    Nymeth - I understand that Davis has written more in Flaubert's style than previous translators.

    Stacy - There seem to be strong reactions on both sides toward Madame Bovary... makes my neutral feeling seem sort of unusual. Wonder if this translation will evoke more of an opinion one way or the other.

    Darlene - I think translation preferences are very individualized. What confounds me is how we are to know which is more in keeping with the author's original language and style!

    Anthony - I agree... would love to be able to read this in French!

    Vivienne - Doubt this will end up as a favorite this year... I wouldn't be in a huge rush to read it ;-)

  21. Staci - I'm always amazed at how different translations can be!

    Buried in Print - I'm certainly hoping this reading will be more of a success. I tried to comment on your post, but I think WordPress sent me to spam :-(

    Isabella - I think many books can be influenced by our life experience. It certainly seems to make a difference with Madame Bovary.

    Richard - I've always felt this is a novel that should evoke some feeling stronger than what I've mustered in the past. The combination of a group read and new translation makes me willing to give it another try.

    Shelley - That's exactly my problem with translations! The differences are fascinating, but I can't judge how true they are to the original.

    Marie - I've kept Steegmuller's translation handy as I read. I enjoy comparing key passages.

    Coffee and a Book Chick - Oh, I hope you do! This first section is only 58 pages. You could catch up very quickly.

  22. Like you, I was neutral when I read Madame Bovary. It will be interesting to see if it was the translation. I am interested in reading the new version. I'm hoping someone in my own book club will choose it sometime soon.

  23. C.B. James - It's hard to know how much to attribute to translation, because it could certainly be my current frame of mind, but things are going a bit better this time around.

  24. I first read an old Penguin edition, circa 1979! I found it moldering on the shelf in the basement, and figured it would set my allergies off but good if I were to crack open those yellowed pages.

    I downloaded the new edition on my e-reader. Times, they are a-changin'! I think the new translation is much more current and accessible.

  25. Becca - Yes, this new translation does seem more accessible somehow. As for changing times, can't believe it but I'll be asking for an e-reader for Christmas. Now to decided which one...


Thanks so much for taking the time to comment! Be sure to check back, I always respond. Due to a recent increase in spam, all comments are moderated.


Related Posts with Thumbnails