Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Madame Bovary: Why Translation Matters

"They were no longer talking; but as they stared at each other, they felt a murmuring in their heads, as if something audible were escaping from one to the other through their steady gazes. They had just taken each other by the hand; and the past, the future, their reminiscences, and their dreams were all now merged in the sweetness of their ecstasy." (page 209)

Madame Bovary
by Gustave Flaubert
translated by Lydia Davis

Isn't that gorgeous? I've read Madame Bovary before, but I certainly don't remember it being this beautiful. In fact, I don't remember it being this enjoyable either. Can translation really make such a big difference? My old copy with Francis Steegmuller's translation is still on the shelf...

"They were no longer speaking; but as they looked at one another they felt a throbbing in their heads: it was as though their very glances had set off a physical vibration. Now they had clasped hands; and in the sweetness of their ecstasy everything merged - the past, the future, their memories, and their
dreams." (page 279)

Case closed.

My final thought:
If you haven't read Lydia Davis' elegant new translation, then you really haven't read Madame Bovary.


  1. Case closed indeed! I can't even pinpoint why, but the second excerpt makes me feel so much more distant from the story than the first.

  2. What a riot! I love that line "as they looked at one another they felt a throbbing in their heads" - um, doesn't sound very romantic! But yet, could sound like the modern marriage! :--)

  3. I adore the Madame Bovary story, but all the old translations are so dry and DULL! I'm saving Davis' translation for a rainy day; from all accounts it is quite wonderful. Love the bit you quoted.

  4. There's no contest between the two translation. Now I want to read Madame Bovary and anything else that Davis has translated.

  5. Translation does make an awful lot of difference, doesn't it? I just started the new translation of Dr Zhivago and the text is so much more vivid than I remember.

  6. Wow, yes, translation matters! When I'm getting ready to read a novel that's been translated by several different people, I try to read a bit of each translation available to see which one sits best with me.

    I've never laid out two passages from different translations side by side like you've done, though. The difference is absolutely striking!

  7. That first one is stunningly gorgeous. I've been wanting to read this, now I REALLY do!

  8. Is that second one describing romance or a migraine?

  9. Good lord, that second one is a disaster. Kudos to Davis.

  10. Wow, it really does make a huge difference, doesn't it?

  11. Nymeth - I know what you mean, and it was like that for the whole book. No wonder I didn't like it before!

    Rhapsodyinbooks - I was thinking the second one sounded more like a migraine :-)

    Violet - You're in for a real treat!

    Vasilly - I'll be looking up her other translated works as soon as I finish!

    Rachel - I've tried Dr. Z twice and haven't been able to finish... wonder if the new translation will be different.

    Erin - When I have a choice, I'll usually read a few pages of each before deciding. The difference here is striking!

    Amy - I had to stop and reread those lines several times... so beautiful! Hope you get a chance to read it soon.

    Shelley - LOL!! Migraine was my first thought, too!

    Amy - I'm more impressed with every page. This is a beautiful translation!

    Carol - If I ever doubted whether translation matters, I don't any more!

  12. Beautiful photo. I love autumn!

    Great quotes from Madame Bovary.

    Translation does matter especially when it is a French author being translated!

  13. wow - makes me wonder how many more beautiful passages I could have read through different translations.

  14. There's a huge difference between murmuring and throbbing! If I ever read this, I know which translator I'll choose.

  15. It's very interesting to see what a difference translation can make!! Who would've thought it could be such a deal breaker?

  16. I've talked about translation on my blog before. I agree with you, it definitely makes a difference.

  17. Translation really does matter and does make a difference! I really prefer reading in the original language but I don't know more than a couple of languages so am completely dependent on good, quality translations.

    I really think think this is something that should get more spotlight. Thanks for posting this - I agree, case closed.

  18. I've only ever read Madame Bovary in the original French (part of my degree course)but would love to try this translation - sounds perfect!

  19. I find it interesting how my perspective on a book can change with the years I add. With each re-read, I'm coming from a different place in my life. Sometimes it's the story that resonates with me. Sometimes the words. Maybe I like it better or wonder why I liked it at all the first time around. So, I understand.

    I read Madame Bovary a few years ago. Enjoyed it.

  20. Brenda - Thanks! This is one of those times I really wish could read French.

    Joan Hunter Dunn - I've been interested in translation for a while, but it's never been as striking as this.

    Softdrink - Yep, go for Davis... steer clear of Steegmuller!

    Staci - And even after one is so clearly better than another, you still have to wonder what the author's original words were like.

    Loni - Translation can make such a big difference. I first compared them side by side with Anna Karenina, and now I'll always check the options before making a choice.

    Willa - I really wish I could read in more languages but, sadly, English is it for me. Would love to see more bloggers post on translations. Thanks for commenting!

    Lovely treez - I would love to be able to read this in French! This translation is so beautiful and elegant, but I wish I knew how close it was to Flaubert's words.

    Midlife Jobhunter - That's another interesting part of this reread. Just finished the book tonight and loved it - maybe even a favorite of the year. But not sure how much to attribute to translation vs. more years of 'life experience'.

  21. Huh. You're absolutely right! Plus the cover of the first one is stunning. I wonder if I had read another translation of Brothers Karamazov if I would have enjoyed it better. I'm guessing I"ll never know. :P

  22. Trish - Did you read the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation? They're supposed to be the best with Russian - I can attest to Anna Karenina.

  23. Maybe that's the translation I should have read. I just remember MB being the most boring book ever. Thanks for pointing this out.

  24. Kaye - Too bad this translation wasn't around then... I was very bored by Madame Bovary in college, too!

  25. I read a different translation of Madame Bovary- the Penguin Classics, Geoffrey Wall version. And I loved that. There is a large difference in the two versions you show, which just makes me long to be able to read in French again. I managed that briefly in my twenties, when that particular skill was probably wasted on me, now I'm older, I've been to France twice, I'm loving the French classics, and would love to get back to reading them in French. Sadly, I'm a bit too busy with work and life to get there just at the moment. Til then I will have to keep reading them in English. Perhaps I can stave off senility in my retirement with relearning French, and reading the French classics as they should be done in the original language?

  26. Louise - I would love to be able to read in French! I've read several French books in translation this year (Flaubert, Zola, and stories by Maupassant) and can't help but wonder what it would be like to read them in their original language. Since that won't be happening any time soon, I will keep striving to find the best translations available.

  27. That's amazing. I think I'm off to buy a new Mme Bovary. I've just pulled my ancient copy from the shelf and it doesn't even credit a translator.

  28. Mary - You should! I can safely say that if you haven't read the new translation, then you haven't read Madame Bovary.


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