I remember how thrilled I was back in college (c.1990) when Pevear & Volokhonsky’s new translation of The Brothers Karamazov came out. I still have the giant Counterpoint hardcover downstairs in my library. Unlike so many of my other college-era interests that are now alien to me — Thomas Pynchon, fractal geometry, Concrete, Sting — I remain quite happy to read classic works in translation.
In the past week I’ve read a few articles & posts about Lydia Davis’ new translation of Madame Bovary, and it reminded me of something I wanted to write seven years ago. (Seriously, I had to hunt through my old journals to find my notes on it, and they turned up undated around the Nov. 2003 entries. Boy, was I a different guy back then.) Ms. Davis has posted a series of entries on The Paris Review‘s blog about translating Flaubert —
Why A New Madame Bovary?
Survival of the Fittest
Trust and Betrayal
The Sins of a Translator
— that was followed by a neat post of replies from several other translators. You should check out the whole shebang. I like to imagine that all the big-name translators get together for poker and trade puns that are egregious and yet impossible to follow without knowing like 8 languages. I also imagine William Weaver rules the roost, and that he looks like Sydney Greenstreet.
In addition to the Paris Review posts, I read this New York Magazine article by Sam Anderson, which explores some of the nuts-and-bolts labor Ms. Davis engaged in for the project, and explores (a little) the unique problems presented by Flaubert’s masterwork:
Davis admits that this is the one aspect of Bovary that will never survive translation: an almost superhuman cohesion. “It’s the final, perfect fit between the style and the material,” she says. “It’s impossible to achieve in English. It’s organically related.” Nevertheless, she’s given it her best shot. Her solution is a scrupulousness that seems, at times, to approach Flaubert’s. “I stay very close to the original and only depart as much as I have to,” she says. “Very close. You can stay closer than most people would think.” She agonizes over even minor departures, when English syntax or an obscure French reference force her to improvise. Her version even preserves glitches that previous translators silently corrected: odd capitalizations, for instance, and inconsistent verb tenses. (Viking made her address all of this in her introduction, so it wouldn’t just look like sloppy copyediting.)
I felt like I missed a connection with the book in my past readings of Madame Bovary, so I hope her new version — and my shifting perspective — will help me bridge that gap. I’m looking forward to trying it out in 2011 or ’12 (there’s a lot on my plate).
Back to 2003. It was Ms. Davis’ explanation for why we need new translations of classic work that put me in mind of my long-ignored post. She wrote:
[I]in the case of a book that appeared more than 150 years ago, like Madame Bovary, and that is an important landmark in the history of the novel, there is room for plenty of different English versions. For example, 1) the first editions of the original text may have been faulty, and over the years one or more corrected editions have been published, so that the earliest English translations no longer match the most accurate original; 2) the earliest translators (as was the case with the Muirs rendering Kafka) may have felt they needed to inflict subtle or not so subtle alterations on the style and even the content of the original so as to make it more acceptable to the Anglophone audience; with the passing of time, we come to deem this something of a betrayal and ask for a more faithful version. 3) Earlier versions may simply not be as good in other respects as they could be — let another translator have a try.
Each version will be quite distinct from all of the others. How many ways, for instance, has even a single phrase (bouffés d’affadissement) from Madame Bovary been translated?
gusts of revulsion
a kind of rancid staleness
stale gusts of dreariness
waves of nausea
fumes of nausea
flavorless, sickening gusts
whiffs of sickliness
waves of nauseous disgust
Vile variations all. But they reminded me of how I once hunted down translations of love. See, there was a line from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina that stuck with me since the first time I read it back in college (1991), when Levin first sees Kitty, out skating:
He stepped down, avoiding any long look at her as one avoids long looks at the sun, but seeing her as one sees the sun, without looking.
–tr. Louise & Aylmer Maude (1918)
It still takes my breath away. It’s almost Rilkean in its beauty. Seven years ago, it occurred to me to look up other translations of that sentence. In Russian, it’s ?? ????? ????, ??????? ??????? ???????? ?? ???, ??? ?? ??????, ?? ?? ????? ??, ??? ??????, ? ?? ?????.:
He stepped down, trying not to look at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.
–tr. Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky (2000)
He went down, trying not to look long at her, as though she were the sun, but he saw her, as one sees the sun, without looking.
–tr. David Magarshack (1961)
He stepped down, avoiding a long look at her, as though she were the sun, but he saw her, just like the sun, even without looking.
–tr. Joel Carmichael (1960)
He walked down, for a long while averting his eyes from her, as though she were the sun, but seeing her, as one sees the sun, without looking.
–tr. Rosemary Edmonds (1954)
He walked down, for a long while avoiding looking at her as at the sun, but seeing her, as one does the sun, without looking. –tr. Constance Garnett (1901: not sure if this was the one revised by Kent/Berberova in 1965)
I’m sure P&V’s translation, for example, is more accurate and in Tolstoy’s rhythm and mode, and that the others each have their own appeal, but that sentence from the Maudes’ version still strikes me as one of the most lovely things I’ve ever read.