417 Echols Street
Vienna, Virginia, 22180
August 24, 1997
Dear Mary Ann,
Once again, I thank you for the collector’s edition of Madame Bovary. As promised in my email, I am sending you one of my little “studies” in comparative translation. What you see is no great literary feat. I simply cut and pasted the different translations from my vast collection into a MicrosoftWord 5.1 chart for MAC. I have written some of my own thoughts, colored, to be sure, by my readings of the secondary literature. Your professional interest in English, your knowledge of French and your study of the creative process should make this little exercise all the more interesting.
You might pretend you are giving a course in creative writing to 14 students. First you read the French.That is the “thought” which your 14 students had to express in English. How well did each succeed in conveying that thought. Now returning to the original, you can behold the combination of form and content as the maitre would express it. You can now behold this combination, knowing that at best the translations capture one part. Each captures a bit of the form, each captures a bit of the content.But none capture all of both. What each or all fail to capture might be said to be “art.” Since you know both languages you can be in touch with that art. So now you have another reason to be glad you took French.
You can skip my own little essay on the passage and just peruse the translations. They are sort of fun in this bizarre setting. (Flaubert is probably spinning in his grave at thethought of his language being thus copied.)
I originally picked this passage to study because I found the French difficult to grasp. This is one of those passages where one reads a bunch of words; and though the each word is familiar, and so gives one the feel that one has understood, on further reflection one realizes one needs to read it again. Fixing the meaning of the sentences illusive. As youwill see by the variety of translations, I am not the only one who found this to be the case.
Two quotes from critics on translating Madame Bovary
….Far from bring extremely difficult to translate, Madame Bovary is actually very easy. For Flaubert’s images are definite; he dispenses almost altogether with metaphor; he employed few circumlocutions; he is direct, incisive, and clear. His »style » in Madame Bovary at least, may almost be said not to exit. What he has to say is the important thing. English readers may read his version, then with assurance that what they miss in not being able to read the original is of no real consequence.
From an introduction by Burton Ruscoe
Alfred A. Knopf•New York 1919
…Of all the books (Madame Bovary) is the most difficult totranslate. To create an English style as aesthetically neutral as Flaubert’s would take his genius, his patience, his culturally determined ability to be endlessly indecisive. The effort almost drove him insane. What translator would want to take the same risk?
Beyond the Tragic Vision
-The quest for Identity in the 19th Century
George Braziller • New York 1962
Besides thetranslations problems, I found this passage to be revealing, and intriguing from a thematic point of view.
We are in Chapter 8 of Part I; Emma has arrived at the ball in the Vaubysard mansion. Being invited to this ball has given her hope that her romantic dreams might now be realized. As you recall, Charles, or more particularly marriage, has proven to be a total disappointment. Neither havetransported her to the level of ecstasy which her early readings in romance novels had promised. She attends the ball with high expectations.
At this point in the narrative Emma, having arrived a few moments earlier is walking about in the Vaubysard mansion. She enters a room where some men are gathered. She « sees » the bored looks of the French upper class on the faces these “noble” men….