Special Report

At Last, the Real Madame Bovary

Flaubert's famous novel enjoys a greater following in the U.S. these days than in France.

By 10.27.10

Send to Kindle

When I agreed to translate a management book from French into English a few years ago I thought it would be a breeze. I knew the languages and I knew the subject. But line by line, I learned that respecting another author's style and nuances quickly becomes a living nightmare. What did he really mean? Why choose that word? How can I get out of this contract?

The project ended well but left me scarred, as I was reminded while reading the new English-language translation of Madame Bovary (Viking, New York) that has set the chattering classes alight in the U.S. Fortunately, Lydia Davis, the America novelist who wrestled with Gustave Flaubert's highly-polished prose for nearly three years, has hidden the agony, although there was plenty of it.

She told me by telephone recently she weighed every word, phrase and sentence fastidiously, hearing Flaubert's famous rhythms and sonorities in her head, although not reading paragraphs aloud for a sound-check, as he did. Of course no translation can quite duplicate Flaubert's original resonances, which are particular to the French language. But by my reckoning, Mrs. Davis has come closer than any previous translator to capturing Flaubert's style and content accurately for English-language readers.

Some critics stand by their favorite earlier versions of the book, and others quibble over this or that phrase -- of which there are many to cherry-pick from in a book like this, most of them endlessly debatable. Even translating lesser stylists, Mrs. Davis says in her introduction, "requires millions of tiny, detailed decisions; many reconsiderations; the testing of one word or phrase against another ..."

In her meticulous research, she caught one of the main earlier translators, Gerard Hopkins, patching in "added material in almost every sentence." The other leading contender until now, Flaubert biographer Francis Steegmuller, was guilty of "regular restructuring of sentences and judicious omissions and additions ..." Neither of them produced a translation that was "close to what Flaubert did," Mrs. Davis writes.

Mrs. Davis was hand-picked by Viking to bring Flaubert to a new generation for two reasons: she is an accomplished novelist and short story writer and she has a major French translation project to her credit. Thus she combines her skills as a writer of expressive prose with her drive to find the best possible English-language equivalents for the French original.

As her editor, John Siciliano, told me, her previous rendering of Marcel Proust's Swann's Way was so literary, so accurate and so successful that he decided to cast about for a new project for her. He settled on Madame Bovary and she embraced the challenge enthusiastically.

The challenge was daunting. In Madame Bovary, Flaubert had created something new -- a landmark work of realistic fiction that showed the way for future novelists. He reworked his writing for five years, sometimes toiling 16 hours a day, refining plot and style, always reaching for le mot juste, as he put it. His unadorned prose is so tight, wrote one critic, that you could shake this book upside down and nothing would fall out.

Like many in my generation, I read Madame Bovary English as a teen-ager and several years later in French. And so the publication of the Davis version is an event in book publishing but also one for me personally. Her version benefits from her finesse as a writer and seems fresh and different compared to other translations -- stilted, dated or flavorless -- I have read. She hopes this one will be seen as "definitive." Viking has those same aspirations.

Oddly enough, Madame Bovary is one of those French products -- like Pouilly Fuisse, Grey Goose or Nicolas Sarkozy -- that is more popular in the Anglo-Saxon world than at home. A French high school teacher friend near Bordeaux told me she never got past the first chapter after her teacher dismissed Emma Bovary, the tragic heroine, as "an imbecile." Emma's husband Charles, one of the most pathetic cuckolds in modern literature, is equally thick-headed and blind to is wife's adventures.

The book has long since been dropped from the list of required reading in French schools although excerpts are still part of literature studies and academia generally speaks admiringly of it.

Boston-based Sandrine Calabria, founder of the French language and culture school "French and the City" and a member of the Harvard University faculty, says many French today find the book "obsolete" although they consider it a masterpiece of its epoch. Emma seems "irritating" and modern readers are bored by Flaubert's experiments in realism, particularly his "interminable descriptions." The book is the least admired of Flaubert's three major works, she says, the others being Sentimental Education and Salammbo.

In contrast, some American readers seem to like Flaubert's details of provincial 19th century life in France, which is less familiar to them than to the French. "One of my students told me that, for her, reading Madame Bovary was like watching a well-made movie," says Ms. Calabria.

One of the objections raised in U.S. high schools is that the behavior of Emma is aggressively adulterous and therefore unsuitable for young minds. Here too the French are different. "The majority of the French find nothing very shocking in the story," says Ms. Calabria. Paradoxically, some even favor adultery as a way of staying alive and in love inside a marriage, she adds.

There has been no shortage of English-language translations. Oxford University Press brought out a new version a year ago and another American translation is scheduled for the end of this year. Since Flaubert's original was published in 1857 (and briefly banned for offending public morals), at least 20 versions have appeared in English, making it probably the most frequently translated -- and most messed with -- of any modern work of literature.

Many translators besides Hopkins and Steegmuller have added their own layers of style and meaning, and several have toned down the references to illicit sex.

One edition, however, a Penguin paperback of 1992, actually spiced up a steamy scene describing eye contact (yes, that was also pushing it in 1857) between Emma and her future lover Leon. Flaubert daintily describes their excited thoughts as comme deux poitrines palpitantes. Mrs. Davis soberly renders this as "like two trembling hearts." The Penguin translator, Geoffrey Wall, also a Flaubert biographer, went considerably further and made it "like two tremulously naked bodies." In another passage, Flaubert uses the English word "Yes" in a passage of dialogue. Wall renders it as "Jawohl."

Ms. Calabria remains perplexed by all the American fuss over Madame Bovary. French literature of the 19th century, she notes, is a rich pool of talent, including Balzac, Baudelaire, Maupassant, Victor Hugo and Stendhal. "We still read them all, so we could never devote the time you do to Madame Bovary."

"Why do you keep translating it?" she wonders.

Lydia Davis's "definitive" version just might bring about a pause in the translation frenzy.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Michael Johnson spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France.