Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"The sheer stupidity of people"

Via Bookslut, the FT talks to Lydia Davis, whose translations we perhaps prefer to her, um, stories or whatever they are. The article informs us that her dad taught Sylvia Plath at Smith, and provides us with some smart thoughts from Davis, who's got a new Madame Bovary out soon:
I ask if she had a similarly emotional response to translating Madame Bovary; in the introduction she wrote to accompany her translation Davis notes that Flaubert often found himself weeping as he wrote it, and that he so identified with Emma during her last days that he was physically ill. She shakes her head. No, she says, she wasn’t at all moved by the book. In fact, when she first read Madame Bovary as a young adult, she was unimpressed; “I didn’t like her; I didn’t like the story; and I didn’t see all this wonderful style”.

Translating an author, Davis explains, is like living with them. Flaubert, she tells me, “despised his characters, despised their thinking and their way of being in the world. He concentrated a great deal, in his letters, too, on the sheer stupidity of people.” Translating Proust (whom she refers to as “my Proust”) was, she says, much more pleasurable – partly because she liked “rebuilding his long sentences”, but also because she sensed what she calls a “generosity” in his writing. “He was also very generous to his friends,” she says, almost as if speaking from personal experience: “He would bring them fruit baskets and pay them other little attentions.”
That was my takeaway from Bovary the last time I read it; Flaubert's sheer contempt for life is overpowering. "A Simple Heart" and Sentimental Education are not much better in that respect. William Gaddis, at least in The Recognitions, has much the same attitude. -- Whereas Proust, who rather enjoys talking about how misanthropic he is and how false every friendship proves to be, rarely seems to believe his own words.
Davis realises now that one of the main reasons she did not take to Flaubert when she read him as a girl was because she was, in fact, not reading Flaubert. Translators have tended to pad out Flaubert’s French, or to correct it. “He was so fussy about getting things just the way he wanted them – and the translators weren’t paying him the respect of reproducing those details. They were just treating Madame Bovary as a story.”

Several translators, Davis explains, ignore Flaubert’s pet-hates – repetitions and metaphors. In her own translation she has made an effort not to elaborate and has even preserved Flaubert’s own erratic capitalisations. “Some of this is very subtle,” she sighs. * * *

Davis [now on the subject of her Proust translation] tells me that she was saddened by the reviews but has concluded that people were simply enamoured with the Proust they were used to – the 1922 translation by CK Scott Moncrieff, who, according to Davis made Proust flowery, turning “said” into “remarked” or “murmured”, or “strange” into “strange and haunting”. “Anyone who loves Proust loves that one,” she says, “but it wasn’t Proust,” she insists – “it wasn’t close enough; it was a different book. I don’t want to rewrite what I’m translating, and I don’t want to bring my own style into it.”
I haven't read Scott Moncrieff's translations of Stendhal, fearing just such improvements.


  1. "whose translations we perhaps prefer to her, um, stories"

    Ouch. I'm in an odd position-- I started the stories in Square Books and was blown away by a bunch of them, brought them home, read some more and then...

    stopped. I tend not to hold that against a writer unless I can ID the problem, and I came away loving what I'd read of the Davis stories, and thinking work had pulled me off to other concerns. But then I didn't stay with it, and will with... the stuff I love best.

    We should both give them another chance, I think.

    Right now, oddly enough, I'm reading the Library of America Shirley Jackson (thus the link to "The Lottery" recently on your blog), and partly glad I didn't read it in high school or college, because I'd have missed how funny it is-- Jackson skewering both herself and small town New England....

  2. Here's another question? How many other members of the Miss. bar have made a run at those stories?

    Perhaps we need to set up a special interest group.

  3. You could be right, and Davis's stories are surely much better read in small doses rather than straight through. One a day, perhaps.

    They're all right, but I think the claims made for them are a bit much. I read the first 100 pages or so thinking what a sad time her breakup from Paul Auster must've been, which is not the kind of thing I like to think about when reading fiction -- "The Death of the Author" and all that.

    ... Support group, more likely.