Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Davis v. Wall

We've noted the new Bovary translation by Lydia Davis, which apparently will be replacing the excellent Geoffrey Wall version in Penguin Classics.

I haven't read the Davis version yet, but I wanted to play the translation-review game of picking a passage and comparing the renderings.

Here, Charles's first wife, mortified after some financial irregularity is exposed, departs this earth:
Mais le coup était porté. Huit jours après, comme elle étendait du linge dans sa cour, elle fut prise d’un crachement de sang, et le lendemain, tandis que Charles avait le dos tourné pour fermer le rideau de la fenêtre, elle dit: «Ah! mon Dieu!» poussa un soupir et s’évanouit. Elle était morte! Quel étonnement!

Quand tout fut fini au cimetière, Charles rentra chez lui. Il ne trouva personne en bas; il monta au premier, dans la chambre, vit sa robe encore accrochée au pied de l’alcôve; alors, s’appuyant contre le secrétaire, il resta jusqu’au soir perdu dans une rêverie douloureuse. Elle l’avait aimé, après tout.
This is a good touchstone passage for ruling out some poor translations, that smooth over Flaubert's brutality here. "Elle était morte! Quel étonnement!" is darkly comical. I wish I still had my first copy of the book in translation, which did something awful here.

(What follows is premised on the accuracy of the foregoing text, which is a large assumption; Wall and Davis may've each used a different critical edition.)

But the damage was done. A week later, as she was hanging out the washing in the yard, she had a seizure and spat some blood, and next day, as Charles turned his back to draw the curtains, she said, "Oh! My God!" heaved a sigh and passed out. She was dead! How astonishing!

Once everything was finished down at the cemetery, Charles went home again. There was nobody downstairs; he went upstairs to their room, saw her dress still hanging over the foot of the bed; then, slumped across the escritoire, he stayed until it was night, adrift in a troubled reverie. She had loved him, after all.
But the blow had struck home. A week later, as she was hanging the wash in her yard, she began spitting blood, and the next day, while Charles, his back turned, was at the window closing the curtain, she said: "Oh my God!," sighed, and lost consciousness. She was dead! How astonishing it was!

When everything was over at the cemetery, Charles went back to his house. He found no one downstairs; he went up to the second floor, into the bedroom, saw her dress still hanging at the foot of the alcove; then, leaning on the writing desk, he remained there till evening, lost in a sorrowful reverie. She had loved him, after all.
Wall describes the empty downstairs with "There was nobody"; Davis's following the French gives us the more poignant "He found no one downstairs."

Davis is generally more literal, though both translators make the strange choice of the imprecise "A week later" for Flaubert's "Eight days later."

Wall interprets her as having a seizure, perhaps following Eleanor Marx's "she was seized with a spitting of blood," which is not the same thing as a seizure, but does try to do something with the "fut prise" that Davis simply omits; Davis's "began spitting blood" also implies that it continued through into the next day, which I had never inferred. "Passed out" is closer to the dictionary sense of "s'évanouir" than "lost consciousness," but the former in English at least implies something less severe, like too much to drink. The French connotes fading or vanishing away, which is hard to match in English. Still, I wouldn't import "consciousness" into the sentence. And it's a loss that the clichéd "heave a sigh" for "pousser un soupir" is abridged by Davis into merely "sighed." That was unlikely to be lazy writing by Flaubert.

The odd thing is Davis's expansion of the text's "Quel étonnement!" into "How astonishing it was!" Not only does that expand on the text, I'm not even sure that's English. Who would say that?

As always, translation is a mug's game. But I don't think Penguin needed to replace Wall's version, which I hope finds a good home elsewhere.

... (And without reprinting the preceding paragraph, where Charles's parents confront this first Mme Bovary about the disappearance of her fortune, Flaubert has the wonderfully mundane "On s’expliqua. Il y eut des scènes." Wall translates the first sentence as "Questions were asked," which is fair enough, but Davis mysteriously renders it as "They had it out," which is so bizarre as to make me wonder whether we are indeed looking at different French texts. Marx's "Explanations followed" is not bad either.)


  1. Re: "How astonishing it was!", I'm reminded that French is entirely happy exclaiming with nouns in cases where English is more comfortable with adjectives, so making the "it" explicit may be a stilted way of dealing with that ("What an astonishment!", while more literal, would have fared even worse.)

  2. That would work if "How astonishing it was!" were the original, but here she's just added "it was" for lagniappe.

    ... I'm also amused that the secretaire becomes a different French word in Wall (escritoire) but just a "writing desk" in Davis. Will have to google up the distinction, if there is one; I think of a "secretary" as a vertical cabinet with pigeonholes, etc. that are covered by a fold-out writing surface.

  3. ... Wikipedia knows everything.

    I suspect Davis of using the English because she'd be suspected of failing to translate the original word.

  4. I'm with Jim on the astonishment issue. The "it was" seems to be a way of dealing with the nominal form. I'd render it into English as "What a surprise!" to maintain the darkness of the exclamation, but if Flaubert meant "surprise," I suppose he could have just said so.

    I like the first paragraph of Wall better than that of Davis. My preferences flip in regards to the second paragraph with the exception that I prefer "slumped across" to "leaning on."

    Translation is juicy. I recall hating one translation of Durkheim's Elementary Forms... more than another to the point I refused to read the version assigned by the instructor.

  5. The "it was" seems to be a way of dealing with the nominal form.

    If you say so, but the expression is so idiomatic, I can't imagine what Davis thought she was accomplishing, other than to dampen the effect of reacting to a sudden death with two blase words; now she has four.

    Agreed on "slumped"; the problem with "leaning" is that it's difficult to picture what the heck Charles is doing. "Leaning on" also misses the implication of "contre."

    I'm convinced that translation should never be a solo effort. There's too much stuff like what we've been discussing to catch it all. Revising Wall would've held more promise than translating afresh.

    Tho he has a strange defect in the very first lines in the book ... Flaubert evidently made "new boy" one of his italicized cliches, and Wall doesn't reproduce the italics, tho he generally does elsewhere. It changes the tone; the italics help alienate Charles from the rest of the class.