Julian Barnes has a wonderful review of Lydia Davis’s new translation of Madame Bovary in the LRB (hat-tip to Kári for the link). The nub of it: “Davis’s Madame Bovary is a linguistically careful version, in the modern style, rendered into an unobtrusively American English.[…] If you want a freer translation, Steegmuller is best; for a tighter one, go to Wall.” But as you would expect from Barnes, all the fun is in the details. I quote a representative passage:
The authentic rendering of every last nuance of meaning cannot be the sole purpose of translation. Because if it becomes so, it leads to the act of eccentric defiance that is Nabokov’s Eugene Onegin. In his 1955 poem ‘On Translating Eugene Onegin’, Nabokov, addressing Pushkin, writes of turning ‘Your stanza patterned on a sonnet,/Into my honest roadside prose –/All thorn, but cousin to your rose.’ When Nabokov’s version of the poem came out in 1964, it was prose laid out in stanza form, and more woody stalk than thorn. Readers of the poem in English are best advised to have the two volumes of Nabokov’s headmasterly commentary to hand while apprehending the poem’s dance and flow through, say, Charles Johnston’s version. An even weirder example of fidelity leading to perversity is Dillwyn Knox’s 1929 translation of Herodas for the Loeb Classical Library. Knox’s brilliant niece Penelope Fitzgerald describes the outcome in The Knox Brothers with a sympathetic glee:
The language of the Mimes is precious, with unpleasant affected archaisms, and an honest translation, it seemed to Dilly, must be the same. Cloistered in his study . . . Dilly worked out his English equivalent to Herodas. ‘La no reke hath she of what I say, but standeth goggling at me more agape than a crab’ is a typical sentence, while ‘Why can’t you tell me what they cost?’ comes out as ‘Why mumblest ne freetongued descryest the price?’ Satisfied, Dilly corrected his proofs; he read the reviews, all of which praised the accuracy of the text but considered the translation a complete failure, with indifference. ‘If I am unintelligible,’ he wrote, ‘it is because Herodas was.’
I was struck to read that
in her introduction, Davis writes she told the Times: “So what I’m trying to do is what I think hasn’t been done, which is to create a well-written translation that’s also very close, very faithful to the French.” What a thing to say! Does she think that isn’t what every other translator is trying to do? It’s an understandable feeling, but one of those that is best kept to oneself.