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.


  1. I read this when someone sent me a link to it a few days ago. He saves the most telling detail for last: apparently she didn’t much care for the novel.

  2. I hadn’t seen this, thanks – but I did see an article by Lydia Davis in the Paris Review in which she gave examples of what she meant by free translations:

  3. Sorry, wrong link. Scroll down here to October r:

  4. marie-lucie says

    Interesting review. From the snippets provided, the new translation seems rather flat.
    In the description of young Charles: de belles couleurs is rendered by most translators as “(a) good colour”, which sounds medical. I would prefer “a healthy colouring” or better here “a ruddy complexion” (one person’s rendering); this is indeed what the French phrase refers to, the way the locals would describe this rather oafish country boy (Flaubert’s sentence is ironical, like many others in the text).

  5. Incidentally, in “no reke hath she,” the noun intended is obviously reck “Care, heed, consideration. Chiefly in negative contexts” (e.g., 1568 Jacob & Esau I. ii: “of one that hath no recke ne care what way he walke”). But where he got the spelling is a mystery; the OED gives a bunch of them (recche, reake, recke, reck; Sc. rack, racke, raik, rak, reak, recke, rek, reck, rake), but none of them is reke.

  6. marie-lucie @ “I would prefer “a healthy colouring” or better here “a ruddy complexion” (one person’s rendering); this is indeed what the French phrase refers to, the way the locals would describe this rather oafish country boy (Flaubert’s sentence is ironical, like many others in the text).”
    Ironic though Flaubert’s intention may be, “a ruddy complexion” supposes a distinct description that the author doesn’t make manifest through his choice of words. The phrase “high in color’ was used once upon a 19th century time.

  7. B for Bathrobe says

    Does ‘3 street cats humped’ have the same meaning for other readers as it does for me? It’s a hilarious translation.

  8. Then perhaps you would prefer “a high colour”.
    De belles couleurs here does not mean “beautiful colours” but the kind of colour that a fair-skinned person, especially a child, acquires from spending a lot of time in the open air – not a tan, but a reddish colour. From his rural experiences encouraged or at least tolerated by his indulgent parents, Charles has acquired de fortes mains, de belles couleurs, meaning that the results show in his physical development: he is strong and ruddy like any peasant (and by implication, he is not a townsman or interested in ideas).

  9. 3, rue des Chats Bossus
    “Street of the hunchbacked cats”.
    (Remember Quasimodo,
    le Bossu de Notre-Dame).

  10. He saves the most telling detail for last: apparently she didn’t much care for the novel.
    I was leaving it as a surprise for the reader. But yes, that’s an odd way to do a translation. Why not work on something you love if you’re going to spend three years on it?

  11. Marie-lucie would clearly be an excellent translator.

  12. Her comment alone is enough to dissuade this potential reader.

  13. Are we told that Charles is “fair-skinned”? Likewise, you seem to prescribe qualities to this young man which we can’t be certain Flaubert wishes to imply. Are all “peasants’ strong and ruddy as you suggest? Is being a townsman or interested in ideas mutually exclusive from having strong hands and a healthy mine? Translation by subjective implication more often leads to superfluous extrapolation rather than fidelity to the actual text.

  14. On the one hand, I agree with Hozo. It is very dangerous to add information to the original based on one’s own judgement. For instance, I look here at what East Asian translators have done with this sentence from Le petit prince:
    Je sentais battre son cœur comme celui d’un oiseau qui meurt, quand on l’a tiré à la carabine.
    “I felt his heart beating, like the heart of a dying bird, shot with someone’s rifle…”
    * About half of all Chinese and Japanese translators assume that oiseau or “bird” refers to a small bird. The result is to suggest that it is a cute little birdie that has been shot.
    * About a third of Chinese translators decide to indicate what a dying bird’s heart is beating like. The problem is that some say it is beating wildly, others say it is beating faintly. About a third of Japanese translators indicate that it’s beating strongly.
    That said, I am sure there are times when the implications of the original need to be spelt out. I know some French, but certainly not enough to judge what de belles couleurs would imply. All too often words are used by people (including authors) with particular implications that a translator owes it to his/her readers to spell out. And often you have to know what is meant in order to translate properly.
    I once had an expert on Japanese literature tell me that Seidensticker translated a passage in Snow Country wrong. The passage was where Shimamura was sitting on the train musing how one of his fingers remembered the geisha he was going to see. The trouble is that Seidensticker got the finger movement wrong. I won’t go into details, but the actual movement was important in revealing his relationship with the geisha as purely a base physical one. How can you translate for the foreign reader if you take only the surface of the words and don’t know what the author is really saying?

  15. Sorry, this is the section on the size of the bird:
    Un oiseau as translated in The Little Prince.

  16. marie-lucie says

    Hozo: Are we told that Charles is “fair-skinned”?
    No, but the book takes place in Normandy, Charles is a Norman, and many people in Normandy are very fair-skinned, with a high proportion of redheads compared to the rest of the country. Many could be taken for English people (the Viking genes are still around). I grew up there, although my family came from elsewhere, so I have been around a lot of Normans. Failing a different description, the likelihood is that Charles is indeed fair-skinned, and does not tan in the sun.
    Are all “peasants’ strong and ruddy as you suggest?
    Growing up doing hard work (Charles participates in agricultural work) makes you strong, and “ruddy” people abound in rural Normandy.
    Is being a townsman or interested in ideas mutually exclusive from having strong hands and a healthy mine?
    A city boy is likely to spend more time indoors and have less demanding physical activity than Charles does. He grows up comme un chêne, strong and healthy-looking but unthinking. The whole paragraph about his youth suggests that his easy-going parents let him go about as he likes and are not particularly concerned about his schooling. The rest of the book does not indicate much in the way of intellectual interests on his part. He manages to become a doctor, but a very mediocre one.

  17. David Derbes says

    IIRC, Nabokov’s Onegin translation, and Edmund Wilson’s critique of it, led to the end of their long friendship.

  18. Yes indeed. I wrote about their relationship here.

  19. I approached Onegin through Charles Johnston’s translation and found it shallow, almost infantile, in both rhythym and style. It put me off Pushkin for good. What is it that I’m missing? Perhaps I’ll just have to learn Russian in order to appreciate him.

  20. Yeah, I’m afraid Pushkin is one of the least translatable of poets. But you should try his prose; the Tales of Belkin are wonderful.

  21. m-l: What do “English” people look like? What does a “Viking” look like for that matter?

  22. Anybody with horns is a Viking …

  23. The Loeb Classical Library is (or used to be) remarkably tolerant of such translator’s whimsies. Lucian’s “The Syrian Goddess”, which is written in archaizing mock-Herodotean Greek, was rendered in A. L. Harmon’s 1913 Loeb translation into very plausible pseudo-Elizabethan:
    “In Surrye, not fer fro the Ryvere Euphrate, is a Cytee that Holy highte and holy is in sothe, for it is of Iuno Assurien…”
    It goes on in this vein very competently for thirty or forty pages.

  24. Hozo, are you implying that groupings of humans are imaginary, and that therefore nothing can be assumed? That a Frenchman is as likely to be dark-skinned as a Malian? You seem awfully contentious. We’re just discussing translation, not spreading imperialism.

  25. > I was struck to read that in her introduction, Davis writes: “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.”
    Maybe you’ve looked into this further than I have, but just going by what Barnes writes, I think that that’s what she told an interviewer from the Times, not what she put in her introduction. (Not that that’s much better, but at least it probably means that she didn’t ponder what to say, carefully weigh each word, and end up with that!)

  26. … and now I’m sure of it. Apparently the Times story in question is behind a paywall, but much of it, including the relevant part, is quoted at

  27. “The Loeb Classical Library is (or used to be) remarkably tolerant of such translator’s whimsies.”
    Not just LCL, I have a Penguin Aristophanes from the 60s that does Spartans as Scots.

  28. Thanks, Ran, I’ll amend the post accordingly.

  29. Thanks for te tip, LH, I’ll try out the stories.

  30. Paul,
    Anybody with horns is a Viking …
    Viking have horns on their helmets? Nope. Only in Hollywood.
    At least that was the truism bandied about the local Viking reenactment clubs–until an April 1st news article in the Council for British Archaeology revealed Vikings may have worn horned helmets after all. Millinery specialist Professor Paul Norn of the University of Reinstädt explains all:

    It is clear that the helmet was worn with one horn up and one down. Equally important is the fact that it was worn fore and aft not side-to-side, as the front horn was worn down to provide a nose guard. These guards in metal are clearly portrayed on the Bayeux tapestry on the Normans (who were themselves descended from the ‘Norse Men’). In the past people were shorter, so the rear horn pointed upwards so that the Vikings could find one another in long grass. By 1066 the rear horn was unnecessary as the Normans rode horses (again evidenced in the Bayeux tapestry) and so were now visible in all situations.

  31. How about “of vigorous complexion” for “de belles couleurs”?

  32. Hozo,
    In many large cities of Europe (and even small ones) you can find people originating from all parts of the world, even though they might have been born in Europe. On the other hand, if you go into rural areas where there is hardly any immigration (internal emigration is more common), in each region you are likely to find certain “family” resemblances, clusters of features which are more common in one area than another. On a larger scale you see this in countries too. For instance, to me Paul McCartney has typical English features. This does not mean that all Englishmen look like him, but that many do, and conversely that few people outside of England do. Similarly, the fair-skinned, often freckled complexion matched with light eyes and reddish hair is uncommon in France in general, although common in Normandy, as in England and Scotland. All those regions are known to have been major areas of Viking settlement.
    My Norman brother-in-law and his older daughter would pass unnoticed in England, but my sister would look at home in Italy or Spain. I know a tall, blond Norwegian lady here: when I first met her, I was immediately reminded of a high school classmate with a Norman-type last name (recognizably of old Scandinavian origin), a very fair-skinned boy with curly blond hair, as if he had just arrived from Norway. Others of my Norman classmates had similar names and features (not just their colouring), although the boy in question looked the most purely Nordic.

  33. maxim: How about “of vigorous complexion” for “de belles couleurs”?
    I have never run into that phrase. It seems a little strong for the healthy young teenager with the “belles couleurs”.
    (The de here is the article [instead of des], not the preposition).

  34. m-l,
    Your anthropological explanation was fascinating albeit somewhat quaint. I’ve been told that’s a typical English feature though I’ll leave it up to you whether Paul McCartney ever played at a Viking shindig.
    There once was a lass from Calcutta
    Doe-eyed and raven haired was she
    Her aieuls wouldn’t have it
    A bi-racial liason with a piebald maverick
    Though they wished me better luck in a Goa!

  35. …though he indisputably spent time in a Norwegian Wood.

  36. Hozo, that limerick sounds like it came in through the bathroom window.

  37. marie-lucie says

    Nijma, thank you for the Arabic info.
    Hozo, you can have the last word.

  38. In the renowned periodical NARVIK (Norwegian Archaeological Review of Viking Inebriation Koncerts), new evidence has been brought to light of Beatledom’s long thought lost history with the discovery, by an unsuspecting group of quarrymen, of a largely decomposed flybill which appears to confirm the presence of the pre-Fab Four on Scandinavian soil. Carbon dating has proven to be difficult due to the abundance of a nitrogen rich material thought to be peat, best recognized by its isotopic resemblance to a popular English brand of molasses known elsewhere to have been a favorite of Ringo Starr, thus the hesitation. Sanitary conditions at pre-Glastonbury rock festivals being rudimentary, not that nose-shielded Norsemen gave a hammer. Scientists say any conclusive dating was further put into question when additional trace genetic material from the screaching ohno bird (avis vouzuncracker) was detected malingering around the four-cornered ensemble. When asked as to whether he had performed at said spectacle, Paul McCartney replied, “Ruddy hell, coulda been a boatload of bloody bastardized Normans for all I gave a toss!”

  39. Nick Nicholas and I discussed rendering various Ancient Greek dialects into English in the comments of his post on Tsakonian.

  40. freckled complexion matched with light eyes and reddish hair
    In Wobegon the Sons of Knute from Lake Wobegon Lutheran are less likely to have this appearance than their Hiberno-cousins over at Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility. The Sons of Knute burn and peel easily, true, but they turn bronze before the end of the summer. In Chicago someone of this ruddy appearance is most certainly of Irish or Welsh descent. And a “good color” here has always referred to health and the pallor associated with cardiac and anemic conditions. In these days of stents, bypass surgeries, and balloon angioplasties you don’t hear the phrase much anymore.

  41. Translating Lorca: Langston Hughes began translating Federico Garcia Lorca’s Romancero Gitano in 1937; 15 of the 18 poems were published in 1951. Apparently he did not “develop or adhere to any set theory of translation”.

  42. marie-lucie says

    Nijma, I was considering the following questions:
    – What does Charles Bovary look like? – most likely, like a typical Norman.
    – What does the typical Norman look like? – compared to most Frenchmen, more like a person from the British isles or even farther North. (No, I don’t mean he would look like Paul McCartney who has pale skin and dark hair, and different features). It is quite likely that the people I am referring to on both sides of the Manche are a mix of Celtic, Saxon and Scandinavian, as opposed to pure Scandinavian, since the original “Normans” (Vikings settled in Normandy) intermarried with the locals.
    – “good colour”: this phrase comes from some of the translators, it is not Flaubert’s or mine. To me “good colour” in English is what one might say about a recovering patient in a hospital, not the colour of health in a fair-skinned person who spends time in the open, as implied in “de belles couleurs).

  43. marie-lucie says

    Some years ago (perhaps in the 1970’s), the National Geographic had a feature on Normandy where they pointed out those physical resemblances, among other interesting aspects.

  44. Bathrobe: I believe that what the Japanese literature expert describes is quite possible, but the thing is that Seidensticker was in contact with Kawabata himself on a lot of those translations — I don’t know about Snow Country specifically — so unless you are very clear on the circumstances, it’s iffy to say categorically “he got X wrong.” Kawabata might have changed his mind about what he wanted to say when discussing the passage with S., for example. (Worse: As you no doubt know there are several versions of SC, including a sort of handwritten “digest” found in K.’s library after he died.)
    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.
    My experience dealing with translators is that a not-insignificant minority of them (note: not “most”, and I doubt any who read this site) do indeed doubt that other translators are even trying to “create a well-written translation that’s also very close, very faithful to the [source language].” Translators like this tend to have very firmly-held beliefs about how translation should be done, right down to the technical details, and dismiss all other approaches to translation as amateurish and valueless. They act as though they believe that although a source text may have multiple translations into a target language, it has only one “best” translation, and they have arrived at the formula to determine this “best” translation in all cases, rendering all other approaches to translation irrelevant.

  45. Japanese modern literature … An interview with the Museum of Modern Japanese Literature revealed that there was a memorandum of creation that seems to have considered the ending of “Snow Country,” which is considered to be the masterpiece of Nobel Prize in Literature writer Yasunari Kawabata. There is also a description that shows a different development from the published work, and it is attracting attention as a first-class

    Not sure that ‘interview’ is the best translation for 取材 /shuzai/ here:
    しゅざい3【取材】 ローマ(shuzai)
    data collection; getting data; collection of ┌data [materials]; doing research 《for an article》; 【新聞】 covering a story; news gathering.

    The original story in Japanese:

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