Lydia Davis brings her concision and ironic sensibilities to a new translation of Madame Bovary

Madame BovaryReviewed by Lucina Schell, Editor

As a great admirer of Lydia Davis’ short fictions, I am very enthused to see her tackle new translations of classic texts from the French by Proust and Flaubert. The recent Man Booker Prize winner, acclaimed for her concision and humor—many of her “short stories” are only one sentence long—possesses the perfect literary sensitivities to entrust with a notoriously exacting stylist like Flaubert. Recognized by many critics as the first masterpiece of realist fiction, Davis’ translation feels absolutely contemporary, and takes nothing away from the radical innovation of Flaubert’s text. In Madame Bovary, Flaubert sought to create a sort of fictional biography, probing the psychology of his heroine, a deeply flawed and largely unsympathetic character. The innovation of the novel is its objectivity toward its characters; Flaubert finds no moral instruction in the tragedy of Emma Bovary’s life, and he actively satirizes the popular romantic novels of the time, which she reads and idealizes. Madame Bovary, as the dust jacket states, “is the original desperate housewife.” Taking as its subject a bored woman with a boring life, the extended passages of psychological analysis and descriptions of mundane details succeed only because of Flaubert’s stylistic control, and in this way, the novel is a tremendous exposition of literary craft over dramatic narrative.

The novel owes its stylistic success largely to the suffusion of irony. “‘Irony takes nothing away from pathos,” Flaubert recognized, and Nabokov, when teaching the novel, praised it noting, ‘The ironic and the pathetic are beautifully intertwined’” (xiv, quot. Davis). While the characters are unsympathetic, we do at times sympathize with them, and Flaubert carefully controls our feelings about them through his prose. Flaubert’s sense of irony is present throughout the novel in the phrases italicized for emphasis, which reveal accepted and unquestioned ideas and prejudices. Unfortunately, some translators have chosen to remove these carefully placed italics. More significantly, as Davis points out, the lyrically gifted Flaubert doles out metaphors sparingly, and juxtaposes lyrical descriptions with suddenly banal observations. Flaubert lulls his readers into a pleasurable paragraph, and suddenly smacks us back into cruel reality. Davis handles the prevailing irony deftly; her gift for irony, as displayed in her own short fictions, and her sensitivity to the layers of connotations in each word make her the best translator to approach the incomparable Flaubert. Similarly, Davis’ short fictions are highly realist, often revolving around very ordinary and private details of life, yet her stylistic approach makes them funny and relatable.

The following examples from some of Davis’ briefest short fictions illuminate the relationship between her own work and the success of her new translation.

They Take Turns Using a Word They Like

“It’s extraordinary,” says one woman.

“It is extraordinary,” says the other.

(Davis, 403)

In this short story, Davis’ italics work much the same way as Flaubert’s, to point out the unquestioned and overuse to the point of meaninglessness of such an exclamatory statement. The fact that what the women are referring to as extraordinary is not revealed, reinforces the point of the vapidity of their conversation. The title also detracts from the exclamatory statement by using such a vague word as “like.” The changing emphasis of the italics makes fun of the idea that these women are enjoying simply outdoing each other with their use of the word. Flaubert would have enjoyed this literary joke about unintellectual people trying to impress each other with their use of a big word, while reducing it to meaninglessness.

Young and Poor

I like working near the baby, here at my desk by lamplight.

The baby sleeps.

As though I were young and poor again, I was going to say.

But I am still young and poor.

(Davis, 493)

In another kinship with Flaubert, Davis makes fun of such romanticized ideas as being “young and poor.” Irony is again present in the disagreement between the first nostalgic introduction of the concept, and then the frustrated rebuttal, “But I am still young and poor.” Only someone who was not actually poor could romanticize the idea of being young and poor. Similarly, another disagreement is set up between the first two sentences about the baby and the last two statements about being young and poor. The reader is left to wonder at the connection between the two, and I am reminded of Emma Bovary’s detached attitude toward motherhood with a similar romanticized image of motherhood that is divorced from concrete reality or real involvement with her child. In her short stories, like Flaubert, Davis ironically flouts the romantic tropes of literature by which many have been conditioned to approach their own lives.

In order to analyze Davis’ fresh approach to the translation, I would like to compare her work in a famous passage from the novel with the efforts of two other translators. The passage ends with a beautiful and often quoted simile in which Flaubert compares human speech to a cracked kettle. It marks a turning point in Emma Bovary’s first affair, when Rodolphe begins to grow tired of her and her overwrought expressions of love.

From Lydia Davis’ 2010 translation:

He had heard these things said to him so often that for him there was nothing original about them. Emma was like all other mistresses; and the charm of novelty, slipping off gradually like a piece of clothing, revealed in its nakedness the eternal monotony of passion, which always assumes the same forms and uses the same language. He could not perceive—this man of such broad experience—the differences in feeling that might underlie similarities of expression. Because licentious or venal lips had murmured the same words to him, he had little faith in their truthfulness; one had to discount, he thought, exaggerated speeches that concealed commonplace affections; as if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest of metaphors, since none of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs, or our ideas, or our sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to inspire pity in the stars. (Flaubert, trans. Davis, 167)

From Gerard Hopkins’ 1981 translation:

“He had heard these things so often, that by now they had lost all spice of originality. She was just like all the other mistresses he had had. As the charm of novelty slipped from her like a dress, Rodolphe saw nothing but the naked horror of an eternal monotony of passion, always with the same face, always speaking the same words. This practiced seducer could see no difference in the sentiments concealed beneath a similarity of surface. Because wanton, mercenary lips had murmured similar protestations in his ear, he had no great belief in the sincerity of this, his latest conquest. Strip away the exaggerations of language, he thought, and there’s nothing left but the same old mediocre emotions. As though the fullness of the heart does not sometimes overflow into the emptiest of metaphors. After all, no one can ever give the exact measure of his needs, of his thoughts or his sorrows. Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when all the time we are longing to move the stars to pity.” (Flaubert, trans. Hopkins, 206)

From Francis Steegmuller’s 1957 translation:

“He had had such things said to him so many times that none of them had any freshness for him. Emma was like all his other mistresses; and as the charm of novelty gradually slipped from her like a piece of clothing, he saw revealed in all its nakedness the eternal monotony of passion, which always assumes the same forms and always speaks the same language. He had no perception—this man of such vast experience—of the dissimilarity of feeling that might underlie similarities of expression. Since he had heard those same words uttered by loose women or prostitutes, he had little belief in their sincerity when he heard them now: the more flowery a person’s speech, he thought, the more suspect the feelings, or lack of feelings, it concealed. Whereas the truth is that fullness of soul can sometimes overflow in utter vapidity of language, for none of us can ever express the exact measure of his needs or his thoughts or his sorrows; and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.” (180)

I have highlighted in bold certain key differences among these translations. The first incredible simile in this passage at once compares “the charm of novelty” to a piece of clothing and to nakedness. Nakedness is then juxtaposed with the “eternal monotony of passion,” reinforcing the theme of problematic monotony in Emma Bovary’s life which she attempts to escape through her affairs. Erotic passion, as it is commonly idealized in literature—and idealized by Emma Bovary herself—is antithetical to monotony; and yet, Emma, who aspires to a sort of literary eternal true love with Rodolphe, condemns her lover to the same confining monotony she finds in her own marriage to Charles.

Gerard Hopkin’s translation, in many cases, attempts to clarify or specify the text beyond what is clearly there. In Hopkin’s translation, it is not merely a piece of clothing but “a dress,” and by attaching the nakedness clearly to the stripped Emma Bovary, he loses the surprising dual simile of the naked clothing/novelty. As he firmly focuses the nakedness on Emma Bovary, he also inserts Rodolphe’s name, establishing an unnecessary juxtaposition between the two lovers. Rather than contemplating the more abstract concepts that are being compared, we are instead confronted with two lovers contemplating each other face to face.

Next, the very significant line, most clearly expressed in Davis’ translation, “He could not perceive—this man of such broad experience—the differences in feeling that might underlie similarities of expression,” is muddied in the other translations, especially Hopkins’. Again, Hopkins over-specifies, calling Rodolphe a “practiced seducer,” and Emma “his latest conquest,” whereas Davis and Steegmuller agree on the less incriminating “man of vast/broad experience.” Hopkins’ indictment of Rodolphe’s character is not present in Flaubert’s text, which allows us to form our own opinions about the characters, alternately sympathizing with and being repulsed by them. Steegmuller sets up an admirable parallelism with “the dissimilarity of feeling that might underlie similarities of expression” but the negative prefix undermines the point of the line, which is that Emma’s positive love for Rodolphe is greater and more true than these other women he has known, although she cannot find more convincing language in which to express her feelings. This line is so important because it imbues the pathetic into the otherwise ironic passage. We sympathize with Emma, because we know, as she does not, that Rodolphe merely regards her as a whim to be exploited and cannot perceive the depth of her love for him, however clichéd it may be.

In his very good introduction to his translation, Steegmuller concedes: “It is of course impossible to retain in translation the precise rhythm of each of Flaubert’s carefully polished sentences; nor would an attempt to reproduce the general characteristic cadence of his prose in a foreign tongue lead to anything but disaster. But there must be an equivalent of the French music. Without it, the idea of what Madame Bovary ‘is like’ in the original could not begin to be conveyed. An over-all rhythmic flow is inseparable from the novel’s total coherence” (Steegmuller, xliii). Each of these translators, I am sure, in their own way attempted to convey the rhythm of Flaubert’s text, while of course making concessions to preserve clarity of meaning. Steegmuller’s “dissimilarity/similarities” is a good example. However, I think that Davis’ translation is the most successful at conveying the rhythm and music of the French and preserving the clarity and concision of the sentences for which Flaubert is known. Both Hopkins and Steegmuller have a rhythmic clunkiness within the first two sentences that could easily be avoided with greater sensitivity to the sound. In Steegmuller’s translation, it is contained in the very opening of the passage: “He had had such things said to him so many times that none of them had any freshness for him.” Hopkins, using a similar construction to Davis, avoids this in the opening line, but falls right into it in his second sentence: “She was just like all the other mistresses he had had.” This careless and clunky repetition would have been inexcusable to Flaubert, and should be to his contemporary English readers.

Most significantly, Davis is the only translator of the three who faithfully preserves the rhythm of the momentously long and building last sentence, beginning with “Because licentious or venal lips…” with all of the semicolons that Flaubert so enjoyed. (Hopkins and Davis more or less agree with “wanton, mercenary lips” and “licentious or venal lips” respectively, but here Steegmuller over-specifies again with “loose women or prostitutes.”) On this building rhythm rides our sympathy and universal identification with the text—we have all experienced at times the profound inadequacy of language to express our ‘needs, ideas, or sorrows’—and the structure of the sentence must beat out the rhythms it describes. Beginning with that dependent clause, we are hurtled through a litany of conditional statements, separated by semicolons, until we reach the final soaring, grand conclusion invoking the heavens. Steegmuller breaks this into 2 sentences, retaining much of the forward momentum of the passage; Hopkins breaks it fully into 5 incomplete sentences, losing both the rhythm and grammatical precision of Flaubert.

Flaubert was famously convinced that the style of this novel in particular, concerning such banal, psychological realities, would be critical to its success. This is clearly not as much the case as he believed, since generations of English readers have enjoyed the novel in translations that fail to adhere to Flaubert’s own stylistic strictures. However, we are fortunate now to have a translation that allows us to appreciate Flaubert’s style along with the entertaining story. I hope my analysis of Davis’ work will inspire readers already familiar with Madame Bovary to revisit the novel and revel in the best approximation English readers have been afforded of Flaubert’s notoriously precise and revolutionary style.

Works Cited

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis by Lydia Davis. New York: Picador, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009.

Madame Bovary: Provincial Ways by Gustave Flaubert. Trans. Lydia Davis. New York: Penguin Books, 2010.

Madame Bovary: Life in a Country Town. Trans. Gerard Hopkins. Oxford

University Press, 1981. Oxford World’s Classics handback, 1999.

Madame Bovary: Patterns of Provincial Life. Trans. Francis Steegmuller,

1957. Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.

One comment

  1. […] a reviewer, in the course of a comparative analysis against other English translations like I did here, might assume she had been a careless translator in rendering these stylistic deviations […]

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