“The translator’s situation is extremely delicate,” writes Milan Kundera, “he must keep faith with the author and at the same time remain himself; what to do?” This challenge is trickiest for anyone translating the work of a writer who places major emphasis on style. The 19th-century French novelist Gustave Flaubert was certainly such a writer, a perpetual seeker ofle mot juste, who reportedly wrote, rewrote and discarded to such a degree that he sometimes produced just one finished page a week.
Mindful of the task at hand, acclaimed short-story writer and Proust translator Lydia Davis gives us a new translation of Flaubert’s masterpiece, Madame Bovary, that hews as close to the original as may be possible. Davis, who counts at least 19 previous translations of the novel into English, finds it curious that “in the case of a writer so famously fixated on his style as Flaubert was, many of the translations do not try to reproduce that style.” Her version adheres to the sometimes mundane rhythms of Flaubert’s prose, choosing clarity over ornamentation and respecting the importance the French writer placed on a particular word or phrase’s intent.
With Madame Bovary, Flaubert was inventing a new kind of novel, one that attempted to tell the story objectively, without the florid sentiment or sanctimonious value judgments that marked the fiction of the age. The now-familiar story, of a young country girl who marries a provincial doctor, grows bored with her situation and soon surrenders to an adulterous life, certainly was ripe for self-righteous condemnation. So it is hardly surprising that Flaubert’s refusal to impose a moralizing authorial voice and guide readers as to what they should think about Emma Bovary was met with outrage and scandal. The French government brought charges against the writer and the magazine in which it first appeared, claiming the novel was a danger to public morality and religion. Both were acquitted after a one-day trial.
Davis’ translation strives for—and largely achieves—the flavor of Flaubert’s realism. Comparing it to other translations on the shelf, the differences are often subtle, frequently found in her choice of a pronoun or the tense of a verb (Davis points out in her introduction that Flaubert was an innovator in the use of theimparfait, a tense with no absolute equivalent in English). She has also preserved some of Flaubert’s quirks as a writer, retaining what she calls his “occasionally slapdash approach to punctuation” and his penchant for ambiguous pronouns. For guidance, Davis referred to the approximately 4,500 pages of early drafts that Flaubert left behind. Flaubert was as meticulous in details as he was in choosing the right word, so a nice feature of this edition is the inclusion of unobtrusive endnotes that illuminate many of Flaubert’s now-arcane references to the fashion and popular culture of his day.
With its fidelity to the original, Davis’ translation can hardly be accused of being calculated for the “modern” reader, and yet it provides such an unfussy, straightforward narrative that it underscores how truly modern a writer Flaubert was—even by our contemporary standards. Ironically, by preserving Flaubert’s intention as best she could, Lydia Davis has given us a Madame Bovary with one foot planted in the 19th century, the other in the 21st.