New York Magazine just published an interview with translator (and writer) Lydia Davis, whose most recent project is Madame Bovary. Our Well Read columnist Robert Weibezahl reviewed Davis' translation in October, saying that it "underscores how truly modern a writer Flaubert was—even by our contemporary standards."

This glimpse into the work of a translator is fascinating reading:

Her routine was to sit down, in the morning, in front of an old boxy desktop computer with no Internet connection. (“I’m undistracted here,” she says. “I can keep it very disciplined.”) Beside her keyboard she’d have Bovary in French—a secondhand copy featuring, on its cover, the familiar caricature of Flaubert, with his smooth egg head and his mustache drooping like a pair of lobster whiskers. In front of her, propped open on mismatched book stands (wooden, plastic, metal), she’d place five different translations. Then she’d crawl, word by word, through the text, stopping occasionally to consult her pile of worn-out dictionaries or to watch the way a French phrase would ripple across the different translations—how bouffées d’affadissement, for instance, would become “waves of nausea” or “stagnant dreariness” or “a kind of rancid staleness.” (Davis’s version has “gusts of revulsion.”) On a good day she’d translate three pages.

Davis talks more about translating in an article from the Paris Review.

Reading these reminded me of our 2007 interview with translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky about their work on War and Peace (which a Russian-reading friend assures me is the absolute best one to read). Like Davis, the pair strive to translate tone and style as well as meaning.

"Larissa makes a complete first draft, in pencil, as literal as possible, with marginal comments on words, tone, rhythm, deliberate oddities, levels of usage, cross references to reappearances of the same word or motif. I take her draft, plus the original and other translations, and make my own complete draft, which I print out as I go (four to eight pages a day) and cover with penciled queries and uncertainties. We then go over that draft together, settling questions, arguing over choices, resorting to numerous dictionaries. From the results of that work, I then make another complete draft. Larissa reads the new draft line by line against the original, marking queries, making suggestions, and so on. Once we resolve the last problems together, I make a 'final' draft, which we send to the publisher."

Do you research translators when deciding which version of a translated classic to purchase?

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