Lydia Davis on Translating Flaubert
Written by
Jane Hammons
April 2011
Written by
Jane Hammons
April 2011
When I saw that Lydia Davis would be reading in San Francisco, I immediately bought a ticket. I didn’t pay much attention to the fact that the event was sponsored by the Center for the Art of Translation. I was just excited about seeing Lydia Davis. As a friend and I drove over the Bay Bridge to hear her, we hoped that she would read some of her own work. But by the time Lydia Davis began talking about the process of translating literature from one language into another and reading passages from her translation of Madame Bovary, I forgot that I had come for any other reason than this.

Davis came to the plain, ugly even, overlit stage—a table, a chair, a mug of water (it was a beer mug; the event was held at The Verdi Club, and the bar was open)—and blinked for a moment into the lights before she began to choose passages that she wanted to read and discuss. She held the big book, containing index cards, in her lap and spoke a bit to her work in translation before she began reading.

I was aware that Davis was well-known as a translator and that she had translated volume one of Proust’s Swann’s Way—a book I’ve never read and doubt I’ll get to. But I wasn’t aware that she had been translating works in French for 40 years. She spent three years translating Madame Bovary and said it would probably be her last big project as she has writing she wants to do.

She then added a list of things she would like to translate. This was a pattern in her presentation that was quirky and wonderful. She would begin by saying something like, “I was going to talk about (fill in the blank), but now I think I won’t, but let me just say this. . . .” and she would proceed to talk about the thing she had both just proposed and dismissed. Listening to Davis took me back to my college days. Remember those professors whose classes you would never skip because they were at least as fascinating as the subject? (Maybe more so)

She described working with a copy of Nabokov’s annotated translation of Madame Bovary as an initial guide to the translation she was doing. But after a few days of checking his mostly critical comments about the art and accuracy of the translation (I forget which it was), she abandoned that as a working method. She read and worked with 13 translations of the novel as she began her own. When she began discussing the ways in which other translators had added things to the original, I was at first surprised that she even bothered to remark on them. They seemed small, insignificant even—phrases like What a surprise where no such wording of Flaubert’s existed.

But the more I listened to her discuss her painstaking decisions, and as she read from the translation, I began to have the appropriate appreciation for her commitment to staying as close to Flaubert as possible and her reasons for doing so. She is now editing her translation for the forthcoming paperback edition. She spoke at length about her decision to change the wording of a passage in which Emma Bovary draws lines on the tablecloth with a butter knife “to amuse herself”—the literal translation in French—to “to pass the time,” for the paperback edition. As she said this, there was a murmuring in the audience. Davis caught it and asked if what she heard was approval of the change. Several translators a few rows ahead of me nodded eagerly. Davis was clearly pleased that they had agreed with her, adding that she seldom spoke to audiences of translators. I felt privileged to hear her in this setting.

After reading several passages (about a quarter of the ones she had marked and prepared to read) and discussing them, she took questions from the audience. In reference to Davis as a writer, someone asked about her relationship to the characters as she translated fiction. Davis spoke briefly about Emma Bovary—as a disappointing character—selfish, vain, a mother who neglects her child—and perhaps not a fully realized one—but she said that while translating, she has much more of a kinship with the writer than the work. She had earlier addressed Flaubert’s ability to seamlessly make transitions in time and point of view in the novel as something that she greatly admired about his writing, while not being a big fan of the novel.

In her presentation, Davis mentioned reading Flaubert’s letters not only to get a sense of who he was at the time he was writing Madame Bovary, but also to get a better understanding of him overall. She was inspired by several of them to write fiction: Ten Stories from Flaubert. And she also referred to the blog she wrote for The Paris Review—The Sins of a Translator.

It has been over 25 years since I read Madame Bovary. I will read Lydia Davis’s translation because the passages she read truly transported me to the world of the novel, and that is the reason I read fiction—to be transported. And I’m eager to put myself in the hands of two masters: Lydia Davis and Gustave Flaubert.

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