Some Notes on Translation and on Madame Bovary

Following her 2010 translation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Lydia Davis wrote about her experience and some of the vagaries inherent in any act of translation for The Paris Revue. This article was first published on The Paris Review, Issue 198, Fall 2011, and is available in full here


Not long ago, I was chatting with an older friend who is a retired engineer and also something of a writer, but not of fiction. When he heard that I had just finished a translation of Madame Bovary, he said something like, “But Madame Bovary has ­already been translated. Why does there need to be another translation?” or “But Madame Bovary has been available in English for a long time, hasn’t it? Why would you want to translate it again?” Often, the idea that there can be a wide range of translations of one text doesn’t occur to people—or that a translation could be bad, very bad, and unfaithful to the original. Instead, a translation is a translation—you write the book again in English, on the basis of the French, a fairly standard procedure, and there it is, it’s been done and doesn’t have to be done again.

A new book that is causing excitement internationally will be quickly translated into many languages, like the Jonathan Littell book that won the Prix Goncourt five years ago. It was soon translated into English, and if it isn’t destined to endure as a piece of literature, it will probably never be translated into English again.

But in the case of a book that appeared more than one hundred and fifty years ago, like Madame Bovary, and that is an important landmark in the history of the novel, there is room for plenty of different English versions. For one thing, the first editions of the original text may have been faulty, and over the years one or more corrected editions have been published, so that the earliest English translations no longer match the most accurate original. (2) The earliest translators (as was the case with the Muirs rendering Kafka) may have felt they needed to inflict subtle or not so subtle alterations on the style and even the content of the original so as to make it more acceptable to the Anglophone audience; with the passing of time, we come to deem this something of a betrayal and ask for a more faithful version. (3) Earlier versions may simply not be as good in other respects as they could be—let another translator have a try.

Each version will be quite distinct from all the others. How many ways, for instance, has even a single phrase (“bouffées d’affadissement”) from Madame Bovary been translated:

gusts of revulsion
a kind of rancid staleness
stale gusts of dreariness
waves of nausea
fumes of nausea
flavorless, sickening gusts
stagnant dreariness
whiffs of sickliness
waves of nauseous disgust


Our next event takes place on the 15th May 2019 and will combine discussion of classic and translated literature with the influential French classic Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. Our panel will bring together three expert speakers on nineteenth-century literature and French studies: Dr. Kate Griffiths, Dr. Mary Edwards, and Dr Katherine Mansfield.

We look forward to seeing you there!

Tickets are available on Eventbrite.

Book Tickets

(Featured image source: Albert Fourié, Wikimedia)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s