Writer’s Writer and Writer’s Writer’s Writer

Julian Barnes compares translations of Gustave Flaubert’s great novel, on the occasion of the publication of Lydia Davis’ translation.


“Imagine that you are about to read a great French novel for the first time, and can only do so in your native English. The book itself is more than 150 years old. What would/ should/do you want? The impossible, of course. But what sort of impossible? For a start, you would probably want it not to read like ‘a translation’. You want it to read as if it had originally been written in English – even if, necessarily, by an author deeply knowledgable about France. You would want it not to clank and whirr as it dutifully renders every single nuance, turning the text into the exposition of a novel rather than a novel itself. You would want it to provoke in you most of the same reactions as it would provoke in a French reader (though you would also want some sense of distance, and the pleasure of exploring a different world). But what sort of French reader? One from the late 1850s, or the early 2010s? Would you want the novel to have its original effect, or an effect coloured by the later history of French fiction, including the consequences of this very novel’s existence? Ideally, you would want to understand every period reference – for instance, to Trafalgar pudding, Ignorantine friars or Mathieu Laensberg – without needing to flick downwards or onwards to footnotes. Finally, if you want the book in ‘English’, what sort of English do you choose? Put simply, on the novel’s first page, do you want the schoolboy Charles Bovary’s trousers to be held up by braces, or do you want his pants to be held up by suspenders? The decisions, and the colouration, are irrevocable.”


This article was first published in London Review of Books, Vol. 32, No. 22, on 18th November 2010, and can be accessed here.

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: detail from Charles Léandre’s frontispiece, Wikimedia)

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