Madame Bovary: the Everest of translation

Adam Thorpe’s translation of Madame Bovary was published by Vintage in 2011. Prior to its release, he wrote a piece for The Guardian explaining his approach to translating the text, and justifying what he believed set his translation apart from that of Lydia Davis, whose own translation predated Thorpe’s by only a year. This article was originally published on 21st October 2011, and can be read in full here.


“As stylistic touchstones, Flaubert’s strict English contemporaries – Dickens, say, or George Eliot – were not self-conscious enough about language, for all their genius. I chose Henry James and early James Joyce, who both wrote later than Flaubert. Joyce’s Dubliners, with its brilliant edge of detachment and perfected plainness, actually sounds at times as if it has an original in maybe Irish or French, while James’s prose buckles standard English as it traces a character’s interior consciousness.

This question of what English to use haunts every translator, starting with the divide between British English and American English. Davis uses a crisp, clean version of the latter, not only rhythmically but lexically – the schoolboy Charles is “dressed in regular clothes”, his shirt “emerged from a pair of yellowish pants”, his conversation is “flat as a sidewalk”. Apart from the anachronisms (which many would accept as a necessary update), speakers of American English will have no problem with this.

My approach was radically different. As those familiar with my novels know (especially Ulverton and Hodd), I’ve always believed in the modernity of the past, from which our temporal conceit blinkers us. With an effort of the imagination we can think back to the past’s present, when it was fresh and frighteningly new to those who dwelt in it, and language can be the spell that gets us there. I was convinced that, if set back in its own linguistic context, with our awareness of Victorian literature shadow-playing in the background, an English Madame Bovary could seem searingly radical again.

Two years in, at around page 300, I felt I had been doing this all my life. Davis admitted, in a reading given during her own struggle, that, Emma-like, she was “a little bored with the whole project”. I can’t say I was ever bored, but often seriously frustrated. Inch by inch, I would cover the ground, only to slip back when, for example, I realised that Flaubert had been using an extended metaphor (military, legal, whatever) for an entire paragraph. There were times when I tumbled into the crevice between the two languages, lost all sight of a natural English sentence, felt myself turning into the constituent molecules of a linguistic object – a pattern of auxiliaries, participles, pronouns.”


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

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