The first thing to say about Madame Bovary is that it's a terrific story. Other comparably great and famous novels aren't, but it is. Everyone should read it. Everyone would read it, given a free taste. The plot fairly belts along from the first page. Young Charles Bovary clumps into school to be laughed at by the other kids for his awkwardness. In no time he is a medical student, and then a doctor. The beautiful Emma Rouault is his second wife. He wins the right to her hand after setting her father's broken leg. It's a simple job but it gets him a reputation for competence. Fatally, he believes this too. Stuck with him in the depths of nowhere, Emma gradually realizes that she has married a chump. Longing for excitement and a classier way of life, she falls for a charming poseur called Leon. Their incipient affair is a standoff. But with an upmarket louse called Rodolphe she finds sexual fulfillment and plans a future. Sharing no such plans, Rodolphe dumps her. She collapses. Nursed back to health by the unsuspecting Charles, she hooks up again with Leon. This time it really happens. But the extravagance of her double life, financed by money stolen from Charles, gets her into ruinous debt. The loan shark closes in, Leon backs out, and Emma has only one way to go. On a shelf in the pharmacist's shop nearby is a bottle of … but I won't say how it comes out, because some of you might not yet have read the book.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Image source: Karen Kao
Some purists would say you can't. They would say that Flaubert's prose style is the essence of his art, and too near perfection to survive being translated. But we have to ask ourselves what we mean by the word "style." Undoubtedly there is a rhythm and a cadence to Flaubert's prose that only a fluent reader of French can appreciate, although the fluent reader of French had better be French. We are always better judges of tone in our first language than in a second or third. To turn things around for a moment, late-nineteenth-century French critics were under the impression that Edgar Allan Poe was not only a spellbinding tale-teller but also a great master of English prose; and in the twentieth century it was widely assumed in the French literary world that the leading stylist of the English literary world was Charles Morgan, a dim bulb now long extinguished. If we are learning a foreign language, we tend to admire writers in it who are easy to read. One of the early bonuses attached to learning Russian, for example, is that all the standard European fairy tales were rewritten from the ground up by great writers. So within a few weeks you are reading Tolstoy, whose name is on the title page of The Three Bears. It isn't all that long a step to reading Anna Karenina, because Tolstoy's sentences are never very tricky, however high the level of exposition. The temptation is to call Tolstoy a stylist. But in Russian, Turgenev was the stylist. Turgenev was the one who cared about repeating a word too soon. Tolstoy hardly cared at all.
It can safely be assumed that Flaubert's prose makes music. More important, however, is that it would be impressive even if it didn't. This is where the second, and richer, meaning of the word "style" comes in. You need only rudimentary French to spot that Flaubert never wastes a word. Every word is to the point, especially in the descriptive passages. In his landscapes trees are sometimes just trees and leaves leaves; but when it matters, he can give everything a specific name. Within four walls he gives every object a pinpoint particularity. If he is looking at things through Emma's eyes, he adds his analytical power to her naive hunger. Emma's wishes may have been blurred by her addiction to sentimental novels, but her creator, never sentimental for a second, keeps her perceptions sharp. Early in the story there is a ball at a grand house—an episode that awakes in Emma a dangerous taste for the high life. In a few paragraphs, using Emma's vision as a camera, Flaubert captures the sumptuous glamour with a photographic scope that makes us think of those lavish get-togethers in War and Peace, in Proust, or in The Leopard. Dickens could lay out a scene like that too, but he would spend thousands of words on it.
Minting his every phrase afresh, Flaubert avoided clichés like poison. "Avoid like poison" is a cliché, and one that Flaubert would either not have used if he had been composing in English or have flagged with italics to show that he knew it came ready-made. Martin Amis's War Against Cliché is nothing beside that of Flaubert, who waged his with nuclear weapons. (He died waging it: his last book, Bouvard et Pecuchet, was about no other subject.) Any translator must be unusually alert to what is alive or dead about his own use of language or else he will do an injury to Flaubert's style far more serious than merely failing to reproduce its pulse and lilt. When Flaubert seems to be saying that Charles's off-putting first wife is long in the tooth, the translator had better be careful about calling her long in the tooth, which in English means "old": Flaubert is just saying that her teeth are long. Unfortunately, evidence continues to accumulate that we are now past the time when more than a few jobbing writers knew how to keep an eye on their own prose. In the second-to-last stage of our language's decay it was enough to write correctly in order to gain a reputation for writing well. Now we are in the last stage, when almost nobody knows what it means to write correctly. Among ordinary pens for hire it is no longer common to write without solecisms; even those who can are likely to bolt phrases together with no real attention to their derivation; and in too many cases the language is utterly emptied of the history that brought it into being. This is a very depleted gene pool in which to go fishing for a translator of any foreign writer at all, let alone Flaubert. One can only salute the boldness of a publishing house still willing to give it a try. It might be wise, however, not to let the salute progress far above the shoulder until we have made sure that what we are acknowledging is a real contribution.
It may only look like one. Perhaps to mark the fact that one of the supreme achievements of French literature is being once again done into English, Oxford's physically handsome new translation of Madame Bovary, by Margaret Mauldon, bears on its cover James Tissot's Young Woman in a Boat, dating from 1870. Tissot, after quitting France the next year, spent the rest of his life being claimed by the English as one of their painters, so the invocation of his name can be counted as a nice cross-Channel touch. But Madame Bovary was first published in 1857. Considering that women's fashions scarcely stayed frozen in those thirteen years, a pedant might wish that a French painter of a slightly earlier period could have been called in; but the young lady certainly has a sensual mouth, which can be said to fit. Already, though, it is hard to suppress a suspicion that in the matter of historical fidelity things are out of kilter, and the suspicion intensifies once the book is opened. Professor Malcolm Bowie, who wrote the informative introduction, makes much ado in his back-of-the-jacket blurb about Flaubert's precision, which the professor assures us is matched by Mauldon's brand-new and meticulously accurate translation of the actual work. Any reader wishing to believe this is advised to start on page one. He had better not open the book accidentally at page 178, on which we find Emma's lover Rodolphe justifying to himself his decision to ditch her. Rodolphe is supposed to be a creep, but surely he never spoke the French equivalent of late-twentieth-century American slang: "And anyway there's all those problems, all that expense, as well. Oh, no! No way! It would have been too stupid."
Just to be certain that Rodolphe never spoke like a Hollywood agent, we can take a look at the same line in the original: "Et, d'ailleurs, les embarras, la dépense … Ah! non, non, mille fois non! Cela eût été trop bête!" The perfectly ordinary, time-tested English idiom "No, no, a thousand times no!" would have fitted exactly. The awful possibility arises that Mauldon has never paid much attention to English idioms like that. Instead she thinks "No way!" is perfectly ordinary. We can take it for granted that she knows the French language of Flaubert's era inside out. (She has already translated, for the same series of Oxford World's Classics, works by Zola, Stendhal, Huysmans, Constant, and Maupassant.) But she has a crucially weaker knowledge of how the English language of her own era has been corrupted. You might say that English has always advanced through corruption, but "No way!" is an idiom so closely tied to the present that it can hardly fail to weaken any attempt to summon up the past. In Alan Russell's translation of Madame Bovary, first published by Penguin in 1950, there is no "No way!" Probably the phrase did not yet exist, but almost certainly Russell would not have used it even if it had. What he wrote was "No, no, by Heaven no!" Not quite as good as "a thousand times no!" perhaps, but certainly better than "No way!": better because more neutral, in the sense of being less tied to the present time.
This is not to say that such glaring anachronisms are frequent in Mauldon's translation. On page 23, when Charles Bovary is seeking Emma Rouault's hand, Emma's father thinks of him as "a bit of a loser," where Russell has "rather a wisp of a man"—which, as well as being less of a jazzy putdown from the late twentieth century, happens to be more accurate: a gringalet, according to my French-English dictionary, is a "little undersized fellow." But apart from a few moments like that, Mauldon is safe from being accused of outright barbarism. What she isn't safe from is the question of whether her translation is really an improvement on Russell's. Why try to improve on it if all she can offer is a prose that sounds—purportedly sounds—less dated? Isn't a dated prose style what we want? Admittedly, Russell translated "nègre" as "nigger." If only for justice, that one word was demanding to be changed, and Mauldon changes it, to "black man." But I can't find even one other word in Russell's translation that sounds dated in the wrong way. All the rest of it sounds dated in the right way—that is, closer to Flaubert in time. It must also be said, alas, that most of it is closer to Flaubert in possessing a sense of style. Mauldon might say that accuracy precluded an easy stylistic flow, but if she said that, she would have to prove herself accurate. Despite the heavy endorsement from Professor Bowie, her accuracy is not always beyond cavil.
The caviling starts early in Part One, Chapter One, where we get this sentence about Charles's parents: "His wife had been wild about him at first; she had treated him with an amorous servility that had turned him against her all the more." According to Flaubert, "elle l'avait aimé avec mille servilités qui l'avaient détaché d'elle encore davantage." Where did the "thousand" go? Russell has the wife "lavishing on him a thousand servilities." You could say that the word "lavishing" is put in—but what Mauldon has left out might matter: the wife did a lot of specific things, not just one. And as so often happens with translators, a deadly knack of weakening points by being untrue to the text is accompanied by an even deadlier knack of missing them altogether by being true to it. Later in the opening chapter (during which Charles grows to manhood in only a few pages of hurtling compression) there is a quick summary of his dissipations at medical school, culminating in a clause in which he "learned how to make punch, and, at long last, discovered love." Thus Mauldon—and indeed, all Flaubert says is that he "sut faire du punch et connut enfin l'amour." But Flaubert doesn't mean just discovering love, he means learning to make love. Flaubert is talking about sex. Russell does better by juicing the text: young Charles "took lessons in making punch, and finally in making love." So the older translation is franker, and thus truer to a novel whose frankness about these things, in the great gallery of nineteenth-century novels, puts Flaubert beside Tolstoy, and ahead of both Dickens and Henry James.
In Part One, Chapter Three, Flaubert pulls off a fatefully resonant effect when Emma drains her glass of curaçao while Charles watches. Flaubert's micrometrically particular style is watching her as well: "le bout de sa langue … léchait à petits coups le fond du verre." Mauldon's version ("the tip of her tongue … delicately licked at the bottom of the glass") misses the repetitive movement. Russell missed it too, but he may have deliberately dodged it, having spotted the pornographic element in those multiple dartings. They are a forecast of that astonishing single-paragraph set piece in Part Two, Chapter Nine, when we can tell what Rodolphe has just done to Emma because the whole landscape has an orgasm. Ever the keen student, Mauldon is well aware that with Flaubert, the man who invented the style indirect libre (although he himself never used the term), any description of anything can relate to the interior lives of the characters in the scene. She is aware of it, but all too often she doesn't spot the way it works.
Even with the direct style, in which emotions are stated up front, she can miss a lot, especially when it depends on an apparently minor point of grammar and syntax. There is a telling example at the end of Part One, Chapter Five, when Charles, after a night in bed with his beautiful wife, goes riding off to work, "his heart full of the night's bliss." Once again Mauldon might have done better to observe the difference between the singular and the plural. Flaubert has Charles's heart "plein des félicités de la nuit." Emma has more to offer than an abstract noun. Sensibly and more sensitively, Russell goes with the numbers: "the joys of the night." Like the thousand servilities, the joys of the night are separable events. She did this, she did that; her husband remembers as he rides.
In Part One, Chapter Seven, Emma finally admits to herself that her marriage is boring her to metaphorical death. "Pourquoi, mon Dieu, me suis-je mariée?" Russell, perhaps redundantly but at least faithfully, doubles the invocation of the deity into "O God, O God." Inexplicably, Mauldon switches it to the mundane: "Why in the world did I ever get married?" This seemingly tiny emendation counts as a heavy loss when one considers Emma's habitually blasphemous relation to the Church. In her downhill phase she will use the house of God as a trysting place for adultery. If we count as a poem any length of writing that can't be quoted from except out of context, then Madame Bovary is a poem. We might monkey with its language, but we mustn't monkey with its internal consistency.
Strangely enough, on the face of it, an amateur literary stylist is less likely to do that than a professional scholar. But really it is not so strange. From before World War I until well after World War II, in the long heyday of the gentleman translators, the leading practitioners were not always supported by a cheering squad from the academy, but they could write a confident prose of their own, however daunting the foreign model. Among them they had most of the big languages covered, and almost all of them were casually at home with French—which, in an era when Greek and Latin still dominated the syllabus, was more commonly acquired on vacation than in the schoolroom. C. K. Scott Moncrieff's Proust eventually needed upgrading as to accuracy, but Terence Kilmartin, who wrote an elegant prose himself when moonlighting from his job as literary editor of the Observer, was properly respectful of the standard Scott Moncrieff had set in matching Proust's flow; and in the final stages D. J. Enright, another part-timer, was properly respectful of Kilmartin. There is not likely to be a further advance on the Proust that Kilmartin and Enright gave us, although there will probably be no shortage of boondoggles like the recent group effort by which various translators took on a section each, thus inadvertently proving that a single voice was the only thing holding the original together. "Either you got the voice," as the great soprano Zinka Milanov legendarily said, "or you don't got the voice."
The amateurs had voices of their own with which to pay respect to the foreign voices they loved. In the decade after World War II the well-connected bunch of translators who were grouped around Roger Senhouse, a Francophile who raised dilettantism to the level of a profession, did a collective job of translating Colette that will brook no superseding, mainly because the job was composed of individual spare-time efforts, each answering to a passion. Even more wonderful than her books about Cheri, Colette's masterpiece, Julie de Carneilhan, will never need translating again; the job was done for keeps by the prodigiously gifted Patrick Leigh Fermor while he was cooling down from his wartime adventures. In the same fruitful few years of recovery from the physical battle against barbarism, the petite nineteenth-century French novels that buttressed the achievement of Madame Bovary and sometimes even preceded it—Constant's Adolphe, Maupassant's Bel-Ami, Daudet's Sappho—were translated by people who saw fidelity to them as a delightful but temporary duty, not as part of a long slog to corner a market. Most of those translations showed up in the prettily handy postwar series from Hamish Hamilton called the Novel Library. Now long defunct as a commercial proposition, the series is catnip for collectors in secondhand bookshops all over the planet. One of the Novel Library's particular jewels was the 1948 translation of Madame Bovary by Gerard Hopkins, who had the elementary tact to render "mille fois non" as "a thousand times no." (I could as easily have used his renderings as Russell's in the task of measuring Mauldon's, but the Penguin translation is the one most of us in the old British Empire grew up with, just as most Americans grew up with Francis Steegmuller's translation.)
The impulse behind the great wave of amateur translations—and this was especially true in the immediate aftermath of World War II—was a generous desire to bring foreign cultural treasures within reach of ordinary people. It was the era when patricians, having seen civilization taken to the brink of ruin, still thought it might be preserved if enlightenment could be spread more equally. Book lovers who knew that their multilingual education was a privilege wanted to share it with people less lucky. The work was aimed directly at the public, not at the academy. Presumably Mauldon is looking to the public too, but her pages of notes at the end of this book are looking to Professor Bowie: they are proof of academic diligence. To put it bluntly, recent translations tend to be busywork, and earlier ones tend to be the real tributes, even when inaccurate by scholarly standards.
No doubt this new translation of Madame Bovary is a labor of love. But affection and affectation don't sit well together. In his introduction Professor Bowie quotes his protégé's translation of the paragraph about Rodolphe that contains the most famous thing Flaubert ever wrote about human language. According to Mauldon, Flaubert said it was "like a cracked kettledrum on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when what we long to do is make music that will move the stars to pity." Well, it certainly sounds precise. But it isn't, quite. In his introduction to the first, 1950 edition Alan Russell revealed that he thought Les liaisons dangereuses was a seventeenth-century novel—wrong by a hundred years. (He quietly corrected the blunder for later editions, but it remains a pretty noisy blunder to have made.) But he knew that a chaudron isn't a kettledrum. Back in Sydney, in the First Kogarah Company of the Boys' Brigade, I played the kettledrum often enough to know that its barrel can be pretty seriously cracked and it still won't yield a dud note. It does that when its skin is split. If Flaubert had meant a kettledrum, he would have said so. What he meant was a kettle. Russell rendered the word that way, and so did Gerard Hopkins.
So much for accuracy as a fetish: it is bound to lead one into trouble when one strays into the territory of stuff that won't stay still to be researched. And in that territory lie the things of the mind. As his learned admirers, from Francis Steegmuller to Julian Barnes, have had so much constructive fun telling us, Flaubert would go to any lengths in the quest for factual precision. But Flaubert was a creative genius: he was putting his research to work in aid of psychological perceptions that were uniquely his. One of those perceptions was that he himself was Madame Bovary. No wonder he loved her. Loving her, he gave her novel everything he had. Henry James thought that Madame Bovarywas as good as Flaubert ever got. James was wrong to believe that the book was a tract against immorality. If it was, then its author notably failed to heed the lesson. But James might have been right to believe that everything Flaubert subsequently wrote added up to a decline. Even Proust thought that le mot justemade a fetish out of what should be taken for granted. The Monty Python crew translated Wuthering Heights into semaphore, and incidentally proposed that in a novel, story comes before language. So it does, even when the language is a miracle.
As a story, Madame Bovary is fit for worship, but it should be worshipped critically, as man-made and not a sacred text. At one point Emma confides her sexual frustration to her maid, Felicité. But nothing comes of it. Flaubert might have had the idea that Felicité would be part of the action as Emma's confidante. If so, he forgot about it, and then forgot to take that bit out. It was a big uncertainty to leave in. There is no uncertainty about the style, but there again, the wrong kind of worship leads to myopia. Blinded by the dazzle, Mauldon just doesn't seem to see the absurdity of leaving some of the French as French. Various periodicals are read by the characters in the novel. Mauldon leaves their titles untranslated. So did Hopkins, but Russell was daring enough to give rough English equivalents. The tacit claim behind leaving French words as they are is that your sense of accuracy is so highly developed that if you can't find an exact equivalent, the word should be left inviolate. But in that case, why translate the thing at all?
The question is all too well worth asking, alas. Judging from its introduction and appended apparatus, this translation is looking for a home on the kind of university syllabus in which students are encouraged to believe that they can absorb foreign literatures without ever bothering themselves with the languages in which they were written. In that regard America's economic dominance of the earth has made the English language imperialistic beyond the dreams of the people who invented it. No doubt it had to happen. Most of the amateur translators were already primed with at least one of the two ancient languages when they arrived at university, after which they acquired three or four of the modern languages as easily as if dipping themselves in paint. Those times won't be coming back. Nor will the once universal assumption among the literate that their time at university was merely the beginning of an education that would last for the rest of their lives.
But surely some of the effort put into the illusory omniscience of today's comfortably monoglot students could be put into teaching them at least one foreign language as a compulsory subject; and surely, in that case, French should be the first on the list. One doesn't ask for perfection. Anyone, even starting late, can learn enough French to know that Flaubert didn't actually sound like any of his translators, no matter how accurate. Using Proust as my handbook, I spent fifteen years learning to read French, and I still don't read it much less haltingly than I speak it. But I can read enough of Flaubert's Madame Bovary to know that a translator who can't carry the reader with her own style will put that marvelous book further away, even while she strains every nerve to bring it close.
Credits: This article appears in the October 2004 issue of The Atlantic.