Monday, December 12, 2011

Gustave Flaubert (b. December 12, 1821) and the perils of translation

Flaubert did strange things, such as eliminating any authorial voice or stable moral centre; he used the imperfect as his main tense, giving a single action the sense of being suspended in time; played with varying shades of irony down to the deepest hues of pastiche; slipped between the subjective and the objective viewpoint without a tremor. The first quarter of the book is more about Charles, the dullest of husbands, than about Emma – whose enamel-like eyes are blue, deep blue, brown and black.

In his new essay, author and translator Adam Thorpe calls Flaubert's Madame Bovary "the Everest of translation," and from his description above, it's easy to see why. Yet it is a deceptively simple story, almost boring in numbing detail, that turns even adultery into despair.

It is this precision with the mundane, the expression of nineteenth-century mores at the heart of a soul-crushing, bourgeois marriage, that Flaubert captured so realistically. What Thorpe calls the novel's "shimmering surface" is a treacherous ice-field of meaning, the difference between Flaubert's intent and his author's realism a thin edge that makes the story the first recognizably modern novel, as well as a nearly cinematic one.

Best to go carefully: in attempting this, the 20th translation of Bovary, Thorpe spent three years not only on linguistics but historical research, and comparing earlier drafts of the novel at the University of Rouen. He thought to use an 1853 French dictionary, and even found a first edition of the novel -- as he writes, the copy was only affordable because "oeuvre immorale" ("immoral work") had been scrawled with a quill on the flyleaf, and an anti-royalist page torn out. But Thorpe found even comparing the author's original drafts could be tricky:

For instance, Flaubert bizarrely uses the plural "jours" (normally "days", less usually "chinks", but also "daylight" in the singular) to describe light filtering in through a trellis on the dying Charles: "Des jours passaient par le treillis." Flaubert had included the following in an earlier draft: "All the sorrows of his life returned to him … from the first day to the last."' He cut this, but persisted (if hesitantly) with the awkward "jours"; I was sure that he intended this to be initially misread as the poetic and ambiguous "Days passed by the trellis", suggesting memories and the changing seasons.

For a translator, language and the various meanings of words have to be evaluated in context, their shadings examined as well as the author's intent. Of course it helps to have original notes, if you're lucky, but there are passages in Flaubert that depend on the sound of the language as well as meaning. Here's Thorpe describing Emma's waltz at the chateau:

In the French, the whirling dissolves the words into a streaky, clicking blur of vowels: "Ils tournaient: tout tournaient autour d'eux …" It seemed essential to mimic this mimicry, but how? Previous translations had not even tried: "They turned, and everything turned round them …" (Alan Russell); "They were turning: everything was turning around them …" (both Geoffrey Wall and Davis). I felt the key was to use stretched vowels and to find an equivalent echo between "tout" and "tournaient": "They were reeling round: all reeled round and about them …"

Then there is the fact that Flaubert himself revised the novel on subsequent printings, a translator's ultimate challenge. Thorpe admits that, faced with Flaubert's changes, he may feel just as free to alter his translation in later editions. Ultimately, however, the translator describes Flaubert as the "disappointed romantic" who wrote his realism with a kind of "quasi-scientific exactitude." As he points out, "Flaubert created an autonomous parallel universe: fiction as refuge from an outside world full of pain, peevishness and bourgeois vulgarity."

Even more is at stake when the very genius of the novel lies on the shimmering surface. This is not to do with ornament, but meaning. Flaubert wished to close the gap not just between words and emotional truths, but between words and things: the sound of Hippolyte's wooden leg in the church ("They heard on the flagstones something like the sharp click of an iron-shod pole tapping them with even strokes"); the lumbering sway of cattle; the scoop of a hand in sugar-white arsenic.

Today most readers would recognize Emma Bovary as a contemporary figure, caught in the demands of a culture filled with its own bourgeois vulgarity. That authorial awareness which Thorpe describes as exactitude -- Flaubert's triumph -- eventually became a hallmark of literary realism, familiar to most readers who expect stories these days to present life in some kind of real-life versimilitude. Unfortunately, that more often than not results in much fiction being as dreadful and boring on its own, which makes Flaubert's "shimmering surface" all the more remarkable.

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