madame bovary

IsabelleHuppertBovary

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I'm currently reading Lydia Davis' new translation of Madame Bovary and it is exquisite. I rarely underline sentences when I am reading a novel but with this one, I find myself reaching for a pen to highlight certain passages. Like the one below, so perfect and precise:
"Perhaps she would have liked to confide in someone about all these things. But how to express an uneasiness so intangible, one that changes shape like a cloud, that changes direction like the wind? She lacked the words, the occasion, the courage." 
I was so captivated by the book's lyrical prose that I immediately looked up Lydia Davis and found this article on translation that she wrote for the Paris Review. I don't speak or read French but it is interesting how she listed all the previous translations of the phrase 'bouffĂ©es d’affadissement'. Which makes you wonder, if a phrase can be interpreted in so many ways, how about an entire book? And what of the author's writing style, can one really capture that in translation?

I never thought about this before because for the most part I am just thankful for great books that have English translations I can enjoy. And indeed if a piece of literature is able to stand the test of time partly because of its English incarnations, then its essence must have been preserved, right? Definitely something to think about. In the meantime, I will continue to savor this beautiful book.

Have any of you read Madame Bovary? I'd love to hear your thoughts about it. Most especially, what do you think of Emma?

Images from the film adaption of Madame Bovary (1991)

12 comments:

  1. I read the book maybe ten years ago. We had a real problem here in Brazil in the past with translations. The books were usually first translated to english, then translated to portuguese. If you can loose a lot in a translation, you can only imagine how much was lost between two translations. That's why I begin to read books in english. Now the situation has changed, thankfully, and we have direct translators.

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    1. Camila, wow, that sounds like a tedious translation process! Thank goodness it's changed now.

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  2. i think i've told you that, at least when i was sixteen/seventeen, i reeeally identified with emma -- her romantic tendencies and discontentment and stupid choices -- and that at least as much as the actual plot was what depressed me so much about that book, i reckon!

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    1. Holly, I do remember you telling me that you were depressed reading this book. I'm still in the beginning stages of Emma's discontent and if I had read this when I was younger I'd probably identify to all her romantic disillusions, too.

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  3. I've wanted to read M.Bovary for a while, I'm so backed up in my book list. But you are so right about the translation biz. I found that out when I was tackling the Tolstoy books. A friend's mom was lamenting all of the translations (she's Russian, of course). So then I got every book from the library.. about 3 or 4 different copies and compared them. It was amazing, they were so different. I had the realization that you could be reading almost a different book. I will be doing the best I can until I learn uber-fluent Russian and French haha

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    1. Missy, same here. M.Bovary has always been on my list for the longest time and I'm really glad that I finally picked it up. And wow, its my dream to be fluent in both Russian and French, mainly because all of the novels that I adore are in both languages, haha! I'm afraid this will probably remain just a dream but lucky you to be learning both. And is the Tolstoy book Anna Karenina, perhaps? I heard that the book is so much more beautiful in Russian.

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    2. Oh Odessa, I was laughing at the end of that because being fluent in both languages will most likely be a dream for me. I don't want to say never, but to learn something well enough to get the nuances is more than fluency, I think. It was Anna Karenina and War and Peace, my friend's mom was saying you must read them in Russian, but I humbly loved them in English, especially Karenina! Have you read it? I want to discuss! haha

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    3. Missy, I know what you mean about languages and nuances. I've been learning how to write and speak Japanese but its really difficult to get the subtle nuances when talking to a native speaker and I'm often lost. Haha!

      As for Anna Karenina, I started it last winter. Thought Anna and Vronsky had such sizzling chemistry there was no way it could last and there was no way they could have avoided it either. I stopped somewhere around Book 4 because of Levin's monologue about agrarian reforms and I just wasn't in the mood for it. I wanted to skip his parts and go back to Anna but I didn't want to read the book that way so I stopped. I will definitely pick it up again because I want to finish it before the movie comes out. :)

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  4. haha agrarian reforms, yeah what was he thinking. I guess he wanted to ger on the soapbox. Other than that, I actually really related to Levin's character. He was really awkward and came across all wrong to everyone, he was so complete as a character. Tolstoy struck out again in War and Peace. The whole epilogue is about history and free-will and heroes versus everyday men. It drove me crazy. I wanted to tear it out of the book, it was that annoying haha. My grandmother was in a book club and she told me they were just reading the epilogue, and I could not understand why anyone would do that. It's like buying a beautiful cake from the shop and then eating the cardboard underneath.

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    1. Oy, I'm not even sure if I want to touch War and Peace. That epilogue sounds tedious. As for Levin, I liked him so far. He's the most sympathetic out of all the characters, if only he'd stop his internal monologue about agrarian reforms, haha. But that's what makes him Levin, I guess. :)

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  5. "Perhaps she would have liked to confide in someone about all these things. But how to express an uneasiness so intangible, one that changes shape like a cloud, that changes direction like the wind?..."

    Like a cloud. Yes, that's it exactly. You have me keen to revisit this book and to seek out this translation. I am eager to see what new things I see upon rereading. Thanks.

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    1. Gracia, you're welcome. I hope you can reread it soon. :)

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