Knee-Deep in ‘Bovary’

Davis in her upstate office, where she keeps many copies of Madame Bovary and almost as many well-worn dictionaries.Photo: Juliana Sohn

When Viking asked Lydia Davis to translate Madame Bovary, back in 2006, she said no. She had recently finished the massive job of translating Proust’s Swann’s Way—the first entirely new version in 80 years, and one that was widely celebrated as an improvement—and she was eager to focus again on her own creative work: the stream of meticulously unorthodox short fiction that culminated, last year, in the publication of the 733-page Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. Davis, who is now 63, hadn’t read Bovary since her first encounter with the book, in English, as a young woman—she can’t remember exactly when she read it, or even which translation. All she knows is that she was unimpressed. Emma Bovary, the housewife doomed by fantasies of a better life, struck the young Davis as a weak heroine, and Flaubert’s allegedly revolutionary realism—the prose style that launched Proust, Joyce, Stein, Kafka, Faulkner, and Conrad on their adventures in twentieth-century consciousness—seemed unremarkable. She preferred Flaubert’s final novel, Bouvard and Pécuchet.

A couple of years later, Viking asked Davis again. By that time, she missed translating. Her ideal creative rhythm, she’d discovered, was to have some large, stable project anchoring her to her desk so that her own stories could flit impulsively “around the edges.” So she started poking around in Flaubert’s novel and its many English manifestations—there are now about twenty—expecting to find at least one or two good enough to make a new translation unnecessary. She didn’t. In fact, she found the opposite. Every version she looked at had problems: clichés, errors, awkwardness, embellishments—all revisions that would have horrified Flaubert, one of history’s most obsessive revisers. Davis realized that the style she’d dismissed as unremarkable, all those years ago, wasn’t even really Flaubert’s.

“You’d think, working from one text, that the translations have got to be fairly similar,” Davis says. “But it’s amazing how different they all are. Some are fairly close, but then they’ll add a metaphor that Flaubert doesn’t have. And some are outrageously far away. Two of the most popular, Steegmuller and Hopkins—they’re not bad books. They’re well written in their own way. But they’re not close to what Flaubert did.”

Davis spent more than two years trying to create the closest possible replica of Madame Bovary that would still make sense to an English reader. Her routine was to sit down, in the morning, in front of an old boxy desktop computer with no Internet connection. (“I’m undistracted here,” she says. “I can keep it very disciplined.”) Beside her keyboard she’d have Bovary in French—a secondhand copy featuring, on its cover, the familiar caricature of Flaubert, with his smooth egg head and his mustache drooping like a pair of lobster whiskers. In front of her, propped open on mismatched book stands (wooden, plastic, metal), she’d place five different translations. Then she’d crawl, word by word, through the text, stopping occasionally to consult her pile of worn-out dictionaries or to watch the way a French phrase would ripple across the different translations—how bouffées d’affadissement, for instance, would become “waves of nausea” or “stagnant dreariness” or “a kind of rancid staleness.” (Davis’s version has “gusts of revulsion.”) On a good day she’d translate three pages.

Perfect translation, in the common-sense fantasy of one-to-one correspondence, is of course impossible. Even the simplest message, moved from one language to another, inevitably gets warped: It loses its music, its cultural resonance, and the special pace at which it surrenders its information. This warpage is magnified, by a factor of roughly 10 million, in the case of Madame Bovary. Flaubert fetishized style; he wrote slowly and revised endlessly. He worked on the novel for nearly five laborious years, and his letters from the period are a running commentary of agony. “Writing this book,” he wrote, “I am like a man playing the piano with lead balls attached to his knuckles.” At that time, the loose-baggy-monster tradition of the novel was still in ascendance: Bovary’s contemporaries include Moby-Dick, Bleak House, and Les Misérables. Flaubert’s novel, however, demonstrates the kind of perfect control seen more often in poetry: seamless sentences that unite, seamlessly, into paragraphs, which then flow seamlessly into episodes and chapters—craftsmanship so advanced that the craftsmanship disappears. As Michael Dirda once put it, “You can shake Madame Bovary and nothing will fall out.”

Davis admits that this is the one aspect of Bovary that will never survive translation: an almost superhuman cohesion. “It’s the final, perfect fit between the style and the material,” she says. “It’s impossible to achieve in English. It’s organically related.” Nevertheless, she’s given it her best shot. Her solution is a scrupulousness that seems, at times, to approach Flaubert’s. “I stay very close to the original and only depart as much as I have to,” she says. “Very close. You can stay closer than most people would think.” She agonizes over even minor departures, when English syntax or an obscure French reference force her to improvise. Her version even preserves glitches that previous translators silently corrected: odd capitalizations, for instance, and inconsistent verb tenses. (Viking made her address all of this in her introduction, so it wouldn’t just look like sloppy copyediting.)

Bovary Times Three: Was Charles really in tears?
Top: La version originale. Note verb "suffoquait."
Middle: Margaret Mauldon's translation. With marginalia by Davis.
Bottom: Davis's final take. No sobbing here.

In a sense, the pairing seems unlikely: one of our most experimental modern writers setting out to rescue the foundational text of classic realism. Davis’s fiction, after all, resists just about every convention that was perfected in Bovary: characters built up, patiently, out of coolly observed external details; an immaculately swelling plot made up of neat little scenes. (“I am simply not interested … in creating narrative scenes between characters,” Davis once told an interviewer.) And yet reading her version of Flaubert also reminds us how untraditional tradition can be. Some of Madame Bovary’s strongest scenes are its most formally innovative—many of them, in fact, would serve as excellent premises for Lydia Davis stories: e.g., the county fair, at which a lover’s pickup lines are interrupted constantly by the announcement of agricultural awards, or the tryst inside a closed carriage, in which sex is implied mainly by the matter-of-fact description of the vehicle’s route. For Davis, the relationship between fiction and translation is often symbiotic. Being immersed in the long sentences of Proust, for instance, led her to experiment with a form that eventually became one of her signatures: the extremely brief story, often as short as a single sentence. (Here, for instance, is the entire story “Information From the North Concerning the Ice”: “Each seal uses many blowholes, and each blowhole is used by many seals.”) Davis says it’s impossible to predict how her intensive Flaubert communion will manifest itself in her writing, but already it’s yielded a project that spans the art-life border with characteristic quirkiness. In the Paris Review, Davis recently published a series of vignettes called “Ten Stories from Flaubert”—anecdotes she discovered in his letters and decided to isolate, translate, and shape into little Davis-like stories.

Davis lives with her husband, the abstract painter Alan Cote, in an old brick schoolhouse in upstate New York. (Art-life again: Madame Bovary begins in a schoolhouse, with young Charles and his ridiculous hat.) Down the street there’s a cemetery with headstones from Flaubert’s era. Across the road is a cow pasture. Davis likes to stand at her upstairs window and watch the five black cows who live there, trying to memorize their schedules and behaviors and occasionally even writing stories about them.

In her office, Davis shows me her Flaubert stash. Before long we’re knee-deep in Bovary, reading sentences from various translations aloud to each other. She points to a page whose margins are thick with pencil marks. “This is a passage where I really got indignant,” she says. (Indignant seems to be about as worked up as she gets.) “Those pluses are all things [the translator] added.” There are pluses next to the words dawdled, sauntered slowly, for their meeting, pirouetting, and thronging—places where the translator tried to jazz things up, or to help the reader out with exposition.

Then Davis points to a passage at the end of the book, in which Charles Bovary sits in his garden and—in spite of all that’s happened—pines for his lost, unfaithful wife. It’s a moving scene: Nature is in full glory (“jasmine scented the air, cantharides beetles droned busily round the flowering lilies”), but Charles just sits there, lost in some fantasy of the past, “sobbing like an adolescent.” Davis shakes her head. For one thing, Charles isn’t sobbing in the original—he’s suffocating. But her real complaint is with those beetles. Flaubert never made them busy. “Now, you see, I think that’s completely unnecessary,” she says. “To insert ‘busily,’ which is a personification—something Flaubert was very careful to avoid. It may seem a small thing, but to me that’s a big thing. Because it’s so easy not to put it in. I think maybe it’s a reflexive thing that she wasn’t even aware of.” Which would, of course, make the crime even worse—an example of the kind of automatic thinking and language that Flaubert detested.

Davis has been translating French texts—everything from workaday biographies to the theorist Maurice Blanchot—for around 40 years. Madame Bovary, she tells me, will probably be her last one. She’s tired of the deadlines; her old red French dictionary is basically disintegrating from overuse; and she wants more time for her own writing. But quitting might be impossible. Somewhere in the middle of comparing translations, she stops and smiles through another moment of indignation. “I love doing this,” she says.

Knee-Deep in ‘Bovary’