28 May 2013

Multiple translations of foreign-language classics into English, part 1

Although this blog is mostly about translating technical journalism, I have more than a passing interest in literary translation into English. Reviews of recent re-translations of two classics of European literature are interesting in their own right and for the spotlight they cast on the challenges and variability of all types of translation.

First, an excellent article by Julian Barnes in the London Review of Books (Vol. 32 No. 22, 18 November 2010 pages 7-11, 5855 words) here. This extended review of Madame Bovary: Provincial Ways by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Lydia Davis
(Penguin, 342 pp, £20.00, November 2010, ISBN 978 1 84614 104 1) explains a number of interesting aspects of Lydia Davis's translation, and translation in general, complete with comparisons and examples from other English-language versions. Recommended reading for translators and others.

Some quotable quotes:
You would want it to provoke in you most of the same reactions as it would provoke in a French reader (though you would also want some sense of distance, and the pleasure of exploring a different world). (my italics and bold)
But then translation involves micro-pedantry as much as the full yet controlled use of the linguistic imagination. The plainest sentence is full of hazard; often the choices available seem to be between different percentages of loss.  
This is the paradox and bind of translation. If to be ‘faithful’ is to be ‘clunky’, then it is also to be unfaithful, because Flaubert was not a ‘clunky’ writer.
And last but not least:
Madame Bovary is many things – a perfect piece of fictional machinery, the pinnacle of realism, the slaughterer of Romanticism, a complex study of failure – but it is also the first great shopping and fucking novel.

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