Thursday, January 13, 2011

But Is That What Flaubert Wrote?

          It took Gustave Flaubert five years to complete Madame Bovary, and there’s a line in the novel that expresses how difficult it is to communicate: “. . . human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance, when we long to move the stars.”
          But is that what Flaubert wrote? The author, who searched for the “le mote juste,” is translated differently in significant ways. The above quote is from the version I first read, by Eleanor Marx Aveling. I found it suspect at times, so I got a translation by Francis Steegmuller; here is his rendering of the same excerpt: “. . . human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.” You can choose which version you prefer, but what words come closest to the ones that Flaubert chose?
          “We” is the first word of the novel, referring to the schoolboys who witness Charles come into their classroom. Both authors use “we” here, but Aveling reintroduces this “we” in the beginning of Part Two, describing Yonville (“We leave the highroad . . .”). In the Steegmuller version there is no “we” in this section. So the simple question arises again: what did Flaubert write?
          The last words Emma hears, and her reaction, are of great importance. Here is the Steegmuller translation:

       Suddenly from out on the sidewalk came a noise of heavy wooden shoes and the scraping of a stick, and a voice rose up, a  raucous voice singing:

A clear day’s warmth will often move
A lass to stray in dreams of love.

        Emma sat up like a galvanized corpse, her hair streaming, her eyes fixed and gaping.

To gather up the stalks of wheat
The swinging scythe keeps laying by,
Nanette goes stooping in the heat
Along the furrow where they lie.

       “The blind man!” she cried.
       Emma began to laugh — a horrible, frantic, desperate laugh — fancying that she saw the beggar’s hideous face, a figure of horror looming up in the darkness of eternity.

The wind blew very hard that day
And snatched her petticoat away!

       A spasm flung her down on the mattress. Everyone drew close. She had ceased to exist.


       Suddenly on the pavement was heard a loud noise of clogs and the clattering of a stick; and a voice rose — a raucous voice — that sang — 

“Maids in the warmth of a summer day
Dream of love and of love alway.”

       Emma raised herself like a galvanized corpse, her hair undone, her eyes fixed, staring.

“Where the sickle blades have been
Nanette, gathering ears of corn,         
Passes bending down, my queen,
To the earth where they were born.”

       “The blind man!” she cried. And Emma began to laugh, an atrocious, frantic, despairing laugh, thinking she saw the hideous face of the poor wretch that stood out against the eternal night like a menace.

“The wind is strong this summer day
Her petticoat has flown away.

       She fell back upon the mattress in a convulsion. They all drew near. She was dead.

          The general meaning of the scene is the same, though the language differs significantly. Of course, the demands of rhyming create difficulties, but the differences in the song are extreme enough to change the tone; one version is matter-of-fact, the other rhapsodic. And did Emma fancy that she saw “the beggar’s hideous face, a figure of horror looming up in the darkness of eternity” or did she think she saw “the hideous face of the poor wretch that stood out against the eternal night like a menace”?
          I’ve selected only a few examples; I could have cited a multitude. These discrepancies amount to more than nitpicking. Flaubert cared intensely about words; so should we. Vladimir Nabokov railed against a translation of Dead Souls which he believed leached the vitality from Gogol’s prose. Such passion is worthy of respect.
          I recognize that the task translators face is more daunting than I can imagine. Those who faithfully render the wording and spirit of the authors whose work they’re entrusted with should be elevated to the status of artists. The problem is, how do we know who the artists are?



Phillip Routh said...

I came across Geoffey Wall's translation for the Penguin edition of Madame Bovary.
Here's his version of the sentence cited in my review:
". . . human speech is like a cracked cauldron on which we knock out tunes for dancing-bears, when we wish to conjure pity from the stars."

Phillip Routh said...

I recently learned that Nabokov's copy of the Aveling translation of Madame Bovary (the version I read) is covered with correcting marginalia. He highly disapproved of it.
In his copy of a New Yorker anthology (stories from 1940 to 1950) he assigns grades. Many D's and F's. Top marks went to Jessamyn West's "The Mysteries of Life in an Orderly Manner" (A-) and Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" (A). Two stories got an A+: Salinger's "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" and "Colette" by someone named Vladimir Nabokov.