Madame Bovary in Translation: A Review
by Eric Pinder
Je suis un américain stupide. That’s pretty much all that’s left of my high school French. (Translated literally, it means, “Excuse me, I’m lost.”) Sometimes, listening to Quebec radio, I’ll understand every tenth word. Numbers jump out at me, though. Once I watched a tennis match on a Quebec station; the commentators’ voices sounded like this: “la la la la la forty fifteen la la la la la Martina Hingis la la la third set."
Madame Bovary is a book that makes me wish I had better French, so I could read it in the original. What makes this book so special? Not the plot about an adulterous love affair (considered steamy and scandalous enough in its day to ban the book and put the author and publisher on trial). Not the humor (of which there’s plenty, especially in the beginning. I laughed often. Oddly, Flaubert himself never seemed to realize he’d written a funny book. In one of his letters, after the success of Bovary, he expresses befuddlement at being asked to write a comic!? opera).
The real strength of Madame Bovary is the poetic, almost musical, quality of the language. Flaubert chooses each word carefully, like a note in a symphony.
I’ve read every translation I could get my hands on. The best, in my opinion, is the one by Paul de Man, based on the Eleanor Marx Aveling translation. I also liked the Mildred Murmur version. These best preserved the rhythm and lyricism of Flaubert’s writing. For some reason, the widely available Francis Steegmuller translation fell flat to my ears. It was like listening to a familiar melody played on out-of-tune instruments.
Steegmuller’s collections of Flaubert’s letters make good reading. But when it comes to translations of Bovary the novel. . . .Paul, you de man.