The must-have deluxe edition of the fantastically acclaimed new translation of one of the world's most celebrated novels.
Emma Bovary is the original desperate housewife. Beautiful but bored, she spends lavishly on clothes and on her home and embarks on two disappointing affairs in an effort to make her life everything she believes it should be. Soon heartbroken and crippled by debts, she takes drastic action, with tragic consequences for her husband and daughter. In this landmark new translation of Gustave Flaubert's masterwork, award-winning writer and translator Lydia Davis honors the nuances and particulars of Flaubert's legendary prose style, giving new life in English to the book that redefined the novel as an art form.
“Lydia Davis’s Madame Bovary translation=perfect. She somehow pulls off a respectful translation with the readability of a contemporary novel.” —@lenadunham
"[Flaubert's] masterwork has been given the English translation it deserves." —Kathryn Harrison, The New York Times Book Review
"Invigorating . . . [Davis] has a finer ear for the natural cadences of English, in narrative and dialogue, than any of her predecessors." —Jonathan Raban, The New York Review of Books
"Dazzling . . . translated to perfect pitch . . . [Davis has] left us the richer with this translation. . . . I'd certainly say it is necessary to have hers." —Jacki Lyden, NPR.org, Favorite Books of the Year
"One of the most important books of the year . . . Flaubert's strict, elegant, rhythmic sentences come alive in Davis's English." —James Wood, The New Yorker's Book Bench
"I liked having a chance to find more nuances in Madame Bovary in the new Lydia Davis translation and read it blissfully as though floating, as Flaubert puts it in a different context, 'in a river of milk.'" —Paul Theroux, The Guardian (London), Books of the Year
"Madame Bovary reads like it was written yesterday. . . . Emma, with her visions of a grander life and resplendent passions, is me . . . and you, too, no doubt. . . . If you haven't happened to read Madame Bovary until now, I suggest you curl up with this edition . . . and allow yourself to get lost in another time and place that yet bears a curious resemblance to our own." —Daphne Merkin, Elle
"Davis is the best fiction writer ever to translate the novel. . . . [Her] work shares the Flaubertian virtues of compression, irony and an extreme sense of control." —Julian Barnes, London Review of Books
"A brilliant new translation." —Lee Siegel, The New York Observer
"I'm grateful to Davis for luring me back to Madame Bovary and for giving us a version which strikes me as elegant and alive." —Maureen Corrigan, NPR's Fresh Air
"Flaubert's obsessive masterpiece finally gets the obsessive translation it deserves." —New York magazine
Q. You mentioned that you had examined Flaubert’s working drafts of Madame Bovary. As a novelist yourself, did you disagree with any of Flaubert’s final editorial decisions? Were you especially perplexed by any?I was usually too intent on discovering the history of certain passages, and often the answer to some puzzle-why was Charles stamping his foot against the wall of his room?-to stand back and make a judgment about whether or not Flaubert should have done what he did in a particular sentence. But his earlier drafts were almost always much longer, more descriptive, than his final versions-he would often cut whole pages-and although sometimes he left out some information that would have clarified the final passage, in general I would say his restraint, the fact that he kept the writing more economical and terse throughout the novel, gave it a greater emotional force.
Q. In a recent interview, you said that you didn’t find Emma “admirable or likeable.” Could you elaborate on this? Has your opinion of her changed since your translation published?As a reader of a novel, as you suspend your disbelief, you warm to a character or you don’t like-or you have mixed feelings, of course, just as you do about people in real life. Many readers of Madame Bovary do warm to Emma. My reaction to her, in the end, was mixed. It is hard not to feel some admiration and sympathy for a person so driven by desperation that she is brave enough to take her own life and who is thoughtful enough to examine her sensations as she is doing it. But of course she is not a real person, so I am at the same time reacting to Flaubert’s artistic skill in portraying her as she evolves through the course of the novel. As I translate, I generally have two reactions operating in tandem: the general reader’s reaction to the material of the novel, and at the same time a writer’s reaction to the problems posed by the text, the beauties of the text, and the satisfactions of the translation.
Q. What was the single most difficult sentence, or word, in the novel to translate?There are a number of words in French that are as useful to French sentence structure as they are difficult to translate, one of them being dont, meaning “of which,” “concerning which,” “about which,” etc. It would take me a page to explain how handy that word is in French for creating a graceful subordinate structure and how utterly graceless it is when translated literally into English. But as for sentences in Madame Bovary, one of the very hardest was one of the shortest: the sentence announcing Emma’s death: “Elle n’existait plus.” Literally, that would be: “She no longer existed.” But that is a tough one to write if you want it to have some emotional impact. In the end, I chose to translate it “She had ceased to exist”-which extended the original just a little. “She was no longer” would be another decent one, still within the parameters of a close translation. The temptation to step outside those parameters (which one occasionally has to do, of course) and to enhance the sentence, or to sentimentalize it or romanticize it-“she was gone”; “she had departed this life”-simply had to be avoided.
Q. You confided that it took some persuading before you accepted the invitation to translate Madame Bovary. Why did you hesitate? Do you have plans for another translation project in the future?When the suggestion was first made, I was still reeling from the enormous project of translating Proust’s Swann’s Way. I needed a long break. But when the suggestion came up again, I missed translating-the long, steady engagement with a superlative text, the opportunity both to solve a word puzzle and to write a good sentence in English-so I agreed to do it. I will probably not, however, take on another long translation project in the future, since I have a long project of my own under way.
Q. Is there a particular aspect of Flaubert’s style you had hoped to convey in your translation? Do you think you were successful?There are a couple of aspects of his style that I particularly admire, one being its economy and the other the beauty of the detail in his descriptions. By staying very close to the original text, especially to the order in which his sentences unfolded and to the material of the text itself-adding nothing and subtracting nothing-I think I did succeed in conveying both of these aspects to a large degree, though you always do lose something in a translation.
Q. Many readers will inevitably compare this translation with your lauded translation of Proust’s Swann’s Way. Could you briefly characterize the differences in translating Flaubert and Proust?In both cases, my attempt was to stay very close to the original text while writing English that was both natural and forceful. One difference was that in the case of the Proust, this was the first time I had worked so “deeply” on a text-I felt it deserved all the time I needed to take, and all the concentration on a single sentence or, often, a single word. One of the challenges in the Proust was to retain the elaborate constructions of the long sentences with their many subordinate clauses. But the extravagance and lyricism of his prose was a pleasure, and in his own way he is just as concise as Flaubert-there are many words, but no unnecessary ones. One of the main challenges in translating Flaubert was the opposite-to be as terse as he is, as in the example I gave above, of the announcement of Emma’s death, and make it work in English.
Q. Does this novel mean something different to French readers today than Anglo-American ones? Is there something cultural that is inevitably lost in translation?There will always be cultural associations that resonate for readers of the original text and are absent for readers of the translation, and a constant question for a translator is whether, and how, to attempt to reproduce or explain these associations. Some translators incorporate explanations “silently” in the text by adding an identification-for instance, “dance hall” in the reference “La Chaumière dance hall”; others substitute a more universal, and presumably more recognizable, reference for a more local one-for instance “Salome” in place of “Marianne dancing”; others retain the original text and supply explanations in footnotes. In the case of my translation, I retained the original text and supplied these explanations in the form of “blind” end notes-i.e. notes at the back of the book not signaled by any mark on the page of the novel. I have never liked the intrusion of scholarly apparatus in an edition of a novel that is not meant to be for the scholar so much as for the general reader. Some readers like this approach, while others would rather be alerted when there is a note at the back of the book.
Q. Flaubert famously declared that “a good sentence in prose should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable.” His exacting style and attention to detail must have put enormous pressure on you as a translator. Did you keep such pronouncements in mind as you worked? Do you think Flaubert himself was always faithful to such pronouncements? Does he ever prove to be a mere mortal?I did not feel under greater pressure translating Flaubert than I did translating Proust or, years before, the novels and essays of Maurice Blanchot. Any really fine writer demands the same level of care from a translator. As for the “unchangeable” sentence-the task of the translator seems to involve just the opposite, an acceptance of the changeability of a sentence: first, there is the radical change of the sentence from French to English, then the testing of any number of possible alternatives in English until a satisfactory one is found. And if you look at the many previous translations of Madame Bovary, you will see how many different possibilities there are for every single sentence of the book-in the view of each translator, presumably, the best alternative. I do think that Flaubert’s many drafts show how carefully he worked to achieve the sentence that seemed uniquely right to him. And I don’t remember coming upon a sentence that seemed careless or clumsy, though I may be forgetting some. (There is general consensus, on the other hand, that entire novels of his were less compelling than Madame Bovary and certain stylistic approaches of his a mistake-but surely a conscientious choice on his part.)
Q. Among the many previous translations of the novel, was there one in particular you had hoped to surpass in accuracy and readability?My aim was simply to stay as close as possible to the original and at the same time to write an English version that would be fully alive. I admired many of the previous translations at many moments, and did not actively want to surpass any one in particular. In the case of the Proust, the situation was different, since there was really only one available previous translation, the C. K. Scott Moncrieff, and its style was quite different from, and unrepresentative of, the original-thus terribly misleading to the Anglo-American reader who wanted to experience Proust. I felt it was very important that it be replaced by a version closer to Proust.
Q. The New York Times review of your translation, which referred to Emma as ”a covetous, small-minded woman, incapable of love,” stirred up a lot of reaction online and in print. Were you surprised how passionate readers feel about Flaubert’s heroine?We are circling back to the second question, here. That description of Emma is not inaccurate, but it is incomplete, and, as I said, one can have sympathy even for a character who is not generally admirable. It is natural for readers to become emotionally involved in the story Flaubert is telling, and that is part of the pleasure; yet it is important to retain enough disbelief, at the same time, to enjoy what he is doing technically-in his sparklingly specific descriptions, his artful transitions, his balancing of thematic elements and motifs, his sly humor.