The Notion of Procreation was a Delectation

Alongside continuing to slowly read Madame Bovary this weekend, I’ve also been reading about the book and its writer. The posts and subsequent discussions that took place in Comments, both here and on the blogs of others participating in Nonsuch Book’s shared reading of Madame Bovary, inspired me to think and read more deeply into the hazards of translating Flaubert’s complicated prose.

Nabokov’s lecture on Madame Bovary is the yardstick, but many serious critics address the art of Flaubert. Both Hugh Kenner and Harold Bloom offer perceptive criticism of Flaubert, but the critic that, in recent years, offers the most penetrating analysis of Flaubert is James Wood.

Wood’s The Broken Estate and How Fiction Works both contain helpful insight. In particular this paragraph fascinated and amused me. In the Lydia Davis translation, the sentence is: ” The idea of having engendered a child delighted him,” and shows how close Davis remains to the original.

So what did Flaubert mean by style, by the music of a sentence? This, from Madame Bovary – Charles is stupidly proud that he has got Emma pregnant: ‘L’idée d’avoir engendré le délectait.’ So compact, so precise, so rhythmic. Literally, this is ‘The idea of having engendered delighted him.’ Geoffrey Wall, in his Penguin translation, renders it as: ‘The thought of having impregnated her was delectable to him.’ This is good, but pity the poor translator. For the English is a wan cousin of the French. Say the French out loud, as Flaubert would have done, and you encounter four ‘ay’ sounds in three of the words: ‘l’idée, engend, délectait.’ An English translation that tried to mimic the untranslatable music of the French – that tried to mimic the rhyming – would sound like bad hip-hop: ‘The notion of procreation was a delectation.’

6 thoughts on “The Notion of Procreation was a Delectation

  1. >I will have to read Wood now, especially if he addresses Flaubert in such a way. I like that Davis' translation removes Emma from the sentence, rightly so, since Flaubert leaves her out. But it makes sense how Wall translates it. A tough choice.

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  2. >Removing Emma from the sentence is inspired. It lessens her role, in Charles' mind, in the act, and therefore highlights the boorishness of his partly sympathetic character.

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  3. >This is the Latin problem, isn't it? Engendered, delectable, impregnated – delighted is clean, maybe. The Latinisms in English suggest an elevated or formal rhetoric. In French, they're just regular French.Davis's trick of just keeping the one big Latin word is excellent – Charles is pompous, but not as bad as, say, Homais might be. Homais, if he spoke English, would use "delectable."

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  4. >That's a useful observation, each of those translations is overly formal and stylised, Wood's point about English as a wan cousin of French. Perhaps we should be aiming for more earthy Anglo-Saxon words. But, you are right, retaining just one formal word works for Charles.

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