I bought a copy of Madame Bovary in 1991 just before my wife and I became involved as nearly full-time volunteers at a museum near Atlanta. All of my reading time switched over to museum-related research. So the novel sat–even after we left the museum and moved all my books from one house to another twice.
I am near the beginning of the novel now, a few pages past the time when Dr. Charles Bovary marries Emma Rouault, the daughter of one of his patients, so none of Emma’s indiscretions that led to Flaubert’s obscenity trial in 1856 have happened yet.
Flaubert was acquitted and, as usually happens after such trials, the book became a bestseller, and subsequently considered a masterpiece. Most Flaubert commentators mention that he was a perfectionist, agonizing (apparently for hours) over every word.
I can see this clearly even through the 1957 translation by Francis Steegmuller. The description of the farm where Emma lives reminds me of the exuberant care of Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. The scenes are so perfectly set in both novels, that it’s easy to feel like a time traveler back to 1827-1846 (Madame Bovary) and 1500-1535 (Wolf Hall).
Steegmuller (1906-1994) translated quite a few of Flaubert’s works, so he was familiar with the author and his style. The novel has been translated into English at least 19 times, the first one coming from Karl Marx’ daughter Eleanor in 1886.
The critics argue about which translation is best, some chiding translations for using the current American slang of the day in their work. Steegmuller’s is among the better known, but–having been around for a while–his version gets sniped at by subsequent translators such as Lydia Davis’ 2010 comment in New York Magazine: “You’d think, working from one text, that the translations have got to be fairly similar. But it’s amazing how different they all are. Some are fairly close, but then they’ll add a metaphor that Flaubert doesn’t have. And some are outrageously far away. Two of the most popular, Steegmuller and Hopkins—they’re not bad books. They’re well written in their own way. But they’re not close to what Flaubert did.”
As some commentators have said, those of us who aren’t French, or aren’t fluent in French, will never know exactly what Flaubert did. As we say, “The map is not the territory,” we might also say “The translation is not the novel.” As for me, I’ll keep the translation I have–with no intention whatsoever of comparing it with the others.
Now, I’m waiting to see whether or not I’ll be shocked and scandalized!