Sunday, April 16, 2017

Mamta

Mamta (A Mother's Love, 1966), directed by Asit Sen, story by Nihan Rajan Gupta after his novel Uttar Falguni, dialogues by Krishen Chander and Pandit Bushan, music by Roshan, lyrics by Majrooh Sultanpuri

Suchitra Sen as Pannabai in Mamta

I have a huge soft spot for many classic Bollywood narrative devices:
  • tragic courtesans, as in Amar Prem (1972)
  • forbidden love, as in Parineeta (1953)
  • maternal self-sacrifice, as in Sharafat (1972, also directed by Asit Sen)
  • children in danger, as in Brahmachari (1968)
  • reunions between long-separated lovers, as in Veer-Zaara (2004)
  • reunions between long-separated parents and children, as in Aradhana (1968)
  • double roles, as in Seeta aur Geeta (1972)
  • courtroom scenes, as in Awara (1957)
Mamta manages to combine every single one of these devices, and (as do so many tragic courtesan films) adds great music as a bonus.

Pannabai (Suchitra Sen) is a renowned dancer who entertains men every night in Lucknow's pleasure quarter. One afternoon a drunken man asks for her not as Pannabai, but as Devyani. She tells him he's mistaken:

I am Pannabai, a courtesan

The man is Rakhal (a very creepy Kalipada Chakravarty)—the abusive husband from whom Devyani fled several years ago. She'd thought she was safe from him, but:

Who has ever got rid of anybody in this world?

Pannabai does not yet know how true those words will prove to be.

Rakhal has discovered Devyani's new identity, and demands money, or else:

I will sue you for restoration of conjugal rights

While Pannabai/Devyani is getting the blackmail money for Rakhal, her daughter Suparna wanders in to see the stranger. A mistake:

Come to me. Want a toffee?

Devyani returns in time to save Suparna from Rakhal, but realizes that she must send her to a place where he can never reach her: Mother Mary's convent school in Calcutta. (The subtitles have "Mother [or Madam] Marlin," but that seems like a mishearing.) At first Pannabai is refused; her profession is too scandalous. She pleads with Mother Mary:

Madam Marlin, I was not a courtesan always

Backstory time! We learn that as a young woman Devyani fell in love with a poor law student, Manish (Ashok Kumar). He went to London to study law for three years, and the lovers pledged themselves to one another: they would marry on his return.

While Manish is abroad, though, Devyani's father Ghishta (Chaman Puri) becomes heavily indebted to a moneylender: Rakhal. The predatory Rakhal has noticed that Ghishta has a beautiful young daughter, and offers him a way to clear his otherwise crushing debt:

Either pay my money, or get Devyani married to me

Her father doesn't want to ask Devyani to marry Rakhal to clear his debt. But she is so dutiful she doesn't need her father to implore her to rescue him. First she goes to Manish's mother to ask for a loan, only to be rejected:

I was against this alliance since the very beginning

Devyani feels she has no choice:

To save my poor father from debt, I forgot Manish, I forgot myself

She marries Rakhal. On the wedding night he is drunk and cruel:

If you act stubborn, even I will use force


She steels herself to "tolerate every atrocity":

Thereafter, every night was darker than the first

But when Rakhal tries to force her to sleep with other men (who have clearly paid him for the privilege), a pregnant Devyani realizes she must escape.

She flees on the train to Lucknow, but, despairing, tries to commit suicide. The woman sharing her berth prevents her from throwing herself off the train, and once she's able to calm Devyani down, explains who she is: Meenabai (Chhaya Devi), the owner of a house of (men's) pleasure. She offers Devyani a home and a means of supporting herself and her soon-to-be-born child. Devyani, by now used to tough decisions, accepts. Devyani dies, and Pannabai is born:

Pannabai

And now, Pannabai tells Mother Mary, she wants to save the daughter she has raised from her dissolute father, "and from myself." Mother Mary is moved by her story; on Pannabai's promise to have no contact with her daughter, Suparna is accepted into the convent school.

Shortly afterwards Pannabai is leaving a shop when she encounters someone from her past:

You?

It's Manish, returned from London and now a famous barrister. After exchanging a few pained words with him, she jumps into a taxi and speeds off.

A friend of Manish expresses his amazement that he accosted a "cheap woman" in a department store, and fills him in about Pannabai's profession. When Manish angrily expresses disbelief, his friend offers to prove it by hiring Pannabai to perform for him.

That night, almost as soon as Pannabai walks in she realizes whose house she has entered. An anguished Manish conceals himself behind a curtain in another room, but Pannabai knows exactly who is listening. "I had to swallow all kinds of venom to survive; I have borne every humiliation," she sings. "Don't spurn me."



The subtitles on the version I quoted above are a bit less decorous than the ones on the embedded/linked video; Suchitra Sen's playback singer on "Rehte thhe kabhi jinke dil mein" ("The one who dwells forever in my heart") and the other songs in this post is Lata Mangeshkar.

When Manish's friend tries to pay her for her performance, Pannabai disdainfully refuses the proferred money. Manish follows her home to find out what happened while he was in London. Trapped by the curfew, Manish must remain at Pannabai's. In Suparna's now-empty room over the long night, Devyani tells her story.

As dawn breaks, a devastated Manish asks her to come home with him:

You are still Devyani for me

But she realizes this is impossible: Manish would be bringing home Devyani, but the world would assume he is consorting with Pannabai.

My life has been ruined. Why should I ruin your life?

Instead, she begs him to look after Suparna. Manish readily agrees to become Suparna's guardian, and to help realize Pannabai's dreams for her:

Maybe she becomes a barrister like you one day

This is only the first hour of the film.

As the years pass and Suparna becomes a young woman, Pannabai's dream will come true—with unforeseen consequences. While studying law in London Suparna (Suchitra Sen in a double role) has met a classmate, Indraneel (Dharmendra), and love has begun to blossom. But Rakhal returns and threatens Pannabai with exposure. If Pannabai's identity is revealed, she fears that her dreams for Suparna—a professional career, a respectable home, and the love of a good man—will be utterly shattered. And a mother's love can never allow that to happen. . .

Mamta has some fairly radical-for-their-time propositions to offer: that children's destinies should not be determined by their parents' status, that women should have the same opportunities as men to enter professional life, that romantic but non-sexual friendships are possible between men and women, and that we should not judge criminal acts before understanding the extremity that may have led to them. That we still can't take these propositions entirely for granted says something about how much further we still have to go.

Suchitra Sen's excellent performances as Devyani/Pannabai and Suparna are the main reason to watch Mamta. She makes us feel all of Pannabai's pathos and all of Suparna's joy and hope. And although she was in her mid-30s, she convincingly embodies her characters at every age from late teens to mid-40s. Both she and Chakravarty were reprising their roles from Asit Sen's Bengali version, Uttar Falguni (1963), which (together with Suchitra Sen's other Bengali films) is now at the top of my to-view list. Although Ashok Kumar as a young law student is a bit of a stretch, he excels at expressing the range of emotions—from bitterness to self-accusation to deep affection—experienced by the older Manish, as "Rehte thhe kabhi jinke dil mein" shows.

To end the post, two songs from the film that are so brief they seem almost like throwaways, but which are freighted with emotion:

"Chhupaa lo yoon dil mein pyaar mera" (Hide my love in your heart):


https://youtu.be/PCIPuIQjkOw?t=8m57s (song ends at 10:10;
the male playback singer is Hemant Kumar)


"Hum Gavanwa Na Jaibe Ho":




For another perspective please see Dusted Off's review. Mamta can be viewed for free on YouTube.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

My city of ruins


Howard Street, Baltimore (Google Street View)

Young men on the corner
Like scattered leaves,
The boarded-up windows,
The empty streets
While my brother's down on his knees
My city of ruins

—"My City of Ruins," Bruce Springsteen, The Rising
I recently had occasion to travel back to Baltimore, a city I knew in my late teens and early twenties. I was staying in Mount Vernon, a neighborhood of wine bars, fine restaurants, and lovingly renovated historic buildings. And please don't misunderstand me: I like wine bars, fine restaurants, and lovingly renovated historic buildings.

I was attending a conference that was being held at the Baltimore Convention Center in the Inner Harbor, an area of high-rise office buildings, malls, chain restaurants and chain hotels. To get there I walked down Howard Street from Madison to Pratt Street, a distance of about three-quarters of a mile. In making that journey every morning and returning every evening, I was brought face to face with the effects of decades of racist urban planning and economic and political choices that have kicked those who are no longer considered useful into the gutter.

Block after block of Howard Street is lined with abandoned buildings and shuttered businesses. Some of these photos are taken from Google Street View, but most are mine:


Howard Street at Franklin, east side



Howard Street between Franklin and Mulberry, west side (Google Street View, October 2016; 
the central building has since been reduced to a pile of rubble. 
There are four more empty buildings to the left out of the frame.)



Howard Street at Mulberry, west side (Google Street View, October 2016)



Howard Street between Mulberry and Saratoga, east side
(The sign on the empty building to the left advertises beepers and VCRs; it must date back two decades or more.)



Howard Street at Saratoga, east side



Howard Street at Clay, east side



Howard Street at Fayette, west side



The entrance to the former Marble Bar, 306 W. Franklin Street between Howard and Eutaw


Baltimore has always been a gritty, struggling city. But I don't remember this level of devastation even after the massive urban disinvestment of the 1970s. The core of the city has been hollowed out. My city's in ruins.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Not beautiful: The Beethoven string quartets part 2


Portrait of Beethoven by Willibrod Josef Maehler (detail), 1815

The Takács Quartet returned to Berkeley in early March for the middle two concerts of their Beethoven quartet series. (For my previous post on the first two concerts in the series, see "For a later age.")


The Takacs Quartet: Károly Schranz (second violin), András Fejér (cello), Geraldine Walther (viola), and Edward Dusinberre (first violin). Photo: Keith Saunders, http://www.takacsquartet.com

Once again the concerts were introduced by a series of residency events. This time they included an open rehearsal; a panel discussion led by UC Berkeley faculty member Nic Mathew and featuring first violinist Edward Dusinberre and visiting scholars Mary Hunter and Mark Ferraguto; and pre-performance conversations between Mathew and each of the visiting scholars. The theme for the weekend's concerts was "When Old Media Were New Media," or as the Cal Performances residency events program had it, "the role of audiences, institutions and technologies in shaping our experience of this music."

One of the key new modes of experiencing the Beethoven string quartets was the public string quartet concert itself. Before Beethoven, string quartets were often played at home by groups featuring skilled aristocratic amateurs, with an audience of an invited group of friends. (A recent book about the Mozart string quartets was entitled Mozart's Music of Friends.) After Beethoven, string quartets were increasingly performed in concert halls by professional musicians with an audience of paying ticketholders.

The shift from amateur to professional performance is epitomized by the Op. 59 "Razumovsky" quartets. They were commissioned by Count Andreas Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador to the Habsberg court in Vienna, who was an avid and talented violinist. Beethoven delivered three quartets based on Russian musical themes, but they were too difficult for their patron to play. [1]


Portrait of Count Andreas Razumovsky, by Johann Baptist Lampi (detail), ca. 1806
Source: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/642687#pl07

Razumovsky had to hire the professional Schuppanzigh Quartet (named for its first violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh) for the first performance in 1807. That performance was received with bewilderment.
Three new, very long and difficult Beethoven violin quartets dedicated to the Russian ambassador, Count Razumovsky, are attracting the attention of all connoisseurs.  They are profound in conception and admirably written, but not generally comprehensible. . . [2]
"Not generally comprehensible." Even fifteen years later this same journal would state that Op. 59 No. 2 involved "bizarre sounds."

Among the "bizarre sounds" may have been the first violin part in the second, slow movement, which is marked "Molto adagio. Si tratta questo pezzo con molto di sentimento" (Very slow, with a great deal of feeling). At around the 1:37 mark in the 2002 recording by the Takács Quartet the first violin starts playing a two-note figure that sounds like a heartbeat, as Mary Hunter pointed out:




It's unusual for the first violin to play a part that is so clearly intended as an accompaniment to what the other musicians are playing. It must have made those first listeners wonder whether the players had inadvertently switched parts.

The Op. 59 No. 2 quartet was performed by the Takács during the Sunday afternoon concert. In the panel discussion on Friday night, a page of the first violinist Edward Dusinberre's part for this quartet was projected onscreen. Over one of the measures (around 6:05 in the recording), he had written the words "not beautiful."


I had an opportunity to ask Dusinberre what he was warning himself against in that passage; he replied that as a student his training had emphasized producing a beautiful sound. As a professional musician, he had to learn to use beauty when it's appropriate, "and not just ladle it on." Beethoven's direction to play "with a great deal of feeling," in Dusinberre's view, meant that in these measures he should maintain a certain rigor and precision.

That precision is especially needed in the slow movement of Beethoven's Op. 132. This nearly 20-minute-long adagio was described by Beethoven on the score as "Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenden an die Gottheit" (Holy Song of Thanks from a Convalescent to the Deity). Beethoven had become seriously ill while working on Op. 132, and had miraculously recovered. The Holy Song of Thanks consists of five parts, alternating Molto adagio (very slow) with Andante (moderately slow). In inexpert hands this lengthy slow movement could easily bog down or become static; the Takács were able to maintain forward momentum while remaining emotionally expressive and playing in perfect unison.




In concert, this movement simply stopped time.

In the pre-performance conversation on Saturday night with Mary Hunter, Nic Mathew quoted someone as saying that "If you don't like the early quartets, that's Beethoven's fault; if you don't like the later quartets, that's your fault." Of course, it's never your "fault" if you don't like a work of art. As modern and postmodern (and whatever comes after postmodern) art have shown, the history of art is not a slow but steady march of progress from the worthy but primitive forms of the past to the increasing perfection of today.

But it is your mistake if you dismiss a work without trying to understand its historical context and the artist's aims and methods. We live in a world that has been musically shaped by the middle and late Beethoven quartets; when they were first performed, of course, they were unprecedented. In his day Beethoven was seen as revolutionary, and the residency events that Cal Performances has sponsored around the Takács Quartet's Beethoven cycle are designed in part to try to help us recapture that sense of radical innovation. For me they have immeasurably enriched the experience of these difficult works. I'm very much looking forward to the next (and, alas, final) concerts in the series.


  1. Mark Ferraguto, a panelist in the Friday night discussion and a participant in the Sunday pre-performance conversation, believes that he has identified the "missing" Russian theme in Op. 59 No. 3; see "Beethoven à la moujik: Russianness and Learned Style in the 'Razumovsky' String Quartets." Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 67 No. 1, Spring 2014, pp. 77-124. DOI: 10.1525/jams.2014.67.1.77
  2. Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, 27 February 1807. 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Suggested reading: Psychohistory is now real

Your portable (or desktop) personality test


Isaac Asimov.
Source: New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress

In Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels, published shortly after psychological testing became widespread during World War II, a secretive group applies mathematical formulas—or as we would say today, algorithms—to psychological data in order to predict and shape the future course of human history. Asimov called this amalgam of prediction and manipulation "psychohistory."


The 2016 presidential election has shown that psychohistory is now real. Today using psychological profiling to manipulate people is called "psychometrics" or "psychographics," but it's essentially the system that Asimov foresaw 65 years ago.

In their article "The Data That Turned the World Upside Down," journalists Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus describe how two Cambridge graduate students, David Stillwell and Michael Kosinski, correlated results from online personality tests and Facebook profiles. (I've posted about Stillwell and his research group before.) They realized that, with a dataset of millions of subjects, they could link a particular set of "likes" with specific personal tendencies and attributes: gender, sexual orientation, ethnic heritage, political affiliation, intelligence, religion, the use or abuse of alcohol and drugs, whether your parents divorced before you were 21, and the Big Five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (OCEAN). As Grassegger and Krogerus write,
". . .before long, [Kosinski] was able to evaluate a person better than the average work colleague, merely on the basis of ten Facebook 'likes.' Seventy 'likes' were enough to outdo what a person's friends knew, 150 what their parents knew, and 300 'likes' what their partner knew. More 'likes' could even surpass what a person thought they knew about themselves."

Presumably, "likes" are voluntarily shared. But often without our explicit knowledge or consent, our computers and smartphones are constantly transmitting data on our behavior and interests. Companies are collecting, aggregating, sharing, and reselling that data. "Our smartphone, Kosinski concluded, is a vast psychological questionnaire that we are constantly filling out, both consciously and unconsciously."


Ingrid Bergman, Michael Chekov and Gregory Peck in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945)

Enter Cambridge Analytica, a "predictive analytics" company that combines data from many sources to create detailed profiles of specific individuals. Cambridge Analytica claims that they have "profiled the personality of every adult in the United States of America—220 million people." By name.

All sorts of companies—employers, insurance companies, and marketers, to name three—might be interested in this information. But there's another class of client for whom detailed personal profiles are highly desirable: political campaigns. Cambridge Analytica worked for Brexit and the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Both achieved stunning upsets and defied conventional political wisdom. Cambridge Analytica helped them both to win against the odds.


The vote for (orange) and against (blue) the Brexit referendum, from 50% (light) to 80% (dark).
Source: New York Times.

Two key strategies were used by both campaigns:
  • Micro-targeting messages to specific individuals to motivate them to vote, often against their own interests and beliefs. In one day, Grassegger and Krogerus report, the Trump campaign tested thousand of different ads for effectiveness with various types of voters.
  • Micro-targeting messages to specific individuals to convince them not to vote. A series of "dark posts"—nonpublic posts that appear in the Facebook timelines of users with specific profiles (in the US election, Sanders supporters, African Americans, and young women, among others)—promoted heavily negative views of the opposing side. The object was not, as in traditional political advertising, to gain these voters' support, but rather to discourage them from going to the polls at all. The Trump campaign boasted of its voter suppression efforts to Bloomberg Businessweek.
The Trump campaign also automated the amplification of its messages on social media platforms. As Sue Halpern writes in the NYR Daily, at one point nearly 40% of Trump's Twitter followers were bots masquerading as humans and retweeting his messages.

How effective was this approach? As reported by Andrew Cockburn in Harper's, in the final days before the election, the models used by Clinton's campaign predicted that she would win Michigan by 5 points, or about a quarter of a million votes. Instead she lost by 11,000 votes.

Why facts don't change our minds

The spectacle of working-class people voting for a developer of luxury resorts, women voting for a self-confessed sexual predator, and Affordable Care Act beneficiaries voting for a man who has vowed to repeal the ACA may be dismaying. But do you think that you respond to well-reasoned positions cogently argued, and that you're immune from manipulation?


Think again. As Elizabeth Kolbert writes in The New Yorker in her survey of three recent books on cognitive psychology, all of us repeatedly exhibit an immunity to information that contradicts our beliefs.
  • We are highly suggestible. Students who were told they were especially good or especially bad at a judgment exercise assessed themselves as, respectively, better or worse than average—even after they were told that their assignments to the original groups were random. The researchers who carried out this study were surprised that "even after the initial evidential basis for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs."
  • We are subject to confirmation bias, "the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them." Students presented with statistics on capital punishment that supported their already-held opinions, either pro or con, became more hardened in their positions even after they were told that the statistics were falsified.
  • We fall victim to the "illusion of explanatory depth," which is our tendency to believe that we are far more knowledgeable than we actually are. Shortly after the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, the farther off US survey respondents were when asked to identify Ukraine on a map the more likely they were to favor military intervention.
You should take the evolutionary rationales that are presented for these tendencies in Kolbert's article with a grain of salt, since they're not testable. But the implications in a world of fake news, Twitter bots, and other tools of deliberate misinformation are incontrovertible. The Big Data that we ourselves supply makes it ever more possible to identify, exploit and manipulate our biases.

This year three European countries in which right-wing parties have made recent gains are holding elections: Holland, France, and Germany. Brace yourself for more surprises.

Update 7 March 2016: In a New York Times article, Nicholas Confessore and Danny Hakim write that "a dozen Republican consultants and former Trump campaign aides, along with current and former Cambridge employees, say the company’s ability to exploit personality profiles — 'our secret sauce,' Mr. Nix once called it — is exaggerated. Cambridge executives now concede that the company never used psychographics in the Trump campaign."

Hmmm. Cambridge Analytica is a company that was founded to exploit personality profiling. It is largely funded by Robert Mercer, "a Trump backer and investor in Breitbart." It had Steve Bannon on its board of directors until he was officially hired as the Trump campaign's manager (although, as The Daily Beast reports, "Breitbart's ties to Trump were long suspected before Bannon was brought aboard the campaign following the ouster of campaign chairman Paul Manafort in August 2016" and that Bannon wrote in an August 30, 2015 e-mail, "'I'm Trump's campaign manager.'") The company was paid a reported $15 million by the Trump campaign for its services.

And yet the campaign operatives and company executives quoted in the article now claim that Cambridge Analytica was not heavily involved in the Trump campaign, or that it was involved but did not employ its proprietary methodology, or that it was involved and used its methodology and but that it wasn't effective.  You'll have to pardon me, but this denial simply does not seem credible. And the denial is contradicted by an article by McKenzie Funk published right after the election in November, which appeared in The New York Times.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

"The best I could do": Eleanor Marx and translating Madame Bovary


Eleanor Marx

As I wrote in "These long, sad years": Madame Bovary and Eleanor Marx, in 1886 Karl Marx's daughter Eleanor published the first translation into English of Flaubert's great novel. In her thoughtful introduction (all or most of which is omitted from many later editions of her translation) Eleanor wrote,
Certainly no critic can be more painfully aware than I am of the weaknesses, shortcomings, the failures of my work; but at least the translation is faithful. I have neither suppressed a line, nor added a word. That often I have not found the best possible word to express Flaubert's meaning I know; but those who have studied him will understand how impossible it must be for any one to give an exact reproduction of the inimitable style of the master. . .

My work, then, I know is faulty. It is pale and feeble by the side of the original. Yet, if it induces some readers to go to that original, if it helps to make known to those who cannot thus study this work of the greatest of French novelists after Balzac, I am content. . .I do not regret having done this work; it is the best I could do.
In this post I will compare several English translations of Madame Bovary and talk about some of the choices made by each translator. My own command of French is pretty lamentable: whatever remains of a couple of years' worth of classes in middle- and junior high school. (But did I let my complete lack of any Russian comprehension whatsoever keep me from a comparison of Eugene Onegin translations?)

A translator has two main tasks, which unfortunately are often at odds: faithfulness and readability. The latter, of course, is a highly subjective judgment; for the former, I'll rely on some writers far more fluent in French than I am. The four translations I will compare are by Eleanor Marx (1886), Gerard Hopkins (1948, revised 1981), Francis Steegmuller (1957), and Lydia Davis (2010).


The new fellow

Madame Bovary is famous for Flaubert's use of le style indirect libre, in which a character's thoughts or speech are incorporated into a third-person narration without attributions such as "she thought" or "he said." An example from midway through the novel: the evening after her first seduction by Rodolphe, Emma stares into her bedroom mirror. Her thoughts are rendered in free indirect style:
But when she saw herself in the glass she wondered at her face. Never had her eyes been so large, so black, of so profound a depth. . .So at last she was to know those joys of love, that fever of happiness of which she had despaired!. . .Had she not suffered enough? (Marx, pp. 186-187)
But the novel actually begins in the first person; the narrator is initially a witness to and a participant in events. Here are four versions of the novel's opening sentences:
  1. We were in class when the head-master came in, followed by a "new fellow," not wearing the school uniform, and a school servant carrying a large desk. Those who had been asleep woke up, and every one rose as if just surprised at his work. (Marx)
  1. We were in the preparation room when the head came in, followed by a new boy in ordinary day clothes, and by a school servant carrying a large desk. Those of us who were asleep woke up, and we all rose to our feet doing our best to give the impression that we had been interrupted in the midst of our labors.  (Hopkins)
  1. We were in study-hall when the headmaster walked in, followed by a new boy not yet in school uniform and by the handyman carrying a large desk. Their arrival disturbed the slumbers of some of us, but we all stood up in our places as though rising from our work. (Steegmuller)
  1. We were in Study Hall, when the Headmaster entered, followed by a new boy dressed in regular clothes and a school servant carrying a large desk. Those who were sleeping woke up, and everyone rose as though taken by surprise while at work. (Davis)
The original passage:
Nous étions à l'Étude, quand le Proviseur entra, suivi d'un nouveau habillé en bourgeois et d'un garçon de classe qui portait un grand pupitre. Ceux qui dormaient se réveillèrent, et chacun se leva comme surpris dans son travail.
Marx uses the phrase "in class" for Flaubert's "à l'Étude," which isn't quite right. Class would have involved a teacher calling on students to recite a lesson from memory, but clearly that is not what is going on. Hopkins' "preparation room" sounds like they could be scrubbing for a medical procedure, and makes the reader wonder for a moment whether "the head" that is coming into the room belongs to a cadaver—clearly the worst version of the three. "Study hall" sounds as though it should be a separate room dedicated to quiet study, but the students are evidently all in their usual classroom, into which the new boy's desk is being carried. "Study period" might be the closest English equivalent.

The new boy (Marx's "fellow" seems more genuinely 19th century) is dressed "en bourgeois," that is, in an ordinary or typical way. Hopkins almost gets it right, but the "day" in "ordinary day clothes" is unnecessary. Also, it raises the unanswered question of why it's remarkable that his clothes are ordinary, as does Davis's "regular clothes." Marx recognizes the implication that the other students are wearing school uniforms and renders the phrase more meaningful at the cost of departing from a literal version of the text: "not wearing the school uniform." Much clearer, though it's a little clunky. However, she couldn't say "out of uniform" because clearly the new boy has never been in uniform, a point that Steegmuller makes with his "not yet in school uniform."

Who is carrying the desk? For "un garçon de classe," literally "a class boy," most of the translators follow Marx's "school servant," which indicates a man-of-all-work and is clear enough. Steegmuller departs from the rest with "handyman." I think this is a bit more narrow than the person Flaubert is describing; a school servant isn't just someone who fixes things around the school (as a handyman would), he also probably deals with keeping up the grounds, cleaning the rooms, and perhaps even works in the kitchen or serves at meals.

Flaubert's style is notoriously spare, and Marx economically renders the first phrase of the next sentence as "Those of us who had been asleep woke up." Hopkins follows her lead with "Those of us who were asleep woke up." Davis is perhaps even better with her "Those who were sleeping woke up," which pares away the unnecessary "of us." Instead of paring away, Steegmuller's "Their arrival disturbed the slumbers of some of us" introduces an ambiguity not in Flaubert (it leaves open the possibility that only some of those who were sleeping woke up, which is not what Flaubert is saying). He also adds a phrase not in the original, "their arrival" (what has disturbed the boys' sleep is hardly ambiguous).

It's Hopkins, though, who gets the prize for over-explanation with his version of the next phrase: ". . .and we all rose to our feet doing our best to give the impression that we had been interrupted in the midst of our labors." The added phrase "doing our best to give the impression" clangs on the mind's ear in a very un-Flaubertian way. Steegmuller's version is redundant and uses the conjunction "but" instead of Flaubert's "and": "but we all stood up in our places as though rising. . ." Can you stand up as though sitting? And how else would you stand up but in your place? Davis's variant, "everyone rose as though taken by surprise while at work," conveys the sense. But I prefer Marx's more vivid version, "every one rose as if just surprised at his work."

Even though we've only looked at two sentences, I think a couple of things are apparent. The first is the sheer number of choices that confront the translator at virtually every point. Depending on those choices, translated versions of the same passage differ in tone, structure and shades of meaning. And the second is that Marx's translation is quite good, more faithful to Flaubert than those of Hopkins and Steegmuller, providing a bit more contextual meaning than that of Davis, and offering some felicitous English renderings. If it sometimes sounds slightly old-fashioned (as with "'new fellow'"), her diction is authentically of the 19th century.

Flaubert's italics

In the novel's opening passage Flaubert italicizes "nouveau," as he does many phrases in Madame Bovary—generally signalling a habitual or hackneyed expression. But in English italics function differently: they provide emphasis or indicate words kept in the original language. Marx generally chooses to place Flaubert's italicized phrases in quotes, while Davis provides italics wherever Flaubert does. Paradoxically, Marx's quotes seem like a closer English equivalent to Flaubert's intended meaning than do Davis's more literal italics. (Hopkins and Steegmuller are inconsistent; often, as in the opening passage, they silently ignore Flaubert's italics altogether.)

Here's an example from later in the novel. Rodolphe, who will become Emma's first lover, brings one of the laborers from his estate to see Emma's husband Charles, a doctor. The man is suffering from "des fourmis le long du corps"—literally, "ants along the body." Marx seeks an equivalent English phrase which she places in quotes, "he felt 'a tingling all over.'" Hopkins italicizes: "because of a tingling sensation all over his body." (What else is tingling but a sensation? Never mind.) Steegmuller has "because 'he felt prickly all over.'" He's placed the phrase in quotes, but by moving "he felt" inside them he indicates that this is reported speech rather than cliché. Davis originally translated this phrase almost literally: "he was feeling ants all up and down his body." As Jonathan Raban asked in his review of Davis's translation, "Which is more 'accurate': fidelity to the text, or fidelity to the shopworn character (as I take it to be) of the expression?" Probably the best English rendering would be "pins and needles." [1]

The dancing Marianne

In Part III of the novel Emma arranges a meeting with Léon—the man with whom she was first emotionally unfaithful to her husband, and with whom she will soon be physically unfaithful—in Rouen Cathedral. When Léon enters the cathedral at the appointed hour he passes under a sculpture over the door. It represents three scenes: several figures, two wearing crowns, watching a woman doing a handstand; one woman offering another a basket containing a decapitated head; and a praying man about to be beheaded.


Flaubert calls the figure doing the handstand by the familiar name used by the citizens of Rouen, "Marianne dansant."  Marx calls it "the 'Dancing Marianne,'" Hopkins "the figure of the Dancing Marianne," and Davis "the Marianne dancing." All of these are literal translations, although Davis's version is the least colloquial.

But as the iconography of the sculpture makes clear, "Marianne" is Salome, dancing on her hands before Herod and Herodias. Salome was often represented performing acrobatic feats in the Middle Ages; it connected her to the morally suspect jugglers and troubadours that entertained at medieval courts.

Steegmuller, recognizing that "dancing Marianne" will have no meaning for most readers, departs from literalism and calls it "the figure of the dancing Salome." Julian Barnes writes, "This is instantly comprehensible, and has the additional virtue of pointing up this image of lasciviousness beneath which Léon passes on his way to the tryst." This seems like a case where the sacrifice of a dogged faithfulness for greater comprehensibility is justified; as Barnes notes, however, "some would find it overly interventionist." [2]

Charles confronts Rodolphe

A final comparison: after Emma's death Charles discovers the unwelcome news of her unfaithfulness with Rodolphe and Léon. One day he travels to the market town of Argueil to sell his horse (showing how low his fortunes have sunk; a horse is essential for a country doctor). There by chance he encounters Rodolphe, who to cover up their mutual embarrassment invites him to have a beer. Rodolphe is filling the awkward silence with empty talk when he notices that Charles is becoming furious, and stops. But Charles almost immediately subsides into his usual "weary lassitude," before speaking:
  1. "I don't blame you," he said.
    Rodolphe was dumb. And Charles, his head in his hands, went on in a broken voice, and with the resigned accent of infinite sorrow—
    "No, I don't blame you now."
    He even added a fine phrase, the only one he ever made—
    "It is the fault of fatality!"
    Rodolphe, who had managed the fatality, thought the remark very offhand from a man in his position, comic even, and a little mean. (Marx)
  1. "I don't hold it against you," the doctor said.
    Rodolphe remained silent, and the other, his head in his hands, went on in the same dead voice and the resigned accents of an infinite sorrow.
    "No, I don't hold it against you—not any longer."
    And then, for the first and last time in his life, he uttered a deep thought:
    "It was the fault of destiny."
    Rodolphe, who, after all, had been the instrument of the said destiny, felt that such an attitude, in a man so placed, was good-natured to excess, and, on the whole, rather despicable. (Hopkins)
  1. "I don't hold it against you," he said.
    Rodolphe sat speechless. And Charles, his head in his hands, repeated, in a dull voice, with all the resignation of a grief that can never be assuaged:
    "No, I don't hold it against you, any more."
    And he added a bit of rhetoric, the only such utterance that had ever escaped him:
    "No one is to blame. It was decreed by fate."
    Rodolphe, who had been the instrument of that fate, thought him very meek indeed for a man in his situation—comical, even, and a little contemptible. (Steegmuller)
  1. "I don't hold it against you," he said.
    Rodolphe had remained silent. And Charles, his head in his hands, went on in a dull voice and with the resigned accent of endless suffering:
    "No, I don't hold it against you anymore!"
    He even added a grand phrase, the only one he had ever spoken:
    "Fate was to blame!"
    Rodolphe, who had determined the course of that fate, found him very good-natured for a man in his situation, comical even, and rather low. (Davis)
In her essay "Eleanor Marx and Gustave Flaubert" Faith Evans, herself a translator, calls Marx's use of the word "fatality" "a howler." She goes on that Marx "is surely wrong to render 'fatalité' as 'fatality' rather than the French word's alternative meaning of 'fate' or 'destiny'. . ." But the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines "fatality" as "a fatal influence," "fate," or "the quality or condition of being predetermined, esp. doomed, by fate." Although this is not the common usage in 21st-century America, Marx's diction is that of a 19th-century English contemporary of Flaubert. [3]

"Dumb" is another word whose primary meaning has shifted over the intervening century, which is hardly Marx's fault. But Flaubert says that "Rodolphe etait resté muet," or literally, "Rodolphe remained mute" or "silent"; Marx (and to some extent Steegmuller with his "Rodolphe sat speechless") doesn't quite convey the sense that Rodolphe's silence continues as he waits to see where Charles is taking their exchange.

None of the translators quite captures Rodolphe's judgment of Charles. The word Flaubert uses is "débonnaire." Marx has "offhand," which seems just a bit different from the intended meaning, while Steegmuller chooses "meek," which is quite a bit different. Hopkins and Davis opt for "good-natured," which is also not quite right. An anonymous reviewer of Marx's translation in the Athenaeum suggested "complaisant" or "obliging," either of which would be a better choice.

Like "fatality" and "dumb," the word "mean" in Marx's phrase "a little mean" might sound a bit odd to a modern reader. However, "mean" doesn't signify hostile or nasty, but rather its 19th-century senses (according to the Shorter OED) of low, inferior, ignoble, or contemptible: a reasonable rendering of Flaubert's "un peu vil."

Hopkins, over-explanatory as usual, adds the phrase "such an attitude," which is not in the original. Davis opts for "low," cousin to Marx's "mean," while Hopkins' "despicable" or Steegmuller's "contemptible" seem closer to contemporary usage.

In fact, Davis often seems to follow Marx's approach and even her word choice fairly closely. Which makes it faintly bizarre that in Davis's introduction to her own translation she calls Marx's version "stolidly literal" and "sometimes inaccurate." Sometimes inaccurate, perhaps (as every translation must be to one degree or another), but there is nothing stolid about Marx's rendition. It stands up quite well to the later versions. [4]


Eleanor Marx in 1877/78

Sympathy versus antipathy

Davis has made other odd comments about Madame Bovary. In a remarkable interview with the Times of London, she said:
I was asked to do the Flaubert, and it was hard to say no to another great book—so-called. I didn't actually like Madame Bovary. . .I find what he does with the language really interesting; but I wouldn't say I warm to it as a book. . .And I like a heroine who thinks and feels. . .well, I don't find Emma Bovary admirable or likeable—but Flaubert didn't either. [5]
The idea that Emma Bovary doesn't think or feel would come as a surprise to her creator. Had Davis read Flaubert's letters, she might have come across these passages, written to his mistress Louise Colet during the time of Madame Bovary's composition:
You speak about women's sufferings: I am in the midst of them. You will see that I have had to descend deeply into the well of feelings.

. . .I have been writing Bovary. I am in full fornication, in the very midst of it: my lovers are sweating and gasping. . .At six o'clock tonight, as I was writing the word "hysterics," I was so swept away, was bellowing so loudly and feeling so deeply what my little Bovary was going through, that I was afraid of having hysterics myself.  . .I feel like a man who has been fucking too much (forgive the expression)—a kind of rapturous lassitude. . . [6]
A stark contrast with Davis's disapproval of the title character is provided by Eleanor Marx, who lived within the same 19th-century constraints on women's expression and action as Emma Bovary:
Her life is idle, useless. And this strong woman feels there must be some place for her in the world; there must be something to do—and she dreams. Life is so unreal to her that she marries Bovary thinking she loves him. Where a man would have been taught by experience, the woman with like passions, like desires, is left ignorant. She marries Bovary. She does her best to love "this poor wretch." In all literature there is perhaps nothing more pathetic than her hopeless effort to "make herself in love." And even after she has been false, how she yearns to go back to him, to something real, to a healthier, better love than she has known. . .In a word, Emma Bovary is in search of an ideal. She has intellectuality, not mere sensuality. It is part of the irony of fate that she is punished for her virtues as much as for her vices.

Into Emma Bovary Flaubert put much of himself. He too dreamed dreams that ended in nothingness; his imaginings were ever brighter than the realisation of them. . .Both strained after an unattainable heaven. [7]
As I wrote in the previous post, "Eleanor could have been writing about herself. She, too, sought an unattainable heaven, in the transformation not only of the political and economic relationships between classes, but of the intimate relationships between men and women; her dreams also ended in nothingness."

Marx may not approve of Emma's thoughts, feelings, and actions, but she recognizes and understands them. As Barnes writes, "we might fantasise the translator of our dreams: someone, naturally, who admires the novel and its author, and who sympathises with its heroine; a woman, perhaps, to help us better navigate the sexual politics of the time; someone with excellent French and better English, perhaps with a little experience of translating in the opposite direction as well. Then we make a key decision: should this translator be. . .Flaubert's contemporary, or ours? After a little thought, we might plump for an Englishwoman of Flaubert's time whose prose would inevitably be free of anachronism or other style-jarringness." Madame Bovary was fortunate to have as its first translator someone who comes close to this ideal: Eleanor Marx. [8]


  1. Jonathan Raban, "Flaubert, Imperfect." New York Review of Books, October 10, 2014. For the paperback edition of her translation Davis changed this passage to "pins and needles all up and down his body," a distinct improvement.
  2. Julian Barnes, "Writer's writer and writer's writer's writer." London Review of Books, 18 November 2010, pp. 7-11.
  3. Faith Evans, "Eleanor Marx and Gustave Flaubert,"  in John Stokes, ed., Eleanor Marx: Life, Work, Contacts, Ashgate, 2000, p. 85, 91.
  4. Lydia Davis, Introduction, Madame Bovary,  Penguin Books, 2010, p. xxiv. 
  5. Erica Wagner, "The goddess of small things," The Times (London), 31 July 2010.
  6. Gustave Flaubert, letters to Louise Colet of 1 September 1852 and 23 December 1853, in The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, selected, edited and translated by Francis Steegmuller, Picador, 2001.
  7. Eleanor Marx Aveling, Introduction to Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary: Provincial Manners, W. W. Gibbings, 1901, p. xx-xxi.
  8. Barnes, LRB, 18 November 2010, pp. 7-11.