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.

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