Eleven Pleasures of Translating

Pierre Renoir and Valentine Tessier as Charles and Emma Bovary in Jean Renoir’s film adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary, 1933
Everett Collection
Pierre Renoir and Valentine Tessier as Charles and Emma Bovary in Jean Renoir’s film adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary, 1933

This past June, on a trip to France, I was taken by French friends for a wine-tasting in the small Burgundian town of Beaune, south of Dijon. During the wine-tasting, we were at one point instructed to mâchez le vin—I can’t remember now whether this was while we still held the wine in our mouths, or after we had swallowed or spat it out. Now, when this word was spoken, I became instantly alert, my translator-antennae going up: using the verb mâcher, “chew,” for something that you can’t actually chew was a problem I had spent several hours on during my translating of Madame Bovary. The word occurs in a passage near the beginning of the novel, when Charles Bovary, at least, is still happy in his marriage, and Emma is not yet obviously restless or unhappy. This passage very well illustrates Flaubert’s antiromanticism:

Et alors, sur la grande route qui étendait sans en finir son long ruban de poussière, par les chemins creux où les arbres se courbaient en berceaux, dans les sentiers dont les blés lui montaient jusqu’aux genoux, avec le soleil sur ses épaules et l’air du matin à ses narines, le coeur plein des félicités de la nuit, l’esprit tranquille, la chair contente, il s’en allait ruminant son bonheur, comme ceux qui mâchent encore, après dîner, le goût des truffes qu’ils digèrent.

This was how I translated it:

And then, on the road stretching out before him in an endless ribbon of dust, along sunken lanes over which the trees bent like an arbor, in paths where the wheat rose as high as his knees, with the sun on his shoulders and the morning air in his nostrils, his heart full of the joys of the night, his spirit at peace, his flesh content, he would ride along ruminating on his happiness, like a man continuing to chew, after dinner, the taste of the truffles he is digesting.

I like to reproduce the word order, and the order of ideas, of the original whenever possible. Flaubert ends this otherwise lyrical paragraph with the words truffes and digèrent—in other words, his rhetorical buildup, in describing the sensuous, placid happiness of a man in love, ends with a reference to digestion and a black, smelly fungus. This is typical of Flaubert, who likes to create a traditional writerly effect, romantic or sentimental, and then, when we are well entranced, bring us back down to reality with a thud, by offering us a mundane, preferably earthy image—truffles in this scene, potatoes in a later one.

The problem for me, however, was…



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