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 the word mâcher, which I translated as “chew.” Of course I wanted to retain the idea of chewing, especially since it follows the lovely “ruminating,” which is not only an apt word for Charles’s idle thoughts, as his horse ambles along, but also yet another veiled reference to one of Flaubert’s favorite metaphors—the bovine—which makes regular appearances in his work, even in character names such as Bovary and Bouvard.

But how do you chew a taste?

What I did not do, during the wine-tasting in Beaune—a cause for some lost sleep once I returned—was ask the professional who was assisting us, on our tour, just how he translates mâcher into English, for English-speaking visitors. Later, I discovered that the equivalent in the wine-tasting world is indeed “chew”—but would it have ever occurred to me to look to a wine buyers’ guide for help with my Flaubert translation?

Still, at the time, the experience answered one question—the word mâcher could be used for something that, until then, I thought you could not chew.

In translating, you pose yourself a question, or it is posed to you by the text; you have no satisfactory answer, though you put something down on paper, and then years later the answer may turn up. Certainly you never forget the question.

I have had two literary occupations, and preoccupations, all my adult life, both evidently necessary to me, each probably enhancing the other—writing and translating. And this is one of the differences between them: in translation, you are writing, yes, but not only writing—you are also solving, or trying to solve, a set problem not of your own creation. The problem can’t be evaded, as it can in your own writing, and it may haunt you later.

So, here we have the first two pleasures of translating: (1) the pleasure of writing; and (2) the pleasure of solving a puzzle.


(1) In translating, you are forming phrases and sentences that please you at least to some extent and most of the time. You have the pleasure of working with sound, rhythm, image, rhetoric, the shape of a paragraph, tone, voice. And—an important difference—you have this writing pleasure within the island of the given text, within its distinct perimeter. You are not beset by that very uncomfortable anxiety, the anxiety of invention, the commitment to invent a piece of work yourself, one that may succeed but may also fail, and whose success or failure is unpredictable.

(2) In translating, then, you are at the same time always solving a problem. It is a word problem, an ingenious, complicated word problem that requires not only a good deal of craft but some art or artfulness in its solution. And yet the problem, however complicated, always retains some of the same appeal as those problems posed by much simpler or more intellectually limited word puzzles—a crossword, a Jumble, a code.

(3) A third pleasure, or convenience, is that translating is a kind of writing you can do not only when you are fresh, energetic, and in a positive frame of mind, but also when you are tired, or cross, for the very reason that you are not under the pressure of invention. You can be methodical when you are tired. You can consult dictionaries and find alternative words when you are in a bad mood. This activity may even improve your mood.

(4) Then there is the pleasure of company versus solitude: when you are translating, you are working in partnership with the author; you are not as alone as you are when writing your own work. You sense the author’s hovering presence, you feel an alliance with him, and a loyalty to him, with all his good and his less good character traits, whether he is neurotic and difficult, and at the same time generous and funny, like Proust, or tender toward his family and at the same time full of contempt for a great many people and types of people, like Flaubert. Perhaps it is that you overlook his less admirable qualities in admiration for what he has written; or your judgment of him is tempered by your awareness that you have a degree of power over his work—to do well or ill by him in the small arena of the translation.

(5) Related to this is the fifth pleasure: you are to some extent disappearing from yourself for a little while, as you do any time you become wholly absorbed into an activity. You leave yourself behind for hours at a stretch, and this is not only a relief but an adventure.

(6) Yet in this activity, you are also entering another person—you are speaking in his or her words, a ventriloquist; you are writing what he or she wrote. You become a sort of shadow person, for a time, insubstantial. But this is restful.

You develop the ability, if you did not have this before, to be both yourself and another, or multiple others, at the same time.

Some translators concentrate on one author: more, and less, well-known translators come to mind—Ann Goldstein on Elena Ferrante; Rosmarie Waldrop on Edmond Jabès; Don Bartlett on Karl Ove Knausgaard; Michael Hofmann on, by turns, Joseph Roth and Peter Stamm, with intervals of Franz Kafka, Hans Fallada, and many others; I, for a few years at a time, on Maurice Blanchot, Pierre Jean Jouve, Michel Leiris, more recently the Dutch writer A.L. Snijders, with a number of others interspersed. Other translators translate always a different writer and so identify with many in succession.

(7) You are also thoroughly entering another culture for longer or shorter periods of time. Translation is a very deep sort of armchair travel—all your thoughts are taken up with the culture of, say, Normandy of the 1830s; or with Paris high society at the turn of the twentieth century. Bartlett, as Knausgaard, studies literature for a time in the Norwegian Hanseatic town of Bergen or, earlier, hides his precious supply of beer on New Year’s Eve behind a bank of snow; Rachel Careau, as the peculiar and inimitable Roger Lewinter, makes a mystical discovery in a Geneva flea market or closely observes a (Swiss) spider; Susan Bernofsky, as Robert Walser, retreats into a mountaintop asylum and writes in a graphite script so small it is taken to be nonsense. You are traveling, and you are, inevitably, always learning—and you have the stimulation of both.

(8) You not only enter that other culture, but remain to some extent inside it as you return to your own, so that even in your US life, things you experience may jump out at you in French: you may open a can of pois chiches to add to your salad at lunch, or you see deer brouter in a nearby field; you find that your closet is simply too exigu, or twilight descends and the time of day appears to you to be entre chien et loup. You think, at the county fair, that perhaps this farmer, before walking to the exhibits, will knot the corners of his handkerchief and place it on his head, to protect himself from the sun.


(9) As a result of often stepping outside it, or spending long weeks outside it, you have greater perspective on your own native culture, with its particular history. You are always in it and of it, but you do not take it for granted. You appreciate the individuality of any culture, but you also notice—with no bias, you hope—what is superior about each: your own culture may not be superior in every respect. You also like to imagine what it is the French like about your own country: if I enjoy their sometimes rigid codes of conduct, they probably enjoy our greater casualness and freedom from constraint. I enjoy the impression I receive in France that every acre, even every square meter, is valued and used; they probably enjoy the vastness, the carelessness, of the West and Midwest. I relish the history that goes so far back behind every settlement in France; they probably enjoy the relative youth of ours.

(10) Because you must draw on the resources of your own language for such a variety of different styles and sensibilities, you become more and more knowledgeable about your language and its resources as you work—from author to author, book to book, year to year, decade to decade. Translating continuously feeds my own writing by, among other things, enriching my English and developing my capacities in English. The problem after problem that pose themselves, in translating, require me to become ever more ingenious in my home language; working within these constraints requires me to become more able.

I am not quite the Francophile that some translators from the French are. My own language is always primary for me, my first and greatest love among languages: I continue to revel in the richness and extent of the English vocabulary, its flexibility and malleability, the formal, abstract Latinate being paralleled by the blunt, informal, concrete Anglo-Saxon; I look forward to the unexpected unknown word that will inevitably come along to offer me its surprise.

(11) And for translators who are also engaged in writing of their own, here is another great pleasure, as well as a great difference from one’s own writing and an effective complement to it: just as you can enter another person and speak in his voice, you are also no longer confined, as a writer, to writing in your own style and with your own sensibility, but can write in the style of Proust, for instance, with his elaborated syntactic pyramids, and then, a few years later, in the style of Flaubert, with his clipped clauses and fondness for semicolons. You are at the same time clothing yourself, for a time, in the sensibility of the original author: Proust’s affectionate portrait of the grandmother in Swann’s Way becomes my own affectionate portrait, in Proustian sentences. Flaubert’s moment of compassion for the dying Emma becomes my own compassion, in English, though I may privately feel more for the often derided Charles, quietly meeting his end in the sunlight, on a garden bench, as he is being called in to lunch.

This phenomenon, of slipping into the style of another writer, gives you great freedom and joy, as a writer. You are ventriloquist and chameleon. And while you comply with this alien style, you may also, positively, react against it: it was while I was translating, with such pleasure, Proust’s very long and ingenuity-taxing sentences that I began, in contrary motion, to write the very shortest stories I could compose.

A final observation will not describe a twelfth pleasure, but perhaps the silver lining to a translation cloud. One frustration in translating is the restraint you need to show, having to remain faithful to this text and solve this problem, having to refrain from shifting into your own style or, worse, expressing your own ideas. And there is usually not an exact equivalent of the original, or if there is, it is awkward, or unnatural, and can’t be used; translation is, eternally, a compromise. You settle for the best you can do rather than achieving perfection, though there is the occasional perfect solution. Even something so simple as a single word will never find its perfect equivalent; the French maison, with all its myriad associations, is really not the same as the English “house,” with its own associations.

But I have the theory that, in my case, at least, perhaps for others, too, the frustration of this constant compromise may create a certain pent-up energy that is later released in the relatively free territory of one’s own writing. Perhaps all that richness of language and variety of syntax that we could not use in the translation comes tumbling out in our own prose, or if that is not, precisely, what comes tumbling out, surely our own new composition is electrified, or galvanized, by this release.

The French, in their outward forms at least, are extremely courteous—and outward forms can be a significant factor in harmonizing human relations. The French have a greeting or kind wish for every occasion throughout an ordinary day. Eating a sandwich with a friend by the riverside, I am surprised that more than one stranger, strolling past in the sunlight between us and the water, says to us, with simple civility: Bon appétit! At that point, we become more aware of how, all day long, it is bon this and bon that—bonjour, bon après-midi, bonne soirée, bonne nuit, bonne chance, bonne fin de séjour, and bon voyage. One bon that we had not noticed before issued now and then from a waiter as he delivered the next course: bonne continuation! And so I will conclude my catalog of pleasures by saying to my fellow translators, and to all of us in general, hoping to absorb and retain the courtesy of the French: bonne continuation!