I have spent the last three years translating Flaubert's Madame Bovary into English. When I tell people this, there are two reactions: the first is a sympathetic groan, the second a question: "What's the point? It's already been done." Yes, about 19 times – and the latest was just a year ago, by the American short-story writer Lydia Davis.
So I find myself on the back foot, explaining why great foreign classics need more than a single rendering into English. For a start, although no translation is perfect, some are poor. For most of us this is the only way we receive non-English literature, so a poor translation is a serious issue. A good translation holds faith with the original's aura, and then it should soar. What is lost – imagine DH Lawrence's very English pulse rendered into the far fainter beats of French – can be partially made up for by the qualities gained in the host language. Having several good translations is no bad thing – they are autonomous creations, yielding different aspects of the original text.
It is, admittedly, harder to justify a 20th stab. Flaubert's unexotic story of boredom and adultery in the flatlands of 19th-century Normandy is the Everest of translation, and the slopes are crowded with foolhardy expeditions. "We love what tortures us," said its author. But what makes his book – of only average length – feel so high and treacherous?
For a start, Madame Bovary is perhaps the most carefully written book in literary history. It is the verbal equivalent of the Franck Muller Aeternitas Mega 4 wristwatch, with 36 complications and a 1,000-year calendar. The latter is totally unnecessary to the ordinary mortal, but then so is the exquisite music and mimicry of Flaubert's language: instead of five years of endless and agonised tweaking, he might have knocked out his provincial tale in a few months. But it isn't just the interplay of verbal effects and rhythm that keeps the translator up at night, if he or she decides to reproduce this music (as I did) in the host language. Flaubert did strange things, such as eliminating any authorial voice or stable moral centre; he used the imperfect as his main tense, giving a single action the sense of being suspended in time; played with varying shades of irony down to the deepest hues of pastiche; slipped between the subjective and the objective viewpoint without a tremor. The first quarter of the book is more about Charles, the dullest of husbands, than about Emma – whose enamel-like eyes are blue, deep blue, brown and black.
Down at base camp I made a decision equivalent to climbing without oxygen in 19th-century gear: I would stick to period language. My reasoning was simple: Flaubert called the novel a "poem". When I accepted the offer to translate it, I had an image of myself running my hands over its every plane and curve, imprinting its memory in English. But what kind of English? A contemporary idiom blurs not only Flaubert's precision but the shocking and revolutionary nature of the work, which makes more sense when set back in its own time and context. I bought Spiers's French-English dictionary, published in 1853, and a battered, soot-smelling first printing of the novel – only affordable because "oeuvre immorale" ("immoral work") had been scrawled with a quill on the flyleaf, and an anti-royalist page torn out. Which proved my point.
As stylistic touchstones, Flaubert's strict English contemporaries – Dickens, say, or George Eliot – were not self-conscious enough about language, for all their genius. I chose Henry James and early James Joyce, who both wrote later than Flaubert. Joyce's Dubliners, with its brilliant edge of detachment and perfected plainness, actually sounds at times as if it has an original in maybe Irish or French, while James's prose buckles standard English as it traces a character's interior consciousness.
This question of what English to use haunts every translator, starting with the divide between British English and American English. Davis uses a crisp, clean version of the latter, not only rhythmically but lexically – the schoolboy Charles is "dressed in regular clothes", his shirt "emerged from a pair of yellowish pants", his conversation is "flat as a sidewalk". Apart from the anachronisms (which many would accept as a necessary update), speakers of American English will have no problem with this.
My approach was radically different. As those familiar with my novels know (especially Ulverton and Hodd), I've always believed in the modernity of the past, from which our temporal conceit blinkers us. With an effort of the imagination we can think back to the past's present, when it was fresh and frighteningly new to those who dwelt in it, and language can be the spell that gets us there. I was convinced that, if set back in its own linguistic context, with our awareness of Victorian literature shadow-playing in the background, an English Madame Bovary could seem searingly radical again.
Two years in, at around page 300, I felt I had been doing this all my life. Davis admitted, in a reading given during her own struggle, that, Emma-like, she was "a little bored with the whole project". I can't say I was ever bored, but often seriously frustrated. Inch by inch, I would cover the ground, only to slip back when, for example, I realised that Flaubert had been using an extended metaphor (military, legal, whatever) for an entire paragraph. There were times when I tumbled into the crevice between the two languages, lost all sight of a natural English sentence, felt myself turning into the constituent molecules of a linguistic object – a pattern of auxiliaries, participles, pronouns.
Like Joyce, Flaubert can be drily comic, but humour is dependent on a precise selection of words, registers and double meanings, so I had to take an irony geiger count of every sentence – whose "right" translation lurked just around the corner. This was the version that combined accuracy, naturalness and musicality. The problem was the lack of corners: as in a dream, there would be one long traverse with nothing on it. The solution would appear (sometimes the novel felt like a vast crossword puzzle) through a combination of experiment, meditation and lateral thought: I had to step firmly away from the French and face a contrary direction – another track entirely. The solution usually had only two out of the three essential elements, and more work had to be done: less a path to climb than a Rubik's Cube of words to be twisted about or thrown at the wall.
Even more is at stake when the very genius of the novel lies on the shimmering surface. This is not to do with ornament, but meaning. Flaubert wished to close the gap not just between words and emotional truths, but between words and things: the sound of Hippolyte's wooden leg in the church ("They heard on the flagstones something like the sharp click of an iron-shod pole tapping them with even strokes"); the lumbering sway of cattle; the scoop of a hand in sugar-white arsenic.
This was crucial to get right, not only because it was what previous translators had largely omitted, but because I'm obsessed by the same equation in my own work. There's an extraordinary moment when Emma waltzes up at the chateau, surrounded by the "indifferent … brutality" of the upper classes. In the French, the whirling dissolves the words into a streaky, clicking blur of vowels: "Ils tournaient: tout tournaient autour d'eux …" It seemed essential to mimic this mimicry, but how? Previous translations had not even tried: "They turned, and everything turned round them …" (Alan Russell); "They were turning: everything was turning around them …" (both Geoffrey Wall and Davis). I felt the key was to use stretched vowels and to find an equivalent echo between "tout" and "tournaient": "They were reeling round: all reeled round and about them …"
Historical details took hours of research: for a debauched night, Emma sports a "lampion" on one ear: not the unlikely "paper lantern" (Wall), nor a "cocked hat" (Eleanor Marx Aveling, Russell and Davis), but a suitably Gypsy-like "lantern earring" – fashionable at the time. Puzzled by ambiguous, Swiss-knife words of multiple use, I searched through countless earlier drafts on the University of Rouen's website. This in turn could be risky. For instance, Flaubert bizarrely uses the plural "jours" (normally "days", less usually "chinks", but also "daylight" in the singular) to describe light filtering in through a trellis on the dying Charles: "Des jours passaient par le treillis." Flaubert had included the following in an earlier draft: "All the sorrows of his life returned to him … from the first day to the last."' He cut this, but persisted (if hesitantly) with the awkward "jours"; I was sure that he intended this to be initially misread as the poetic and ambiguous "Days passed by the trellis", suggesting memories and the changing seasons. Now, seized by the commonest affliction of translators in their obsessive dialogue with dead authors, I question my choice and may well, in Flaubertian fashion, revise it for the second printing.
From his tobacco-fugged study in Croisset, the Normandy hamlet where he lived with his mother and niece, Flaubert created an autonomous parallel universe: fiction as refuge from an outside world full of pain, peevishness and bourgeois vulgarity. These uglier elements feature in Madame Bovary to a degree that still shocks, creating complex cross-ripples, tugging against the author's ultimate literary aim of beauty and harmony. The pharmacist Homais's blather about progress is drawn with as much ruthless precision as the Blind Man's scrofulous face, Emma's final agony or her husband's uselessness. Flaubert was a disappointed romantic who embraced realism like a drinker embraces teetotalism: his "realism" was less a social exposure than a quasi-scientific exactitude, peeling away everything that was not "true": "Poetry," he claimed, "is as precise as geometry."
If much of the blame for Emma Bovary's fatal fantasising is placed on her reading of sentimental literature, the romantic passages – pastiches of poets such as Lamartine – remain enticing in their lyricism. Flaubert's heart is still in them, as it were. A translation has to convey both their beguiling beauty and that bitter after-taste of mockery: nowhere more so than in the celebrated scene of al fresco sex between Emma and Rodolphe: "The silence was everywhere; something sweet seemed to rise from the trees; she was aware of her heart, that was beating again, and of the blood circling through her flesh like a river of milk …"
For Flaubert, to write was to gallop into the land of the imagination on a thoroughbred whose life-blood was rhythm; my challenge was not only to stay in the saddle, but to remain the phantom rider, vanishing under the rippling power of words that are and are not the author's own.
Adam Thorpe's translation of Madame Bovary is published by Vintage (£18.99).
Стратмор опустился на колени и повернул тяжелый винтовой замок. Теперь крышку не поднять изнутри. Подсобка компьютера надежно закрыта. Ни он, ни Сьюзан не услышали тихих шагов в направлении Третьего узла.