When Lydia Davis was first asked to translate Madame Bovary, she wanted no part of the project, said Sam Anderson in New York. Having just translated Marcel Proust's Swann's Way, the acclaimed short-story writer was eager to return her own fiction. Davis also hadn't read Gustave Flaubert's novel in years, and had never loved Emma Bovary. But after rereading Bovary in its original French, Davis began to waver. She realized, she says, that Flaubert's prose was a "perfect fit between style and material." What's more, she found all existing translations wanting. "They're well written in their own way," she says, "but they're not close to what Flaubert did."
Davis doesn't pull any punches in denigrating her predecessors, said Dan Duray in The New York Observer. It upset her, she says, when previous translators inserted anachronistic expressions such as "No way!" into the mouths of 19th-century French characters, or when they relied too heavily on previous translations. "Over time, I began inevitably to imagine the translators," she says. One she pictured as being "horsey" with "bad teeth," always wearing "a cardigan sweater, putting shillings into the gas meter." And that was a translator she moderately liked. Only by rejecting the efforts of such forerunners, Davis says, was she able to "establish my own style." Whatever bad feelings her later comments may create, Davis' approach worked: Her Madame Bovary is already being hailed as definitive.
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