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Arts and Letters

Sharing the Soul

The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, Gustave Flaubert, ed., trans. Francis Steegmuller, New York Review Books, pp. 720, $24.95

Sentimental Education: The Story of a Young Man, Gustave Flaubert, trans. Raymond N. MacKenzie, University of Minnesota Press, pp. 480, $19.95


Can Flaubert successfully be translated into English? Yes and no. Much of the content of his work, in terms of the ideas and memories in his letters, and the characters and situations of his prose fiction, can be carried across successfully into other languages without injury. But some of his work is simply too French. This is not purely a matter of style: of course Flaubert is one of the greatest artists of the French language—there are passages in his novels that are as perfect as anything in Virgil; yet a gifted translator can sometimes come close to replicating many of his carefully wrought effects.

The really untranslatable parts of Flaubert are the ones that are rooted so deeply in French culture that we, as English-speaking outsiders, will never really be able to understand them, no matter how learned we are, how extensive the commentaries we have available might be, or how well a French friend patiently explains them to us. These are the aspects of any given culture that you take for granted, and scarcely think about, and can never quite articulate to a foreigner. You can tell they’re there; but you know deep down that they’re for somebody else, not for you. No literary critic can ever come close to explaining these things to an outsider.

Flaubert was a self-conscious artist who produced his best work when he was going just a little bit out of control. He knew he had it in him to thunder and ramble, and go on for pages like Balzac or Victor Hugo at their worst; he loved writers who could do that (especially the great Romantics Chateaubriand and Byron), but was terrified of trying to do so himself and becoming a bore. Indeed he was sometimes; his intense, painfully research-heavy approach to literary composition was perhaps his way of restraining himself, and deliberately exhausting his emotional energy, as a means of forestalling overheated over-writing. There was no such check on his letter-writing.

Perhaps Flaubert’s best-known letter was written on January 16, 1852, to his mistress Louise Colet, who was perhaps more a sounding-board to him than a lover—a fact that grated on her throughout the years of their turbulent relationship. In this letter, Flaubert describes an impossible literary ideal:

What seems beautiful to me, what I should like to write, is a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the internal strength of its style, just as the earth, suspended in the void, depends on nothing external for its support; a book which would have almost no subject, or at least in which the subject would be almost invisible, if such a thing is possible.

Perhaps this is less convincing in Francis Steegmuller’s translation than in the original French, where there is a real sense of Flaubert’s getting carried away by his own eloquence: the rhythms seem to reflect those of his own breathing. When you read a fine passage by a great writer in any language, you find yourself breathing in unison with the author, just as you do in moments of intimacy. This might explain how Flaubert gets away with telling Louise Colet:

The finest works are those that contain the least matter; the closer expression comes to thought, the closer language comes to coinciding with it, the finer the result. I believe the future of art lies in this direction. I see it, as it has developed from its beginning, growing progressively more ethereal, from Egyptian pylons to Gothic lancets, from the 20,000-line Hindu poems to the effusions of Byron. Form, in becoming more skilful, becomes attenuated; it leaves behind all liturgy, rule, measure; the epic is discarded in favour of the novel, verse in favour of prose; there is no longer any orthodoxy, and form is as free as the will of its creator. This progressive shedding of the burden of tradition can be observed everywhere: governments have gone through similar evolution, from Oriental despotisms to the socialisms of the future.

Most of this is preposterous, but you can see how attractive these thoughts must sound, particularly to ignorant people who believe in their own creative talent. But really, Flaubert is just thinking aloud and talking loosely as he tries to find some means of justifying one of his more flamboyantly self-indulgent early works to himself. He read a draft manuscript of his imaginative verse drama The Temptation of Saint Anthony aloud to his friends in September 1849; two and a half years later he was still shocked and wounded by their failure to share his enthusiasm. The self-justification in his letter of January 16, 1852, reaches a convincing-sounding climax:

there are no noble subjects or ignoble subjects; from the standpoint of pure art one might almost establish the axiom that there is no such thing as subject—style itself being an absolute manner of seeing things. I should need an entire book to develop what I want to say. I’ll write about all that in my old age, when I’ll have nothing better to scribble. Meanwhile, I’m working hard on my novel.

Of course, Flaubert was a great thinker only when he was creating literature: he was sensitive, perceptive, and deeply intelligent, but he was not an intellectual. Perhaps he was too much of a genius for that. You don’t look to him for wisdom or philosophical insight. He thinks not in terms of principles, propositions, or abstract ideas but through the medium of narrative, with character as his principal vehicle. In his finest work he strives to be true to his powerfully vivid imagination and share his visions with us. It seems a mistake to ask why, or to expect him to be able to explain his artistic processes.

When he dismisses the importance of literary subjects to Louise Colet, he is truthfully stating an opinion that runs completely counter to his own practices as a writer of fiction: everything he published was deeply, intensively researched, and drafted and polished with careful attention, not merely to sound effects or rhetoric but to whether or not what he was creating had a ring of truth—a direct, visible, demonstrable relationship to reality, as far as possible.

Flaubert is as hard to translate as any other classical artist: we always overestimate just how aware he was of what he was doing. Obviously at the surface level he was completely in control of his art, with an unparalleled grasp of all the linguistic tools at his disposal, and an intuitive sense of what he could achieve. But he could never control the effect he had on his readers or audience. No writer can, at least if he aims to communicate with sensitive, intelligent people. There is a process whereby we feel as though we share his “consciousness”—his mind, his memory, his sense perceptions and his processing of inform­ation—his “soul,” in other words.

These days we need to specify what we mean when we talk of a “soul,” because the term has been so badly corrupted and degraded through sentimental overuse by those who have no precise sense of what it means. Anyway, a great writer grants you the illusion of sharing the souls of others, for a little while; but not everyone completely suspends his critical judgement when this process is in action. Actors often feel as though their bodies are taken over by other people’s souls; most readers, most members of an audience, tend not to allow themselves to be taken over in quite this way. What about translators?

Writers today seem to agonize about the very act of translation. If you read Dryden’s various essays on translation from the second half of the seventeenth century, or Doctor Johnson’s occasional comments and discussions throughout his oeuvre, you see that these men were fully aware of the difficulties involved in communicating a thought that was originally expressed in classical Greek or Latin and transferring or transforming it into a contemporary idiom and a modern language. But they didn’t overthink it. Today, on the other hand, there seems to be a great deal of complicated theorizing about the process that really seems to be a form of angsty hand-wringing disguised as intellectual complexity.

Academic translators from ancient languages have latterly developed the habit of prefacing their work by making clear that their work has no literary pretensions. In most cases this claim is rooted in a false dichotomy between the pretty, artificial, self-indulgent attitude of the mere artist and the plainspoken honesty of the scholar. Really what this sort of translator is saying amounts to: I have spent my life in the library: I earned a B.A., at least one Master’s degree, and a doctorate, and despite all this time and effort spent on literature, I have no skill when it comes to basic communication. This is pitiable, but at least there is a sort of honesty involved in these veiled confessions of incompetence. Translators of works in living languages have no such means of hiding behind their learning, alas.

The most impressive living translator of literary fiction, Margaret Jull Costa, has discussed her creative process in interviews, but she has no time for agony; she simply gets on with her work and has an extraordinary track record to show for her efforts. Two of the most brilliant translators of French, David Bellos and Mark Polizzotti, have written thoughtful and illuminating books about their art, perhaps because the tasks they set themselves are so much less straightforward than Costa’s is. Because they both focus so intently on eccentric twentieth-century literary movements, they do not always translate books that one might want to read; and yet they don’t seem to feel adequately challenged by the exercise of rendering straightforwardly conventional, traditional literature into everyday English. This is a shame: Bellos has produced definitive English versions of the novels of Georges Perec; Polizzotti’s 2005 translation of Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet is the most sympathetic version available of this controversial work.

I call this novel “controversial” because so many readers find it profoundly off-putting. For my part, I laugh out loud while reading both Perec’s fiction and Bouvard et Pécuchet while remaining painfully aware that these works are by no means instantly appealing to all readers. Perec expected his readers to remain alert and caffeinated; nobody reads him to relax or turn off one’s mind. You turn to him for serious playfulness, and narratives that are puzzles to solve rather than stories to absorb. As for Bouvard et Pécuchet: those of us who love Flaubert’s unfinished last novel tend to be cynical and at least slightly misanthropic; but the apparent heartlessness of the book (which seems to me only apparent) is not the real reason for its modest popularity.

In truth, you probably need to marinate for a few weeks in the intellectual culture of nineteenth-century France if you are to have a chance of reading Bouvard et Pécuchet without the best jokes going over your head. It’s not a novel that is helped by footnotes or commentaries: if you need scholarly aids to enjoy it, you might well never fully enjoy it. Fans of this novel insist that its appeal is universal without always conceding that it has never demonstrated this universality, even among intellectuals.

Bouvard et Pécuchet was always meant to appeal to a self-selecting minority; you might wonder whether you ever had a chance of belonging to this little group, particularly if you aren’t French and have no strong opinions about entire classes of French society that so exercised Flaubert, and yet have no clear equivalent in English-speaking parts of the modern world. Polizzotti and Bellos are among the rare translators who understand that rendering words from one language into another is only the beginning of their task.

Where modern Catholic writers are concerned, perhaps the most impressive translators from French are Matthew Minerd and Christopher Olaf Blum. Neither quite does fiction, or verse. Minerd’s translations of Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange are perhaps not for all readers; yet he thinks hard about his choice of words, and creative artists have a great deal to learn from his diligence and scrupulous care (I use “scrupulous” in its non-sinful sense here, of course). Christopher Olaf Blum is one of the unsung great literary translators of our day; his abilities seem to me to have been largely wasted on uninspiring counter-revolutionary thinkers such as Louis de Bonald. Then again, there is definitely an audience for this sort of purely intellectual work, even if some of us find it rebarbative.

Still, Blum is so demonstrably good at bringing across the sound as well as the sense of Romantic counter-revolutionary littérateurs like Chateaubriand and Joseph de Maistre that it seems a shame that nobody has commissioned him to work on something that a fair few people would find fun to read—for example, the literary criticism of Sainte-Beuve, who knew both Flaubert and Baudelaire and wrote a magisterial six-volume study of the Jansenists at Port-Royal that has inexplicably never been translated into English. Then again, most of us who want to read that sort of thing can already read it in French. But what if we’re too tired at the end of a long day for anything other than English?

We should be honest about the fact that everybody who has literary interests relies at least a little on translations from time to time. There are a great many novel­ists—notably Balzac and Zola—who essentially lose nothing in translation because they are so sloppy with language; if French isn’t your first language, there is probably no reason not to read Zola or Balzac in English, provided you can find versions in English that you don’t find annoying.

Then there are books whose translations have become canonical in their own right: C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s versions of Proust, for example. We no longer live in a world in which educated people feel ashamed to read Proust in English; in any case most who sniffed at the idea were fibbing or bluffing. Yet Proust, like Stendhal and Flaubert, is one of those stylists who live so fully in their languages that you really do miss something in translation: this is because of his unique sentence rhythms, as well as the precision and nuance with which he expresses himself, at his best anyway. His habits of thought are difficult to replicate in other languages, even by someone of Scott Moncrieff’s stature.

Sometimes a translation can gesture at what you might be missing in translation. The most impressive single passage in Flaubert might be a hunting scene in his late short story “The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller.” Even in English you can see what an astonishing piece of word-music this is; whereas if you struggle through it as a beginner in a classroom, you simply might not be able to read fast enough to understand that you are witnessing magic. But in English you are always conscious of reading a somewhat distorted reflection of a superior original.

At least Flaubert isn’t, for example, a classical Greek poet. The ancient Greek tradition seems to lose everything in translation. In the 1990s, Penguin Classics began publishing a magnificent series, Poets in Translation, consisting of anthologies of English poets’ attempts to render Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Seneca, Juvenal, Martial, the Psalms, Baudelaire and Dante into English. The entire series is worth collecting, and supplementing with a copy of The Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation. Seven hundred years of unsatisfying attempts to render (for example) Ovid and Horace into English verse look successful compared to virtually everyone’s stilted attempts to bring ancient Greek poetry to life in English. Almost nobody has done a good, or even competent, job of this. Most major English poets prior to the mid-seventeenth century simply didn’t have any Greek; those who came after them were often sensible enough not to bother. Alexander Pope’s Iliad is by far the most impressive attempt to render Homer into English; it succeeds in part by speaking so boldly and distinctly in Pope’s voice, rather than anyone else’s.

Why is classical Greek so difficult to domesticate in English? This is a complicated question, but it seems to involve the sheer poverty of rhythmic, musical and metrical possibilities in English. Even in the period between the Regency and World War II, when the quality of British classical education was at its height, attempts to replicate the effect of Greek verse in English seem to have been minimal, and unsatisfactory. English versions of Greek tragedy are particularly embarrassing, not only because our literary tradition lacks a tragic register of language but also because we have no idea what to do with the choral odes in Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Much of the Greek world is alien even to scholars; the lack of knowledge and confidence tends to show.

One of the only successful replications of the effect of Greek verse in English is Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.” How conscious was the attempt? Shelley’s verse drama Prometheus Unbound is, by contrast, almost comically un-Greek in effect. The success of the “Ode to the West Wind” in this respect must be unconscious and accidental. At least he got it right, though.

French, like Latin, has a close enough relationship to English to enable a fair degree of relatively successful translation, particularly when compared to our literature’s abysmal showing with respect to classical Greek verse. Perhaps ironically, many of the most competent literary translations from these languages were undertaken when they were least necessary, as there was a relatively large educated public that had access to these texts in the original languages.

Throughout the twentieth century, the editors at Penguin Classics in particular seem to have been shrewd judges in terms of selecting translators. Leonard Tancock’s 1962 version of Zola’s Thérèse Raquin is especially good not least because of the introduction, in which Tancock’s admiration of Zola’s talent is leavened by sneers, put-downs, and hilariously waspish asides. Tancock is one of many unsung heroes of twentieth-century translation: he took his job seriously while maintaining a sense of humor about what he was doing. Translators like him have disappeared along with the academic culture that created them: one of the single worst consequences of the Americanization of British universities has been the gradual loss of respectfully irreverent voices like Tancock’s.

Of course, not all of the major twentieth-century literary translators were professional scholars: a high proportion were “men of letters” who made their living outside universities. Francis Steegmuller, who was married to the novelist Shirley Hazzard, is one of the best-known American Francophiles of the twentieth century. As a translator he concentrated largely on Flaubert; his 1939 book Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait is by far the best of his mass-market biographies. New York Review Books Classics reissued this in 2004, and it might be the best introduction in English to Flaubert. Steegmuller is sympathetic and imaginative; the book is richer than many (non-Flaubertian) fictional works. What lets it down somewhat is the style, even more than the unremittingly middlebrow approach to artistic creativity.

Steegmuller spoke, wrote, and thought in old-fashioned Ivy League English; for whatever reason, this sort of prose dates badly, perhaps because it was rooted in a self-conscious, quietly anxious, semi-artificial dialect of English. Steegmuller’s English is that of a writer who doesn’t know whether he is an artist or a researcher, and is unsure of his status in relation to his reader or his subject. In many ways this tension makes Flaubert and Madame Bovary far more interesting than most comparable literary biographies; the psychodrama is just barely visible on the page, and it adds spice to what might have been a dutiful assignment. But the English is often sloppy, and Steegmuller seems to realize this.

Steegmuller’s 1957 translation of Madame Bovary is still in print, in the Everyman Library; if your French is shaky, you could easily read the original text with Steegmuller’s translation open beside you for reference, and you would never feel lost or overwhelmed. Perhaps this is part of his problem as a translator: he never quite knows whether he is rendering French into English word for word or replicating Flaubert’s effects a little more loosely. This fundamental uncertainty sometimes spills over into the tone and register of the language. You never hear anything like Flaubert’s music. In general, Steegmuller was wise to stick as a translator mainly to Flaubert’s letters.

In autumn 2023, New York Review Books Classics reissued Steegmuller’s two-volume selection of Flaubert’s letters in a single volume as The Letters of Gustave Flaubert. This is unquestionably a must-read even though Steegmuller’s principles of selection were sometimes mysterious. Geoffrey Wall’s more concise (though still generous) selection of letters, last reprinted by Penguin Classics in 1997, is better translated and more coherently edited, but the Steegmuller volume has the unexpected value of showing readers that Flaubert was not always an attentive writer. His polite letters are as dull as anybody else’s; his style is sometimes all over the place; as a thinker he tends to be erratic. But when he is writing to an intimate whom he clearly loves, he can be electric, and as eloquently inspired as a Romantic poet. Steegmuller singles out the following passage from a letter that Flaubert sent to Louise Colet on September 1, 1852:

J’aurai connu vos douleurs, pauvres âmes obscures, humides de mélancolie renfermée, comme vos arrière-cours de province, dont les murs ont de la mousse.

Steegmuller describes this Chateaubriandesque flight of fancy as untranslatable; here is his version, preceded by three sentences that give a little more idea of the context:

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. If my book is good, it will gently caress many a feminine wound: more than one woman will smile as she recognises herself in it. Oh, I’ll be well acquainted with what they go through, poor unsung souls! And with the secret sadness that oozes from them, like the moss on the walls of their provincial backyards . . .

Here Steegmuller’s limitations are laid bare. This sounds underfelt as well as underthought; Steegmuller kills the poetry by writing in stilted translation-ese. He is much better at using Flaubert’s letters to construct a sort of indirect biography than he is at demonstrating to us why Flaubert remains the pivotal figure in the modern novel as an art form. But to his credit he succeeds brilliantly, both in his Letters of Gustave Flaubert and his biography, at letting us see glimpses of what Flaubert was like as a friend, a son, and a lover, and how he tried to protect himself from the world. Steegmuller might not be able to illuminate Flaubert’s gifts, but at least he can tell you a great deal about his life. To appreciate Flaubert’s grandeur and genius, it helps to have an idea of how sheltered, isolated, and fundamentally boring most of his existence was.

Flaubert’s work is not easy to love. Perhaps his most difficult novel is L’Éducation sentimentale (1869), which is deliberately bathetic and anti-climactic in its depiction of how the hero, Frédéric Moreau, squanders his advantages, his abilities, and most of his fortune as he consistently thwarts his own chances of enjoying a fulfilled life. Flaubert deliberately frustrates the reader throughout, and the vision of life he depicts is terrible in its pessimistic melancholy. This is a bleak book; those who are romantics at heart find it particularly offensive. Yet for those prepared to endure frustration and disappointment in terms of their narrative expectations, L’Éducation sentimentale is a masterpiece. Readers shrink from it because it’s too realistic.

The novel features some of Flaubert’s most vivid writing, particularly in the passages concerned with the revolution of 1848. But you wouldn’t kknow it from Raymond N. Macenzie’s Sentimental Education, recently published by the University of Minnesota Press. MacKenzie is an experienced translator, yet for all his self-evident love of French literature, he seems to have been wholly unsuited for this task.

His introduction explains why he had no chance of succeeding from the outset: instead of writing in the English he speaks every day, or adopting (say) British English, which is a foreign idiom for him, he decided to try to translate Flaubert’s rigorously classical French into a kind of compromise language, not too colloquially American, not too stiffly or fussily British, and not tied to any specific region or dialect. This is a nice idea, and a considerate one, but of course it was doomed to fail. You cannot translate a highly wrought work of literary prose into anything like the blandly inoffensive “globish” of international bureaucrats in Brussels and Geneva and expect to succeed, artistically or otherwise.

MacKenzie gets the literal meaning of the text across, more or less, albeit with occasional slips or errors (as will be found in the work of every translator, no matter how conscientious). But the literary aspect of Flaubert’s prose seems to embarrass him. He makes no obvious effort to replicate the vibrancy or sonorousness of the highly finished paragraphs in L’Éducation sentimentale: but the novel would be an unendurable exercise in unremitting “literary realism” without Flaubert’s linguistic artistry and his knack for creating vivid scenes in the reader’s imagination through sheer sentence rhythm and placement of words. Of course, it isn’t MacKenzie’s fault that American literary prose no longer really has a genuinely classical literary register or an unembarrassing means of accommodating the language or imagery of Romanticism. But how do you transform a work like this into plainspoken, “accessible” English?

Present-day conflicts have left their mark on this translation. Early in Sentimental Education, MacKenzie capitalizes “Black” when referring to a person, in accordance with current standard practice in American universities. But then we also see “black,” and even “Negro,” in the same text, and we wonder whether any­body at the University of Minnesota Press bothered to edit this translation.

A second scholar might have usefully been commissioned to write up the introduction to Sentimental Education, along with the supplementary notes and commentary: translation itself is hard work, and the translator, as here, does not always see what information would be helpful to a reader who doesn’t know French, has no background in the history or culture of nineteenth-century Paris, and can’t understand any of Flaubert’s references. Bright undergraduates these days are forced to educate themselves unaided even at the most prestigious universities; academic presses ought to do everything they can to help these autodidacts along, particularly if such institutions really take their missions seriously. This sort of reader is alas ill-served by Sentimental Education.

In the end we are left wondering why the University of Minnesota Press published this translation without providing MacKenzie with a little more support and advice. There was surely no hurry to publish the book. Then there is the question of whether there was any real need for it at all.

It is hard to see the value in a fresh translation of this work, which will never enjoy widespread appeal, except in the eyes of other writers (not to mention would-be novelists who end up as scholars of French literature). Who would benefit from reading this? Who would enjoy it? And why, indeed, does a work as quintessentially French as L’Éducation sentimentale need to be translated in the first place? Such a task seems to be even more futile than anything in Bouvard et Pécuchet, the story of a pair of Parisian copy-clerks who retire to the country to educate themselves in a variety of disciplines, and conspicuously, hilariously, fail at everything they undertake. Flaubert did not encourage translators, perhaps with good reason.

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