From Arsenic to Prussic Acid
Years after Emma Bovary poisoned herself with arsenic, Eleanor Marx – daughter of Karl Marx and one of the first people to translate Madame Bovary into English – took her own life by drinking prussic acid. Shortly after the novel’s translation, the motifs of Emma’s life started appearing in Marx’s: unfaithful men, accumulating debts, and adultery. Many contemporary discussions of Madame Bovary in translation still discuss Eleanor Marx’s version of 1886 and the similarities between her and Flaubert’s protagonist. Distancing myself from such comparisons, I compare Marx’s rendition with Lydia Davis’ 2010 translation in order to focus on the linguistic labor that goes into translating a novel. The comparison allows me to examine the complex relationships both translations have with the source text, relationships that undermine – albeit in different ways – essentialist and patriarchal views on translation.
The Longevity and Canonicity of Eleanor Marx’s Translation
Eleanor Marx’s version of Madame Bovary continues to be republished and widely discussed despite being the first available English translation of the novel. The longevity of Marx’s work challenges the long-standing “belle infidèle” notion within the field of translation studies. The concept relies on the supposition that translations, like women, need to be either beautiful or faithful in order to succeed.Simon, Sherry. “Engendered Theory.” Gender in Translation: Cultural Identity and the Politics of Transmission, Routledge, 1996, p. 10. Setting aside that qualifying a translation as generally ‘faithful’ lacks nuance and specificity, Eleanor Marx’s rendition of Madame Bovary was – based on the opinions of several literary critics – neither faithful, nor beautiful. The text’s survival, then, partially relies on external factors removed from Eleanor Marx’s labor: who revises it, academic conversations surrounding it, and the power of her surname.
The fact that most of the discourse around Madame Bovary in English circles back to Eleanor Marx’s translation both maintains and stems from its canonicity: its lasting relevance and position as a point of reference in the literary world.Evans, Jonathan. “Flaubert and Authority.” The Many Voices of Lydia Davis: Translation, Rewriting, Intertextuality, Edinburgh University Press, 2016, p. 93. Marx’s oeuvre received attention due to comments made by author and translator Vladimir Nabokov about her work being the quintessential example of a “bad translation.”Apter, Emily. “Biography of a Translation: Madame Bovary between Eleanor Marx and Paul De Man.” Translation Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 2008, p. 78., doi:10.1080/14781700701706518. Although his disparaging observations led to negative attention, they have also made the translation a must-read: successors aiming to translate Madame Bovary into English would gravitate towards reading and dissecting the work of Eleanor Marx. Nabokov’s statements cause the translation in question to be further debated and referred to, elements essential to a canonical text.Wollen, Peter. Paris Hollywood: Writings on Film. Verso, 2002. Marx’s translation gained another degree of relevance in 1965 after respected literary critic Paul De Man adopted and revised it, even though his version refers to the translator’s shortcomings and how his revision supposedly improved them.Ibid., 79. His academic authority contributed to the canonicity of the 1886 translation, but it would be reductive to think that Paul De Man acted solely out of altruism. Adding his stamp – and more importantly, his improvements – to a piece produced by Eleanor Marx situates him in a significant cultural genealogy linking him to both her and her father.
Reducing Eleanor Marx to the “daughter of Karl Marx” is not exactly fair to her literary and political work, as she is a notable figure in her own right. Yet, acknowledging the power of her surname is essential to the conversation of relevance and canonicity. The surname Marx brings its own undeniable cultural capital. As per Bourdieu, the three types of said capital – embodied, objectified, institutionalized – offer power to those who are blessed, not unlike economic capital.Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Forms of Capital.” Readings in Economic Sociology, 2002, pp. 281–282., doi:10.1002/9780470755679.ch15. The type of cultural capital most significant in the Eleanor Marx conversation is institutionalized: the academic/professional authority and credibility that accompany one’s upbringing, skills and connections.Ibid. Eleanor Marx’s lineage, background and connections – as the daughter of a revered theorist and activist – grant her easier access to the literary and academic worlds. And after access is granted, her surname coats her with a layer of privilege. With this in mind, we can more easily understand the slightly unusual shelf life of a 19th century translation. Granted, this discussion of privilege, prestige and canonicity might appear as a way to undercut and attribute Eleanor Marx’s success to three powerful men: Vladimir Nabokov, Paul De Man and Karl Marx. But it is worth noting that although not a favorite of the critics, her English rendition of Flaubert’s novel is memorable for other reasons. The way Marx reads and handles the text is central to discussions of translation studies in general, and feminist translation and discourse in particular.
Gender, Translation and Womanhandling
In order to understand how both Eleanor Marx’s and Lydia Davis’s renditions undermine patriarchal views on translation and faithfulness, it is necessary to contextualize these texts and consider how the discourse surrounding translation is gendered. Translation scholars often discuss faithfulness in implicitly gendered terms that are indicative of the patriarchal social structures that inform them.Bassnett, Susan. “Writing in No Man’s Land: Questions of Gender and Translation.” Ilha Do Desterro: A Journal of Language and Literature, vol. 28, no. 2, 1992, p.70. The ‘masculine’ original text – the Father – is often put on a pedestal while the ‘feminine’ translation is perceived as a copy, a “wife, concubine or mother.”Ibid. The three female roles serve as a metaphor for penetration and submissiveness: the original text is thought to have linguistic and cultural power over its translation.Ibid.
It becomes clear then that translations, and therefore femininity, are perceived as second-rate and often thought of in terms of absolute faithfulness to their masculine counterparts. In order to move beyond these reductive conversations, Susan Basnett argues that we must come to terms with the fact that “the translator is not, and never could be, a transparent filter through which a text passes.”Ibid., 71. Instead, we should think of the translator as a cultural producer who can and usually will sprinkle their additions or omissions throughout the text as hints of how they have read it. It is these differences and how they are emphasized that distinguish the feminist translator from the average female translator.Godard, Barbara. “Theorizing Feminist Discourse / Translation.” Tessera, Jan. 1989, p. 50., doi:10.25071/1923-9408.23583. The feminist translator does not assume a self-effacing role: on the contrary, she proudly displays her distinctive reading and treatment of the original text.Ibid. By womanhandling the text, she assumes the role of a creator of meaning who advocates for a specific reading.Ibid. Womanhandling does not need to manifest in grandiose, drastic changes. It can just as well appear in smaller details like italics, footnotes, or even in a preface.Ibid.
I was drawn to the translations of Eleanor Marx and Lydia Davis for two main reasons. The first is the simplistic discourse of fidelity surrounding one of the translations. While Marx’s work is mostly discussed in terms of absolute faithfulness, Davis’s is awarded more nuance and is examined in light of her adherence to Flaubert’s style.vans, Jonathan. “Flaubert and Authority.”, p. 94. The second reason is the relationship between femininity and translation. As two women translating a novel originally written by a man, Marx and Davis create texts that challenge gendered assumptions about the work of female translators. The complicated relationships with fidelity found within both translations challenge the notion that women need to create homogenous oeuvres that mimic the original texts perfectly – making it easier to argue that the constructed, patriarchal and hierarchical liaison between target and source texts can be, and often is, subverted and undermined.
Prefaces as Sites of Intervention or Adherence
Prefaces or introductions to translations often include the translator’s intent and mission: what they plan to achieve with their literary work. In her introduction to Madame Bovary, Lydia Davis explains her translation theory and the importance of stylistic fidelity, and what she wants to achieve through this labor: producing an English version of the realist novel that is actually faithful to Flaubert’s distinctive writing style. Eleanor Marx, on the other hand, does not dwell much on this aspect in her introduction. Instead, she reflects on Emma Bovary’s life and destiny under capitalism and marriage and introduces us to her translation theory – one that focuses on translation as labor and the translator as a laborer. Thus, Marx’s preface becomes her first site of womanhandling.
Davis makes it clear in her introduction that the English translations of Madame Bovary that came before hers do not do Flaubert’s style justice, while hers does.Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary: Provinical Ways. Translated by Lydia Davis, Penguin Books, 2012. Yet style cannot be exactly reproduced across languages and eras: It is informed by language history and a specific era’s linguistic techniques and texts.Evans, Jonathan. “Flaubert and Authority.”, p. 92. Style, then, is contextual and intertextual. Her mission becomes even clearer if we look closely at her views on translation: Davis believes that the original style should be replicated, down to the mistakes.Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary: Provinical Ways. Translated by Lydia Davis, Penguin Books, 2012, p. xv Her preface becomes a space for her to voice what she imagines her translation to be, first and foremost: an homage to Flaubert’s writing style.
Eleanor Marx’s introduction, however, takes a different direction, one in which she voices her socialist beliefs. She identifies her act of translation as that of a “conscientious worker.”Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. Translated by Eleanor Marx-Aveling, Penguin Random House, pp. xxi-xxii. The word choice neatly aligns with her and her father’s understanding of labor and their championing of laborers. Her description gives value to the intellectual and literary labor that goes into translation. By adding the socialist and Marxist layer of “worker” and labor, she acknowledges the financial transaction behind the job. The worker is not translating just for the sake of translating, it is a paid job. Nonetheless, this type of translator gives their all to creating the best possible rendering of the text. At the time of her work on Madame Bovary, Eleanor Marx was filling a gap: there was no published English translation of the French novel.Ibid. Her translation, in that sense, can be linked to how Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels thought of translation as a way to remove monopoly over knowledge.Apter, Emily. “Taskography: Translation as Genre of Literary Labor.” Pmla, vol. 122, no. 5, 2007, p. 1405., doi:10.1632/pmla.2007.122.5.1403. By introducing Madame Bovary to a new language, Eleanor Marx granted access to a new community of readers, removing linguistic monopoly over the novel.
Marx’s introduction also becomes a space for her to voice her opinion on protagonist Emma Bovary. Although she acknowledges the character’s shortcomings, she doesn’t seem to blame her. In her empathetic defense of Emma, Marx explores how patriarchy, capitalism and the institution of marriage failed the protagonist. Her downfall, according to the translator, is ultimately to be blamed on the marginalization of women. Emma’s entire life was reduced to being a wife and a mother within the private sphere, where there is no chance to learn through “experience” as men do.Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. Translated by Eleanor Marx-Aveling, Penguin Random House, p. xx. Marx justifies the protagonist’s desire for more – more love, more life, more luxury – by explaining to the reader that her life severely lacked substance and action. Knowing Eleanor Marx’s political inclinations, it would not be too far-fetched to think that she is also critiquing how society at the time frowned upon bourgeois women working. By voicing her empathy and understanding, Marx displays an overtly political stance in which she criticizes the bourgeois norm of confining women within the roles of wife and mother with minimal contact with the public sphere. She makes it clear that Emma’s story is not just about boredom. It is also about oppression. Even though Flaubert hints at these issues through narrative, these stances are not as explicit as when Eleanor Marx tackles them in her introduction (and naturally so). The preface consequently becomes the space in which she can openly womanhandle the text by adding layers of labor theory in addition to critique of patriarchy and bourgeois marriage. Even though the preface and the translation are separate entities, the introduction can be a space for the translator to explicitly state how they have read the text – and how that informs their translation process.
Sweat, Labor and Wealth
There are several instances throughout her translation in which Lydia Davis diverges from Eleanor Marx’s work. As noted by critics, Davis’ rendition is “less idiomatic” and “stiffer,” qualities reminiscent of Flaubert’s style.Evans, Jonathan. “Flaubert and Authority.”, p. 94. And when it comes to bodily fluids, Marx builds a word choice pattern, whereas Davis does not. Marx associates the word “sweat” with certain states such as physical labor and illness, while using “perspiration” for more idle moments of wetness that do not involve suffering and fatigue. In an early passage, Marx describes an inn landlady working in the kitchen by mentioning that she “sweated great drops” while preparing food.Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. Translated by Eleanor Marx-Aveling, Penguin Random House, p. 88. In another passage, she chronicles the details of a large feast: “They ate hugely. Each one stuffed himself on his own account. Sweat stood on every brow…”Ibid., p.182. Meanwhile, Davis phrases this passage as: “They ate abundantly. Each person helped himself to his fair share. The sweat ran down every forehead…”Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary: Provinical Ways. Translated by Lydia Davis, Penguin Books, 2012, p. 195. There’s not only a difference in phrasing between the two translations, but also a difference in tone. The words “hugely” and “abundantly” technically have similar meanings: in ample quantity. Yet, the former implies a form of excess – while the latter suggests a more positive, pleasant connotation. The difference manifests more clearly in the following sentence. While Davis implies that everyone at the feast ate as much they wanted to, Marx uses the phrase “stuffed himself,” signaling once again excess and binge – with a tinge of disapproval and disgust. It becomes clear that Eleanor Marx is satirizing the gluttony and excess displayed in bourgeois feasts. The “brow sweat” vs. “forehead sweat” word choice gains context in light of this observation, as the expression “by the sweat of the brow” is known to connote physical labor."sweat, n.2." OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2020 In her critique of overindulgence, Marx utilizes the expression “sweat stood on every brow” to showcase the physical exertion involved in the guests’ voracity. When describing characters in physical pain, as when Emma and Hyppolyte fall ill, Marx also uses “sweat” and words like “agony” and “shriek” to illustrate corporeal ache and effort.
When these scenes are contrasted with situations free of exertion and pain, it becomes clear that Eleanor Marx’s word choice is intentional. Describing theater patrons waiting in line for a show to start, Marx writes: “The weather was fine, the people were hot, perspiration trickled amid the curls, and handkerchiefs taken from pockets were mopping red foreheads.”Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. Translated by Eleanor Marx-Aveling, Penguin Random House, p. 265. The imagery of perspiration lightly dampening the patrons’ curls implies a delicatesse, a “refined” type of sweating. Similarly, she uses “perspiration” when describing Emma through her soon-to-be husband’s eyes:
The daylight that came in by the chimney made velvet of the soot at the back of the fireplace, and touched with blue the cold cinders. Between the window and the hearth Emma was sewing; she wore no fichu; he could see small drops of perspiration on her bare shoulders. Ibid., p.22.
Charles comes to visit then sees her, in this romanticized setting, sewing. In Marx’s translation, she is perspiring and glistening – not sweating. Through Charles’ gaze, Emma is magical, delicate, hyper feminine. Yet, Davis opts for the use of “sweat” in this specific passage.Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary: Provincial Ways. Translated by Lydia Davis, Penguin Books, 2012, p. 32. Her word choice matches Flaubert’s original use of “sueur” better than Marx’s choice. Her decision could be made in adherence to Flaubert’s terminology, but it could also have a slightly more political undertone. Davis’ 2010 translation comes after decades of academic discussions about representations of the female body. It’s probable that the translator is subtly addressing the contemporary issues of female representation. By eschewing a term like “perspiration” and adopting “sweat,” Davis could be rejecting the reductive representation of women as ever-delicate, hyper feminine and too gentle for bodily fluids.
In certain aspects, Davis does not live up to the fidelity she champions in her preface. In fact, throughout her translation, where Flaubert uses “richesse,” she does not use the close equivalent “riches.” Instead she uses “wealth” – just like Eleanor Marx. Although she does not claim to follow Marx’s translation in her introduction, she does discuss it briefly. If, as I argue, Eleanor Marx’s translation has reached a canonical level, then it would be normal for it to become a point of reference. Can we consider these moments of similarity faithfulness to Marx’s vocabulary? This might be a difficult question to answer, but Eleanor Marx’s intentions behind translating “richesse” into “wealth” are easier to decipher: The word choice becomes highly significant when we relate it to Karl Marx’s discussions of capital. In the following passage, Emma reflects on the beautiful night she has spent at the ball, with society’s upper echelon. She realizes that this glamorous lifestyle is one she craves:
She devoutly put away in her drawers her beautiful dress, down to the satin shoes whose soles were yellowed with the slippery wax of the dancing floor. Her heart was like these. In its friction against wealth something had come over it that could not be effaced.Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. Translated by Eleanor Marx-Aveling, Penguin Random House, p. 69.
Here, Eleanor Marx’s use of “wealth” recalls contamination: just as the heels of her shoes are stained, her heart is coated by the desire for excess, tainted by wealth. It is noteworthy that Davis phrases the last sentence of the passage in the following way: “Her heart was like them: contact with wealth had laid something over it that would not be wiped away.”Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary: Provinical Ways. Translated by Lydia Davis, Penguin Books, 2012, p. 80. Although the phrasing is quite similar, writing “friction against” adds more physicality to wealth than just “contact with.” The mental image of a heart rubbing against any physical manifestation of wealth is a powerful one that evokes materiality. By solidifying wealth in this way, Eleanor Marx again delivers a Marxist (père) argument that reminds us of Karl Marx’s understanding of capital: wealth is not only money, it can physically take the form of any luxurious good.
Eleanor Marx’s interventions in the text, from labor theory to critique of bourgeoisie and capitalism, are the manifestations of her feminist translation and her womanhandling. These same manifestations subvert the patriarchal understanding of translation: she doesn’t attempt to translate without intrusion. Granted, Flaubert’s French novel was already critical of the bourgeoisie before her intervention, but she made his critiques more caustic whether via word choice or her intentional, explicit preface. Eleanor Marx’s translation does not succumb to the original, it challenges the original. Even Lydia Davis’ translation, which positions itself as uber-faithful, has a complicated relationship with the original text. The faithfulness to some aspects of Eleanor Marx’s translation undermines the supposedly hierarchical relationship between the Davis rendition and Flaubert’s original. With all said and done, Flaubert’s protagonist was very fortunate to have an early translator like Eleanor Marx, who fought for her and saw her for what she was: a victim of oppression, and not a senseless heroine.
Jamil Bazzi is a research assistant and aspiring writer with two degrees from the American University of Beirut: one in English Literature, and one in Media Studies. When he’s not in the throes of an existential crisis, he enjoys making Twitter threads about his favorite TV characters and writing about identity and self-discovery.
|↑1||Simon, Sherry. “Engendered Theory.” Gender in Translation: Cultural Identity and the Politics of Transmission, Routledge, 1996, p. 10.|
|↑2||Evans, Jonathan. “Flaubert and Authority.” The Many Voices of Lydia Davis: Translation, Rewriting, Intertextuality, Edinburgh University Press, 2016, p. 93.|
|↑3||Apter, Emily. “Biography of a Translation: Madame Bovary between Eleanor Marx and Paul De Man.” Translation Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 2008, p. 78., doi:10.1080/14781700701706518.|
|↑4||Wollen, Peter. Paris Hollywood: Writings on Film. Verso, 2002.|
|↑6||Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Forms of Capital.” Readings in Economic Sociology, 2002, pp. 281–282., doi:10.1002/9780470755679.ch15.|
|↑7, ↑9, ↑10, ↑13, ↑14, ↑15, ↑21||Ibid.|
|↑8||Bassnett, Susan. “Writing in No Man’s Land: Questions of Gender and Translation.” Ilha Do Desterro: A Journal of Language and Literature, vol. 28, no. 2, 1992, p.70.|
|↑12||Godard, Barbara. “Theorizing Feminist Discourse / Translation.” Tessera, Jan. 1989, p. 50., doi:10.25071/1923-9408.23583.|
|↑16||vans, Jonathan. “Flaubert and Authority.”, p. 94.|
|↑17||Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary: Provinical Ways. Translated by Lydia Davis, Penguin Books, 2012.|
|↑18||Evans, Jonathan. “Flaubert and Authority.”, p. 92.|
|↑19||Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary: Provinical Ways. Translated by Lydia Davis, Penguin Books, 2012, p. xv|
|↑20||Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. Translated by Eleanor Marx-Aveling, Penguin Random House, pp. xxi-xxii.|
|↑22||Apter, Emily. “Taskography: Translation as Genre of Literary Labor.” Pmla, vol. 122, no. 5, 2007, p. 1405., doi:10.1632/pmla.2007.122.5.1403.|
|↑23||Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. Translated by Eleanor Marx-Aveling, Penguin Random House, p. xx.|
|↑24||Evans, Jonathan. “Flaubert and Authority.”, p. 94.|
|↑25||Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. Translated by Eleanor Marx-Aveling, Penguin Random House, p. 88.|
|↑27||Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary: Provinical Ways. Translated by Lydia Davis, Penguin Books, 2012, p. 195.|
|↑28||"sweat, n.2." OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2020|
|↑29||Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. Translated by Eleanor Marx-Aveling, Penguin Random House, p. 265.|
|↑31||Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary: Provincial Ways. Translated by Lydia Davis, Penguin Books, 2012, p. 32.|
|↑32||Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. Translated by Eleanor Marx-Aveling, Penguin Random House, p. 69.|
|↑33||Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary: Provinical Ways. Translated by Lydia Davis, Penguin Books, 2012, p. 80.|
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