On Tuesday night in 413 Dodge, Susan Bernofsky, director of Literary Translation at Columbia (LTAC), held a conversation with Lydia Davis. At a Columbia Summer Program in high school, Alexandra Svokos was told to read Davis, fell in love, and natch was there on Tuesday.
There’s no way to say it without sounding pretentious: I saw Lydia Davis do a reading at Shakespeare & Co. last summer. I was in Paris for a wonderful writing course and Davis was reading her characteristic short short stories to a massive crowd that extended out to the street, all clamoring to see her. To me, Davis is almost strictly a writer, but on Tuesday, for a crowd of LTACers, she was in pure translator form. She speaks with careful word choice, but honestly, with a voice like a whisper. It was fascinating to hear this side of her work, which relies on respect for and dedication to another author, rather than letting her own inventiveness take over. She spoke mainly about her translations of Proust’s Swann’s Way and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.
The conversation opened with Davis explaining her psychological analysis of why she so loves translating. Her family moved to Austria when she was 7. She sat in class, with German all around her, and watched the language slowly begin to gain meaning. Moreover, Davis has always loved word puzzles. “A Proust sentence is like a long, elaborate word puzzle,” she said. A Barnard alum, Davis’s first published translation was actually in the Columbia Review.
Davis translated a variety of books, but the opportunity to do Swann’s Way was definitely a high point in her career. She understood it to be a huge responsibility and put “tremendous effort” into it. Davis could spend a full day working on one sentence, or an hour on just one word. She looked up the French etymologies to make sure she had things exactly right (helping her own handling of the English language). In translating, she had “given into a certain immersion” where “no amount of effort was too much.” It was rewarding but wearing. The first draft came out quickly, and included some invented word games (i.e. translate one word at a time, without reading the rest of the sentence), but the second draft was a slower, more particular process.
After Swann’s Way, she was asked to do Madame Bovary, but took time in accepting the offer–she hadn’t enjoyed the book the first time she read it. By the end of translating, though, she had “come to at least respect it.” When asked what makes a translation faithful, Davis explained that you have to “stay very, very close without being slavishly literal.” Flaubert’s writing is very choppy, she said, not flowing and lyrical, and the translator has to respect that.
Davis does very much consider the author and other translators while working. For Bovary, she knew that there were many other translations already out there. She read through some and, on Tuesday, had comical imaginary conversations with the translators, judging their quality. While she read the other translations, she would check to see how hers compared. If something was essentially the same, though, she “wouldn’t come up with something inferior to be original.”
Davis said that, as a translator, you have to not think that you know better than the author, especially with someone important like Flaubert or Proust. They made specific syntax and word choices for a reason, and a translator can’t adjust to her or his own preference. For example, Proust used “bon” many times in Swann’s Way. Other translators changed up the language, using different synonyms for “good,” but Davis believed it was important to leave them all the same. Proust was looking for something with that, she explained.
The talk ended much more in conversation, moving through important questions from Bernofsky and the audience: