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Hopkins’ Bovary: the temptation of originality

By ucyow3c, on 3 November 2015

pencil-iconWritten by Deborah Dawkin, Phd student

A translator’s creativity and originality can sometimes represent a threat to the integrity of a literary text, argued Professor Lance Hewson (University of Geneva) in the first lecture of the Translation in History Series 2015–16 on 8 October 2015. Professor Hewson is the author of the recently published An Approach to Translation Criticism (Benjamins, 2011), in which he re-evaluates the possibilities of translation criticism. This Translation in History lecture focused on the 1946 translation of Madame Bovary by Gerard Hopkins.

Hewson suggested that while it is easy to “to rubbish” a translation, translation criticism should engage with the translation and try to understand the choices made by the translator and their effect at the time. To do this, he suggested, we need a clear interpretive framework.

© Mary Hinkley/UCL

© Mary Hinkley/UCL

Hewson’s framework is indeed thorough, comparing the translated text with other translations as well as the original text, both on a macro- and micro-level. The emphasis of his work is on identifying how changes (shifts) made in translation affect the reader’s experience and open up or close off potential interpretations.

Looking at Hopkins’s Mme Bovary the first thing that strikes you, Hewson suggested, is how beautifully it is written. But, he insists, it is “a very particular reading of Bovary”, and, as such, liable to change the reader’s experience of the novel radically.

So what was the evidence? First, Hewson’s findings show Hopkins regularly uses both explicitation and addition. Hopkins’s Mme Bovary is on average 15% longer than Flaubert’s, and the passage in which Mme Bovary decides to kill herself is 80% longer, which cannot help but modify interpretation.

Further, Hewson argued that Hopkins’s translation changes the interpretation of characters. For example, he suggested, that in giving the philanderer Rodolphe more florid and poetic language in his dialogues with Emma, Hopkins makes him “play the part of a different sort of lover” altogether.

Equally troubling, according to Hewson, is the fact that Hopkins changes the focalisation of passages; purposeful ambiguities in the original about whose perspective/eyes we are watching a scene through, are ignored. Not only that, but Hopkins tends to fill in gaps in the original narrative giving it a coherence not present in the source text.

This desire in the translator to create coherence in the text is also reflected in the characters’ voices, whose speech in the original is often broken, but smoothed out in translation.

This lecture was most thought-provoking when Hewson presented clear examples from Hopkins’s translation. The criticism/analysis of isolated examples taken from a translation can be problematic, since, as Hewson noted, their selection is, in itself, necessarily subjective.

However, it was difficult to ignore the cumulative power of his argument. We were given one example after another in which Hopkins essentially shifts from standard lexical translation, embellishing the text, making additions that are unnecessary to meaning and changing punctuation which, among other things, alters the rhythm and flow of thought.

It was difficult, for example, to deny that when the simple phrase “aller chercher” (to fetch) is translated with the much more colourful word “rummage”, this is clearly a translator whose own stylistic preferences are taking over.

What I found most interesting about Hewson’s approach to translation criticism is its proposition that translation choices at the micro-level have a cumulative effect on the macro-level of the text; that seemingly isolated and insignificant changes to the original (shifts) can “push” the novel in a particular direction that fundamentally influences the interpretations available to the reader and their entire experience of a work.

Hewson’s conclusion was that we have here “a book in Hopkins’s style”. The translator, a successful author himself, carries out an exercise in writing rather than re-writing. Instead of being an example of a translator’s justifiable “creativity” it is an “ontological translation” – by this, Hewson means a translation in which the translator seeks to exist for the reader as an author in their own right. Here, the translator “no longer works for the original author but for himself”.

While originality and creativity are key competencies needed by translators, they should, Hewson suggested, be kept within a framework of reasoned interpretation, and above all, be used consciously.

Translation criticism has arguably gone out of vogue in Translation Studies, perhaps because it appears too prescriptive. Hewson is certainly not afraid to (re)assert that a translator has a duty to “serve” the original text, and to reintroduce (in part at least) the notion of “good” and “bad” translation.

He forces us to (re)consider the translated text in direct relationship to the original, and relies on “meaning” being to some extent fixed. I find this approach refreshing, so long as we remember that all criticism is, as Hewson himself admitted, subjective and that any argument should, therefore, be open to further discussion.

Deborah Dawkin is currently working on a collaborative PhD (UCL, British Library) investigating the archive of the mid-20th century Ibsen translator Michael Meyer.

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