How to Do Things with Style

by Arthur Goldhammer

Paper delivered to BU Translation Seminar, Jan. 24, 1997

Pity the poor translator. In the prison-house of language, he occupies the deepest cachot, the most forgotten oubliette. The writer, that noble savage, inhabits the virgin forest of his own style, in which every track is unbeaten. Aimless though an author’s path may be, the translator is expected to dog his every step. If the penman is a savage, the translator must be the quintessence of civilization: he is admonished by all the arbiters of elegance to capture the spirit and not just the letter, the manner and not just the matter, the style and not just the content. Spirit, manner, and style are of course whatever aspect of the text the critic, for his circumscribed and circumstantial purposes, chooses for the nonce to single out. The translator is consequently exhorted ad nauseam to be faithful, but not to just one god or one wife. He must keep faith with the source language while honoring the exigencies of the target. He must plumb every depth and grope his way through every obscurity of the original, taking care not to clarify unduly what the author by intention or inadvertence has left either pregnant with suggestion or murky to the point of incomprehensibility. And because he is expected to read with the eyes of all readers in all ages and states of receptivity, he will be chastised for his inevitable failure to anticipate every conceivable readerly caprice. This no finite creature can possibly do. Hence all translation is defective. Defectiveness is the condition of its existence. If God exists because he is the summum of all that is good, then translation exists in order that the original may stand out as the unique object possessing all the qualities missing from its presumptive and presumptuous copies. The translator pays the price of his necessary civilization by accumulating all the purported vices of the civilized—artificiality, impurity, lack of sinew: we live, after all, in a post-Rousseauian age. On top of which the writer gets all the glory and most of the money: not a pretty picture.

Yet translations still get done. This is a remarkable fact, given how often the task of the translator has been declared impossible. Or is it so remarkable? Who would want to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel if it weren’t supposed to be impossible? But the urge to translate doesn’t spring, as barrel-navigation presumably does, from a spirit of reckless adventure. It arises, I think quite comprehensibly, out of love, which the philosophers tell us is the desire to become one with what is other. In this I think it is akin to the urge to read. For if literature is the flesh made word, then reading flows from a desire to flee the world of the flesh for the world of words. The translation instinct, the traduction-pulsion, is perhaps an exacerbation of this desire, its most fanatical form: the desire to leave both the world of the flesh and the security of the mother tongue for a realm where everything is strange and nothing can be taken for granted or on faith or as it comes. Translation lives inside the text. It is the ultimate bracketing of the world as given, the trans-Cartesian, trans-Husserlian epoche. Yet dwelling within the text by no means precludes the occasional venture outside. We know, pace Derrida, that there is such a place, because otherwise we wouldn’t be as content as we are to live where we do.

Because translation is practiced, we can look to see how it is done. The study of actual practice is sometimes held to be a poor way to get clear about any particular aspect of human activity. Practice, we are told, is too mired in tradition, too rough and ready, too empirical in the worst sense. Practice becomes habit: we do what we do because others did what they did, with no very good reason to justify our no doubt pusillanimous refusal to make waves. To see our way forward, we are admonished to climb to a higher vantage, to attain the loftiness of theory. But Descartes, the father of modern theorizing, was wonderfully attentive to practice: he sketched gears, studied bellows, scrutinized sailing ships and forges. After all, scholasticism, the theoretical practice he is honored, rather too hastily, for having overthrown, had gotten itself into trouble by trusting too much rather than too little in the intoxications of theory. And closer to our own time, philosophers like Ludwig Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin have taught that ordinary practice holds, some might say perversely withholds, the secrets to many theoretical riddles. So there is at least a prima facie case for looking at the practice of translation in order to understand what translation is, to give the quest a Heideggerian inflection, or to see what counts as translation, for those who are more comfortable with their feet on the ground alongside Austin or John Searle.

How, then, can we make our way into a world doubly removed from this world, first because it is a world made text and second because that text is foreign? Translation, we can readily see, involves a congeries of small decisions, transpositions, and conjurations, but how does the translator decide when one of these is better than another? Does he remain entirely within the textual, or must he appeal to the world as arbiter?

Physicists searching for concepts useful for the analysis of complex systems sometimes find it expedient to work first with simpler systems, which exist only in the theorist’s mind’s eye. On these they perform gedanken experiments. To explore the question of what translation is, I propose a gedanken experiment in representation. Consider the following diptych:

Now, each of these sets of marks on paper embodies a system of conventions, and if our cultural experience is such that these conventions make sense to us, that we understand these conventions, then these sets of marks become legible. Of course I am begging the question of what it means to make sense of, or to understand, a convention, but this is a notoriously hard case of philosophy, and, as judges say, hard cases make bad law. So let us for the sake of argument assume that in these two cases we know what we mean by understand. What common sense takes understanding to be is here, I think, quite clear: we see immediately that both sets of marks represent the same object, namely, a cylinder. Since we are gathered under the aegis of a faculty of liberal arts, I am assuming, by the way, that all of you understand the conventions of shading, perspective drawing, and so on that have held sway in Western art since the Renaissance: for otherwise you might not recognize the figure on the left, which literally is a two-dimensional drawing consisting of an ellipse, two straight lines, and some computer-simulated air-brushing, as a representation of a three-dimensional cylinder. Actually, even if you were innocent of all the conventions of post-Renaissance art, I think you would be able to read this convention, precisely because its mode is mimetic: it aims to reproduce the sensation of looking at a three-dimension cylinder, its characteristic outline and light pattern. In Wittgensteinian terms, we can see this pattern of ink marks as a cylinder. What, in your innocence, you might not appreciate is how crude this particular mimesis is, compared with the marvels of illusion that a master of the pen or burin or brush can achieve.

Contrast this immediate legibility with the figure on the right, which is in fact quite illegible to anyone unfamiliar with the conventions of drafting—illegible, that is, because its mode is analytic rather than mimetic. Indeed, since you are students of the liberal arts, perhaps I am rash in assuming that you immediately recognize this draftsman’s sketch as a representation of the same object as the figure on the left, as anyone who had completed eighth-grade shop would. In fact, even though that is what it is, even Descartes for all his genius wouldn’t have seen it as such: the conventions of drafting were not invented until the eighteenth century, in part because it took Descartes’s reconceptualization of abstract space to make them possible. But when Descartes himself attended to practice, he was hindered in thinking about what he saw because the only outillage mental he had to work with was that of perspective drawing. So when he drew a gear or a crank or a complex system composed of such simple machines, the great rationalist was no more capable of useful simplification than was a Leonardo or a Raphael. Nor could he draw nearly as well. Hence he, along with mankind in general, was blind to certain possibilities that are today "clear and distinct" to even the rudest mechanic. Representational conventions are not innocent. Because they define the contours of thought, they establish the boundary between light and darkness.

Now, can we say that, because these two sets of marks represent the same object, one is a translation of the other? I submit that the answer is no, and I will give two arguments to support my contention. Both arguments will appeal, but in different ways, to the same gedanken experiment: imagine that we now drill a hole in our referent cylinder through its center and parallel to its longitudinal axis. This hole can be represented as follows in our two representative systems:

Our gedanken experiment suggests that the immediacy of interchange between the two representations of the object has limitations. The representation of the hole on the left confronts the viewer with an ambiguity: how deep is the hole? Does it continue all the way through the cylinder, or does it stop somewhere below the level that the chosen angle of view permits us to see? The artist’s representation leaves this question in suspense. By contrast, the draftsman’s representation on the right is designed expressly to answer it. Indeed, if the draftsman’s style of representation has a raison d’être, it is precisely to answer questions of this kind, questions that primarily interest homo faber and perhaps homo sapiens before l’homme moyen sensuel. The artist’s style, on the other hand, is designed to mimic the appearance, as to contours and light patterns, of a three-dimensional cylinder and thus to evoke in the viewer similar sensations. Hence if meaning is use, as has been influentially urged, the two representations have very different uses, hence different meanings. Therefore one is not a translation of the other.

My second argument takes a rather different tack. Let us focus our attention now on the marks themselves, the quite literal traces of the physical activity involved in the transmission of meaning from consciousness to medium. All physical activity—and writing is a physical activity as much as drawing—has a ludic dimension, an aspect of play: we take a kinesthetic pleasure in making marks, and this pleasure, like any pleasure, can be playfully pursued for its own sake, quite independent of any communicative intent. Wherever there is pleasure, there is a compulsion to repeat, indeed to repeat with variation so as to avoid the extinction of pleasure that comes with mere accumulation. Hence style, reveling in the pleasure of its own making, tends to encourage distinctive forms of elaboration. Take the use of shading in artistic representation: we know that art, having discovered the value of shading in adding verisimilitude to the two-dimensional representation of three-dimensional form, began to take pleasure in tonal marking for its own sake as well as for its expressive virtues. Styles of shading could even become signatures of individual artists, schools, or periods: straight marks, diagonal marks, cross-hatching, dilutable washes, lines of varying darkness and even, with Raphael, varying thickness. Now, each style, producing its own characteristic kinesthetic pleasure, encourages elaboration along particular lines. In the case of the mimetic drawing, that intrinsic penchant of elaboration is toward greater subtlety in transition, greater homogeneity of elements of contour and shading, in other words, toward a style in which, as Proust says of Flaubert’s style, "all parts of reality are converted into one and the same substance." In the case of the analytic drawing of the draftsman, the intrinsic penchant of elaboration is different: toward finer detail, specification of dimensions and materials, indication of tolerances, and so on. In other words, toward a style in which, as Proust says of the style of Balzac, "coexist, undigested, not yet transformed, all the elements of a future style that does not yet exist." The two styles are different, therefore, because they encourage, by virtue of the different pleasures they engage, distinct modes of playful elaboration and thus stand in different evolutionary lineages. Hence one is not a translation of the other.

Now, when one resorts to a gedanken experiment, it is generally for a heuristic or pedagogical purpose. The two quotations from Proust may already suggest to you that I chose these two particular cases, the mimetic and the analytic representations of the cylinder, with some ulterior purpose in mind. Indeed, the idea that art is bound to oscillate between these two poles seems to come up whenever one reflects not only on what translation is but on what art is. Witness Flaubert: "There are in me, literally speaking, two distinct persons: one who is infatuated with bombast, lyricism, eagle flights, sonorities of phrase, and the high points of ideas; and another who digs and burrows into the truth as deeply as he can, who likes to treat a humble fact as respectfully as a big one, who would like to make you feel almost physically the things he reproduces." At first sight, Flaubert might seem to be making a different distinction. For if the second part of his sentence describes his attraction to the analytic style, digging and burrowing into the truth, he nevertheless speaks of physical sensation with respect to it. And what is the connection of bombast and lyricism with mimesis?

What I have in mind will become clearer, I think, if we look not at what Flaubert says about his practice but at what he actually does. There is to my mind no purer example of the two poles of Flaubertian style than the eighth chapter of part two of Madame Bovary, devoted to the Comices Agricoles in Yonville, the town in which Charles and Emma Bovary reside. The structure of this chapter could not be simpler. Flaubert describes certain aspects of the town and its inhabitants—this is the analytic portion of the text—and he reports instances of their speech and, in the case of Homais, writing—this is the mimetic portion. For language can mimic not the world but only itself; its application to the world depends, as does the draftsman’s drawing, on some set of conventions or criteria.

Notice that I was careful to say that Flaubert describes not the town, but only certain aspects of it. Indeed, he takes Yonville itself quite for granted. It is like any other Norman sous-préfecture, and we know perfectly well that for Flaubert the neutral administrative term sous-préfecture connoted something like a cancer of the soul. One purpose of the Flaubertian style is to give us, as it were, that cancer’s stench. Now, this statement about stench and literary language calls to mind Wittgenstein’s olfactory challenge to ordinary language in the Philosophical Investigations: "Describe the aroma of coffee.—Why can’t it be done? Do we lack the words? And for what are words lacking?—But how do we get the idea that such a description must after all be possible? … Have you tried to describe the aroma and not succeeded?" Let us gloss this by saying that circumstances arise in which we feel our everyday language pressured by what seems an absence of words. Why does our language contain just the words it does and not others, rabbit, say, and not a word for that twitching movement characteristic of a rabbit’s nose? Perhaps there is no utility in describing the aroma of coffee, as there is surely no utility in describing a Norman sous-préfecture, unless one wants to become a coffee taster or an immortal novelist. So, in the grip of such ambition, perhaps, one senses a pressure on language itself. One kind of style is the result of this pressure. It is a deformation of language under the influence of objects for which there are no ready names.

Another kind of style is the result, not of our feeling pressure, but of our desire to exert pressure on the world, to assert our presence in it. This is the kind we have in mind when we say of a person, "He has style." Style of this kind transforms mere presence into assertion, sometimes unwitting assertion. It may take the form of dress, gait, accent, tone of voice, or it may—and this is what particularly interests us here—impress itself on language. Flaubert is deft at mimicking this linguistic impress of character, especially for derisive and parodic purpose, while Proust, who is still more deft, is capable of even subtler effects. And of course these writers, not being devoid of character themselves, leave their own impress on their texts, what Michael Wood in his recent book on Nabokov calls the writer’s signature as opposed to his style.

Let us return now to Flaubert’s text to see what these various ruminations might have to do with translation. The eighth chapter of part two of Madame Bovary begins with a sentence that seems straightforward enough on its face:

"Ils arrivèrent, en effet, ces fameux Comices!"

How then can we account for the fact that no two translators seem to be able to agree about how to translate it? Consider four quite reputable—and I assure you, by and large quite good—translations (in casting the first stone, I don’t mean to imply that I’m without sin: every sin that I shall rehearse here is one with which I am on intimate terms, but then I said earlier that vice was the condition of translation):

  1. The famous Show did indeed arrive (AR).
  2. The great day arrived at last (FS).
  3. It came indeed, that much-publicized Exposition (JC).
  4. At last it came, the much-awaited agricultural fair (PDM).

That there are two all but insuperable problems in this almost trivial sentence may be taken as emblematic of the intricacies of the language-game when played, as Bob Cousy might say, "at this level." The first problem is one of reference, the second of tone, or, what comes to the same thing, diction and rhythm. Just what are the Comices referred to? The translators tell us, by turns, that it was a Show, a great day, an Exposition, or an agricultural fair. Now, the matter is of more importance than it might seem, because what Flaubert describes in the rest of the chapter is not the town of Yonville but the transformation of the town effected by its inhabitants for precisely this Show, great day, Exposition, or agricultural fair. Just what kind of "great day" this was bears crucially on everything that follows. So it is particularly odd that Steegmuller, who in his introduction prides himself on the careful research necessary to resolve ambiguities and archaisms in Flaubert’s text, here simply banishes the difficulty by replacing Comices with "great day." If he consulted the same source he used to identify the mysteriously clattering capucines that appear in a passage we shall analyze in a moment, he no doubt learned that les Comices Agricoles were an important institution of the July Monarchy under which the story unfolds. To call them an exposition or show is to miss either their didactic mission (to spread the most modern and presumably efficient agricultural techniques) or their political function (to signal the proximate presence of benignly enlightened monarchy, represented by the prefect). De Man’s "agricultural fair" (correcting Eleanor Marx) comes closest, no doubt, but a "critical edition," which is what de Man purported to provide, might have preserved Comices Agricoles and provided a historical gloss, since literally every detail that follows is illuminated by precise knowledge of what the Comices Agricoles represented in the society of the monarchie censitaire.

So much for the problem of reference. What about the tone? This chapter-inaugurating sentence happens to be a particularly well-honed instance of the style that the narrative adopts when it wishes to assert the presence of a narrating personality. What do I mean by this rather cumbersome formulation? Through much of the text, Flaubert’s narrator simply effaces himself. In the very next sentence of this chapter, in fact, he has all but stepped out of the picture:

Dès le matin de la solennité, tous les habitants, sur leurs portes, s’entretenaient des préparatifs.

Here, diction, rhythm, and syntax are all neutral (except perhaps for the slight coloration of solennité, a sort of appoggiatura that bridges the gap between the broken, dissonant opening chord and the smooth harmony of what follows). Listen again to that opening chord:

"Ils arrivèrent, en effet, ces fameux Comices!"

A syncopated beat, you might say, a sentence that swings. Flaubert does not write, "Le jour de ces fameux Comices arriva" or "Enfin vint le jour si attendu des Comices Agricoles" or "La journée de l’exposition arriva-t-elle." One has to imagine how this sentence might be spoken, with weary emphasis on en effet and drawled contempt insinuated through fameux, in order to catch the characteristic sneer of Flaubert’s narrator when he drops his mask. It is the same sneer that one hears in the very opening passages of the book, in what is perhaps Flaubert’s most celebrated description in the analytic mode, of Charles Bovary’s casquette "de loutre et de coton, une de ces pauvres choses, enfin, dont la laideur muette a des profondeurs d’expression comme le visage d’un imbécile." Here enfin signals a jump in rhythm, as it were, from a brisk 2/4 march to a more stately 4/4, setting up the unanticipated cacophonous cadence on imbécile—a surprise to set alongside Haydn’s. Now, the problem for the translator is that such rhythmic shifts and syncopations all too easily disappear as the mind goes about its primary business of construing meaning. Once again Wittgenstein anticipates my point: "The employment of certain words for the sake of the rhythm of a sentence. This might be far more important to us than it actually is," he wrote in Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology. I’m not sure whom he meant by us, but I’m confident that to writers like Flaubert and Proust, for whom linguistic pastiche was an essential expressive device, those rhythm words which on superficial reading seem to mean almost nothing are far more important than translators can often contend with. But why single out translators for censure? Don’t our subtlest linguists, the Chomskian grammarians, leave the matter entirely out of their account of language? And are they not joined by philosophers who believe that in dealing with the foreign we cannot honestly get beyond the "stimulus-meaning" of sentences, to be ascertained through questions put to native speakers by investigators ignorant of almost everything about the languages they investigate and methodologically precluded from what Stanley Cavell calls "empathic projection"? So there is good authority for reading "Ils arrivèrent, en effet, ces fameux Comices!" blandly, as Steegmuller does, as "The great day arrived at last," as if it were simply an answer to the sentence "I wonder what time it is." About which Wittgenstein asks, "and if this sentence has a particular atmosphere, how am I to separate it from the sentence itself? It would never have occurred to me to think the sentence had such an aura if I had not thought of how one might say it differently—as a quotation, as a joke, as practice in elocution, and so on. And then all at once I wanted to say, then all at once it seemed to me, that I must after all have meant the words somehow specially. … The picture of the special atmosphere forced itself upon me." When reading a text, one has to summon up this "special atmosphere" from the context; it is a matter of sympathetic inference, alertness, readiness to respond to every tremor in the web of words as if one were the spider at its center. This procedure is the reverse of the behaviorist approach of questioning the natives. Even if an author were available for questioning, his response would very likely be less revealing than his text already is: it is on the page, after all, that he has laid down his life. There are in any case no stimuli to which a text responds: how does one ascertain the "stimulus-meaning" of a sentence whose referent is a cancer of the soul? Assent cannot be elicited by an investigator who as a matter of principle denies himself the ability to sense what the native speaker feels.

In Wittgenstein’s remark, moreover, there is practical advice for the translator: in order to picture the special atmosphere of a sentence, think, as an actor might, of how one might speak it differently. Flaubert helps us to do this. All his descriptive effort in the remainder of the chapter goes toward delineating that special atmosphere in which the first sentence is uttered. His notations uncannily anticipate how the production designer of a film might proceed in dressing up an unremarkable Norman village for a film of Madame Bovary: drape the town hall with ivy, set up a large tent in the main square, strew the main street with horse manure for Rodolphe to tread on with his boots polished to a mirror sheen that reflects the grass, send the church beadle teetering through the square with an immense stack of chairs balanced precariously in front of him. If you have seen Chabrol’s film version of the novel, you have seen how well Flaubert did his job as production designer (or how Chabrol was too daunted by the work to think how it might have been redone more effectively for the cinema). As in our gedanken experiment, the analytic mode of style is associated with doing, with man as maker: the problem Flaubert set himself and solved was to select those details that might most evocatively convey the transformation of a town like any other town into the scene of an event as contemptibly extraordinary, as wretchedly magnificent, as the Comices Agricoles. His raillery calls to mind entrées royales of old, whose memorialized grandeur, however detestable, mocks the paltry present in which what is sovereign is not the exceptional but the everyday. Yet Flaubert does not need, as Balzac would have needed, to describe these archaic rituals or map the relation of town hall to collegiate church or recount the days when the Black Prince galloped over cobblestones now moist with the urine of the day’s prize sheep. His procedure is rather to envelop his analytic description in a special atmosphere created by sentences that mimic his narrator’s disgust, his sense of emptiness, and because we sense the need of that special atmosphere we are alert to the importance of the time-serving en effet and the versatile if sinister fameux. We are therefore entitled, on Wittgensteinian grounds, to find the existing translations of the opening sentence wanting. Like so many of Flaubert’s best sentences, the specimen actually blends the analytic and the mimetic in a manner so characteristic as to constitute a distinctive signature. The worldly reference is precise, the special atmosphere in which that reference is made is diffuse. Think of how objects sometimes stand out with special clarity when gathering clouds filter the sun. The transfigured daylight turns things into signs of the atmosphere in which they are bathed. The sentence about the Comices Agricoles no longer answers the question, What day is it? but rather What form of life are we dealing with? The world is singular, but forms of life are many; and translation must not allow itself to be hobbled by the protean variety of language.

Now, let us recall the question that I asked some while ago: "If translation is a congeries of decisions, transpositions, and conjurations, how does the translator decide when one of these is better than another? Does he remain entirely within the textual, or must he appeal to the world as arbiter?" I don’t see any reason to stand on principle here. Translation is hard enough without hamstringing yourself with theoretical partis pris. In approaching the specimen sentence, it helps to know something about the Comices Agricoles, but it also helps to have rhythm, to catch the syncopations and the slurs, to remember the previous occasions on which the narrator dropped his veil, to traverse as many times as you can stand the hermeneutic circle that feeds the whole back into its parts. For while it’s true that what we need to know in order to translate the sentence is the world in which Flaubert’s narrator lives, our best evidence about that world remains the text in front of us. That text is like the blueprint of the cylinder. It speaks to us as craftsmen collaborating with the author-draftsman. As collaborating craftsmen we know more than the sketch explicitly states. Flaubert gives us his narrator’s world not as an object circumscribed by an exhaustive list of predicates but as an act of creative imagination in which we are instructed how to participate. Hence our knowledge of that world does not end with what we are told. Which is good, because what we need in order to capture the tone of the first sentence is to appear not merely knowledgeable but knowing. I won’t presume to solve that problem here, but leave it to you, rather, as an exercise.

Take another sentence, another derisively deflating descriptive passage in which the narrator and his author remain as devilishly hidden as God in his universe:

Et, après un port d’armes où le cliquetis des capucines, se déroulant, sonna comme un chaudron de cuivre qui dégringole les escaliers, tous les fusils retombèrent.

Again, let’s see what the translators have done:

  1. And after presenting arms, during which the clang of the band, letting loose, rang out like a brass kettle rolling downstairs, all the guns were lowered. (PDM)
  2. And after a present-arms during which the rattle of the metal bands as they slid down the stocks and barrels sounded like a copper cauldron rolling down a flight of stairs, all the rifles were lowered. (FS)
  3. After a "Present arms," in which the smacking of the bands came rattling out like a copper kettle rolling downstairs, all the rifles were lowered again. (AR)
  4. And, after a shoulder-arms during which the clank of musket-slings traveling down the line sounded like a copper kettle rolling downstairs, all the firearms were grounded. (JC)

I select this sentence chiefly for the pleasure of taking a slap at Paul de Man, whose disparagement of translators’ errors was mitigated only by his superb confidence that as subtheoretical practitioners they did not merit the subtler contempt he reserved for potential rivals: one duels only with one’s peers. As you may know, de Man, before he became de Man, took on for Norton, no doubt as un travail alimentaire, the chore of preparing a critical edition of Madame Bovary. For whatever reason, very likely the availability of a royalty-free copyright, de Man chose to use an existing English translation by Eleanor Marx Aveling, Karl Marx’s daughter, as the basis of his own "revised translation." At the time there were already much better English translations available, as de Man surely knew, but business is business and the Norton Critical Editions are the Norton Critical Editions. Nevertheless, Professor de Man does not let Ms. Marx off lightly. "Several misleading inaccuracies and mistranslations have been corrected. … Entire pages had, at times, to be rewritten. … One feels about this patching and mending job the way a surgeon must feel about a difficult operation: the patient is by no means as good as new, but he should at least feel some relief." An odd simile, to be sure. If the patient is the Marx Aveling text, it was "as good as new" before de Man laid hands on it, and texts, marvelous as they are, are unlikely to feel relief at being tampered with.

But let that pass. The point to note here is that Dr. de Man hasn’t got the slightest idea what capucine means in this sentence. Leave aside the solecism: "presenting" dangles because the guns did not present arms, the soldiers did; or, more precisely, they shouldered arms, as only Joan Charles seems to recognize. Perhaps she served in the military. (Unless of course the maneuver was actually what is called "port arms" in American military parlance, distinct from both "shoulder arms" and "present arms." I haven’t been able to get hold of a French manual of arms to find out.) De Man may have gone to the dictionary for capucine; it is not, in the sense used here, a word that even a native French speaker is likely to know. If so, he would have found and dismissed the common definitions "Capuchin nun" and "nasturtium." Perhaps he went to a somewhat better dictionary that gave, as the Harrap’s Standard does, the definition "band." Since a band, whose mission, after all, is to produce sounds, might, by some stretch of the imagination, account for the sound that Flaubert describes as un cliquetis, our surgeon in his desperation to stanch the bleeding in his patient might have leapt at a quick fix: and so we get a "clang of the band" ringing out. Unfortunately the good doctor failed to notice the fine print in Harrap’s: the definition of capucine as "band" is qualified as belonging to the category of "small arms." The meaning of the passage remains opaque. If we now turn to the Grand Dictionnaire Laroussse du XIXe Siècle, as Steegmuller very likely did, we discover that a capucine was one of three bands used to fasten the metal barrel of a harquebus to its wooden stock, or else a device for fastening the barrel of an artillery piece to its base. Now, the harquebus was a sixteenth-century weapon, and it is unlikely that a National Guardsman in Yonville in the 1830s would have carried one, much less a field piece. What is more, Steegmuller is so enthralled with his discovery that he fails to notice that such bands would have been of little use in fastening barrel to stock if they were free to slide down the barrel. Alan Russell comes a little closer: he has the "bands" smacking. The problem is that he, too, hasn’t formed a concrete enough image of the maneuver in question. Only Joan Charles pictures what is really happening: first, that the "bands" that once held harquebus-barrels to stocks have evolved into the part of a modern infantry rifle that not only holds barrel to stock but also provides an attachment point for the rifleman’s sling. She can envision the guardsmen lifting their rifles to their shoulders at the command "Portez armes!" (not to be confused, as everyone else has done, with "Présentez armes!"), and furthermore lifting their rifles in sequence, with a slight delay between the first man in line and the second, the second and the third, and so on down the line—a standard routine in close-order drill. This is because she senses the pressure of the words "se déroulant," which the others have simply ignored. I’m not sure about her use of the word "musket," though; it seems out of date by about half a century—better than Steegmuller’s error of three centuries but still an error. The lesson here is, first, that obscure words need to be researched, but carefully, patiently, and second, that the excitement of discovery should not be allowed to foreclose the need to weigh every word in the sentence simply because the most obscure one has been deciphered. Some experience of the world helps here: when I served in the army, I was warned that the cliquetis des capucines could reveal your whereabouts and get you killed and therefore advised to wrap the sling attachment in tape to silence that potentially fatal sound. Lessons like that one doesn’t easily forget.

By the way, Joan Charles’ triumph in this matter of military terminology only partially compensates for her muffing the much easier vocabulary challenge in the first paragraph of the chapter:

… une espèce de bombarde devait signaler l’arrivée de M. le préfet et le nom des cultivateurs lauréats.

  1. … a sort of bomb-throwing device was to greet the arrival of Monsieur le Préfet and the names of the prize-winning farmers. (JC)
  2. … an antiquated fieldpiece that was to be fired as a signal announcing the arrival of the prefect and the proclamation of the prize winners. (FS)
  3. … a kind of small cannon was to announce the arrival of the prefect and the names of the fortunate farmers who had won prizes. (PDM)
  4. … a kind of cannon that was to announce the arrival of the Prefect and salute the successful competitors. (AR)

A bombarde is in fact a stubby siege mortar of the sort one commonly finds in French villages between the monument aux morts on one side and a pyramid of rusting cannonballs on the other. Steegmuller’s "antiquated fieldpiece" comes closest to getting it right, but unfortunately his imitation of Flaubert’s parallel construction leads him into the sloppy pleonasm of "announcing … the proclamation." De Man has his small cannon announcing "the names" of fortunate farmers, which seems rather a lot to ask of a cannon. On balance one has to award the palm to Russell, who saves Flaubert’s parallel construction by splitting his verb "to announce the arrival" and "salute the successful competitors." But haven’t all the translators missed the opportunity to do something with the tonal antithesis of "cultivateurs lauréats," the muddling of the mud-stained and the heroic that not only sounds the bathetic keynote of the ensuing chapter but anticipates the hell of Verdun?

Taken together, these examples point toward an important lesson: in translating prose that avails itself of what I have been calling the analytic mode of representation, the essential thing is that the translator picture the scene as the writer does. For the writer in this mode is, as I said earlier, like the draftsman whose notations are intended not to give an exhaustive list of an object’s properties but to permit a reasonably competent craftsman to reproduce it. Once again, the reader’s collaboration is essential: the passage must evoke the picture that lies behind it sufficiently vividly that the reader may reproduce its details as needed. In this matter of picturing, the challenge faced by the reader and translator is in essence the same as the challenge faced by the writer. Hence the defect is sometimes not in the copy but in the original. Let us not make the mistake of assuming that the writer, even the great writer, is infallible in the process of working between picture and text. Take the following passage describing Madame Bovary’s appearance from the point of view of Rodolphe as he walks alongside her:

Son profil était si calme, que l’on n’y devinait rien. Il se détachait en pleine lumière, dans l’ovale de sa capote qui avait des rubans pâles ressemblant à des feuilles de roseau. Ses yeux aux longs cils courbes regardaient devant elle, et, quoique bien ouverts, ils semblaient un peu bridés par les pommettes, à cause du sang, qui battait doucement sous sa peau fine. Une couleur rose traversait la cloison de son nez. Elle inclinait la tête sur l’épaule, et l’on voyait entre ses lèvres le bout nacré de ses dents blanches.

  1. Her calm profile gave no hint. It showed clear in the light, framed in the oval of her bonnet, which was tied with pale reed-like ribbons. She was looking straight in front of her, beneath her long curving lashes, and though her eyes were fully open they appeared slightly narrowed because of the blood that pulsated gently beneath the fine skin that covered her cheek-bones. Where her nostrils met was a pale pink glow. …(AR)
  2. Her profile was so placid that one could discover nothing from it. It stood out in the full daylight, within the oval of her hood with its pale ribbons like the leaves of rushes. Her eyes with their long upturned lashes gazed straight ahead of her and, although fully open, they seemed somewhat narrowed by the cheeks, because of the blood that pulsed gently below her delicate skin. A rosy flush crossed the bridge of her nose. …(JC)
  3. Her face, seen in profile, was so calm that it gave him no hint. It stood out against the light, framed in the oval of her bonnet, whose pale ribbons were like streaming reeds. Her eyes with their long curving lashes looked straight ahead: they were fully open, but seemed a little narrowed because of the blood that was pulsing gently under the fine skin of her cheekbones. The rosy flesh between her nostrils was all but transparent in the light. …(FS)
  4. Her profile was so calm that it revealed nothing. It stood out in the light from the oval of her hat that was tied with pale ribbons like waving rushes. Her eyes with their long curved lashes looked straight before her, and though wide open, they seemed slightly slanted at the cheek-bones, because of the blood pulsing gently under the delicate skin. A rosy light shone through the partition between her nostrils. … (PDM)

Now, none of these translations is satisfactory, but the fault lies not so much with the translators as with Flaubert. The picture he sketches calls to mind a painting by Toulouse-Lautrec of a woman in green with head tilted and therefore seen in foreshortened profile, which is the only angle from which a cheekbone, no matter how gorgeously high, can cut off an eye. But Flaubert’s à cause de seems to suggest that Emma’s blood is pulsing so furiously that the skin over her cheekbone (not of her cheekbone) has somehow swollen in response, shrinking the eye; yet such a racing pulse, explicable perhaps by Rodolphe’s proximity, is contradicted by a tranquillity of appearance that otherwise reveals nothing. Flaubert discloses the tilt of Emma’s head too late, after we have already been mystified by the pulsing of the blood. The incoherent picture evoked by the text effectively thwarts coherent translation. In such cases I think a little betrayal of the original is warranted, but it takes daring to consort with une belle infidèle, and the translator who does so risks rebuke. Nevertheless, Flaubert’s peccadillo scarcely redeems the sins of turning cheekbones into cheeks or blaming blood rather than bone structure for narrowing the eyes. The "partition between her nostrils" would stand out rather oddly even without the "rosy light" that de Man has shining through it, turning Emma into Rodolphe’s red-nosed pained dear; and the "bridge of the nose" that Charles is pleased to make of the skin below the septum is precisely what would have been hidden by the tilt of Emma’s head, so that the "rosy flush" must have stolen across that bridge as furtively as a thief in the night—a thief who would have noticed, surely, that Flaubert’s word cloison turns the nose seen from the bottom into a cloisonné jewel in which the nostrils sit as jet-black gems, a metaphor of the sort that appealed to Proust and for him constituted the splendor of le style flaubertien. None of the translators so much as toys with this possibility, which remains to tantalize us.

Let us return now to Flaubert’s mimesis. If the analytic style in Flaubert corresponds in cinematic terms to the work of the production designer, the mimetic style corresponds, as I suggested earlier, to that of the actor. Take the soliloquy of a bit player like Madame Lefrançois, the innkeeper:

Quelle bêtise! quelle bêtise avec leur baraque de toile! Croient-ils que le préfet sera bien aise de dîner là-bas, sous une tente, comme un saltimbanque? Ils appellent ces embarras-là faire le bien du pays. Ce n’était pas la peine, alors, d’aller chercher un gargotier à Neufchâtel! Et pour qui? pour des vachers! des va-nu-pieds!

Madame Lefrançois is clearly a well-known type, the râleuse whose incomprehension of the pleasure of others makes her an emotional niggard. Although Flaubert is famous for saying "Madame Bovary, c’est moi," he might equally well have said, "Madame Lefrançois, c’est moi aussi." How do the translators hear her muttered complaint?

  1. What nonsense! What nonsense with their canvas shack! Do they think the prefect will be perfectly comfortable, eating his dinner out there in a tent, like a circus clown? [remainder of passage omitted] (JC)
  2. How stupid! How stupid they are with their canvas booth! Do they think the prefect will be glad to dine down there under a tent like a gipsy? They call all this fussing for the good of the town! As if it helped the town to send to Neufchâtel for the keeper of a cookshop! And for whom? For cowheads! for tramps! (PDM)
  3. It’s a crime—a crime, that canvas shack! Do they really think the prefect will enjoy eating his dinner in a tent, like a circus performer? They pretend the whole thing’s for the good of this village—so why bring a third-class cook over from Neufchâtel? And who’s it all for, anyway? A lot of cowherds and riffraff. (FS)
  4. Tomfoolery! A lot of tomfoolery with their tent thing! I suppose they imagine the Prefect’ll enjoy having his dinner down there under canvas, like a circus clown? And all that nonsense is—"for the good of the district." … Then why go and get that bottle-washer of theirs all the way from Neufchâtel? And who’s it for, anyway—a lot of cowherds and ragamuffins. (AR)

A quartet of actors, a quartet of line readings: for everything here is in the inflections, the diction, the pacing. Russell and Steegmuller try to speak to the ear with dots and dashes, as screenwriters nowadays will try to inflect the reading of a line with an indication like (beat), to mark a brief pause. But such devices don’t get us very far. I can register details that seem to me to accord or not accord with a coherent reading of the passage, but I can’t say, any more than a director can, "this is what you must do to read the line correctly." But it may help to point out that "booth" and "shack" are clearly wrong as translations of baraque. This is a large tent, not a flimsy thing, and part of what Mme Lefrançois objects to is the trouble that’s been taken, the expense that’s been run up, the disruption that’s been caused: all this in her ejaculation ces embarras-là. It’s hard to assess the rightness of words like "tomfoolery" and "bottle-washer" and "ragamuffin" and "cowherds" and "tramps": four or five decades ago these may have seemed just right, even if today they seem a tad fastidious or dissonant or anachronistic. And is de Man’s transformation of saltimbanque into gypsy clever or sinister? The point is that this speech is to be translated not for itself but as a sign of character. What can the translator do but imagine himself, as if he were working up a performance by the Method, in the skin of Mme Lefrançois? When I do this, it comes out, in a voice a little bit like my mother’s, something like this:

What nonsense! What nonsense with their canvas monstrosity! As if the prefect will feel at home having dinner over there in a tent, like some kind of acrobat. "For the good of the district!" That’s what they say all this fuss is for. So why do they have to send all the way to Neufchâtel for a fellow to sling hash? And for who? For a bunch of rubes, that’s who. A bunch of hicks.

About differences of ear there’s no disputing. Such differences define us, in part, here and now, and over the long run their aggregate effects define our literary epochs. Flaubert’s ear was particularly attuned to the grotesque effects that a rhetoric honed on ancient heroes could produce in an age of mechanical reproduction. Grotesque, to be sure, yet there can be no doubt that the nineteenth century was also, in its way, a golden age of high rhetoric. Mellifluous attorneys like Pierre Antoine Berryer, said to be the greatest French orator since Mirabeau, held auditors chained to their tongues in the law courts, and their pleadings were collected and published for readers to savor. Madame Bovary actually carries a dedication to Marie-Antoine-Jules Sénard, whose "magnifique plaidoirie" Flaubert credits with gaining unanticipated authority for his work. Yet in that work Flaubert frequently displays contempt for the rhetorical tradition that made Sénard’s brief so compelling. An apostle of style, Flaubert became rhetoric’s enemy almost in spite of himself. Yet rhetoric, understood not simply as a technique of language but as a way of life—a pedagogy, a morality, a publicly recognized estate for the man whose gift was language—obviously fascinated him, as our demons often do. In the chapter that concerns us here, there are no fewer than four pastiches of the archaic rhetoric whose persuasiveness defended in court the very naturalism that ridiculed it out of existence, and one pastiche of the Romantic counter-rhetoric that made an early bid to replace it: to wit, Homais’s paean to science, the subprefect’s speech, the subsequent encomium of religion and agriculture by M. Derozerays (which is paraphrased rather than imitated), Homais’s article for Le Fanal de Rouen, and Rodolphe’s set piece in Romantic counter-rhetoric, in which the seductive rogue denounces this fallen world in a speech that Flaubert cunningly sets in counterpoint to the subprefect’s apotheosis of the July Monarchy—an apotheosis in which what Rodolphe sees as life’s intolerable everydayness is transmogrified into "public and private prosperity." If the point of Flaubert’s analytic style is, as we have seen, to evoke for us the pictures he had in mind as he wrote, the point of his mimetic style is frequently to expose the intoxicating power of language, its power to substitute palpably false pictures for ostensibly true ones. Thus Homais, who begins his newspaper article by adverting to the same "festoons, flowers, and garlands" with which Flaubert begins his chapter, immediately veers into irreality: "Whither bound these throngs like the billows of a raging ocean, beneath a tropical sun that pours upon our leas a warmth torrential?" (Russell’s translation). Of course we have already heard Flaubert’s confession that such bombast was one of his natural predilections.

The classic rhetorical techniques—inventio, or the discovery of ideas, dispositio, or the arrangement of those ideas, and elocutio, or the expression of that arrangement—were intended to make a public reality privately persuasive. By contrast, Flaubert’s style was intended to make a private reality publicly accessible. If there is general agreement about what the nature of the cosmos is, then it should suffice to direct a person’s attention to some aspect of it to persuade him that things are as they are. At this task rhetoric excels. If, however, there is no general agreement about the nature of the universe, if we each carry within us a private understanding that occasionally matters more to us than anything else, then we may feel an urge to make that private reality public. The lack of a public correlative for our private state of mind exerts pressure on our language. Under this pressure style is extruded from its matrix. A private reality takes on a real presence, and the distance between it and what others apparently take to be public can be measured. This is what Flaubert accomplishes by contrasting his orators’ rhetorically defined universes with the melancholy world inhabited by his narrator.

For the translator this strategy poses a problem, because the neutral state or degree zero of public reality that Flaubert the mimic could take for granted has disappeared. We read these parodied rhetorical exercises as we read those other exercises, the set pieces assigned to fledgling artists at the Académie des Beaux-Arts, the countless Laocoöns and Ugolinos whose sculptors faced the challenge of making palpable pictures of texts once so well known or repeatedly inculcated as to constitute a public reality of sorts, not quite a classical cosmos but in any case a neoclassical ersatz (which, as someone once perspicaciously remarked, may be the antithesis of the classical). Having forgotten these texts, we read the versions of them by the apprentices Carpaux and Rodin as if they expressed private realities rather than individual moves in a game governed by conventional rules. Now, in Flaubert’s case, the difficulty is compounded by the fact that his mode is caricature. He doesn’t merely imitate the public and Romantic rhetoric of the day, he exaggerates it for comic effect. The subprefect has the king steering the chariot of state through the perils of a stormy sea, while Homais toasts "Industry and Art, those twin sisters." Yet these figures—the bored bureaucrat and the pretentious pharmacist, le peuple souverain tel qu’en lui-même la réalité le change—are not merely charlatans and fools but allegories for the demons that drove Flaubert, demons that transformed themselves as easily into temptations as did the demons that haunted Saint Anthony in the desert. If in Yonville Flaubert mocked the officials and the Homais, in Paris he rubbed shoulders with the Sénards and Pasteurs, just as Molière mocked aristocratic fops and Tartuffes on stage while making his way among them at court. If a writer can’t escape his fears, he can try to hold them at bay with mockery, but if truth is to be honored the uneasiness of his laughter must remain audible. For the translator the temptation is always to broaden caricature, to lay it on even thicker than the original. Russell, I think, succumbs to this temptation when he has Homais say "a tropical sun that pours upon our leas the warmth torrential" or "’twas a veritable kaleidoscope, an operatic scena." Steegmuller is more restrained: "a raging sea under a torrential tropic sun that poured its torrid rays upon our fertile meadows" and "it was a veritable kaleidoscope, a true stage-set for an opera." Again, however, the fault is partly Flaubert’s. He can’t restrain his buffoonery and tends to exaggerate every pratfall: the idiotic note in his laughter is what gives point to Sartre’s barbed description of him as the "idiot of the family." Idiot comes from the Greek idios, private, and what is idiotic about the idiot is that he takes his private understanding to be the measure of all things: his truth is truth itself, his laughter is humor itself. Idiocy is thus the peculiar vice of failed style, which aims to make the private public, just as bombast is the peculiar vice of failed rhetoric, which aims to enact the public upon the private. Flaubert, who wants to make style of the pastiche of failed rhetoric, thus invites the very excess that his translators only too obligingly provide. Wit, which wants to see both sides of every coin, devolves into satire, which contents itself with tails only. We must await Proust to find a more measured representation of the oppressiveness of certain kinds of cultivation, of the perverse effects of a surfeit of culture that Flaubert can only hint at by diluting its substance until all that remains is a rhetorical trace too clownish to terrify.

If mockery of rhetoric is a signature feature of Flaubert’s style, mockery of style became a signature feature of later generations of iconoclasts. Is it an accident that Louis Aragon’s surrealist brûlot was entitled Un Traité de style or that Raymond Queneau’s deadpan Exercices de style derisively reduced style to a chapbook of variations on a shaggy dog story, as if in parody of the old manuals of rhetoric? Flaubert succeeded because he came at that happy moment in the history of language when it was possible for a single writer, unaided, to evoke the full richness of his private world with nothing more than the shards of a world once shared. Proust already had to resort to the mediation of texts and theories and works of art real or imagined. His strategies of representation deepen and extend those of Flaubert: he analyzes mimesis in his evocations of Elstir, say, and mimics analysis in his pastiches of the Goncourts. Marcel’s maturation iterates this process ad infinitum. The other extreme in twentieth-century French style is Céline, whose analytic mode is conventional enough but who as mimic goes after not public language but the voice that speaks in the head before utterance, beneath articulation. He doesn’t dig into the truth but tries as it were to translate the unconscious directly into writing. His practice calls to mind the remark of Wittgenstein’s about the Germanisms that "creep into the speech of a German who speaks English well although he does not first construct the German expression and then translate it into English; just as this makes him speak English as if he were translating ‘unconsciously’ from the German—so we often think as if our thinking were founded on a thought-schema: as if we were translating from a more primitive mode of thought into ours." Céline tries to write as he thinks: feverishly, on the edge of madness. But time is running out: I cannot explore these matters today, much less their implications for translation.

So let me sum up instead: having disparaged de Man as translator—one kind of reader—I can now compliment his perspicacity as a theorist—another kind of reader. For I think that his discussion of the "Intentional Structure of the Romantic Image" has interesting points of contact with my analysis of Flaubert’s style. De Man writes: "In everyday use words are exchanged and put to a variety of tasks, but they are not supposed to originate anew. … They are used as established signs to confirm that something is recognized as being the same as before; and re-cognition excludes pure origination. But in poetic language words are not used as signs, not even as names, but in order to name." This is just what Flaubert’s words do: they name an absence, a void that Flaubert’s narrator fills with his spleen. Like poetic language, prose style may give "a purer sense to the words of the tribe," so that les crottins de cheval and la cloison du nez point not to horseshit and septum but to the viscousness of an existence that swallows up passion without so much as a ripple. Now, someone more obedient to, less parasitic on, philosophy and its rigors than either de Man or myself might find a problem with this use of the term "name." We can safely ignore the distinction without a difference that de Man posits between a name and the action of naming. This is merely the grimace that the literary theorist makes as he curls his toes over the edge of the high board, a gesture intended to connote depth without necessitating any actual diving. A name, to do the work that it sometimes does in philosophical argumentation, requires a certain compactness and at the very least sufficient perspicuity to obviate interpretive chatter and the exfoliating quibbles such chatter occasions: one wants names to have the finality of tautology, of repetition without difference, as in "A rose is a rose is a rose." But that is the philosopher’s problem. The problem for the translator is different. De Man’s use of "name" is metaphorical. With the word name he gestures toward something, call it a metaphysical or at any rate metatextual meaning, to which the text points, and to which with the aid of the text we can also point. It is value added, a meaning cloaked in a text whose material concreteness, whose incorporation of passages that can be indicated in case of dispute, does the duty that names sometimes do; for when pushed to the wall we can point to passages of the text as I have done in this essay, not perhaps with the confidence with which we point to "Napoleon III" or "the moons of Jupiter," but with some assurance nevertheless that what we mean by its meaning may, if instanced with sufficient precision, be understood. For the translator, however, the problem is that what the style names, however conscious he may be of it, hovers out of reach as he creeps his way sentence by sentence through the text. If he reads transfixed by the metaphysical, he will step in the horseshit and smack his glowing, partitioned nose against the covers of the book. Learning to translate—and you must teach yourself, there is no school—is therefore like learning to sculpt: you have to chisel sentences one at a time, but the figure you’re driving at emerges, if you’re lucky, only at the end. Miss too many strokes and all your effort is wasted; you might have achieved a fair likeness, but not good enough to fool Pygmalion. It isn’t easy to be both myopic scribe and far-sighted philosophe, as I have been only too painfully aware in putting together this talk. But then writing is difficult in the same way, the only difference being that the writer, as I said at the outset, is free to roam like a savage wherever he will, while the translator languishes in the oubliette of the text, condemned for another man’s crimes.