Madame Bovary

As Lydia Davis observes in the introduction to her new translation of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, there have been at least 19 previous versions of this novel in English. There are good reasons that this is the case. Madame Bovary is first and foremost a major milestone in the development of modern and, eventually, modernist fiction, as it introduced or intensified such developments as authorial "impersonality", free indirect narration and a willingness to delve thematically into the banality and vulgarity of contemporary life.

It has had an immense impact on the history of the novel in English, providing a template followed by authors as diverse as Joseph Conrad and Julian Barnes, Henry James and J M Coetzee.

But it is the formal wroughtness and stylistic intensity of Flaubert's novel that make it a notoriously difficult work to translate. Davis cites one of the author's letters written during the composition of this novel: "A good sentence in prose should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable, as rhythmic, as sonorous." She goes on to admit that "to achieve a translation that matches this high standard is difficult, perhaps impossible".

Despite the difficulty of the assignment, Davis's Madame Bovary is consistently sensitive to the complex techniques at play in Flaubert's work. She eloquently renders the intricate patterns of time, for instance, that characterise Emma's life of manic boredom as the wife of a provincial medical officer. In a description of her reading habits at convent school - habits that provide the backdrop for her later romantic dalliances - Davis captures perfectly the temporal slippage from the past-tense narrative description of a young girl reading to that same young girl's fantasised present-tense envelopment within the book that she reads:

She had read Paul and Virginia, and she had dreamed of the little bamboo house, the Negro Domingo, the dog Faithful, but most of all of the sweet friendship of a good little brother who goes off to fetch red fruit from great trees taller than church steeples, or runs barefoot over the sand, bringing you a bird's nest.

Perhaps the best thing about this new edition is the ample and useful editorial ­apparatus that comes at the front and back. Davis's introduction explains extremely complex aspects of Flaubert's discursive strategies in an accessible manner and the notes she provides at the end of the volume are a very welcome addition. Madame Bovary is a deeply meta-textual novel, strewn with references to other works of literature and to the culture of its time more broadly; Davis's glossaries help the reader come to terms with these.

Still, while the translation as a whole is thoughtfully observant of Flaubert's idiosyncratic narrative tactics, there are a few baffling moments. For instance, while Davis registers in her introduction her awareness of the importance of Flaubert's italicisation of certain words and phrases as a marker of language "commonly, and unthinkingly, used to express shared ideas that were also unquestioned", it remains a mystery why she alters what is probably the most important sentence in the novel by trading italics for quotation marks: "And Emma tried to find out just what was meant, in life, by the words 'bliss', 'passion', and 'intoxication', which had seemed so beautiful to her in books." This may seem like a small difference, but it's one that lacks textual sanction and which subtly skews the meaning of the phrase at hand. In short, these quotation marks, in the context of the conventions of this novel, suggest a self-awareness that Emma simply isn't meant to possess at this point.

It further strikes me that Penguin's decision to commission this new translation of Madame Bovary was a strange one - or at least one whose financial benefits to the publishing house are easier to discern than any significant added value for the reader. Nearly all the elements of Davis's edition that I have mentioned would apply equally to Penguin's previous translated version of the text by Geoffrey Wall.

Aside from Americanisms in place of Britishisms (to cite just the first instance, Wall's "prep" in the opening scene becomes Davis's "study hall") and the admittedly helpful editorial material, I simply can't find any substantive improvements upon the previous translation in Davis's new offering. Just as its protagonist's life revolves around the repeated tragic discovery of the ever-the-same that ­underwrites what should be excitingly novel, Davis's Madame Bovary, as solid as it is, fails in the end to deliver us much that is truly new.

Michael Sayeau is a lecturer in the English department at University College London

This article first appeared in the 06 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Vietnam: the last battle