Saturday, November 10, 2007

Another tune for a dancing bear

At About Last Night blogger Carrie Frye just posted about translations of a famous quote from Madame Bovary. My first encounter with it was Geoffrey Wall's translation for Penguin Classics, where it reads:
...and human speech is a cracked kettle upon which we beat out tunes for dancing bears, when we wish to conjure pity from the stars.

(let it sink in)

What do you think? This is one of my favorite lines in any novel, ever. I still remember where I was when I first read it--in a Vassar auditorium waiting for a film screening to start--and I just had to put the book down and say Wow. Rarely does a single sentence hit me that hard.

I've since realized that this is perhaps Flaubert's most famed and admired quotation--it gets cited by everyone from Carrie Frye to Michael Dirda to The New Yorker to...well, just google "flaubert bears dance OR dancing" and you get 110,000 results. But I came across it without any foreknowledge--the best way--and I knew that I was reading something of genius. In a way, I'm annoyed to discover that it's so well-known--I'd planned to make it my personal favorite quote, something between me and ol' Gustave! And now I learn it's nearly as famous as, say, "Parting is such sweet sorrow" (139,000 Google hits for "parting sweet sorrow shakespeare")?

What's interesting is that it retains its genius in just about every translation. But for the record, here's Flaubert's original French:
La parole humaine est comme un chaudron fêlé où nous battons des melodies à faire danser les ours, quand on voudrait attendrir les étoiles.
I wonder, though, how Flaubert would react to all the various translations of his work--he, famed for constantly seeking le mot juste. (If he wrote a page in a week, he considered that a good week.) I'm taking a translation seminar right now, and we really could have a field day with this one phrase--so short, but full of traps. For instance, English does not have a simple equivalent for the important verb "attendrir"--it literally means "to make tender," but "we wish to make the stars tender" sounds stupid, which accounts for the variety of translations like "move to pity," "conjure pity from," "melt," etc.

Truly, this is a perfect sentence. While apologizing for the inadequacy of human language, it, in its original version or any reasonable translation, proves that language nevertheless can have power...can be memorable and move beyond cliché...can be used to connect with our fellow human beings...can conjure pity from the stars, or at least from the heart of anyone who reads it.

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