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Essays Two: On Proust, Translation, Foreign Languages, and the City of Arles

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A collection of essays on translation, foreign languages, Proust, and one French city, from the master short-fiction writer and acclaimed translator Lydia Davis Lydia Davis, who has been called "a magician of self-consciousness" by Jonathan Franzen and "the best prose stylist in America" by Rick Moody, gathered a selection of her essays for the first time in 2019 with Essa A collection of essays on translation, foreign languages, Proust, and one French city, from the master short-fiction writer and acclaimed translator Lydia Davis Lydia Davis, who has been called "a magician of self-consciousness" by Jonathan Franzen and "the best prose stylist in America" by Rick Moody, gathered a selection of her essays for the first time in 2019 with Essays One. Now, Davis continues her non-fiction project with Essays Two. This edition will, for the first time, collect Lydia Davis's essays and talks on the art of translation, the experience of translating Proust, Flaubert and Michel Leiris, learning a foreign language through reading, and an extended immersion in the city of Arles. Davis, winner of the Man Booker International Prize for her fiction and finalist for the National Book Award, showcases her sharp literary mind and invaluable insight in this new collection of her nonfiction works.


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A collection of essays on translation, foreign languages, Proust, and one French city, from the master short-fiction writer and acclaimed translator Lydia Davis Lydia Davis, who has been called "a magician of self-consciousness" by Jonathan Franzen and "the best prose stylist in America" by Rick Moody, gathered a selection of her essays for the first time in 2019 with Essa A collection of essays on translation, foreign languages, Proust, and one French city, from the master short-fiction writer and acclaimed translator Lydia Davis Lydia Davis, who has been called "a magician of self-consciousness" by Jonathan Franzen and "the best prose stylist in America" by Rick Moody, gathered a selection of her essays for the first time in 2019 with Essays One. Now, Davis continues her non-fiction project with Essays Two. This edition will, for the first time, collect Lydia Davis's essays and talks on the art of translation, the experience of translating Proust, Flaubert and Michel Leiris, learning a foreign language through reading, and an extended immersion in the city of Arles. Davis, winner of the Man Booker International Prize for her fiction and finalist for the National Book Award, showcases her sharp literary mind and invaluable insight in this new collection of her nonfiction works.

30 review for Essays Two: On Proust, Translation, Foreign Languages, and the City of Arles

  1. 4 out of 5

    Kalliope

    I started this book with much enthusiasm. Translations, learning new languages, language structures, evolution of language – these issues excite and frustrate me. Some time ago someone sent me an essay by Davis on translating Proust, which I found fascinating even though I had read Proust in the original and I would never dream of reading him in English. Then I lost the essay. No wonder then that I jumped at this second volume of Davis’s Essays, since it contained that essay. (view spoiler)[ I p I started this book with much enthusiasm. Translations, learning new languages, language structures, evolution of language – these issues excite and frustrate me. Some time ago someone sent me an essay by Davis on translating Proust, which I found fascinating even though I had read Proust in the original and I would never dream of reading him in English. Then I lost the essay. No wonder then that I jumped at this second volume of Davis’s Essays, since it contained that essay. (view spoiler)[ I plan to read her first volume – devoted to literature and art – but this one, that included my lost essay felt more pressing (hide spoiler)] . In this collection she writes of translating not just Proust, but also Flaubert (Mme Bovary) and Michel Leiris. Additionally she writes of learning Spanish, Dutch and Norwegian from the scratch, using not a language textbook but tackling a novel in each of those languages (although for Spanish she picks a translation of Tom Sawyer). She also discusses her projects of modernizing older works – such as Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, or Alfred Ollivant's Bob, Son of Battle: The Last Gray Dog of Kenmuir. She does this with French too, translating a Gascon Folktale. (view spoiler)[ In Spain, Trapiello's version of Don Quijote Don Quijote de la Mancha: Puesto en castellano actual íntegra y fielmente por Andrés Trapiello has had a great success (hide spoiler)] . At the end she has included an essay on the French city of Arles in Provence. Although I have visited this town, this essay will offer more interest to those who are planning an upcoming visit to Arles. On Proust she has seven essays. Four are thematic and three are devoted to her translation of the first volume of La Recherche. Unsurprisingly, she devotes attention to Proust’s famous long sentences with subordinate clauses, and thus I learn the difference between Hypotaxis and Parataxis, Proust being a Hypotaxis practitioner. She tells us that his friend Paul Morand (view spoiler)[ I recently read his Fouquet ou Le Soleil offusqué (hide spoiler)] asserted that Proust spoke in this syntactically complex way. Davis also underlines Proust’s subtle attention to sounds, both those found in the text, for Proust played with alliteration and assonance (à la Racine), as well as those in Proust’s world and in this Davis shows her very inquisitive approach to translation. In her aim to dive deep into the original text, she used several dictionaries (French/French; English/English and a two volume French/English from 1885 that she found in a second-hand bookshop in the Catskills). Translating Proust meant a different task from tackling Madame Bovary. There have been very few attempts at translating La Recherche, with Scott Moncrieff’s version still considered “the” English version, while Davis counted at least twenty of Bovary in English. She therefore addresses the question of “Why another one?” proving that translations are not monolithic, final and perennial. Davis’s discussion of her translation methods, difficulties and challenges is very instructing. I was very surprised in that she does not read the book before translating it. This is the opposite from what I was once taught – to read the text first, find out what it is about, and then go back to the beginning and start translating only once one knew where one was going. Instead, she likes to stay close to the text and let the text take her where she has to go. This manner also provides her the element of surprise and curiosity that readers feel when first encountering a novel. These essays can become very technical, both on general issues when translating – literal translations or finding equivalents? Can or should one “improve” on the original? What are the fundamental differences between languages (monosyllabic English versus polysyllabic French)—as well as with very specific instances: how some particular terms can be rendered. As Davis is very conscientious, she uses these opportunities to investigate her own language, to explore the full range of meanings and often finds that etymology offers the clarifying key. As Davis is also a writer, she ponders on the differences between translating and writing one’s own text. In the latter the writer makes less deliberate choices being led by one’s personal train of thought, while translating per force entails confronting something more external and thereby becoming much more conscious when searching for the right terms. This attention to the other text is probably what drew me from Davis discussion, considering that I am not really interested in the translated Proust. But her observations enriched my appreciation of Proust’s writing, since, as she says, a reader is always more passive and can unconsciously skip over details. Davis’s essay on Bovary is also masterful. She compares various of the other translations as well as examining what other great writers, such as James, Nabokov or Joyce, said of Flaubert. As she investigated Flaubert’s drafts of the novel, she noticed that if Proust revised by enlarging his original text, Flaubert did so by cutting. As for Michel Leiris, as I have not read him, I could not feel the same engagement with her observations, but her essay awoke my interest. She notes that Leiris is more interested in the expression of an idea thereby becoming more self-conscious stylistically, while Proust concentrated more in the idea itself, even though he paid great attention to nuances in its expression. Her essays on learning new languages were very inspiring and one can only her very brave efforts in the way she confronts a completely new language. She lists many of her tricks or tools when deciphering, such as identifying cognates or relying on the context of the novel. But some of these essays, those dealing with languages which for the moment at least I do not plan to learn such as Norwegian and Dutch, I skimmed through, though. Particularly since at times her essays are a collection of notes or a literary-deciphering diary. I had a kick out of her essay on Tom Sawyer in Spanish. I plan to read her firs volume soon, and, of course, her own stories. Someone with such a command of language must produce captivating texts.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Chris Via

    Video review of this and Essays One forthcoming on Leaf by Leaf. Video review of this and Essays One forthcoming on Leaf by Leaf.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Michael Perkins

    I focused on the chapters on Proust. The author is a world-renowned translator who translated "Swann's Way" for the Penguin Classics edition. I found that I trusted her judgments on Proust more than, say, those of Samuel Beckett or Nabokov. Nabokov, for example, considers Proust's characters entirely fictional, but it's a bit more complicated than that... "The book is filled with events and characters closely resembling those of Proust’s own life. Yet this novel is not autobiography wearing a thi I focused on the chapters on Proust. The author is a world-renowned translator who translated "Swann's Way" for the Penguin Classics edition. I found that I trusted her judgments on Proust more than, say, those of Samuel Beckett or Nabokov. Nabokov, for example, considers Proust's characters entirely fictional, but it's a bit more complicated than that... "The book is filled with events and characters closely resembling those of Proust’s own life. Yet this novel is not autobiography wearing a thin disguise of fiction but, rather, something more complex—fiction created out of real life, based on experiences and beliefs of its author, and presented in the guise of autobiography." Meanwhile... "Although plot has a role to play in a novel, it does not have to be primary, and in fact the novel is almost always more interesting when plot is not primary." It does have a plot, but the catch is one has to read the whole thing to see all the threads pulled together in the final volume. "One will find, too, that the better acquainted one becomes with this book, the more it yields. Given its richness and resilience, Proust’s work may be, and has been, enjoyed on every level and in every form—as quotation, as excerpt, as compendium, even as movie and comic book—but in the end it is best experienced, for most, in the way it was meant to be, in the full, slow reading and rereading of every word, in complete submission to Proust’s subtle psychological analyses, his precise portraits, his compassionate humor, his richly colored and lyrical landscapes, his extended digressions, his architectonic sentences, his symphonic structures, his perfect formal designs." "In the very first pages of Swann’s Way, the notion of escape from time is alluded to, and the description of the magic lantern [The Arabian Nights were a favorite of Proust's] that follows soon after hints at how time will be transcended through art. The wistful closing passage in the Bois de Boulogne introduces the theme of the receding, in time, and the disappearance of beloved places and people and their resurrection in our imagination, our memory, and finally in our art. For only in recollection does an experience become fully significant, as we arrange it in a meaningful pattern, and thus the crucial role of our intellect, our imagination, in our perception of the world and re-creation of it to suit our desires; thus the importance of the role of the artist in transforming reality according to a particular inner vision: the artist escapes the tyranny of time through art." "In December 1912, Gallimard and Fasquelle both returned their copies of the manuscript. Fasquelle, and other publishers, too, Proust wrote in a letter to a friend, would not undertake to publish a work “so different from what the public is accustomed to reading.” Author and Publisher, Andre Gide later admitted to Proust: “The rejection of this book will remain the most serious mistake ever made by the NRF—and (since to my shame I was largely responsible for it) one of the sorrows, one of the most bitter regrets of my life.”

  4. 4 out of 5

    Charlie Miller

    This was a wonderful follow-up to 2019’s Essays One. I knew that Davis was translator — it was her beautiful story “The Walk” that inspired me to read Proust — but I didn’t grasp just how much of her life she has dedicated to translation. While Essays One had some pieces sharing her process in writing fiction, it was also very outward-focused, with much of the content being critical essays about visual artists and writers. Essays Two, in contrast, is extremely process-focused and highly technica This was a wonderful follow-up to 2019’s Essays One. I knew that Davis was translator — it was her beautiful story “The Walk” that inspired me to read Proust — but I didn’t grasp just how much of her life she has dedicated to translation. While Essays One had some pieces sharing her process in writing fiction, it was also very outward-focused, with much of the content being critical essays about visual artists and writers. Essays Two, in contrast, is extremely process-focused and highly technical; if Stephen King’s On Writing is a “memoir of the craft,” then Essays Two is a memoir of the science of the written word. Davis emphasizes repeatedly that translation isn’t exact, that there is no such thing as a perfect translation, but she also demonstrates that arriving at a satisfactory solution, of which there may be several, is extremely difficult. In some cases, translating just a single word requires knowledge of the word’s plain meaning and potential synonyms, of its etymology, and of life in 19th century France. The most striking case of this is the translation of the word boule, the title problem from the essay “Loaf or Hot-Water Bottle.” One would imagine that from context it would be simple to tell which meaning the author intended, but Davis outlines in great detail just how tricky a problem this is, before revealing and justifying her choice of hot-water bottle. There are glimpses of Davis’s gentle humor throughout. In one instance, after considering that an alternative translation may be better than the on she settled on, she remarks: “Then again, maybe not. (If I were to write a memoir about being a translator, I might title it: Then Again, Maybe Not. Or, then again, maybe not…)” However, given the subject matter, Essays Two is bit dry, although this is certainly deliberate and I don’t think the collection suffers from it. If one were looking to read for entertainment, I’d steer them towards The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, as Essays Two is indisputably on the informative end of the spectrum. On the whole, I really loved this book. Davis is perhaps my favorite author, and I’m very grateful that she has shared so much about her methods for translation and language acquisition. 
Thank you to FSG and NetGalley for the advanced copy!

  5. 4 out of 5

    Catherine

    Can I grow up to be Lydia Davis? (When my idea of translation is keeping my Duolingo streak alive, signs point to no.) Reading Davis is a profoundly inspiring experience - to take a peek behind the brilliant and conscientious mind that thinks with infinite shades of nuance in multiple languages makes me want to read with greater attention. Her essays gave me a renewed awe for the work that translators do. The intellectual curiosity that Davis brings to every topic she chooses to write about is i Can I grow up to be Lydia Davis? (When my idea of translation is keeping my Duolingo streak alive, signs point to no.) Reading Davis is a profoundly inspiring experience - to take a peek behind the brilliant and conscientious mind that thinks with infinite shades of nuance in multiple languages makes me want to read with greater attention. Her essays gave me a renewed awe for the work that translators do. The intellectual curiosity that Davis brings to every topic she chooses to write about is infectious. I didn’t realize I was interested in half the things her essays cover and yet I found myself engrossed in her writing whether it be about Proustian word choice, the intricacies of “translating” from older English to modern English, or a trip through the city of Arles past and present. I was fascinated. Davis ponders every single word in the translations she does and her absolute love of language leaps off the page as she allows herself to meander into questions of etymology and history and changing uses of words. This book made me urgently feel like pulling out my copy of Proust and pore over each word with the same level of care Davis put in transforming the soul of it into English.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Alex

    https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/03/bo... https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/03/bo...

  7. 4 out of 5

    Antonio Delgado

    When reading, and after completing Essays Two, an understanding(s) of reading literature, in several languages and in translations, indulges me. These essays on translations should not be reduced to the mere art of translating and learning languages, but to the holistic aspect of reading and producing texts, expressions and words out of those readings. Lydia Davis’ Essays Two is more than a pleasure: a companion. As I read these pages, I experience that my constraint with language(s) is similar When reading, and after completing Essays Two, an understanding(s) of reading literature, in several languages and in translations, indulges me. These essays on translations should not be reduced to the mere art of translating and learning languages, but to the holistic aspect of reading and producing texts, expressions and words out of those readings. Lydia Davis’ Essays Two is more than a pleasure: a companion. As I read these pages, I experience that my constraint with language(s) is similar to that experience by the translator. Nothing is insufficient. Everything is convoluted. Something is written. The page speaks through the reader, who seizes the words and lets them speak in different ways, who has them converse in an endless conversation.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Darren Nelson

    I recently purchased this book and it is now a cherished favorite. Charming and thoughtful, Essays Two is a series of reflective essays from a professional translator of the joys, revelations, and challenges of tackling a work either in another language or even a now less accessible form of one's own language. Davis' discussion of translating Proust's Swann's Way - of how she made semantic and stylistic choices to channel both Proust's French and his philosophical and literary purposes, making t I recently purchased this book and it is now a cherished favorite. Charming and thoughtful, Essays Two is a series of reflective essays from a professional translator of the joys, revelations, and challenges of tackling a work either in another language or even a now less accessible form of one's own language. Davis' discussion of translating Proust's Swann's Way - of how she made semantic and stylistic choices to channel both Proust's French and his philosophical and literary purposes, making them in light of comparisons with Moncrieff's perhaps overelaborated first English translation), is especially fascinating. Davis' internal experience and thought shine forth vividly as well, realizing the full potential of the essay form. One highlight is her analysis of the impact of line breaking choices on converting an ancestor's nostalgic 1870's memoir of an even earlier Massachusetts into a narrative poem. Another highlight is her encounter with the Norwegian language, studying a dense Norwegian sort-of-novel (controversial and difficult to digest even for Norwegians) without dictionaries and relying on prior experience with related languages and logical inferences. That in turn made the whole project a rewarding exercise in decoding and discovery. Her enthusiastic translator's approach to studying languages, books, and writers is infectious. While Davis is a professional, she has given me an idea for an engrossing amateur hobby to happily occupy my retired days. I am struck by Davis' humility after a lifetime dedicated to learning every nuance and function of every word or phrase she encounters, going back to her days attending a German school as a child, retained all along to keep alive the passion of trekking ever deeper into her craft. Inspiring and life-enhancing - fifteen stars out of five!

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jack Aubert

    Very interesting if you do translations but probably boring otherwise. Reading Proust in French and in English are very different experiences for me because of the speed. I read French at mouth-speed and English at eye-speed. The French can be savored but at mouth-speed some of the sentences are so long that you can lose track. There is no shame in having to read it in translation. I am still partial to the original Scott Moncrieff translation, which is what the Bloomsbury crowd was reading 100 Very interesting if you do translations but probably boring otherwise. Reading Proust in French and in English are very different experiences for me because of the speed. I read French at mouth-speed and English at eye-speed. The French can be savored but at mouth-speed some of the sentences are so long that you can lose track. There is no shame in having to read it in translation. I am still partial to the original Scott Moncrieff translation, which is what the Bloomsbury crowd was reading 100 years ago and which made such a splash. L.D.'s bizarre method of learning a new language entirely from scratch by reading a book and figuring out the words one by one is a little crazy. Why learn to read a language if you cannot understand and speak it? Not counting languages like Chinese, you just need to learn to speak. You already know how to read languages writtn using the roman alphabet. I try to learn languages entirely through my ears with no help from books or grammar. It has always worked for me.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Justine

    Thanks to NetGalley and Farrar, Straus and Giroux for providing an ARC!

  11. 4 out of 5

    Hannah Swanwick

    Now got swann's way and madame bovary to read, excited after hearing how she approached it, the edition of madame b I got as a teenager in a green penguin was fine but a bit confusing Now got swann's way and madame bovary to read, excited after hearing how she approached it, the edition of madame b I got as a teenager in a green penguin was fine but a bit confusing

  12. 5 out of 5

    Steve

  13. 5 out of 5

    Myles

  14. 5 out of 5

    Allen Stenger

  15. 5 out of 5

    Josh Schachterle

  16. 4 out of 5

    Billypal

  17. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan Pyles

  18. 5 out of 5

    Charlene

  19. 4 out of 5

    Shome Dasgupta

  20. 4 out of 5

    Gene

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Jackson

  22. 4 out of 5

    Cindy

  23. 4 out of 5

    J

  24. 4 out of 5

    Ekim

  25. 5 out of 5

    Adam Martin

  26. 4 out of 5

    A. H.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Frank Tempone

  28. 4 out of 5

    Holly

  29. 4 out of 5

    MsY

  30. 5 out of 5

    Martin

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