In honor of August as Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth), we are featuring two very different posts by translators Howard Goldblatt and Esther Allen on women in translation. According to Meytal Radzinski at Bibliobio, only 30% of works translated into English are written by women. WIT Month is simply one effort part of a larger, concerted movement to address sexism in publishing.
Today’s article comes from Esther Allen, who is co-editor with Susan Bernofsky of In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What it Means, as well as the translator of a number of works from both Spanish and French. In her post, Allen profiles Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx and first translator of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary into English. She argues that Eleanor Marx’s early death is a sobering and urgent example of the importance of recognizing the creative intellectual work of females.
We hope you enjoy reading!
Lost In Translation
By Esther Allen
Few examples of the peril of losing yourself in translation are as powerfully sobering as that of Eleanor Marx. Daughter of Karl, ardent champion of women’s and workers’ rights, Marx was the first translator of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary into English and played the role of Nora in the first English staged reading of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.
She read both texts as protests against the plight of the 19th-century housewife, which she thought she could escape by entering into an open romantic partnership with a fellow free-thinker, Richard Aveling—alas, an “unprincipled windbag… with a reptilian air” as he’s described in Rachel Holmes’s fascinating recent biography of Marx. On stage and in life, Aveling played the narcissistic Thorvald to Marx’s Nora—except he was, by any measure, far worse than Ibsen’s character. After fourteen extremely difficult years together, Aveling announced to Marx that he’d married someone else. Shortly thereafter, she committed suicide.
Emma Bovary, of course, is a suicide, and Nora thinks a lot about taking her own life. Holmes argues that these more famous literary performances affected Marx less than her rendering into German of Reuben Sachs, an 1888 novel by her friend Amy Levy. No character in it commits suicide, but a year after it was published its 27-year-old author did. These literary antecedents mattered not at all to Eleanor Marx’s friends, who blamed Aveling for her death. But Aveling himself was terminally ill, as Marx knew well, and survived her by only four months.
No one can ever really understand why another person takes his or her own life. Still, the history of Madame Bovary in English has been haunted by the specter of the translator who killed herself using the same method as the novel’s eponymous heroine: poison.
Holmes argues that “Eleanor Marx changed the world. In the process, she revolutionized herself.” She calls Marx “one of British history’s great heroes.” Marx herself made far milder claims for her own significance, particularly for the work she did as a translator.
In her preface to Madame Bovary, Marx identifies three types of translator: the genius, the hack, and the conscientious worker. In the first category are Schlegel, Baudelaire and very few others, for geniuses “do not, for the most part devote themselves to the thankless task of translating.” Hacks work too fast and without attention or care, producing “a perversion, not a rendering.” Marx places herself in the third category: “at least the translation is faithful.” Having spent her life in the shadow of her world-famous father, she sets her translation firmly in the shadow of its famous author’s original, next to which, she apologizes, it is “pale and feeble.”
Apologizing for one’s work, seeing oneself as minor and secondary, refusing to make demands as to billing on a book’s cover, retention of copyright, recognition of the highly intellectual nature of what one does—these have remained serious occupational hazards for translators, especially female ones. Other performers who take a text written by someone else and run it through their own erudition, sensibility, taste and personality — actors, directors, filmmakers, for example — don’t seem as afflicted with these types of insecurities and feel little need to make a genteel show of insistence on their own secondariness.
We can’t go back and tell Eleanor Marx that she belongs in no one’s shadow, whispering her future biographer’s words to her: You are one of British history’s great heroes. You made a profound progressive contribution to English political thought, left a colossal legacy for future generations, and created one of the greatest 19th-century novels for the English audience. But we can remember her, honor her achievement, and disagree entirely with her self-abnegating denial of the enormous creativity her work as a translator expressed.