16 June 2009


Flaubert: Emma se penchait pour le voir, égratignant avec ses ongles le velours de sa loge.

Eleanor Marx-Aveling's translation:Emma leant forward to see him, clutching the velvet of the box with her nails.

Adam Thirlwell's translation: Emma leaned forward to see him, scrunching with her nails the plushness of her box.

Egratigner simply means to scratch. The entry at ATILF gives several examples, including this one, and scrunching is never a good substitution. Then again, neither is clutching. Both translations give an explanation of why Emma's nails are scratching the velvet, which Flaubert doesn't give. Clutching and scrunching are both more deliberate actions than égratigner. I'd be inclined to say her nails were digging into the velvet, or possibly plush (but not plushness). I'm tempted to add upholstery but that would be adding explanation.

What neither translation does is to render the tense. When I searched for this passage, my initial search was for Emma se pencha, the aorist tense of a single action. The tense in French is the imperfect, denoting more than a single action. The sentence comes during a description of Emma's reaction to an opera performance. It may be that the continuous nature of this passage is signalled elsewhere, but it's not here.

In the French, Emma merely leans. In English merely leaning doesn't happen: one always leans in a particular direction. So both translations understandably add forward. But we can't be sure: she may have leant a bit sideways to get a better view. But Flaubert has the option of leaving that ambiguous.

There's another ambiguity in the French: pour le voir might mean to see him (the performer); it might also mean to see it (the performance, the action). It probably means him, given the context. It's not crucial.

So let's put my mouth where my mouth is: As she leaned forward to see him, Emma's nails dug into the velvet of the box.

It's not easy, this translation business.

Edit (28/7/09): I've found (in this exciting resource) another sense for égratigner: Travailler une étoffe avec la pointe d'un fer pour lui donner une certaine forme. Égratigner la soie. Égratigner du satin (Ac.) (to work a fabric with the point of a tool to give it a certain form). And with that meaning being specific to fabric, it's surely likely that fastidious Flaubert meant at least to connote it. So it's a very visual effect. There may be a specific word in the vocabulary of textiles to translate it, but in the meantime, we could translate it to stress the result of the action - a kind of embossing.
As she leaned forward to see him, Emma's nails scratched a pattern of lines in the velvet of the box.

Further thought (22/9/09): the use of a term from industry in a context of high culture must also be significant, suggesting a woman out of her native sphere.

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