Immersed in another culture, and a different way of saying

Kenmare Street, Petrosino Square (Synonyms And Flinches) ©MAIERMOUL
Kenmare Street, Petrosino Square (Synonyms And Flinches) ©MAIERMOUL

“Translating makes me much more acutely aware of shades of meaning,” she explains.

“You have a set problem and you can’t get around it by avoiding it. You have to pick just the right word.” So when the chance came to translate Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”, she seized it. She is now slogging away, four or five hours a day, to finish the job by the end of the year.

“I keep learning new words,” she says, giddily. “I also like being immersed in another culture, and a different way of saying things. It’s refreshing to go into that other culture and then come back into my life.”

Davis’s exacting use of language comes through in conversation, and her pet peeves become plain: translators who don’t understand language or who embellish with their own material, writers who overwrite, and nearly any sign of imprecision. “Proust is not overwriting,” she says, despite those sentences that famously run on for pages. “He’s actually very concise, it’s just that his subject is so large, and each sentence has to contain so much.”

But anyone who simply piles on phrases is showing off, “and I’ve decided that arrogance is the thing that I hate the most”. She doesn’t believe in synonyms and flinches if a word is misapplied. When I say that some stories are like “vignettes”, she gives a thorough explanation of why the word is unsuitable—too precious, too French, too static.

“It’s just one of the words I don’t like,” she concludes with a little laugh.

– Lydia Davis, Economist / Intelligent Life interview (The interview used to be at this URL, but is no longer available there. The interview, with Emily Bobrow, appeared in the Autumn 2009 issue. )