Perfect translation, in the common-sense fantasy of one-to-one correspondence, is of course impossible. Even the simplest message, moved from one language to another, inevitably gets warped: It loses its music, its cultural resonance, and the special pace at which it surrenders its information. This warpage is magnified, by a factor of roughly 10 million, in the case of Madame Bovary. Flaubert fetishized style; he wrote slowly and revised endlessly. He worked on the novel for nearly five laborious years, and his letters from the period are a running commentary of agony. “Writing this book,” he wrote, “I am like a man playing the piano with lead balls attached to his knuckles.” At that time, the loose-baggy-monster tradition of the novel was still in ascendance: Bovary’s contemporaries include Moby-Dick, Bleak House, and Les Misérables. Flaubert’s novel, however, demonstrates the kind of perfect control seen more often in poetry: seamless sentences that unite, seamlessly, into paragraphs, which then flow seamlessly into episodes and chapters—craftsmanship so advanced that the craftsmanship disappears. As Michael Dirda once put it, “You can shake Madame Bovary and nothing will fall out.”
more from Sam Anderson at New York Magazine here.