Written Reviews

Writing and Acting as a Translator

Philip Wilson

A Review of Essays Two: On Proust, Translation, Foreign Languages, and the City of Arles (2021) by Lydia Davis

The essay, introduced to world literature by Michel de Montaigne in the sixteenth century, is alive and well in this new collection of work. A successful essay makes readers see things anew within the constraint of a few pages. Simone Weil’s essay on Homer, for example, reconfigures the Iliad as a poem of force and as a precursor of the Gospels, making connections between phenomena in a way that marks her as an original and insightful thinker. (Weil published in her lifetime only essays.) Lydia Davis’s Essays Two offers 19 pieces over 564 pages, mostly investigations into language and translation. In the tradition of Montaigne and Weil, she challenges her readers to rethink where they stand, to consider what seems obvious but turns out not to be, and to read slowly (p. 425, with reference to the Norwegian writer Dag Solstad).

Lydia Davis

Her method is exemplified in the final chapter on the French city of Arles, an evocation of place in “short, titled sections” (p. 540) that allows readers to view the same phenomenon from different aspects so that the effect is like walking around a statue. The narratorial voice explores the city’s past and present: new terms are given that visitors learn, like ‘dripstone’, a molding over a door that deflects rain (p. 552); buildings are described, with Davis following locals on a shortcut through the town hall to the square (p. 547); and memorable details get evoked, such as the single sheep that looks back at the rest of the flock, which Davis found depicted on an old postcard and reimagines in the street of today (p. 559). We are offered exercises in attention.

Davis’s reputation stands high as a writer of original fiction. She is the author of short stories – some very short indeed – and of a novel, The End of the Story. In addition, she is a distinguished translator, who has rendered two of the major (and most challenging) novels in the French canon, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, along with many other works. Her essays consider how to read Proust (whose work Weil knew), how to read for translation, how to translate literature, and even how to read and translate languages that you do not know, such as (in Davis’s case) Norwegian and Gascon. Literary translation is confirmed as a type of close and patient reading. As Davis comments, it involves “seeing more closely, from the inside, how a particular work of literature is put together . . . to stay with it sentence by sentence, or line by line, and consider every word” (p. 20). 

A Curious and Difficult Phenomenon

Interest in translation is growing both inside and outside the academy, as realization spreads about what a curious and difficult phenomenon it is. It is easy for me to say that I have read Swann’s Way, a novel by Proust, but that is a false assertion, because I have in fact read English words written by Davis in response to Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann, and there are other versions by other writers to which I could have turned. So in one sense, I have not read Proust at all, but rather what Davis has made of him. Davis’s translation is also available in a British edition as The Way by Swann’s, and she explains how she changes her translations as new editions come out, making about 1500 alterations from the British edition of Proust to the American, and then another 200 from the American hardback to paperback (p. 523). The situation is dynamic, because translation, especially literary translation, demands more than just competence in a source language. Davis’s essays show how her rewriting of Proust is a response to his style, his carefully constructed images, the music of his French, and the patterns in his sentences. Proust makes choices in how he writes, and the translator in turn makes choices that will allow an English text to stand for a French text. So, paradoxically, as soon as I admit that I am reading Davis rather than the source text author, a further consideration arises. As she puts it: “I am writing but not my own work. The words are my choices but only within limits” (p. 6). Translation occupies a unique middle ground, with the translated text looking two ways at once.

The complexity of the situation is illustrated by Davis’s description of translating the French noun boule in Du côté de chez Swann (pp. 234-8). Proust’s narrator is recalling how the family maid would make hot boules for him when he was young. The word usually signifies “ball”, but in context either “loaf” or “hot-water bottle” would be better. Decisions have to be made by translators, who cannot sit on the fence, therefore Davis goes for “loaf”. Her choice then expands to “round loaf”, after speaking to a baker, doing more research, and reluctantly deciding that boule could not be left in French (always a tempting solution for any translator). At last, however, she settles for a “hot-water bottle” on the advice of native speakers and on considering that the maid would have been unlikely to have been baking bread, which would have been purchased from the local boulangerie. “Hot-water bottle” thus emerges as the best explanation in English for what is going on in the French. Sounding like the narratorial voice in T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”, Davis concludes: “as you explore all the possibilities before making a final decision, you go a considerable distance in a circle before ending up not far from where you started but much better informed” (p. 238).

Davis roots each essay in practice. She cites her own renderings and compares them to other versions – such as the celebrated but, it turns out, rather verbose translations of Proust by C.K. Scott Moncrieff – and to the source texts. The book tells the reader a lot not just about translation, but also about language and literature. Like Davis, the reader becomes better informed through the processes involved in close reading, because translators do not just translate the words on the page but the forms of life to which the words belong. For example, I was amazed to read how, in nineteenth-century England, Cumbrian sheepdogs that had accompanied shepherds to London would make their own way back home while their masters were at the market, staying at the same inns where they had stayed on the way down, with food and lodging paid for in advance (pp. 234-8). Davis discovered this fact when working on Alfred Ollivant’s 1898 novel Bob, Son of Battle. 

Here Davis is translating from English into English, producing a new version of a largely forgotten work. Her aim is to rewrite those elements that would prevent a twenty-first-century reader from appreciating this adventure story of the sheepdog Owd Bob (‘Old Bob’). She makes changes to style, dialect, technical terms, and outmoded items of vocabulary. It is a highly unusual project but, after all, readers expect Flaubert to be translated into contemporary English, so why do we insist that native speakers read, say, Jane Austen in the English of the nineteenth century? Would Austen get a better reception from (some) school students if she were available in modern English? 

Weil and translation

Weil was interested in translation. She uses it as an example of a school subject that can train us in attention, arguing that all wrong translations “are due to the fact that thought has seized upon some idea too hastily”. If we compare her words to Davis’s comment about translating the Dutch vijf (which means “five”), then we find a correspondence across the years. Davis writes: “If I’m forgetful or careless, I read it [vijf] as ‘wife’ – I am reading too fast and the word is taking a quicker, reflexive pathway to my English translation; I should be reading more slowly and thinking before I jump to the translation” (p. 37). Here is an intertextual dialogue between Weil and Davis on how attention is a necessary, if not a sufficient, condition for translation. Essays Two offers the reader exemplification of Weil’s dictum that it is necessary to “write as a translator and to act in the same way”, because Davis shows – rather than tells – how translation involves the whole person. Even the translator’s lifestyle gets built around the work in progress, so that she finds her family relationships becoming calmer, in order “to provide less distraction” from the task in hand (p. 356).

As well as addressing translation, Weil was active as a translator. She wrote French versions of Gospel passages for her own use, and the essay on the Iliad mentioned above contains 265 lines of Homer that she translated from Greek into French. Weil commented that she wanted to respect the order of Homer’s Greek as much as possible, which matches how Davis intends in her translations to reproduce “the word order, and the order of the ideas, of the original whenever possible” (p. 4), in another chime across the years. 

As Weil’s thought continues to establish itself in the philosophical canon, scholars are starting to examine the style of what she wrote as well as the content. In the chapter on Weil in Tough Enough (2017), for example, Deborah Nelson investigates what it means for Weil to write as a translator in her mother tongue. Weil’s literary compositions are also receiving increased attention. Her verse tragedy Venice Saved is at last available in English and will soon be followed by her poetry. These publications raise the question of what strategies might be used to create English versions of the literary Weil. Meanwhile, her philosophical writings are starting to appear in multiple English translations. The Need for Roots, for example, written at the end of Weil’s life, will in 2022 be available in a new version by Ros Schwarz, which can be read instead of or alongside the 1952 translation by Arthur Wills.

Ros Schwartz (credit: wordsmithblog)

Seventy years of study and research have passed since Wills translated L’enracinement, and many other writings by Weil have become available (in French and in English) to readers and translators. What sort of Weil will we find in Schwarz’s version? (Davis’s renderings of Flaubert and Proust are similarly set within a network of previous translation, biography, scholarship, and critical reception.)

So there is much in Essays Two to interest readers of Weil, as well as a lot of material for translation theorists to mine as examples for their work. Strangely, however, Davis seems unaware of translation studies as a discipline. There are few references to classical statements or to contemporary writers on translation. This lack of awareness has two consequences. First, notions such as “equivalence” are used very casually, with no discussion of how controversial such terms have proved: the expression “perfect equivalence” appears several times, for example, but is clearly problematic when set against the difficulties that Davis describes as endemic to all translation. Second, Davis frequently makes points that have been drawn by others: her metaphor of the source text echoing in the target text (p. 23), for example, is found in Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay “The Translator’s Task”, whilst her comments on how translations should not necessarily be “smooth” (p. 507) are reminiscent of Lawrence Venuti’s writings on the “invisibility of the translator” and would benefit from engaging with his thought. 

Montaigne would, however, no doubt be delighted to see how the form that he invented has been translated into twenty-first-century English, while Weil would find her intuition confirmed about translation as a practice of attention. Davis concludes an essay on the pleasures of translating by wishing fellow translators “and all of us in general” a good continuation, giving the words in French as a paradoxical and untranslated conclusion (p. 25): “bonne continuation!”. It is also a fitting end to this review.

Walter Benjamin


  • Walter Benjamin, “The Translator’s Task”, in Lawrence Venuti (ed) The Translation Studies Reader [Fourth Edition], New York, Routledge, 2020, Steven Rendall trans., pp. 89-97 (re “seminal essay”).
  • Deborah Nelson, Tough Enough, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2017, pp. 30-31 (re “In the chapter on Weil”).
  • Simone Weil, The Notebooks of Simone Weil, New York, Routledge, 1956, Arthur Wills trans., p. 215 (re “to write as a translator”).
  • ________, “The Iliad, Poem of Might”, in Intimations of Christianity among the Ancient Greeks, London, Routledge, 1957, Elisabeth Chase Geissbuhler, trans., pp. 24-55 (re “Simone Weil’s essay on Homer” and “The essay on the Iliad”).
  • ________, ‘L’Iliade ou le poème de la force’, in Œuvres, Paris, Gallimard, 1999, p. 529n (re “Weil commented that she wanted”).
  • ________, Waiting for God, Glasgow, Collins/Fontana, 2009, Emma Craufurd trans., p. 62 (re “wrong translations”).
  • ________, Venice Saved, London, Bloomsbury, 2019, Silvia Panizza and Philip Wilson trans., pp. 39-47 (re “English versions of the literary Weil”).


Philip Wilson

About the Reviewer

Philip Wilson is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Translation at the University of East Anglia.  With Silvia Caprioglio Panizza he has translated Simone Weil’s Venice Saved (Bloomsbury 2019) and Mirror of Obedience (poetry and selected prose, Bloomsbury forthcoming). He is the author of Translation after Wittgenstein (Routledge) and co-editor (with Piers Rawling) of The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Philosophy.

1 Recommendation
Share on Facebook