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  • Vibrating States of Uncertainty
  • Esther Allen (bio)

translation, biography, Flaubert, apperception, necrology, uncertainty

I. Biography and Translation

To read that Flaubert wrote “Ma mère m’a apporté la lettre de Mme de Maupassant” is not, in the absence of context, revelatory. That’s true whether or not one reads French or is provided with a translation (such as “Mother brought me Madame de Maupassant’s letter”). We only begin to grasp the sentence once we know that Mme de Maupassant was the mother-in-law of Alfred Le Poittevin, that Alfred Le Poittevin was Flaubert’s oldest and most beloved friend, that the sentence was jotted down on Tuesday, April 4, 1848, and that the letter in question brought word of Alfred’s death.

As students of Flaubert’s life know, that only skims the surface of a nearinfinite potential contextualization. We could add that two years before the sentence was written, when Alfred Le Poittevin married Louise de Maupassant, the ferociously antimatrimonial Flaubert said it felt to him as if Alfred had died; that Alfred’s bride’s brother Gustave married Alfred’s sister Laure [End Page 65] and had a son named Guy de Maupassant; that Guy de Maupassant went on, many years later, to become a celebrated author himself and a protégé of Flaubert, and so forth.

Lest anyone read this as confirmation that translation is a fairly simple and straightforward matter while the historical narrative researched and constructed by the biographer is not—an impression that, I fear, is still quite prevalent, both within and outside the academy—let me quickly step in with another example, this one taken from Frederick Brown’s 2006 Flaubert: A Biography.1 Brown appends a footnote to the word “cloportes,” which Flaubert uses to describe his characters Bouvard and Pécuchet:

No one English word adequately conveys the meanings and connotations of cloporte. In the twentieth century it was used in a highly derogatory sense by writers such as Louis Guilloux and Jean-Paul Sartre. English-French dictionaries often translate it as “creep.” (At its most literal, it denotes a “woodlouse.”) Punning with its constituent syllables (clos or “closed,” and porte, or “door”), it is slang for a concierge or doorkeeper. Ideas of foolishness and burying oneself behind closed doors have accreted to the word.


Even this range of associations and possible equivalents is incomplete. The entries in both the 1798 and 1832 editions of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française mention poudre de cloporte and huile de cloporte, revolting medications made from ground woodlice or woodlice steeped in liquid—an association that may well have been significant for Flaubert, son of the chief surgeon of Rouen’s Hôtel-Dieu.

Mark Polizzotti, the most recent English translator of Bouvard et Pécuchet, renders Les Deux Cloportes—one of the early titles Flaubert tried out for the novel—as “The Two Nobodies.”2 He thereby handily avoids the moral aspersions of “creep,” and the low-level gangster or stool pigeon connotation of the translation Brown ultimately opts for—“stooge”—not to mention its redolence of slapstick. Even so, Brown’s translation of the word remains perfectly justifiable; Bouvard et Pécuchet includes antic scenes of chasing and hair pulling that emerge from the same raucous commedia dell’arte traditions as the Hollywood vaudeville acts of the 1930s. On the other hand, Polizzotti’s [End Page 66] “Two Nobodies” locates an essential link between the variant senses of cloporte: the through line between woodlice, closed doors, low-level servants, and folk remedies is insignificance, nonentity, obscurity, and absence of status or efficacy.

“Stooges” risks overidentifying Bouvard and Pécuchet with a much later cultural phenomenon. “Nobodies” suggests a blank and therefore fails to convey that cloportes teems with imagery like woodlice pullulating in a rotting doorframe. Brown’s “stooges” works within the vast, careening panorama of his biography with its cinematic proliferation of detail and cast of thousands. Polizzotti’s minimalist “nobodies” accords with the connection he notes in his translator’s introduction between Bouvard and Pécuchet and the spare, taut work of modernists such as Kafka and Beckett. Neither choice is...


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