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June 4, 2020

Quick follow-up to the post on Melissa Miller on Zola and Chekhov. When Zola was comparing his experience as a writer to doctors’ and artists’, I found it confusing that he mentioned both “the analytical work which surgeons perform on corpses” and “a doctor who lectures to students about disease.” The autopsy example seemed to go well with “the artist who has a naked woman stretched out before him, and whose only thought is to put down on his canvas the truth of her form and coloration.” But why mention lecturing to students?

I wonder if this is a mistake in translation (not by Miller, but in the published English edition of Thérèse Raquin that she cites). The French text has “cet écrivain est un simple analyste, qui a pu s’oublier dans la pourriture humaine, mais qui s’y est oublié comme un médecin s’oublie dans un amphithéâtre.” A literal gloss might be “this writer is a simple analyst who may have forgotten himself in human rottenness, but who forgot himself there as a doctor forgets himself in an amphitheater.” (Zola is summarizing the defense he hoped others would step up with, but which didn’t come, after his work was criticized as pornographic.)

As far as I can tell, “lectures to students about disease” comes from an interpretation of the word amphithéâtre as a place where lectures on medicine were given. And it could be! But the Larousse dictionary online gives “À l’hôpital, lieu où se pratiquent les autopsies” (place in a hospital where autopsies are performed) as one meaning of amphithéâtre, and this 1885 text talks about amphithéâtres d’opérations meaning ‘operating rooms’ (for living patients, not just for autopsies). The medical advances of the day, it seems, included gurneys with wheels and having an operating room on the same floor as patients’ rooms to avoid stairs.

So I suspect the Zola line should be “this writer is just an analyst, one who may perhaps have become engrossed in human rottenness, but who became engrossed in it only the way a doctor does in the operating room” or “…the way a doctor does while performing an autopsy.” And without the lectures, Zola’s point becomes that much clearer (and even more compatible with Miller’s broader argument about Chekhov). The artist doesn’t get turned on by the nude model, and the doctor doesn’t get disgusted by the corpse on the operating table; both, like the Naturalist writer, seek the truth so fervently they forget that third parties might have these reactions.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. languagehat permalink
    June 4, 2020 7:09 am

    Yes, that’s clearly a bad translation. The more literature I read in the original, occasionally checking against translations when I run up against difficulties, the more aware I am of how bad so many translations are. Reviewers don’t notice this because they evaluate the translation only as a piece of English prose (or poetry); they don’t see that the translator has omitted a difficult passage or failed to understand an idiom or (as here) a bit of realia. I know translation is hard (having done some myself) and mistakes are inevitable, but ignorance and sloppiness aren’t!

    • June 4, 2020 11:19 am

      All true, but the lesson I’ve taken from the small amount of translation I’ve done is that there are a lot of opportunities to screw little things up, and there’s a tradeoff between being careful and actually finishing anything! In a 20-page short story I’d probably find a couple dozen words or sentences that would make me want to research idioms or realia for an hour each, and there would still be a sentence or two hiding that I wrongly thought I had correctly understood.

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