Saturday, August 10, 2013

Death of a Translator

Dora Knowlton Ranous's English version of Flaubert's L'Éducation sentimentale doesn't have much to recommend it (other than the magnificent daguerrotype on the cover of this New Directions reprint), but it did make me curious to learn more about its background, since it was the edition through which, years ago, I first encountered Flaubert. The New Directions edition credits it, obscurely, and, as it turns out, inaccurately, as the "Brentano translation, edited by Dora Knowles [sic] Ranous," and in fact the Brentano's bookstore in New York did issue the same text in 1922, but by then Ranous had already been dead for six years (more on that below). The version she "edited" apparently originated in the first decade of the 20th century, and the extent to which she was responsible for the actual work of translation is unclear. According to Rossiter Johnson's Dora Knowlton Ranous, Author — Editor — Translator: A Simple Record of a Noble Life,
In 1903 she was engaged to assist Robert Arnot, a learned Oxonian, in editing sets of books for the subscription business of M. Walter Dunne. They thus prepared the works of Benjamin Disraeli in twenty volumes, those of Guy de Maupassant in fifteen volumes, and those of Gustave Flaubert in ten volumes. By far the larger number of translators, while understanding the foreign language sufficiently, are defective as to any mastery of idiomatic and graceful English; and a great part of the work performed by Mrs. Ranous consisted in correcting existing translations so as to supply that quality and increase the readableness of the books. Besides this, she read all the proofs and was expert in managing the "make-up."
Johnson* (who was a collaborator with Ranous on other projects) also tells us that "in 1909-10 Mrs. Ranous was with the Pearson Publishing Company and edited sets of Flaubert and Maupassant, which carry her name on the titlepage." The Brentano's text may have been based on either the Dunne edition or the one created for Pearson (if indeed they were not identical). Whether it was Ranous or another hand who, in effect, vandalized Flaubert's text by removing dozens of brilliant descriptive passages, is unclear; publishers in that era were not as scrupulous about respecting the integrity of an author's work as we would, perhaps naively, like to think that they are now.

Be that as it may, Ranous (above), who was born in Ashfield, Massachusetts in 1859**, appears to have been an extraordinary woman in many respects, and Johnson's brief memoir, published in 1916 in a limited edition by the Publishers Printing Company, is a moving tribute. After working for many years as a writer, editor, and translator (and following an earlier career on the stage***), Ranous, by now a widow, suffered a stroke in December 1914, and another the following year. Her health and — perhaps most crucially — her sight declined, and in January 1916 she gassed herself, leaving behind a despondent note in which she referred to the "blackest misery" that was overcoming her. In addition to Johnson's memoir, details can be found in The Bookseller, Newsdealer and Stationer for February 1, 1916, and the Meriden Morning Record for January 20, 1916.

* An active opponent of women's suffrage, he wrote a pamphlet entitled Why Women Do Not Want the Ballot.

** Her grandfather Dr. Charles Knowlton, a noted freethinker, was an early advocate of birth control. Rossiter Johnson dryly notes that the doctor's daring Fruits of Philosophy "subjected him to intemperate criticism from many strictly conventional thinkers."

*** Dora Knowlton Ranous's youthful adventures in Augustin Daly's theatre company were recounted, decades later, in an anonymously published memoir, Diary of a Daly Débutante. A subsequent tour with a traveling company brought her to Cincinnati, where she mounted a live elephant in an adaptation of Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have an edition of Madame Bovary put out by Bonibooks, an early and rather attractive paperback line published by Albert and Charles Boni in 1930, which is also "edited" by Dora Knowlton Ranous and copyrighted 1919 by Brentano's. I'm sorry to read of her horrible fate.

I think that the first English translation of Sentimental Education was by D. F. Hannigan published in a gorgeous two-volume edition in 1898. Astonishingly, this version is now available in the Barnes and Noble Classics paperback series. The translation has been "revised throughout" by Kathleen Rustum. I haven't read it yet, but I wonder if it is the "closest" to the English equivalent of the style and language of Flaubert's day.