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Last on

Thu 7 Apr 2011 11:30 BBC Radio 4

Duration:
30 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 07 April 2011

Three years ago, British novelist Adam Thorpe undertook one of the most daunting tasks in literature - to produce an elegant, accurate and atmospheric translation into English of one of the world's greatest books, Gustave Flaubert's story of the devious and beautiful Emma and her life in and around provincial Rouen, Madame Bovary.

Recorded as Adam wrestled with the intricacies of 19th century French, with the highly polished word-perfect prose of Flaubert's original and with the practical reality of making an English version that was fluently and stylishly readable as well as pin-point accurate, this documentary is also a secret life of the novelist at work.

Because, like Thorpe himself, Flaubert was a perfectionist. He's known for his agonising over the fine-grain of his writing, taking a full five years to complete the novel. Long nights could easily elongate into a full week before a single page emerged. And yet Madame Bovary remains one of the great landmarks of storytelling - much filmed and serialised, the tale of the sexy provincial girl with metropolitan tastes and ambitions in 19th century Normandy scandalised as well as thrilled: Emma Bovary's passionate carriage ride through the streets of Rouen is one of the most famous and erotic scenes in literature that contributed to the immorality charge that landed Flaubert in court.

But how to come to terms with all this when even exclamation marks mean different things in English and French? Living himself in the depths of the French countryside, Adam Thorpe reveals the pleasures and the pain of turning Flaubert into enjoyably readable English - but should it be 19th or 21st century English...?

Producer: Simon Elmes.

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