In order to analyze Davis’ fresh approach to the translation, I would like to compare her work in a famous passage from the novel …. The passage ends with a beautiful and often quoted simile in which Flaubert compares human speech to a cracked kettle. It marks a turning point in Emma Bovary’s first affair, when Rodolphe begins to grow tired of her and her overwrought expressions of love.
From Lydia Davis’ 2010 translation:
He had heard these things said to him so often that for him there was nothing original about them. Emma was like all other mistresses; and the charm of novelty, slipping off gradually like a piece of clothing, revealed in its nakedness the eternal monotony of passion, which always assumes the same forms and uses the same language. He could not perceive—this man of such broad experience—the differences in feeling that might underlie similarities of expression. Because licentious or venal lips had murmured the same words to him, he had little faith in their truthfulness; one had to discount, he thought, exaggerated speeches that concealed commonplace affections; as if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest of metaphors, since none of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs, or our ideas, or our sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to inspire pity in the stars. (Flaubert, trans. Davis, 167)