In which he explains why our cities look the way they do and why most people are OK visiting shopping malls

Although the internet contains massive amounts of information on all sorts of things, on some topics it is entirely useless.  Kaga yuzen, for instance, sports half a dozen postage-stamp sized, out-of-focus photos in dead colors.  The topic of English translation of Salammbo — nothing.

Good reads is instructive:  on the 45 pages of comments on Salammbo, mostly from English-speaking readers, one sees repeatedly the story of persons who had begun reading the book many years ago, could not make it past page 10, then recently picked it up again and crunched it breathlessly in a few days in a delirium of pleasure.

I notice this regularity because it was my case also.

Yet, not one of those reporting this story on Good Reads suspects that the experience may be a function of translation — the first one bad, the second one good even though, all you need to do to see the point, is to see the first 10 pages of the ugly translation posted on Gutenberg.  If you can get through that far.

(I can’t remember which translation of Salammbo had given me my delirium of pleasure, but seem to remember it was a Penguin, which would, presumably, make the translator A. Krailsheimer.  Can anyone confirm?)

OK, so the readers don’t notice why they like or dislike a book.  How about the translators or the publishers?  Should not Penguin tell us why they have chosen to publish a new — by my count possibly seventh — translation of the book?  Yet, they do not.  Why not?  The story does not deserve to be told?  Does not promote the product?  Internet users are too dumb to geddit?


Although the translation may be the real reason why many pan the book, it is nevertheless interesting to observe how many of them say they pan it because it is unlike Madame Bovary.  Yes, people do like Madame Bovary (and — believe it or not — Pride and Prejudice), and on Good Reads they tell us why — the reasons are what Madame has and Salammbo, they say, does not:  a) psychology, b) romance.  As there actually is romance in Salammbo (just not the sort Madame’s lovers love), we can safely discard reason b and conclude that readers who like Madame Bovary but dislike Salammbo must specifically like the psychological insight of Madame.

Which is fine if you’re into the inner workings of provincial housewives.  If you are not, there is always Salammbo, with her verbal orgy of description:  of textures, colors, smells, scents, jewels, fabrics, weapons, hairstyles, beasts, palaces.  It is an aesthete’s paradise: if you like heavy brocades and don’t care that they don’t have readily analyzable internal life (i.e. your own is quite enough for you) you will like Salammbo.  But do get the right translation.

(Or read the original?)


If Good Reads is any guide, the distinction between Madame Bovary and Salammbo might well be the distinction between the ethical (“meaning”) and the aesthetic (“sensual pleasure”) views (if I understand Either/Or correctly).  If so, a search through the very good abebooks.co.uk — by appointment, Sir G’s preferred purveyor of out-of-print matter — provides a useful handle on the relative statistics:  for every sixty-seven copies of Madame Bovary available for sale, there are three Salammbos.  (Only one of those is the Krailsheimer).

Which explains in a way, if nothing else does, why our cities look the way they do and why most people are OK visiting shopping malls.