Lydia Davis on Language and Literature (Ep. 146)

The renowned writer and translator describes life as a passionate polyglot.

A prolific translator, author, and former professor of creative writing, Lydia Davis’s motivation for her life’s work is jarringly simple: she just loves language. She loves short, sparkling sentences. She loves that in English we have Anglo-Saxon words like “underground” or Latinate alternatives like “subterranean.” She loves reading books in foreign languages, discovering not only their content but a different culture and a different history at the same time. Despite describing her creative process as “chaotic” and herself as “not ambitious,” she is among America’s best-known short story writers and a celebrated essayist.

Lydia joined Tyler to discuss how the form of short stories shapes their content, how to persuade an ant to leave your house, the difference between poetry and very short stories, Proust’s underrated sense of humor, why she likes Proust despite being averse to long books, the appeal of Josep Pla’s The Gray Notebook, why Proust is funnier in French or German than in English, the hidden wit of Franz Kafka, the economics of poorly translated film subtitles, her love of Velázquez and early Flemish landscape paintings, how Bach and Schubert captured her early imagination, why she doesn’t like the Harry Potter novels — but appreciates their effects on young readers, whether she’ll ever publish her diaries, how her work has evolved over time, how to spot talent in a young writer, her method (or lack thereof) for teaching writing, what she learned about words that begin with “wr,” how her translations of Proust and Flaubert differ from others, what she’s most interested in translating now, what we can expect from her next, and more.

Watch the full conversation

Recorded February 3rd, 2022

Read the full transcript

TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I’m here with a very special guest, Lydia Davis. Lydia is unique. She is one of America’s best and best-known short-story writers. Her short stories are indeed very short. She is a leading translator, best known for translating parts of Proust and also Flaubert. She is a wonderful essayist. Her latest book, which I loved, is Essays Two, Lydia Davis, just out. Of course, there is also Essays One, which is excellent as well. She has, in fact, done much more than that. Lydia, welcome.

LYDIA DAVIS: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

COWEN: I have a question about writing very short stories, and that is, what’s the content bias that’s introduced by making them very short? If I think about Thomas Bernhard — who also wrote very short stories — he tends to use either a very bad event or some kind of misanthropy to hook the reader. That’s not what you do, but what is the content bias in writing very short stories?

DAVIS: I suppose it’s limited by something that is short in duration, necessarily, either an action that’s very short in duration or a perception that’s very brief and glancing. It might be a perception that could lead to a great many more perceptions or could be developed, but for the moment, it’s very brief. That is the constraint. The stories are born very spontaneously from these immediate perceptions or immediate actions that are there and over in a blink of an eye.

COWEN: Do you think the writer has to use something that is incongruent to hook the reader in the very short story? It seems to me, a lot of your stories — there’s an element of the paradoxical or the ironic or the quizzical instead of Bernhardt’s misanthropy, but you share this interest in the incongruent.

DAVIS: I suppose. It’s always easier for me to work from examples because I forget that there are so many of these stories by now, many volumes, so hundreds. I tend to remember the stories about ants just because I still have dealings with ants and interactions with ants and trying to —

COWEN: You mean A-N-T-S, ants?

DAVIS: Yes. I had interactions with A-U-N-T-S in the past, but the little insects that come to the cat bowls if we’re not careful. The incongruous would be probably perceiving myself as a person who actually respects ants and tries to deal with them in a respectful way. In other words, not squashing them, but persuading them to leave. That would be the incongruity, perhaps.

COWEN: How do you persuade an ant to leave?

DAVIS: [laughs] Do you really want to know? I usually don’t brush them away because that might harm their little tiny bodies. I blow them away and then remove the reason for their interest. It’s always food. I blow them away and clean up the food very thoroughly, and I do usually persuade them not to come back.

COWEN: In very short stories, does the difference between poetry and prose blur? Because every word counts so much in a very short story.

DAVIS: I think it only blurs in that sense. I think of a poem as more lyrical, and I think that’s a test that I can depend on to some extent. There are poems that aren’t very lyrical, but they’re clearly poems for other reasons.

I go back to the idea of song with poems, and I don’t see my very short stories as songs. I see them as sort of pedestrian, in other words, thump, thump, thump. They’re not rhythmical or majestically beautiful most of the time. I’m talking about the very, very short ones. There are longer short ones that are a paragraph or a page, and some of those are lyrical.

COWEN: Are there any great writers who don’t have a great sense of humor?

DAVIS: Oh, yes, absolutely. I don’t know, did Conrad have a great sense of humor? It depends who you think is great in the first place. Maybe we are leaving Conrad for certain other reasons, but he was one I was reading recently. I don’t detect much of a sense of humor there, but I do in Beckett and Proust. People usually don’t think of Proust as very funny, but he’s quite funny.

COWEN: If one reads Conrad, for instance, there’s a thickness to the language. You have to cut through it with a machete.

DAVIS: A little bit.

COWEN: Proust — there’s an elaborate nature to the language. The Irish writers — whether older or contemporary — there’s something quite mellifluous about it. Do you think it’s hard for a contemporary American writer to develop a truly appealing language?

DAVIS: No, but it would be very different. We do tend towards shorter sentences now anyway. Every writer’s very different, but in general, we have less tolerance for long, elaborately constructed sentences. I think with very short sentences, you can also be very sparkling, lyrical, magical.

One of Lydia’s short stories.
One of Lydia’s short stories

COWEN: Do you think the late Thomas Pynchon became unreadable, that somehow it was just a pile of complexity and it lost all relation to the reader? Or are those, in fact, masterworks that we’re just not up to appreciating?

DAVIS: Since I hesitated to even open the books, I can’t answer you, because I do find — not all long books — but very long, very fat books a little hard to approach, and some of them, I try over and over. If I sense that it’s really a load of verbiage, I really don’t. I fault myself for not having the patience to get through at least one, say, late Pynchon, but I haven’t.

COWEN: If, for you, long books are hard to approach, and you’ve translated the first section of Proust, how is it you approached Proust in a way that helped it make sense for you?

DAVIS: Maybe it helps that he conceived of the individual books or the parts that make up the whole book — he conceived of them one at a time or published them one at a time, wrestled with them one at a time. He didn’t set out to write as much as he ended up writing in that one novel, which I can really understand. There are a lot of projects — if you realized how long they were going to be and how long they were going to take, you might not start them.

He thought it was going to be a matter of, say, three small volumes, or even two in the beginning, two small volumes or reasonable volumes. It grew and grew, which I can also sympathize with. I didn’t have a problem with that. I had a problem a long time ago trying to read Ulysses by Joyce, and started it twice, and finally read it when I lived in Ireland, which made it much easier because I had his context. That too — I suppose because it had different chapters, each of which approached the ongoing story in a very different way — I found that possible too.

It’s tricky. There’s a book by a Catalan writer called Josep Pla that’s called The Gray Notebook. That’s very fat, but I keep going back to it and delighting in it, but I’m not reading it all at once. I’m going back to it and just sort of nibbling away at it. It was an amazing project. He took an early, very brief diary of his when he was 21, I think, and it only covered a year and a half. He kept going back to it rather than publishing it. He kept going back to it and expanding it with more memories and more material, and I love that idea. Maybe that’s why I can read it.

COWEN: What language are you reading it in?

DAVIS: I’m reading it in English. I can actually read Catalan if I put my mind to it, but I see no reason to in this case.

COWEN: A number of readers have written me and complained that when it comes to reading Proust, the secondary literature is of no use to them, or very little use. Do you think that’s a fair characterization? Or, if one wants to read something on Proust that’s useful, where does one start?

DAVIS: The fact is that I, as a matter of principle, did not read any secondary material before I started translating Proust, and even now would not want to read a great deal of it. I like the one-on-one confrontation with the text. I really think that’s where a reader should begin and maybe end. I’ll modify this in a minute, but I don’t initially like the idea of some so-called expert coming between me and my perception of the book. That was particularly true translating it. I didn’t want someone else to tell me what was important or what I should look out for.

Then, I suppose, if you’ve read all of the Proust novel and read it again or whatever, and then you just want to read more about it and share the experience in a way with another person who’s written about it . . . there are people like Roger Shattuck who’ve written a great deal about Proust. There’s Beckett’s essay on Proust, which I think I probably did read that. It’s short, but in a way . . . In that case, I would be curious what another favorite writer of mine thought about Proust, although he was quite young at the time.

That would be my answer. I guess the easiest answer really, or the most sensible, is to dip in and out of the different writings on Proust and see which writer you feel comfortable with. Some you’ll hate, and some you’ll love. “Oh, yes. I want to hear what he has to say.”

COWEN: Now, your first foreign language was German. What do you think of the German translation of Proust by Eva Rechel-Mertens?

DAVIS: I haven’t read it —

COWEN: It’s very good.

DAVIS: You’re saying it’s very good?

COWEN: It’s much funnier than Proust in English.

DAVIS: That’s interesting. Speaking of studies, has anyone done a study of the difference in the humorous passages between the German and the English? That would be fun to read.

COWEN: I don’t think so. I think what works well in German and French is, the difference between a very long Proustian sentence and a very short observation fits those two languages well. It doesn’t really work in English. You just end up a little bit confused.

DAVIS: I love the fact that Proust does have very, very short sentences. People kind of forget that.

COWEN: Why isn’t Franz Kafka funny in English?

DAVIS: Well, I think he is. I think some of these writers are burdened by their reputations. That would be true of Kafka and Proust, that we hear so much more about how important they are that we tune out the moments that are really funny.

With Kafka, I’m thinking his diaries have very funny entries, not because he was trying to be funny, but he described people walking in the street as, I think, trying to unstick their feet from where they are to stick them down in another place. He’s observing, and what he observes ends up seeming funny to us, and probably to him.

COWEN: If one, as a writer, sets out to create an intentionally fragmentary or intentionally incomplete literary work, can that succeed? Or does it have to, in a sense, be accidentally fragmentary?

DAVIS: I think it can succeed. In fact, not to bring it back to myself necessarily, but obviously, I am so well acquainted with my own work — pretty well acquainted anyway. I think the novel I wrote, the one novel, The End of the Story, was meant to give the impression of fragmentation because the narrator was trying to remember incidents, so the memories come back in fragments.

I was thinking even first of a book that influenced me a lot in my writing of that, and that was Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights, which I haven’t revisited in a while. But that, too, gave the impression of being fragmented, but was written that way deliberately.

I think also A Sorrow beyond Dreams — which I’m about to revisit — by Peter Handke also gives that impression of fragmentation. In his case, I think it may be a combination of actually trying to retrieve memories that he had trouble retrieving and allowing the book to work that way and be that way.

COWEN: Do you worry, as a translator, that some languages are word poor? This charge is sometimes leveled against French and Spanish relative to English and German. Or do you think that is not correct?

DAVIS: I would be very cautious about accusing another language of having deficiencies, but I do think English has a wonderful advantage in having the doubled vocabulary: the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary and the Latin vocabulary. Examples being, “underground” would be the Anglo-Saxon version, and “subterranean” would be the Latin of the same idea.

Not all languages — or most don’t have that advantage. We can play with the different vocabularies and speak more plainly or speak more abstractly and intellectually. We have that great facility because of our vocabulary.

COWEN: As a translator, why do you think that film subtitles are so often so bad? There’s certainly enough money in cinema compared to literary translation.

DAVIS: That’s fun. Are they pressed for time? I’d have to guess, because often people press translators to get things done overnight, and more and more so. The constraints are, obviously, you have to translate. You can’t translate faithfully what you’re hearing. You have to translate it in such a way, more briefly so that someone can read it quickly. It’s very hard to retain all of the flavor of the original. I usually don’t see any that are really bad, but I think I’ve learned something from some of them.

When I was stuck on a vocabulary word or something, I actually might have learned something. I’d hesitate there to blame the translator because I think, usually, it is a time constraint. I used to discover that I could not earn much of a living if I translated very, very carefully. That was, simply, I could not take so much time. I did take time when it mattered and got paid very poorly, like $1 an hour on some books. Time and money and film industry — I bet it doesn’t work too well.

COWEN: How would you best describe your own motives for being a translator?

DAVIS: My motives?

COWEN: Your motives. What do you get from it?

DAVIS: I really just love foreign languages, which may sound a little dumb because it’s such a blanket statement, but even here at home, I find myself wanting to just break into German or French just for a second. I don’t know what it is. I obviously don’t tire of English because that’s my language. I write in it. I love it, but I love the sound of other languages. And also, as soon as you speak another language or read it, you enter a completely different culture and a completely different history, and I really love that.

I do think sometimes that my first experience of another language made me want to translate the rest of my life. That was being in that Austrian classroom and not understanding anything anyone said, yet feeling that the surroundings were hospitable and friendly. It wasn’t an alienating experience. Then learning gradually what they were saying. I think I’ve wanted to repeat that, maybe, over and over.

COWEN: Do you think that reading fiction can be a better experience simply because you don’t understand the language as well as your own language?

DAVIS: Reading fiction in another language?

COWEN: That you understand less well than English — can it be better because you understand it less well?

DAVIS: No, I don’t think I experience the fiction itself or the content in a more enjoyable way. I’m experiencing both at the same time, the content probably less well, and then the language is a pleasure in itself. That doesn’t mean I would enjoy reading a washing machine how-to manual in French or German and get the same enjoyment.

I read two different Peter Handke books in German, just because I wanted to. One was The Left-Handed Woman, and that he wrote in such a straightforward style and the material repeated so much that I was able to read it without a problem. Then I tried reading whatever it is, The Afternoon of a Writer, I think it’s called. That was terribly complicated with difficult constructions and huge vocabulary. I had terrible trouble with it. I already knew it in English, so it was more the challenge of the language I was after.

COWEN: Which languages do you dream in?

DAVIS: I don’t think there’s much language in my dreams, actually, come to think of it, but I think it would be mostly English. Sometimes in waking life, another word in another language will just pop into my head spontaneously, and I don’t ever quite know why.

COWEN: Could you translate from the Norwegian if you were asked to?

DAVIS: I actually have. I never translated that long book which I learned Norwegian by reading, but I did translate some short stories by Gunnhild Øyehaug. It’s hard to say her last name. They were actually in the other Norwegian language, Nynorsk. Norwegian has two languages, Bokmål and Nynorsk. It was in that language. I found her short stories so delightful that I did translate at least one of them. Also, some other works by a friend, by my Norwegian translator, actually, but these were all very short.

COWEN: Putting aside your husband’s own work, what in the visual arts excites you the most?

DAVIS: [laughs] It’s hard to put aside his work since we live with it, and I think about it the most.

Oh, dear, that’s very hard — not because there aren’t painters that I love. It was Velázquez that I paid a lot of attention to for a while. That was partly because I was in Europe on many different trips and would often go to a museum, and I found museums overwhelming. I just thought, “I can’t do this. I feel ill after an hour. What I’m going to do is just look at two areas of painting.” One is Velázquez. I almost made a game of it. “How many Velázquez paintings can I find in the different museums? Make a running list.”

The other area was early Flemish paintings. Very, very different, but I love them, and I’m partly interested in them sometimes — a lot of them are interiors — but I’m interested in the landscapes. I like to just look at what was going on in their landscapes at that time. Part of my interest was documentary. They were there, and they were painting what they saw. They’re not trying to imagine what life was like back then.

COWEN: Does your own work ever remind you of Joseph Cornell?

DAVIS: No. I like Joseph Cornell, and I like what he was doing and why, but I don’t do collages, and I never have. I don’t know if I ever would, but you never know. My pieces are always composed in a very unified way from beginning to end in the first place. I go back to them and work on them. The collage idea doesn’t appeal to me.

Although just once, a neighbor and friend here in New York State — he was writing haikus, and he said, “Would you like to collaborate on a poem?” I usually don’t want to, but I said, “Well, okay, if we can do it this way. I’ll give you a poem, and what inspires you by what you read, you can compose something and intersperse it with mine.” That worked out quite well, but that wasn’t me responding to him, which is not quite fair.

COWEN: What is it in the music repertoire that most captured your imagination when you were young?

DAVIS: I was very, very much into classical music from a pretty early age. I tried to branch out into moments of pop music, folk music, rock and roll. I always managed to like some of it for a little while, but I always went back to classical music. Bach and the Schubert songs were very important to me, maybe because there was a little narrative element in them, but I keep coming back to Bach.

In high school, there was a very good program in which I played in the orchestra and sang in the choral groups and so on, studied music theory, and that was very heavily oriented towards Bach. Again, it’s like with writers — how could I do without Fauré, and how could I do without Verdi’s Requiem, so on and so forth?

COWEN: How would you articulate why you don’t like the Harry Potter novels?

DAVIS: That’s fairly easy, although I should have a page in front of me. It’s always better if you have the page, and you can say, “Look at this sentence, look at that sentence.” At a certain point, my son was reading Harry Potter as kids do and did. I think he was probably 11 or 10 or 11, 12, 9 — I don’t know. Also, the Philip Pullman trilogy, whose name I always forget. I thought it would be a lot of fun to read the Harry Potter books because I knew a lot of grownups were reading them and enjoying them. I thought, “This is great. There are a lot of them.”

But when I tried to read them, I didn’t like the style of writing, and I didn’t like the characters, and I didn’t like anything about them. Whereas, I opened the first Philip Pullman book and read the first page and said, “This is wonderful. The writing here is wonderful.” I really think there’s an ocean of difference. I wouldn’t put down the Harry Potter books because, as we know, they got a lot of kids reading and being enraptured with books. I think that matters more than anything, really — getting kids hooked on reading.

COWEN: On page 418 of your new book, Essays Two, you imply that you don’t finish most of the books you read. Is that correct?


COWEN: How do you think about that? You get to try more books? Because I’m very much the same way. I’m not sure that I finish 1 in 10 that I pick up, but that’s, for me, mostly nonfiction.

DAVIS: For me, it’s both. I’m always annoyed by it. I won’t say that I pride myself on it or it’s a wonderful thing. I’m always annoyed by it, and now I’m trying to develop the ability to skim. I know how to skim, but it doesn’t usually occur to me to skim a book that I should take seriously. But now I’m thinking, “Well, I either skim it, or I don’t read it at all, or don’t finish it.”

I think the reason over the years, usually, was that I got what the writer was doing in the first 30 pages or whatever I read carefully, and I seldom felt that I really had to read every word to get it. I did feel that way, say, as I mentioned, with Ulysses. I felt I really wanted to read every word. For example, we mentioned Conrad. I started the Heart of Darkness. I had read it years ago, and I started it a few months ago and really liked the writing and wanted to go on.

The other problem is that there’s always a new book coming into the house, another and another and another, and the temptation to open a brand-new book and start reading it is just too difficult for me to resist. Sometimes I think, “I’m going to go back to this bookcase and I’m going to finish every single book that I started.” But so far, I haven’t done it.

COWEN: What do you think is your most unusual productivity habit?

DAVIS: Unusual.

COWEN: And successful, that is.

DAVIS: It’s hard to say because I imagine that a lot of writers share some of the things I do. So, unusual. I know that I have a more chaotic approach than some writers would want to have, and that’s always been true. It’s, in a way, very wasteful, like the books I don’t finish reading. There are also a number of very interesting projects — or very interesting to me — that I’ve done a lot of work on and then gone on to another project.

I have at least three or four or five big projects. These are not small stories. These are biographical projects or grammar projects or history projects — crossing genres — that I’ve done a lot of work on and then gotten distracted from. But then, when you say productive or successful, it does work very well with shorter things that you can actually finish.

The way I work on stories is to get busy immediately and write down what occurs to me, and write it until I’ve exhausted that vein for the moment. Then I usually have enough to come back to later. I’ll have 10, 15, 20, 30 unfinished stories, and every now and then, I’ll pick one up again. Sometimes I don’t even remember what it is. I’ll see a title and think, “I don’t know what that story was.” I’ll pick it up again and try to discern what it was that moved me, and what it was that made me want to write it, and get back into that and see if I could finish it. That’s a chaotic method that works pretty well.

COWEN: How ambitious are you?

DAVIS: I’m not ambitious in the worldly sense. I’ve never been someone who was driven by, “Oh, the public’s going to forget me, so I’ve got to get another book out within the next two years,” which I know does motivate some writers. Or at least if they prefer not to think that way, they sometimes have an agent or a publisher who says, “You’ve got to give us another book in two years.”

But that’s never been the case for me. That’s why some books are seven years later, and I’m doing other things. Often, I’m working on, say, another project that won’t bear fruit. I think George Steiner has a book, which I have not read — I haven’t even opened it — but a book detailing all the books he didn’t write.

COWEN: Yes, that’s quite interesting.

DAVIS: Yes. Have you read the whole of that one?

COWEN: I think so, yes.

DAVIS: That seemed lovely, and I thought, “Someday, that’ll have to be my last project.” Maybe I’ll have to write a book like that, modeled on that, about all the projects I didn’t finish. My ambition, if you call it that, is really just in terms of what I’m interested in doing and doing next, and so on.

COWEN: Will you ever publish your diaries?

DAVIS: I’m already doing that, actually, in magazines, and I will do it in book form. I have lots and lots of notebooks and journals — depending how you count, 90 to 100 to more. Some of them don’t have much in them, so I wouldn’t even count them, but some are very full. I’ve been going through them and picking out the entries that are of general interest.

They’re not the autobiographical ones as much as just observations, again, or interesting things from my reading, and putting them together and publishing them.

Some have been in the magazine, NOON, that Diane Williams edits and founded. Because she asks for something each year, I give her something, and if I don’t have stories, I give her journal excerpts. Sooner or later, I’ll publish a volume of excerpts of journals. Then, much, much later when I don’t have to know about it, maybe more complete books will come out of journal entries.

COWEN: Dana Goodyear wrote in the New Yorker, and I quote, “When Davis was younger, the obsessions of her narrators tended to be amorous. Now they are philosophical.” Do you agree or disagree?

DAVIS: [laughs] Oh, I suppose. One writer friend — I forget which book it was, Almost No Memory maybe, or an earlier one — because of the subject matter of those stories, she said, “Oh, now Lydia discovers marriage,” or something like that. It’s true that my stories — maybe they were more about . . . I don’t think they were really about love in the beginning.

They’re not only about love, because I think, in the first collection, there was a story called “What an Old Woman Will Wear.” That may have been in the second collection. I was thinking about other things, not just love. Then the latest ones will have much more about ants in them because I wasn’t thinking about ants quite so much when I was in my 30s. So, yes, the stories will reflect what’s going on in my mind.

COWEN: To put it more generally, you have taught, and you still read other people’s work. If you’re looking for talent in a young writer — just from the page, not from the person — what is it you look for? What gets you excited? I don’t mean finished product, but in what do you see potential?

DAVIS: Just a certain spark. A certain way of being able to look with his or her own eyes at the world and see it the way he or she sees it. What discourages me completely, of course, is the clichéd observations, one after another, a student just picking and using what everyone else picks up and uses.

I’ve had some students who were exciting. It’s partly the use of language, but the use of language implies that they are really thinking about language and paying attention to what language can do. So it’ll be use of language, and then use of their own honest vision.

Usually, if the grammar and syntax are just too bad — you can have a spark, but if it’s too bad, I’ve learned from experience, it’s really hard to change that at that point — the students in college or after. It’s not that I didn’t try my best, but there has to be a minimum recognition of how language is used. I don’t know. There are so many things you look for in teaching writing that gets very complicated.

COWEN: Do you feel that meeting them or interviewing them gives you a better sense of how good a writer they can become? Or that’s worthless, and don’t get distracted; just look at the printed page?

DAVIS: In my experience, I have not had to, or really wanted to, interview students in person before accepting them into a class. It’s been either that they were already signed up and enrolled, and I did what I could, or with some of the classes at the Writers Institute in SUNY Albany — those are for continuing education, general public, and graduate students — you’re handed a pile of samples, 30 samples, anonymous. I really think that’s the best way if you’re selecting students for a class.

I always wanted to balance the genders. That was a bit of a game with me, to say, “This seems like a guy. This seems like a woman.” Nowadays, who cares? I thought it was good to have the balance, but I was often wrong, and that was fine too.

COWEN: How do you teach differently?

DAVIS: Differently?

COWEN: Yes. What is it you do that other teachers of writing don’t do, when you do master classes or when you taught at Albany?

DAVIS: Again, we get back to the lack of being systematic. For one thing, I didn’t like to give out a curriculum at the beginning, “This is what we’re going to do every week till the end of the term,” because I never knew. I liked to see what they needed or see what I was reading or see what occurred to me, and give the next assignment based on that rather than something I had already decided. That was one difference.

That led to some very fun things, like I myself was trying to think of all the words that begin with wr. This was just something I happened to be doing walking around the house, realizing there weren’t very many of them.

I thought, “Okay, I’ll give that as an assignment next week. The students will have to think of all the words they can that begin with wr. They’re allowed to ask other people, but obviously they’re not allowed to look online or in the dictionary to find them.” That was a lot of fun because we also realized that all the words beginning with wr, except for one in the Cornish language or something, had to do with twisting: wrench or wrist or wrangle.

COWEN: Wrong. Why is that?

DAVIS: That’s the kind of thing I love. I can’t really tell you why, except that I’m sure if you go back to the Indo-European or the Gothic or go way back, you’ll find it there. The answer is there somewhere.

I sometimes think that the sounds are related to the meaning in the sense of ma, ma, ma, ma, ma. The M is good for mamama. But WR, I’m not sure, raaah. Is it something to do with that? That’s a bit of a mystery. I don’t think I ever went and really tried to answer that. But I like having these discoveries. I liked, I should say in the past tense, having these discoveries with the students and having that freshness, like I didn’t plan it. I haven’t done that with the students every year from time immemorial.

COWEN: Have you read Don Quixote yet?

DAVIS: Actually, I belong to a pretty high-minded book club — Zoom, a remote book club. I say high-minded because I have another one that’s much more casual, and we read detective novels, or we read — I don’t know. We’re not very ambitious, but this one — we’re willing to tackle difficult things. I thought my choices will all be books that I’ve been meaning to read, and I’ll make them read them with me. That way, I’ll actually read them. We did read 100 pages of Don Quixote. We all agreed we couldn’t try to read the whole thing.

COWEN: This is the Edith Grossman translation?

DAVIS: It was. I asked someone once, “Which one do you think is the best?” He was someone who was in a position to know. He did have to think a bit, but he decided that, all in all, that was the best one. We read the first four books or whatever — “books” meaning not books but long sections, about 100 pages, and I was very glad, and so was everyone else.

We also read Beowulf because that was another one I’d never read and thought that I should read.

COWEN: That was the Heaney translation or which?

DAVIS: I think it was several. I read the Heaney but also referred to, was it a Nabokov? What am I thinking of that was much more literal? Did he attempt a very literal one, or am I mixing him up with someone else?

COWEN: I think of his as quite poetic — Heaney.

DAVIS: Heaney’s was farther from the original. I read it alongside the original because it’s not impossible. His departed much more from the original than whichever one it was that I was comparing it to, but that was very interesting. We all enjoyed that, too.

COWEN: There’s something about the cumulative effect of Don Quixote that I quite enjoy. Book two, to me, is much better than book one.

DAVIS: Oh, yeah?

COWEN: If your 100 pages were from book one, book one makes book two better. But on trying to reread it, I found I was experiencing a certain impatience, that I kept on wanting to skip ahead to the better book two, but that’s also a mistake.

DAVIS: Have you read the whole of Don Quixote?

COWEN: Yes, but I have not reread the whole recently. I think when I read it, it was maybe the Walter Starkie translation, which I suspect isn’t that good, but it’s a good book to read. Like some of the early Dostoevsky translations. Like, maybe, Constance Garnett is not very good as a translator, but she might be quite good to read, especially if you’re young.

DAVIS: That was true of Steegmuller’s translation of Flaubert, I think. It’s also a good book to read, but it goes quite far away from Flaubert.

COWEN: How would you put what you did with Flaubert in contrast to that translation?

DAVIS: Staying much closer to the French. That was something I tried to do with Proust and Flaubert, was really not stray too far, no farther than absolutely necessary. Whereas Steegmuller would put in a phrase that isn’t even in the Flaubert. “Poor thing” is the one I remember. After Charles’s first wife dies — the wife that precedes Emma Bovary — the narrator says, “Poor thing.” I don’t remember if Charles says it or it’s just in the narration, but “poor thing” is not in the Flaubert.

Steegmuller was making a readable, very vibrant novel out of it. That’s okay as far as that goes. I think that’s what you mean by a good book to read that a scholar would not necessarily approve of the approach.

COWEN: At current margins, what is your dream translation job?

DAVIS: Oh, I actually don’t want to translate anymore.


DAVIS: What I decided at a certain point — it’s partly because I have a lot of other things I want to do urgently — at a certain point, I thought I do want to go on translating, but they will all have to be very, very short stories. I, at that point, switched over to translating.

There’s a Swiss writer I like a lot called Peter Bichsel. Some of his early books were translated here, but these are newspaper columns — autobiographical — that I really like a lot. I translated a few of those, and they’re only a page and a half long. If I wanted to answer your question properly, I’d say that’s my dream translation job — texts like that that are autobiographical and short.

COWEN: The last question: As readers, in terms of publication, what can we expect next from you?

DAVIS: I actually have a pile of stories that have been sitting here and accumulating. They’re in a folder called “new book,” and it’s very fat. There are a lot of them, but I keep having to put it aside because of all the other things I’m doing that get in the way, but that should be the next book because it’s all there. I just need to organize it, maybe complete one or two of the longer ones, and there it’ll be — another book of stories.

COWEN: Lydia Davis, thank you very much. It’s been a real honor.

DAVIS: Thank you very much. It’s been enjoyable.

Thumbnail and header photo credit: Theo Cote