Death by Translation: Aesthetic Experience in Maupassant’s “Miss Harriet” and Babel’’s “Guy de Maupassant”

Janneke van de Stadt, Williams College

Guy de Maupassant made a significant mark on several Russian authors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But no one looked to his example, nor openly sought to emulate him, as much as Isaak Babel’. When he published his literary manifesto in 1916, Babel’ proclaimed Russia’s need for a “Literary Messiah” in the shape of a “Russian Maupassant,” and he, of course, would fulfill both roles.

One of Babel’’s most celebrated and masterful tales, “Guy de Maupassant,” takes the art of translation as its primary subject. It tells the story of an impecunious young author who makes his way helping a talentless, but attractive, young woman translate three of Maupassant’s short works into Russian: “Miss Harriet,” “The Idyll,” and “The Confession.” In the course of the narrative the colleagues’ relationship is seen to straddle professional and intimate spheres, making “translation” a far from strictly intellectual activity. Although both “The Confession” and “ The Idyll” are referred to in some detail in Babel’’s story, “Miss Harriet” is only cursorily mentioned. This story’s apparent secondary status calls our attention and forces us to consider why, indeed, Babel’ chose to include it, but not discuss it, over countless other titles.  In their collaborative effort Babel’/Babel, Aleksandr Žolkovskij and Mixail Jampol’skij examine both “The Idyll” and “The Confession” in great detail, and I propose to give “Miss Harriet” equal intertextual time.

A careful look at “Miss Harriet” affords us deeper insight into the relevance of this text in Babel’’s narrative. It also sheds light on Babel’’s own intense and complicated relationship with the French author. “Miss Harriet” is the story of a God-fearing “old maid” who, having nurtured the “spirit” all her life, finally uncovers her sensual drive thanks to the art of a young painter.  Overwhelmed by her feelings, but also hurt by the painter’s romantic indifference towards her, Miss Harriet kills herself. My analysis of Babel’’s and Maupassant’s narratives suggests that, while they admire the art of translation – whether from nature onto the canvas, or from French into Russian – both Maupassant and Babel’ present it as a physically consuming, sensually stimulating and, therefore, potentially fatal endeavor. In “Miss Harriet,” it is the elderly, proselytizing Englishwoman who perishes from her aesthetic experience, while in “Guy de Maupassant” it is the translator himself who, having consistently blurred the lines between French and Russian, fact and fiction, Maupassant and himself, stands to meet a tragic and undignified end.