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Dr Mélina Delmas finished her PhD in Translation Studies at the University of Birmingham in April 2020. Her thesis, which is entitled “(S)mothered in Translation? (Re)translating the Female Bildungsroman in the Twentieth Century in English and French”, brings together Translation Studies, Gender Studies, the Sociology of Translation, and Reception Studies.

Martha Quest (1952) is Doris Lessing’s second novel after The Grass is Singing (1950) and the first opus of the Children of Violence series (1952-1969). This first volume follows the eponymous character during her adolescence on an African farm, and then in the big city where she takes on a job as a secretary while exploring the pleasure of parties and the attention of male suitors. Martha Quest was first translated into French in 1957 by Doussia Ergaz and Florence Cravoisier.

Martha Quest has been described as a coming-of-age story or Bildungsroman. If the Bildungsroman has traditionally been a male-focused genre, the nineteenth century notably saw the emergence of a female Bildungsroman. But, “gender often clashes with genre” (Marrone, 2000, p. 16) and, as social norms were dramatically different for men and women at the time, these ‘Bildungsromane’ were very different from their counterparts written by male writers about male protagonists. Whereas in the male Bildungsroman, the pattern of the life of the main character is said to be spiralling upward, the pattern of the female Bildungsroman is usually circular as the protagonist’s fate ultimately still leads her to walk in her mother’s footsteps and to become a wife and mother herself. However, the twentieth-century saw the rise of “a number of feminist Bildungsromane which more closely approximate the male model of the Bildungsroman in their delineation of the education, reassessment, rebellion, and departure of their respective female protagonist” (Goodman, 1983, p. 30). Still, female Bildungsromane are usually more focused on “the heroine’s inward, vertical movement toward self-knowledge” (Marrone, 2000, p. 18).

“Flashes of Recognition”: Inner Thoughts and Agency

Because the female journey is more of an internal one, the main protagonist’s inner life is paramount to understanding her perspective. Revealing the protagonist’s inner thoughts constitutes one of the narrative techniques used by the writer to give the reader access to the rebellion buried deep within the protagonist’s psyche. Moreover, it is through the protagonist’s internal monologues that her agency is displayed. In Martha Quest, inner thoughts are central to the reader’s understanding of Martha’s Bildung and development. For Stimpson: “[s]ince the evolution of consciousness matters so much, Lessing devotes a great part of Children of Violence to Martha’s own. The narrative is a detailed, subtle account of the methodology of growth, in which Martha is a case study, an exemplary figure, and our potential representative” (1983, p. 193). However, in the first French translation of Martha Quest, many of Martha’s internal monologues are cut. For instance, one of the pivotal moments of this inner journey, in which Martha has an epiphany and realises that she needs to set herself free, that “she must leave her parents who destroyed her”, is completely omitted in translation, as can be seen in the table below.

Table 1

Martha Quest (1952)Martha Quest (1957)
She wanted to weep, an impulse she indignantly denied herself. For at that moment when she had stood before them, it was in a role which went far beyond her, Martha Quest: it was timeless, and she felt that her mother as well as her father, must hold in her mind (as she certainly cherished a vision of Martha in bridal gown and veil) another picture of an expectant maiden in white; it should have been a moment of abnegation, when she must be kissed, approved and set free. Nothing of this could Martha have put into words, or even allowed herself to feel; but now, in order to regain that freedom where she was not so much herself as a creature buoyed on something that flooded into her as a knowledge that she was moving inescapably through an ancient role, she must leave her parents who destroyed her.

So she went out of the door… (90-91)
Elle éprouvait une violente envie de pleurer, mais n’aurait voulu y céder pour rien au monde.        Omission                       Elle franchit la porte… (112)

In this scene, Martha has an insight into what her destiny will be: stuck in a marriage with no opportunities for growth. Wearing a white dress which resembles a “bridal gown” (90), Martha is waiting on the threshold of the farm – but also symbolically on the threshold of adulthood – for her parents to give her away to the young suitor who will accompany her to her first ball. According to Abel, Hirsch, and Langland, this type of scene is central to the novel of female development, which contrary to the male Bildungsroman, often operates in “brief epiphanic moments. Since the significant changes are internal, flashes of recognition often replace the continuous unfolding of an action” (1983, p. 12). This climatic moment in Martha Quest corresponds to what Susan Rosowski calls “an awakening to limitations” (1983, p. 49), and is part of the “submerged plot [which] inscribes revolt” (Marrone, 2000, p. 18). In this particular scene, we can also observe the performance of gender as described by Judith Butler (1990). Martha realises that she is obliged to play her part, forced to perform her gender: “it was in a role which went far beyond her, Martha Quest: it was timeless” (90). Because of the omission of this scene in the French translation, this dimension disappears in the French text and Martha’s agency in her own destiny is thwarted. She does cross the threshold in the translation but, by not having her inner thoughts translated, the significance of the gesture is lost for the French readers.

Other instances depicting Martha’s agency are also erased in the 1957 French version. In the final section of the novel, Martha decides to look for a different job rather than staying a secretary. Her quest for independence includes going for a job as a journalist. She is appalled when the only thing they offer her is to write for the women’s page. This episode, which shows the restrictions imposed on women in the professional sphere at the time, is omitted in the first French translation. In fact, most of her job search is summed up in one page. Martha’s aspirations to become a writer (255-256) and her sending some pieces to newspapers which get rejected are also cut. This omission is unfortunate as Martha’s quest for a professional vocation marks an important step in the development of the character and her quest for agency. Furthermore, finding a good job would enable Martha to be financially independent. It might prevent her from completing the circular pattern by getting married. Finally, another remark on the constraints imposed by society on women at the time is omitted in the French translation. During her first party, Martha is kissed forcefully by a young man. She is understandably shocked and angry. However, the reader witnesses her internal struggle between these feelings of resentment and the social expectation that she should want to be swept off her feet by a man: “She resented this hard intrusive mouth, even while from outside – always from outside – came the other pressure, which demanded that he should simply lift her and carry her off like booty” (99). The terms “pressure”, “demand”, and “booty”, as well as the expression “from outside – always from outside” clearly indicate that this is not Martha’s own desire but actually an external constraint imposed on her. In the 1957 French translation, the “pressure” from “outside” is omitted and thus the desire to be swept off her feet is attributed to Martha: “un sentiment tout autre qui lui faisait souhaiter d’être soulevée entre les bras de Billy” (a different feeling which made her want to be swept off her feet by Billy) (123). This reduces Martha to a heroine of romance novels whose main thoughts revolve around being seduced by a man. It erases Martha’s inner struggle between her actual sense of self and societal gender expectations, while exhibiting similarities with conventional female Bildungsromane in which the romance plot is predominant. Overall, around ten per cent of the original text has been cut in the first translation of Martha Quest. By suppressing all these inner thoughts, we are left with only the “surface plot […] conform[ing] to social conventions” (Marrone, 2000, p. 18) of Martha’s path towards matrimony.

Martha’s intelligence and her revolt towards the principles of society are also erased in the translation. According to Labovitz, in the Children of Violence series, “books are sign posts along the way of the heroine’s development, and indications of her emotional as well as intellectual life” (1988, p. 160). In the translation, however, Martha’s love for literature is downplayed. If most of the scenes in which she is reading are translated, the scene in which she is reading Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau (241-242) is deleted. These writers are considered high-brow, and thus maybe not something that a teenage girl would read. Furthermore, in several instances, the original text appears to be criticising gender roles and the status of women as objects of desire. Unsurprisingly, in the 1957 translation, these passages are again omitted. For instance, at her first ball, Martha notices that the only people who seem to enjoy the party freely are the girls under sixteen. Sixteen corresponds to the age at which young girls would make their entry into society and have to start looking for a husband. According to Martha, these girls are the only guests who seem “unbound by […] invisible fetters”, which implies that she views marriage as a commodification of women. The first translation omits this implied criticism of patriarchal society. Finally, when partying with the clique of young men she aptly names the “wolves”, Martha tries to be herself instead of playing the part of the dumb girl. She starts talking to her suitor about one of the books she has read. This is met by a sigh, and the young man then proceeds to mock her in front of everybody. Clearly, this is again a critic of stereotypical gender roles in which the intellectual realm is reserved for men. By omitting this passage, the 1957 translation by Ergaz and Cravoisier removes layers of meaning embedded in the original text. 

Moreover, it seems that there is a will to turn the ‘bad girl’ into a ‘good girl’ in translation. I already discussed how the cuts pertaining to Martha’s inner thoughts erase her inner rebellion and align the novel with circular Bildungsromane in which the main protagonist’s “‘end,’ both in the sense of ‘goal’ and ‘conclusion,’ is a man” (Greene, 1991, p. 12). There are also instances in which her feelings of resentment are suppressed:

Table 2

Martha Quest (1952)Martha Quest (1957)
She only felt resentful that her father was ill … (152)Seule l’agitait, à cet instant, la crainte dans laquelle la plongeait l’état de santé de son père … (201)
Her resentment […] had been not so much dulled as pushed away into that part of herself she acknowledged to be the true one. (183)Omission (223)
Each kiss was a small ceremony of hatred (192)Omission (229)
What?’ she exclaimed indignantly. She felt furious. She suppressed that too. (267)― Quoi ? s’écria-t-elle effarée. Omission (303)

In the second entry of the above table, we can see that the particular part of the passage in which Martha experiences resentment is omitted. In another example, the word “resentful” (95) is attenuated in French to become “contrariée” (upset) (118). Finally, when Martha resents her father for being ill as “it might be used against her as an emotional argument”, her resentment is turned into “crainte” (fear, concern) in French, which is a completely different feeling. Martha’s resentment at her father being ill does not fit into societal expectations of the time for a girl’s proper behaviour. Worry or fear are feelings that would have been considered more acceptable. Hatred and fury are also feelings which are either omitted or attenuated in the 1957 translation (Table 2, entries 3 and 4).

All the changes discussed above make Martha appear more proper in the French translation and they decrease her agency. These are not isolated example, but an overall pattern which paints a very different portrait of Martha compared to the original. Martha Quest was retranslated into French in 1978 by Marianne Véron. In this new translation, Martha’s inner thoughts are restored, thus giving a more accurate picture of her state of mind.

Dr Mélina Delmas, University of Birmingham


Abel, E., Hirsch, M. and Langland, E. (1983) The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development. Hanover, N.H.; London: University Press of New England.

Butler, J. (1990) Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.

Goodman, C. (1983) ‘The Lost Brother, the Twin: Women Novelists and the Male-Female Double Bildungsroman’, NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, 17(1), pp. 28–43.

Greene, G. (1991) Changing the Story: Feminist Fiction and the Tradition. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Labovitz, E. K. (1988) The Myth of the Heroine: The Female Bildungsroman in the Twentieth Century: Dorothy Richardson, Simone de Beauvoir, Doris Lessing, Christa Wolf. New York: P. Lang.

Marrone, C. (2000) Female Journeys: Autobiographical Expressions by French and Italian Women. Wesport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Rosowski, S. (1983) ‘The Novel of Awakening’, in Abel, E., Hirsch, M., and Langland, E., The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development. Hanover, N.H.; London: University Press of New England, pp. 49–68.

Stimpson, C. R. (1983) ‘Doris Lessing and the Parables of Growth’, in Abel, E., Hirsch, M., and Langland, E., The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development. Hanover, N.H.; London: University Press of New England, pp. 186–205.