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From Cather Studies Volume 11

Translating the Southwest: The 1940 French Edition of Death Comes for the Archbishop

Marc Chénetier wrote that all translations are doomed to a degree of failure “the way all writing fails compared with the dazzling, burning desire behind it” (42). Cervantes put it a different way: “Translation is the other side of a tapestry” (877). Most famously, Robert Frost commented, “Poetry is what is lost in translation” (Untermeyer 18). The French translator, Spanish novelist, and American poet each call our attention to the difficulty of the translator’s art.

Willa Cather became familiar with the challenges of translation early in her writing career. In Pittsburgh she experienced them firsthand when translating French and German texts as read aloud by her friend, George Seibel. Her translation of Heinrich Heine’s Christmas poem, “The Three Holy Kings,” appeared in the Home Monthly in December 1896 (Cather, April Twilights 37).[1] When queried about the translation by Dorothy Canfield Fisher many years later, Cather claimed to have forgotten it. She joked, “No, I don’t remember translating Heine’s Three Kings, but how like me to be translating from a language in which I couldn’t have conjugated a single verb!” (3 January [1947]).

Cather’s own work appeared in sixteen different languages during her lifetime, and to her those translations were no laughing matter.[2] She followed the publication of her foreign editions, but except for those in French, which she read proficiently, she relied upon multilingual friends for judgments of their quality. Letters recently made available lend rare insight to Cather’s involvement in the translation process. Drawing upon these and other archival documents, this essay focuses on a French edition of Death Comes for the Archbishop that appeared in 1940 under the imprint of Éditions Stock. The translation was initially undertaken by esteemed novelist Marguerite Yourcenar, but Cather criticized her work so strongly that another translator, Christine Carel, was assigned to the project. About no other translation, including five others published in French during her lifetime, was Cather as vexed.[3] In her epistolary criticism of both translators, she demonstrated not only her concern for the reception of her work in France, but also an unwavering authority over her southwestern material. Most of all, she wanted French readers of Archbishop to be able to visualize the landscape of the Southwest and recognize its inhabitants as she described them in her original edition. These same letters offer a view of Cather constructing her artistic persona and managing her literary reputation for an international readership.

In 1945, Cather wrote to Ferris Greenslet that she owned nine of the eleven published translations of Death Comes for the Archbishop. (The novel is now translated into twenty-four languages, second only to My Ántonia.) Cather’s attentiveness to those editions is evident in her particular fondness for the work and the American Southwest. She once wrote to E. K. Brown that she considered it her best novel (Woodress 391). As John J. Murphy details, Cather researched her material thoroughly and with pleasure, visiting the region on six occasions before the novel’s publication (331–39). Her copy of the novel, personalized with pasted-in photographs from her trips, testifies to the strong connection she felt to the Southwest.

In the light of Cather’s affection for the novel and the region, it is not wholly surprising that one of the points on which she critiqued the French translators of Archbishop was their portrayal of the landscape. In her letters, Cather not only criticized Yourcenar and Carel, but also explained how an Italian translator, Alessandra Scalero, rendered a geographically and culturally accurate depiction of the Southwest in her own translation of the novel. It is useful to consider the story behind Scalero’s translation, as it provides context for Cather’s criticism of the French translators.

In the summer of 1935, Cather traveled to Italy and France with Edith Lewis. It would prove to be Cather’s final trip to Europe. They departed from New York the first week of August, disembarked in Genoa, and quickly sought refuge from a heat wave. After resting in the village of Cortina in the Dolomite Alps for nearly two weeks, they traveled to Venice on 27 August, lodging at the Hôtel Royal Danieli.[4] On 25 September they left Venice to visit Isabelle McClung Hambourg at her home near Paris. They returned to New York in early November.

The reason for Cather’s stay in France was clearly personal. She explained the rationale for the Italian segment of the trip, her second visit to that country, in a 14 July 1935 letter to her sister Elsie:

I haven’t even made out our itinerary yet, but I have to be in Venice about the first of September to arrange some disagreements between Italian publishers and the translators of death comes for the archbishop and shadows on the rock. As a purely business proposition it would not be worth travelling as far as San Francisco for, but there are some very distinguished and scholarly gentlemen who are concerned with and about this edition, among them Father Giordano [sic], the head of the Vatican Library.[5]
In an 18 April 1935 letter to Cather, Alfred Knopf discloses the nature of the disagreements to which she referred. The translator of Shadows on the Rock, Gino de Negri, was in dispute with his Italian publisher over the delivery of his contract and payment of an advance. Knopf wrote that de Negri wanted to solicit interest from other publishers for an Italian edition of Death Comes for the Archbishop, a request to which Knopf consented. Cather does not mention her meeting with the Italian publishers and translators in her correspondence, but it appears their negotiations were successful, as de Negri’s translation of Shadows on the Rock was published later that year. The Italian edition of Archbishop, translated by Alessandra Scalero, followed in 1936.

Why Scalero was chosen to translate Death Comes for the Archbishop is unknown. Whatever the reason, she was well qualified for the assignment as a skillful translator of American, British, French, and German literary works by John Dos Passos, Daphne du Maurier, D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, and Virginia Woolf, among others. Between 1930 and 1966 she translated thirty-eight books, many of them in the publisher Mondadori’s prestigious Medusa series, which claimed to present “The Great Storytellers of Every Country.” Despite the high quality of her work, Scalero apparently was not well compensated, and it seems that her reason for translating Archbishop was financial need rather than a special literary interest. As British novelist Richard Aldington wrote to his publisher, “She’s a poor devil, and she gets some lire out of Mondadori if she can get ahead of the others” (Gates 146; see Bernardini).

Shortly before Cather departed for Italy in August 1935, Marguerite Yourcenar began translating Death Comes for the Archbishop into French. On 10 June, Knopf wrote to Cather that the French publisher Éditions Stock described Yourcenar as “a very wellknown writer herself and the translator of Virginia Woolf’s last book [The Waves].” According to critic Bérengère Deprez, Yourcenar’s translations in this period were done “mostly to earn a living” (82). Like Scalero, this may have motivated her work on Archbishop. Although Yourcenar was “very well-known” in France by the mid1930s, as her publisher wrote, that was not the case in the United States. Recognition in this country would not come until 1951 with the publication of her celebrated novel Mémoires d’Hadrien (Memoirs of Hadrian).

In April 1938, three years after beginning work on Archbishop, Yourcenar traveled from New Haven, where her partner, Grace Frick, was completing graduate study at Yale, to New York to discuss the translation with Cather. Whether Cather requested the meeting with Yourcenar or vice versa is not known. A year earlier, Yourcenar had a similar meeting with Woolf about her translation of The Waves, which was yet to be published. Woolf subsequently described Yourcenar as “some intolerable necessary bore” who “wasted one of my rare solitary evenings” (109). Joan Acocella writes that Yourcenar “came from the minor nobility and didn’t hide it. Most of the people who knew her, even friends, addressed her not as Marguerite, but as Madame” (242). Whether Cather shared Woolf’s personal feelings about Yourcenar is open to conjecture. What is certain is that she was not pleased by Yourcenar’s draft translation of Death Comes for the Archbishop.

In a three-page letter to Knopf dated 19 April 1938, Cather delineated six objections to Yourcenar’s work (Letters 546–48). She began by criticizing Yourcenar’s choice of an edition from which to translate. That text, an English-language edition published in Germany by Tauchnitz in 1929, contained “many errors,” according to Cather. Since Yourcenar was no farther away than New Haven, she merely had to request a recent, corrected edition from her or Knopf, Cather wrote. Her second objection focused on Yourcenar’s alleged ignorance of the Southwest, of which Cather complained:

Madame Yourcenar has never been in the Southwest at all, and seems to have no conception of how very different that country is from any other part of the United States. She has not informed herself about its people or customs. In so far as that country and people are concerned, her mind is an utter blank. Yet she says that there are some descriptive passages in the book (I don’t know how many) which she must “paraphrase.” How can one paraphrase descriptions of a landscape which one has never seen, or even informed oneself about? (Letters 546–47)

Cather’s third and fourth criticisms were related. She wanted Yourcenar to retain Spanish words, such as “mesa,”“adobe,”“arroyo,” and “hacienda,” that were in the original text and commonly used in the Southwest.[6] There were no other names for such things, she reasoned, for “You cannot call an arroyo a ditch or a ravine.” Yourcenar countered that French readers would find the foreign words offensive and incomprehensible. Cather responded that brief footnotes could be used, but Yourcenar replied that they, too, would be objectionable to French readers. Cather retorted that French author Prosper Mérimée successfully employed footnotes in his novellas. Dismissing that idea “with great decision,” Yourcenar asserted that footnotes would make the book look “old-fashioned.” Whether she noticed Cather’s own footnote on the dying of the Pecos pueblo in the original edition is an open question.[7]

Fifth, Cather lauded Scalero’s “very excellent” Italian translation of Archbishop, which used the Spanish words in the manner she preferred. Scalero’s footnotes for these words were “enlightening,” according to Cather, who concluded,“The Italian translation clearly and faithfully reproduces the English text of the book” (547). There is no record of why Scalero treated the Spanish words as she did, but she had previously employed similar footnotes in translations of works by D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf.

Cather explicated the “heart of the matter” in her sixth point: “Madame Yourcenar feels that this book accurately translated would not make, as she says, ‘beautiful French.’ I have every admiration for the writer who wishes to write his own language beautifully, and I am afraid she has chosen a book which is not suited to the kind of French she wishes to write.” Cather reiterated that she was displeased by Yourcenar’s refusal to use “local New Mexican–Spanish words” and her plan to “paraphrase the passages describing a country which she has never seen and about which she has read very little” (548). In conclusion, she emphasized that the Italian translator Scalero proved a faithful translation could be made in the manner she described and demanded to see page proofs of Yourcenar’s work prior to publication. The comments of Woolf scholar Françoise Pellan support Cather’s analysis of Yourcenar’s deficiencies as a translator. On Yourcenar’s translation of Woolf’s The Waves, Pellan writes: “As a text, it is undoubtedly very beautiful, and a pleasure to read. As a translation, it is deeply, almost insidiously, unfaithful to the original” (55).

Yourcenar’s unpublished correspondence at Harvard’s Houghton Library reveals that Cather’s letter to Knopf was a “deal-breaker.” In a 4 May letter to Yourcenar, Maurice Delamain, co-owner of Éditions Stock, summarized Cather’s objections and asked Yourcenar to send him her still-to-be-completed translation, for which she would be paid a prorated sum. The project would be taken over, he wrote, by a translator who would adhere to Cather’s wishes and use Scalero’s Italian translation as a model. On 5 June, Yourcenar sent Delamain her 253-page manuscript (Unknown writer to Yourcenar, 9 June 1938). There is no evidence of Cather and Yourcenar ever meeting again, although they both spent the summers of 1943 to 1945 on Mount Desert Island in Maine (see Durrans). Cather wrote to Knopf’s secretary, J. Florence Rubin, on 18 December 1938 to inquire about the new French translation, stating, “The relatives of these long-dead Bishops unceasingly and affectionately pursue me.” On 19 January 1939 Knopf sent her a typescript by Christine Carel, a translator who had no book-length publications.[8] Four days later, Cather wrote to Yaltah Menuhin Stix that she was trying to prevent a “very poor” French translation of Archbishop from being published. “The Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Slovak ones are said to be very good,” she complained, “so why should the French one be so dull and plodding! Isn’t it stupid!” (Letters 568). On 31 January, Rubin wrote to Knopf that Cather had read five chapters of Carel’s work and found it just as bad as Yourcenar’s (Rubin). In a 2 February letter, Cather addressed her critique directly to Carel. She began with a comment about the title, noting that Gustave Flaubert’s niece, Caroline Franklin-Grout, had read Death Comes for the Archbishop in English and insisted that the French title must be La mort et l’archêveque. Franklin-Grout’s experience as the executrix of her uncle’s estate granted her “convincing authority,” Cather maintained.[9]

Cather’s most salient points were made in her letter’s conclusion. She again focused on the physical characteristics of the Southwest and the use of Spanish words that had entered the lexicon of the region, asserting that they should be retained and footnoted:

In this book the country is the protagonist of the story. The surface of the earth, its deserts, mesas, arroyos, formed the chief difficulty against which the missionary priests had to struggle. The long passages describing the country are not “landscape painting” or ornamental writing. They merely state the perplexing realities which confronted these two priests every day. I have spent much time in the Southwest, and have ridden on horseback over many of the roads and trails over which Archbishop Lamy and Father Machebeuf travelled. (Cather to Carel, 2 February 1939).
Cather advised Carel to use Scalero’s translation as a model and enclosed a copy of the Italian book with her letter. She wrote, “If you are interested in making a thoroughly good translation, you, like the two priests, must courageously face the geographical and geological difficulties.” In closing, she offered that “These explanations, the Italian version, and the corrections on pages 40 to 90, may give you a little enthusiasm for the country, and make clear to you some things which are now vague.”

Carel’s translation of Death Comes for the Archbishop, dutifully titled La mort et l’archevêque, was published in paperback by Éditions Stock in February 1940. It included a preface by historian André Artonne, which focused on the novel’s prototypes and historical background. Five years later, on 23 August 1945, Cather wrote to Ferris Greenslet: “One might think that the French translation would be very good, but I had to send it back to the French publishers because it sounded like a school girl’s exercise in French and, above all, because all the footnotes explaining western terminology were incorrect and absurd. ‘Trappers,’ for instance, in the footnote appeared as ‘a religious order.’” In the same letter, written from Northeast Harbor, Maine, Cather again praised Scalero’s translation and recommended her for a proposed Italian translation of My Ántonia:

An Italian friend read a large part of the Italian translation to me and he approved of it heartily. I myself examined all the footnotes carefully and I should say they were models for lexicographers. I wish I had the Italian translation here or that my secretary were not away on her vacation. Perhaps when I go home, late in September, it will not be too late to give you the name of the woman who translated the Archbishop. In case she is still living she would be incapable of doing a slovenly job.
The name of the woman was, of course, Alessandra Scalero, but she had died in 1944. The Italian translation of My Ántonia was published in 1947.[10]

To be fair to Yourcenar and Carel, it should be noted that both lacked formal training in translation and worked in a time before the field was professionalized. At the center of their tension with Cather was a demand for fidelity to the original text, an issue as vexing to translators today as it was then. Yourcenar would now be aligned with the school of translation that affords translators more license than the source-oriented concept of translation. Her approach calls to mind a humorous remark by Argentinian author and translator Jorge Luis Borges, who once said of a novel by William Beckford that “the original was not faithful to the translation.”

Finally, Cather admitted to Greenslet that she could not bring herself to read the French edition of Death Comes for the Archbishop. Presumably fatigued by her interactions with Yourcenar and Carel, she may have been afraid to find that the published translation did not meet her standards. Yet her engagement with the edition is no less significant and revealing. Underscored in her letters is the degree of authority she claimed over her southwestern material. In composing, Cather could represent the region as she wished. Foreign-language editions, though, demanded that she cede a measure of control to her translators, which she did not do easily in this case. In her statement that “the country is the protagonist of the story” she established that she did not use the Spanish words for mesas, arroyos, and other topographical features of the Southwest as verbal ornaments, but rather as vital details contributing to the development of what she called the novel’s central character.

Above all, Cather’s letters show how well attuned she was to the important role translations played in the development of her international reputation. Chénetier explains that Cather was still building name recognition in France when work on the translation of Death Comes for the Archbishop began (27).[11] The close attention she gave to the French edition is indicative of her regard for French readers, whose national literature she revered, and her desire to elevate her stature in their country. If footnotes made the translation look “old-fashioned,” as Yourcenar asserted, Cather did not mind, as long as it was in the manner of a classic French author such as Mérimée, of whom she wrote in 1929, “I believe he is not fashionable in France at present, but he has almost everything I like in a writer” (Letters 420). In France, as in her home country, what interested Cather most was enduring literary quality, not the fashion of the moment.


 1. Cather published two other translations: “The Errand” (from Heine), in the 6 November 1897 Pittsburgh Courier, and “Had You But Smothered that Devouring Flame” (from Alfred de Musset), in the 11 December 1897 Pittsburgh Courier (April Twilights 38–40). (Go back.)
 2. Hannah German’s “A Bibliography of Translations of Willa Cather’s Work” is the source for the number of languages into which Cather’s work was translated during her lifetime. The bibliography is accessible online at the Willa Cather Archive. (Go back.)
 3. In a 1921 interview, Cather claimed that all of her novels (Alexander’s Bridge, O Pioneers! and My Ántonia to that date) were being translated into French, but that did not come to fruition (Bohlke 35). Cather played an active role in the French translation of My Ántonia by Victor Llona, the first of her work in French. In a 14 December 1920 letter she instructed publisher Ferris Greenslet to send Llona a $50 advance with the remainder to be paid upon publication. After reading a sample of Llona’s translation, however, she sent the manuscript to her francophone friend Dorothy Canfield Fisher for further evaluation. In a 10 April 1921 letter to Fisher, Cather wrote, “I am puzzled because it seems to me about the sort of translation I would make myself with help of a dictionary—which must mean that it’s bad enough! It’s too literal, and I fear it’s not always grammatical. . . . What is the use of a poor translation of a book where the story is practically zero? There is nothing left!” Fisher appears to have regarded the translation more favorably, for Cather subsequently asked publisher Ferris Greenslet to give Llona more time (Cather to Greenslet, 27 April 1921). Some of his work seemed worthwhile, she wrote. On 1 May she wrote to Laura Hills that she was working on the translation, which was to be published serially prior to book publication, and on 6 July she told Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant that the translation had been “dumped upon me for revision.” In an interview published in the Webster County Argus on 29 September 1921, the project was said to be completed (Bohlke 27–28), but the serial publication never appeared. Llona’s translation of My Ántonia was published by Payot in 1924 (see Palleau-Papin). (Go back.)
 4. A notable guest during Cather’s stay at the Hôtel Royal Danieli was philosopher George Santayana, who was registered there from 10 September to 15 October 1935 (Holzberger 551). (Go back.)
 5. Igino Giordani (not “Father Giordano”) was not a priest, but was indeed the head of the Vatican Library. He was also the translator of the first Italian edition of Death Comes for the Archbishop, published in 1936. (Go back.)
 6. As early as 24 October 1908, Cather commented on the incorporation of Spanish words into English. She wrote to Sarah Orne Jewett,“In the West we had a kind of Latin influence, as you had an English one. We had so many Spanish words, just as you had words left over from Chaucer” (Letters 116). (Go back.)
 7. Of the pueblo of Pecos, Cather writes in a footnote,“In actual fact, the dying pueblo of Pecos was abandoned years before the American occupation of New Mexico” (130). Cather also included footnotes on the pronunciation of the title character’s name in My Ántonia, the history of the NotreDame-des-Victoires church and the Hôpital Général in Shadows on the Rock, and the origins of characters’ surnames in Sapphira and the Slave Girl. (Go back.)
 8. Carel’s other book-length translation is of Vicki Baum’s 1944 novel Hotel Berlin ’43, which appeared under the title Berlin-Hotel ’43 in 1947. (Go back.)
 9. Éditions Stock’s correspondence with Yourcenar refers to her translation variously as La mort prend l’archevêque, L’archevêque va mourir, and La mort vient pour l’archevêque. The working title of Carel’s translation that Cather saw is unknown. Cather and Franklin-Grout met at Aix-les-Bains in August 1930, an encounter Cather describes in “A Chance Meeting” in Not Under Forty. (Go back.)
 10. Two Italian editions of My Ántonia were published in 1947. One was translated by Gabriele Baldini and published by Longanesi, the other was translated by Jole Jannelli Pinna Pintor for Giulio Einaudi Editore. (Go back.)
 11. By 1935, My Ántonia (1924), “Coming, Aphrodite!” (1925), Shadows on the Rock (1933), and My Mortal Enemy (1935) had been translated into French. (Go back.)


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———. Letter to Elsie Cather. 14 July 1935. Susan J. and James Rosowski Cather Collection. Archives and Special Collections, U of Nebraska–Lincoln Libraries.
———. Letters to Dorothy Canfield Fisher. Dorothy Canfield Fisher Collection. Special Collections, Bailey/Howe Library, U of Vermont, Burlington.
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———. Letter to Laura Hills. “May Day” [1921]. Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.
———. Letter to Alfred Knopf. 19 Apr. 1938. Barbara Dobkin Collection, New York.
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