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Female Agency & Inner Thoughts in the First French Translation of Doris Lessing’s ‘Martha Quest’

Written by Dr Mélina Delmas (University of Birmingham) |

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.

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)


n 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.