The Bible and ‘Le Mot Juste’

by Jared C. Wilson March 30, 2015

"Flaubert was always adamantly opposed to illustrations for his literary works. This apparent contradiction can be explained by his concept of pure art and his association of art with style, from which it follows that one art cannot be translated into another. For Flaubert, writing was a long, sometimes agonizingly slow, quest for perfection in style. His correspondence is filled with descriptions of his efforts to polish his prose, to eliminate repetition or assonance, to find le mot juste [the right word]."

The Gustave Flaubert Encyclopedia edited by Laurence Porter (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 2001), 15.

Flaubert was obsessed with finding the exact right word. He would labor over his composition, sometimes finishing a long day's work having written just a few words, perhaps one sentence. The result was both beautiful and cold, as anyone who made it through Madame Bovary can attest.

Some scholars say that you can't read Flaubert in anything but French, for all translations lose the pristine fruit of his labors. One said Flaubert's works would need the "Flaubert of translators" to do le mot juste justice.

Yet it occurs to me that in the Scriptures, which are God-breathed, we find ostensibly un-artful census results as well as ecstatic exultation, and lots of literature on the spectrum in between, and yet in its variety of authors from a variety of backgrounds with a variety of motivations in a variety of genres, every word of Scripture is perfectly placed. Flaubert wrung himself out like a limp rag for a few droplets a day, and the result was pretty, sterile. The Spirit pours it effortlessly out through similarly wrung men into the Bible's flowing fountain, and the result is a tidal wave of exhilarating warmth. I remind myself of this when bogged down in Numbers as when lifted to Pauline pinnacles. It helps to know the biblical languages, I know, but it helps especially to know that every word of Scripture from Genesis 1:1's "In" to Revelation 22:21's "Amen" is le mot juste.