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"Coquelicots (La promenade)” by Claude Monet

Translating Proust again

There is no ideal, ultimate translation of a given original. Classic texts in particular, from Homer onwards, are susceptible of multiple readings and retranslations over time. Retranslation of classic works, and the ability to compare different versions of a given text, afford an opportunity to celebrate not only the expressive capacities of the English language and the creativity of the translator’s art, but also the inexhaustible richness of the translated text.   

For half a century, the translation of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu by Scott Moncrieff, published between 1922 and 1932, was the only one available to English-speaking readers unable to read Proust in the original French. This translation was monumental in its scale and in many ways admirable in its realization. Moncrieff had a fine ear for the cadences of Proust’s prose, and a considerable talent for elegant phrasing. But his language dated over time, especially in dialogue, and from the beginning he was prone to tamper with the text, through embellishment or the heightening of language. The reservation most commonly voiced about his translation, indeed, is that it changed Proust’s tone. He tended to make Proust sound precious and flowery, whereas Proust’s style is not in the least affected or ornate. His prose is precise, rigorous, exact. Grand rhythm and maxim-like concentration often work together. Proust’s sentences, though elaborately constructed, have a beautiful balance, a musicality that becomes particularly apparent when the text is read aloud. 

Terence Kilmartin, in his 1981 revision of Moncrieff, made numerous small changes, making his predecessor’s prose a little plainer, though his edition (itself revised by D.J. Enright in 1992) remains essentially Moncrieff’s. As John Sturrock observed, Moncrieff’s choice of title, the Shakespearean Remembrance of Things Past, hardly reflects the plainness (or the thematic implications) of A la recherche du temps perdu. The choice is symptomatic, Sturrock noted, of “the unhappy way in which Scott Moncrieff contrived to play down the stringent intelligence of his author by conveying it in an English prose that is constantly looking to prettify. It’s as if the translator had been taken aback by how acrid and how ruthless Proust can be in his exposure of the deep falsities of the inhabitants of the Parisian beau monde, and was determined to muffle its cruelty by the gentility of his English.”

New translations of classic authors are produced to some extent in the shadow of their predecessors, of which they offer, implicitly or not, a kind of critique. This is very much the case with Lydia Davis, who translated the first volume of the novel, Du côté de chez Swann (as The Way by Swann’s), for the 2002 Penguin edition of the Recherche. Her translation is marked by a determination to stay close to Proust’s original in every way, including the retention of the precise order of elements in a sentence. In stark contrast to Davis is James Grieve’s 1982 translation (republished in 2023 by New York Review Books). This translation is very free. Grieve is more than ready to reshape the Proustian sentence, and to use colloquialisms, in pursuit of what he called “real English.”  

“New translations of classic authors are produced to some extent in the shadow of their predecessors, of which they offer, implicitly or not, a kind of critique.”

I think of translation as an art of imitation: a quest to reproduce a text’s “voice.” It is a kind of performance art, combining close reading and creative (re)writing. This involves a multiplicity of exact choices concerning rhythm, register, sound, syntax, tone, texture: all those things that make up style and reflect the marriage between style and meaning. Proust’s style is largely identified with his famous long sentences, with, in Richard Howard’s words, their “coiling elaboration.” As they uncoil, the sentences express the rhythms of a sensibility, the directions and indirections of desire, the conflicts and convolutions of a mind that forms the framework—indeed the subject-matter—of the narrative as it unfolds, via many detours and with a dynamic backward- and forward-looking movement, from childhood beginnings to mature adulthood. The narrative builds multiple perspectives into a symphonic structure, promoting a dramatic narration as the narrator comes slowly to understand the significance of his past life. The Proustian sentence reflects the narrator’s exploration of his experience, presenting things as he sees them and reflects upon them. It is crucial to maintain the overall integrity of Proust’s syntax, in order to maintain the rhythms of the narrator’s representation of his experience.   

Since Moncrieff’s day, literary translation has become a much more self-conscious practice, while recent years have seen the rise of the academic discipline of translation studies. Some academics champion a “foreignizing” approach to translation. This denotes, in its milder form, a determination to stay as close as possible to the original, and, in its most zealous form, a kind of interventionism that heightens one’s awareness of the foreign. The latter approach implies the production of a consciously defamiliarized English by the retention of syntactical or grammatical conventions from the source language: to make the translation “feel French” (or German, etc.) and remind readers that they are reading a translation. Proponents of this approach feel it shows respect for the other and has the merit of sensitizing readers to diversity among cultures. There is of course a foreignness inherent in the text, both for linguistic reasons and because different languages reflect different social and cultural worlds. Who would not wish to respect foreignness in the latter sense—for instance, by keeping culturally specific words and phrases in the original? But foreignize stylistically? Proust sounded strange in French, to his French audience, because of the particularity of his voice, a strikingly original new voice given shape in his native language. It is a verbal strangeness—a stylistic otherness—the translator must aim to reproduce so that the Anglophone reader can experience something equivalent to the experience of the native French reader. But this is not the same as trying to make the translation sound French per se. Successful translation of Proust is achieved (unsurprisingly, one might feel) by making him sound like Proust—by giving him an English voice, a voice that conveys his vision, his sensibility, his unique qualities as a writer. Moreover, as I hope my translation shows, Proust in English can be idiosyncratic while retaining an idiomatic quality. My goal has been to recreate Proust’s voice in such a way that the translation creates the illusion that the reader is reading not a translation but the original.   

Featured image: “Coquelicots (La promenade)” by Claude Monet via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

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