Whiff of the madeleine

In Search of Lost Time - In Search of Lost Time
November 8, 2002

Translations of Proust leave Richard Parish nostalgic for the original

One rhetorical question concerning this project is easy to answer. Is a new translation of Proust needed or timely? Unequivocally, yes. As Christopher Prendergast rightly asserts in his introduction to the new Penguin In Search of Lost Time , the translation history of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu is inevitably linked to the succession of French editions. The celebrated translation by C. K. Scott Moncrieff took as its starting point the only, flawed, text available to him, and was completed by Stephen Hudson, who put the last volume into English after Scott Moncrieff's death. This version was then updated by Terence Kilmartin in 1981, in response to the appearance of the Pléiade edition of 1954, with the last volume redone by Andreas Mayor, and the whole was further revised by D. J. Enright in 1992, now with the 1987-89 Pleiade to hand. It is this composite translation that makes a reappearance in convenient Vintage paperback format, with brief but incisive introductory notes by Malcolm Bowie. For many this is a classic in its own right, and the appearance of a new translation does nothing to undermine that status; rather, Scott Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright must now sit alongside its successor as, quite simply, different, rather than definitive or defective.

The old version is thus an accretive enterprise, and the sequence of names of translators corresponds to a roughly diachronic succession. The smartly presented new Penguin translation differs from it most fundamentally in that the translators' names now conceal a synchronic effort, with a different contributor for each volume. It too is based, as it should be, on the 1987-89 Pleiade, which is, in Peter Collier's phrase, "the best assessment of what Proust would have published if he had lived", with the changes in volume division duly respected, but with the extensive corpus of variants realistically omitted. Stylistic and even minor narrative inconsistencies have also been ironed out, as is appropriate for a grand public presentation.

The thematic and stylistic range of the original is, of course, daunting. It is a story of childhood and remembering, of high society and snobbery, of sexuality and homosexualities, of cruelty and jealousy, of art and decay. Proust is by turns lyrical, introspective and catty, at times unyieldingly metaphorical and yet, just sometimes, simple. The general editor convincingly argues that the 21st-century English Proust should read as nearly as possible as a piece of 21st-century English, and many potential impediments to this end are skillfully avoided (although French quotations, titles and proper names are, sensibly, left in the original). Thus, modes of address (English has only one form for "you"), forms of the past tense, positioning of adjectives, and even stylistic features such as alliteration, assonance or plays on words, are handled as deftly as the exercise allows, and the twin temptations of quaintness and anachronism go resisted throughout. Proust's massive cadences are subtly amended, but their impact, as often as not, rings powerfully true. The most obvious pitfall for a translator lies in the vast, multipartite periods, but here again most contributors convey these with some degree of conviction. The exception is John Sturrock, who, by opting for a somewhat tauter, more literal style, produces on occasion some overly cryptic sentences, with subordinate clauses that awkwardly qualify a remote subject, thus: "To all the doorman's impassioned questions, who was eager to see someone to whom he was indebted." As Kilmartin wrote of Scott Moncrieff, so too here "a whiff of Gallicism clings to some of the longer periods, obscuring the sense and falsifying the tone".

Other more detailed difficulties are not as consistently resolved. Apposition requires the suppression of the article in French, but not in English (so disallowing "pierced by the flares of the lamp, lone beacon in the night" in the first book); and the French impersonal pronoun " on " is handled with appropriate freedom by most translators (as a passive, for example, or as "we" or "you"), but fairly rigidly (as "one") by Lydia Davis.

The most unsatisfactory book of all, sadly, is the first (and for many the best known), as the translation of the title ( Du Côte de Chez Swann ) may already begin to show. " Chez " is, of course, particularly resistant to a single-word English equivalent, but The Way by Swann's has an inelegance that should have been avoided, not least because the translator herself glances over and rejects the far more natural The Walk by Swann's House in her own introductory comments. Davis sticks close to the French syntax and lexis for the most part and makes a convincing argument for doing so. As a result, she often gives a persuasive impression of the experience of reading Proust in the original. But such fidelity also runs the risk of Gallicisms or faux amis , such as the overliteral translation of " [Ils] s'amusent a " by "[They] amuse themselves by" or " vexé " by "vexed"; and asparagus is singular in English, though plural in French (one eats "it" not "them"). In other respects, too, there are quibbles. First, alone in the series, Davis introduces a number of Americanisms into her text, both lexical, thus: "one time" (for "once"), "come kiss me", "high-strung", "turkey hen" or "quieting down" (and Combray is first seen from the "railroad"), and syntactic, such as the use of the subjunctive in "he would just as soon I not talk about".

And is it really wise in the context to translate " gai " as "gay" (which the Concise Oxford Dictionary identifies as dated in its earlier meanings) with quite such, well, abandon? (She is not alone here, although conscious irony may be present in some later occurrences.) More seriously, there are straightforward mistranslations, thus: " l'heure du dîner " ("time for dinner") becomes "the dinner hour"; " le pays " needs "region" not "country"; " une vigne vierge " is a "Virginia creeper", not a "wild vine"; bishops are addressed as " Monseigneur " in French (thus "My Lord", not "Your Grace", which is reserved for archbishops); a road running alongside " une barrière " suggests "fence", not "gate"; " un morceau de sucre ", is "a lump of sugar", not "a bit of sugar", and so on. A monoglot non-pedant will probably overlook these isolated features, but why did the other translators or the general editor not pick them up? It is easy to get stuck on the opening part of Proust's epic, and essential to move quickly on to the later volumes, perhaps to revisit Combray in the way that the work's cyclical structure invites. But first impressions count for a lot, and it is a pity if they are marred by errors of detail.

The second volume, entrusted to James Grieve, offers the most autonomy in terms of departure from the French syntax, most evident in subtle amendments to phraseology, word order or punctuation, and minor changes of emphasis, but, no doubt because of this, carries considerable conviction as a piece of English prose (Grieve had previously translated the first part, in a similar idiom, in 1982). The last four volumes achieve thereafter a commendably equivalent balance between freedom and fluency on the one hand and accuracy on the other, albeit with the occasional erring towards the stilted in Sturrock. Mark Treharne, Carol Clark, Peter Collier and Ian Patterson are all a fraction more literal than Grieve, but all read easily as English, and succeed in conveying both the most ambitious flights of lyricism and the rhythms and idiosyncrasies of speech. Treharne's handling of the sequences of aristocratic bitching in The Guermantes Way is particularly felicitous.

Another significant asset of the Penguin set is the quality and range of the introductory essays. Davis sets the ball rolling with a helpful overview of the novel and offers some crucial distinctions, notably in stressing the status of the novel as "fiction in the guise of autobiography" (although one later translator soon forgets this, referring to the narrator as "Proust", and pointing out that such and such a tomb is "not in the church at Combray"); Grieve then considers foreshadowing, as well as looking at perception, character and caricature, and suggests that Proust "translates epistemology into poetry"; Treharne writes on death, society, comedy and sexuality; Sturrock, consonant with the evolution in the novel, focuses on homosexuality; and Clark on the Albertine motifs of jealousy and control in what is at once a "tragedy of possessive love" and a "dreadful comedy of misunderstanding". Collier then looks at the unconscious, showing how "we negotiate with the memory of our emotions", as well as providing the most sustained stylistic analysis, in the context of the narrator's own developing vocation; and Patterson dwells on the destructive passage of time and the fulfilment of the novelistic project. All of these are fine pieces of criticism in their own right, and all, vitally, acknowledge the various difficulties a reader may encounter at different stages. The endnotes, on the other hand, err on the side of brevity and eclecticism.

For all its subdivisions, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu , like Wagner's Ring , is a single monumental work of art, which needs to be approached as such, and the broader rhetorical questions that arise in conclusion concern the degree to which this new translation is in any sense a truly collaborative project. Thus, did any of the translators read and revise any of the other parts of the series, or even one another's endnotes? And, more obviously again, did the general editor read them all? And, if so, did he generally edit them? Just to take two precise examples that point against an affirmative reply: why does the French noun " hôtel ", to designate the urban property of a noble family, vary between "townhouse", "residence", " Hôtel ", and " hôtel "? Could not a common form have been adopted? Was it even discussed? And why is Madame de Sévigné accorded five different notes in five different volumes? These rhetorical questions are harder to field. Yet it would not have taken a great deal of additional attention to detail to eradicate such disparities, and so to lift this already-distinguished enterprise onto a different plane. And that would certainly have been worth finding time for.

Richard Parish is professor of French, University of Oxford.

In Search of Lost Time

Author - Marcel Proust
ISBN - 0 09 936 221 X, 936231 7, 936241 4, 936251 1, 936261 9, 9361 6
Publisher - Vintage Classics
Price - £8.99 each
Pages - six volumes
Translator - C. K. Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin, D. J. Enright and Andreas Mayor

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