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Why an Imperfect Version of Proust is a Classic in English

31 March 2015

From The New Yorker:

The art of translation is usually a semi-invisible one, and is generally thought better for being so. A few translators’ names are familiar to the amateur reader—we know about Chapman’s Homer, through Keats, and Richard Wilbur’s Molière is part of the modern American theatre—but mostly translators struggle with sentences for even less moment (and money) than other writers do. One key exception to this rule is C. K. Scott Moncrieff (1889-1930), whose early-twentieth-century English version of Marcel Proust’s masterpiece, “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu,” has been a classic in our own language since the day of its first publication. Newly published volume by newly published volume, working almost as a simultaneous translator, Moncrieff inserted Proust into the English-speaking reader’s consciousness with a force that Proust’s contemporaries in continental languages never really got. Mostly thanks to Moncrieff, Proust is part of the common reader’s experience in English.

. . . .

But the ease of Moncrieff’s translations also started a fistfight, ongoing, about whether his Proust is Proust, near Proust, Anglicized Proust, or not Proust at all. That Moncrieff called Proust’s book “Remembrance of Things Past,” borrowing from Shakespeare, rather than anything close to a literal rendering of the title “In Search of Lost Time,” is typical of what the translation’s detractors kvetch about to this day.

. . . .

The picture of the times that Moncrieff’s life provides is interesting, but what matters most is the book he made from the book he found. He began translating Proust in 1919, after returning with a serious leg wound from what was called “gallant service” in the war. In a spirit very nearly casual, he interspersed his translations of the later volumes with a great deal of other work. What made his Proust translation so superior—so much so that Joseph Conrad could actually say that he thought Moncrieff was a better translator than Proust was a writer?

Proust himself, in a cranky letter of thanks, put his finger on the conventional complaint about Moncrieff’s version—which was that Moncrieff tended to smooth out or sweeten certain knotty or perverse moves in Proust. The question of the first volume’s title captures the issue: “Du Cote de chez Swann” is a weird construction in French, meaning more or less “The Way by Swann’s Place.” Proust’s own advice for improving on Moncrieff’s title is, in a way, perfectly right—he said that you only need add a “to”: “To Swann’s Way.” But that wouldn’t sound right in English. “To Swann’s Place” is closer. But, ultimately, “Swann’s Way” is the simplest choice and has the right kind of nimbus. The place isn’t the subject; Swann is. Moncrieff, though off, is actually on, and on without being too self-consciously poetic in the pursuit.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

Books in General

5 Comments to “Why an Imperfect Version of Proust is a Classic in English”

  1. Moncrieff sounds like an artist or fine craftsman of translation. I’ve spent a few years of my career transforming translations (from Asian languages to English) into narrative and dialogue that resonates with English speakers, and I acknowledge the craft involved.

    And add to that list of great translators American poet John Ciardi, who created a wonderful English version of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Ciardi’s foreword to the work describes the problems of translating poetry from the Italian (for one thing making rhymes in Italian is lots easier), the kinds of creative liberties he took, and his reasons for them. The result speaks for itself.

  2. “Proust is part of the common reader’s experience in English.”

    P.G.

    Really?

    Was talking about it to my heart Dr a while back and he said I was the only person he knew who’d read it. He’s South African so neither of us is speaking from any knowledge of Americans.

    I guess any writer taking 30 pages to describe his main character turning over in bed is a trifle indulgent.

    brendan

  3. I mostly know Proust from the Monty Python skit “summarize Proust”. I suspect many people are in the same situation.

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