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.
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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.
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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