• Email
  • Print

Proust’s Way?’: An Exchange

In response to:

Far from Proust's Way from the December 15, 2005 issue

To the Editors:

Professor Aciman [“Far from Proust’s Way,” NYR, December 15, 2005] might have been right about changing the title of the Book of Genesis if this title had not yet been a bad translation into Greek by the authors of the Septuagint of the original Hebrew title “Bereshit” which means exactly…”In the Beginning.”

Jan van Rij

Saint-Étienne-du-Grès, France

To the Editors:

André Aciman’s review of my translation of Proust’s Du Côté de chez Swann (Swann’s Way) [“Proust’s Way?,” NYR, December 1, 2005] returns me to the intriguing problem of the flawed C.K. Scott Moncrieff translation.

Scott Moncrieff had considerable persuasive skill as a writer, his version was the first and for a very long time the only English translation available, and Proust’s novel is powerful enough to shine through almost any translation: for these reasons, the Scott Moncrieff version has become deeply entrenched, and the experience of reading Proust has been, for readers confined to English, inextricably identified with Scott Moncrieff’s flowing but misrepresentative version. For them, Scott Moncrieff’s style is the voice of Proust.

But it is not. Proust, in French, is plainer, and clearer.

The adulterations of Proust’s text by the Scott Moncrieff translation, even after the two revisions, proliferate on every page, and their two main sins are (1) to pad the text, and (2) to intensify it artificially. There are the more egregious departures: the additions of chunks of material and imagery not in the Proust, ranging from pregnant silences to houseboats, clocks, and kindled desire; the omissions of whole sentences; the insertion of hyperbolic metaphors—Proust’s “l’entrée des Enfers” (“the entrance to the Underworld”) becoming “the jaws of Hell”; his oubli (“forgetting” or “oblivion”) becoming “the waters of Lethe.” Then, subtler but more pervasive, Scott Moncrieff’s constant interpretive embellishments of Proust’s single words, so that “often” becomes “too often”; “charm,” “special charm”; “strange,” “strange and haunting”; “painful,” “exquisitely painful”; balconies that “float” in the original now only “seem to float.” Third, and most unfortunate, a plain word will be translated by a more loaded one. The reader without access to the French will not know that Proust’s disait (“said”) becomes Scott Moncrieff’s “remarked,” “began,” “murmured,” “assured them”; “small” becomes “tiny”; “held” becomes “squeezed”; “emptied” becomes “purged”; “interesting” becomes “fascinating.” It is the accumulation of such changes that creates an oppressively overwrought, even saccharine text. The Scott Moncrieff version is not “outdated.” The problem is that, in it, we do not see Proust clearly but rather through clouded glass; wrapped in scarves; lost in a forest.

And this is the version which Aciman says comes “closest to the source.”

It is not difficult for an experienced writer to compose a cadenced sentence. But my aim was, precisely, to follow the lead of Proust’s own text as closely as possible, unadorned by my own interpretation, uninflected by my own writing style, not simplified, but not complicated, not obscured, but not “updated.” And because of the beauty of Proust’s prose, the work was an endless pleasure; what a privilege to spend one’s day deciding to toss out the nice enough “catastrophic deluges,” for instance, in favor of the more peculiar, but closer, “diluvian catastrophes.”

If behind Scott Moncrieff’s “poetry” lie too many unexposed betrayals, Aciman’s metaphorical flourishes, too, obscure his errors of fact: the one who “smoothed the pronomial ruffles” was not Enright but Kilmartin; again, “Here is Enright,” says Aciman, before quoting a version entirely by Scott Moncrieff/Kilmartin. The only “syntactical Stromboli” in Aciman’s article is created not by the good grammarian Scott Moncrieff, but by Aciman himself, who, evidently puzzled by Scott Moncrieff’s reformulated appositive, “improves” the version with hopelessly muddled direct and indirect objects:

…but instead of giving so simple a piece of information to so unsurprising an answer the casual and conversational tone that would have been appropriate to it….”

Lydia Davis

Port Ewen, New York

To the Editors:

Without necessarily disagreeing with André Aciman’s judgments concerning the vices and virtues of the new Penguin translation of Proust, may I point out that the extended analysis he provides of the opening sentence of the novel [À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs] is erroneous? “My mother” is the subject of “having expressed,” with which this noun constitutes what is called in French grammar complement absolu or participe absolu (see Grevisse, Le Bon Usage, paragraph 306 of the 1986 edition). Aciman’s reading is “My mother, when it was a question…, my father replied…,” which would indeed contain an anacoluthon. The skeleton of the sentence—admittedly labyrinthine, but unmarred by any non sequitur—is: “My mother having expressed her regret…, my father replied…”

Marcel Muller

Professor emeritus

Department of Romance Languages

University of Michigan

Ann Arbor, Michigan

To the Editors:

As the general editor of the new Proust translation, may I point out three errors (two trivially minor, the third however of some importance) in André Aciman’s interesting review of Lydia Davis’s translation of the first volume, Du côté de chez Swann. Aciman claims that the new version by “six translators” is “like Enright’s” in that it “incorporates the most recent changes made in the French Pléiade edition of 1988.” The Pléiade edition is normally referred to as the 1987 edition (the date of publication of the first volume). The new English translation was made by a team of seven translators. The more substantive error concerns the incorporation of the changes introduced by the 1987 Pléiade edition, in particular changes regarding the final volume, Le Temps retrouvé. In order to set the record straight, may I quote from my own introduction?

…There is one respect in which the present translation remains true to the 1987 Pléiade where Kilmartin/Enright does not. This concerns an ambiguity over the beginning of the final volume, Le Temps retrouvé. Scott Moncrieff did not live to complete the final volume, and a translation by Sydney Schiff (under the pseudonym Stephen Hudson) was used. With the appearance of the 1954 Pléiade, Andreas Mayor produced a new version, which Kilmartin adopted for his own translation based on the 1954 Pléiade. The textual tangle arises at this juncture. Proust’s manuscript gives a somewhat uncertain indication of where La Fugitive ends and Le Temps retrouvé begins. The original Gallimard edition and the 1954 edition reflect different decisions as to where the respective endings and beginnings are to be located. The 1954 Pléiade takes the beginning of Le Temps retrouvé back several pages. The 1987 Pléiade, however, overrides the 1954 by restoring the status quo ante. This significant alteration is not, however, reflected in Kilmartin/ Enright; Mayor’s version remains intact. Whatever the merits of the literary argument as to where properly to begin and end, one thing is clear: Kilmartin/ Enright, in this respect, is not faithful to the 1987 Pléiade, whereas the present translation is.

Alas, due to the insane US copyright laws, American readers will not have homegrown access to the new version of Le Temps retrouvé until long after many of us are in our graves. In the meantime, it would help immensely the cause of peremptory and opinionated judgment if André Aciman first got his facts right. I would be the first to agree with him that, as he maintains in the second of his two pieces, to have translated the title of the first volume The Way by Swann would indeed have been a “monstrosity.” To my knowledge, no such translation has been publicly offered anywhere. It is certainly not the title’s translation for the English edition to which Aciman refers. The latter is—the difference clearly matters, at least to anyone remotely attuned to, and capable of remembering, points of grammar—The Way by Swann’s. As for Aciman’s view of In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, while I take (and at the time took) the point about heavy-handed literalness, to describe it as “gobbledygook” simply betrays a failure to understand the English language. The inspiration for our rendering was in part Nabokov’s “In the Shade of Blooming Young Girls.”

Christopher Prendergast

Jystrup, Denmark

André Aciman replies:

Mr. Jan van Rij is right of course. “In the beginning” (in Hebrew, bereshit) are the first words of the Book of Genesis, known in Hebrew as Bereshit. The word “Genesis,” however, has worked so well that to even think of changing it now would not be—as the polite expression goes nowadays—very helpful. It was not very helpful for Penguin to publish in 1953 and to continue publishing until today Stendhal’s Le rouge et le noir under the gawky title Scarlet and Black. The Red and the Black would have done very well. Let me give another example. The French have a long and established tradition of calling Wuthering Heights by the dramatic if overblown title of Les Hauts de Hurle-Vent (Howling-Wind Heights). It was breezy flamboyance that led the French imprint Folio to opt for Hurlemont (Howling Mount), or for Archipel to change it to Hurlevent (Howling Wind), or for the publishing house Robert Laffont to restore a title that every Frenchman in need of the translated version wouldn’t know what to make of: Wuthering Heights. In German it remains Sturmhöhe (Storm Heights), in Italian Cime Tempestuose (Stormy Heights)—not entirely correct in either case, of course, but they’ve worked for years, so why fix them? As for Gone with the Wind, the title in French is Autant en emporte le vent—which isn’t Margaret Mitchell’s title either, but it is close enough and has the added virtue of being drawn from François Villon. The Villon-Mitchell “collaboration” has worked so well over the years that no one would dream of tinkering with it. This was my point with Scott Montcrieff’s felicitous though by no means precise transformation of À la recherche du temps perdu into Remembrance of Things Past. If it wasn’t broken…

But fixing, whether necessary or not, is what keeps translators alive. Nowadays, there are “experts” both in and outside institutions of higher education who regard translation not just as a “province” of literature but as a “field.” Hence the birth of Translation Studies, or, to use a more gilded term, Translation Theory—glorified workshops, really.

And yet, aside for an ability to write very well and to read exceptionally well, a translator needs two minor but by no means negligible gifts: tact and good judgment—and these, unfortunately, you can’t pick up in a workshop and certainly not in a Theory This or That course. Unlike writers who, at the last moment, may alter the course of a paragraph or scrap an entire sentence if they so much as find themselves in a lexical or syntactic bind, translators do not have the option of cutting corners. A translator needs to understand, to interpret, to find solutions, and to make choices and decisions of an entirely different order—which is where something like inspired good judgment comes in. You may want to call Genesis In the Beginning—but is this an instance of tact and good judgment? You may want to rename Proust’s Within a Budding Grove and call it In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower because Nabokov might have sanctioned such a thing. But is this really an instance of tact and good judgment? And, while we’re at it, since when is Nabokov a font of tact and good judgment?

Still, for all of C.K. Scott Moncrieff’s tact and good judgment, there is no dearth of mistakes in his translation of À la recherche du temps perdu. This explains why Terence Kilmartin’s revisions of Scott Moncrieff’s translation and D.J. Enright’s re-revision of Kilmartin’s were so necessary. Trying to spot errors in Moncrieff’s translation is like standing on a New York subway platform and staring at the rail tracks. Eventually you’ll spot a rat, or two, or three, or more. It’s a well-established fact that Scott Moncrieff did indeed embellish, adorn, pad, and, worst of all, mistranslate in ways that are truly, well, not very helpful. He is oftentimes a prude, and, unlike Proust, who is quite direct, he is not averse to periphrasis. He even mistakes a him for a her! Stare long enough at a single sentence, and you’ll catch a clinker. Listen long enough to Artur Schnabel and you’ll catch clinkers too.

Lydia Davis, therefore, is quite right when she highlights some of Scott Moncrieff’s glaring lapses or when she compares her work to his and congratulates herself for aiming to follow “the lead of Proust’s own text as closely as possible, unadorned by [her] own interpretation, uninflected by [her] own writing style, not simplified, but not complicated, not obscured, but not ‘updated.’”

But these are just words. I can think of no translator who wouldn’t profess the exact same thing: not to pad, not to adorn, not to interpret, not to interpolate, etc.

That the process of translation was “an endless pleasure” and “privilege” and that Ms. Davis loved rendering Proust’s novel into English do her much credit. But Ms. Davis misses the point. I have never said that she is not a dutiful and scrupulous translator. Wordlingo, the automated on-line translation service that is surprisingly accurate for a machine, is dutiful and scrupulous too. What I did suggest, however, was that being dutiful and scrupulous isn’t enough—not when it comes to a master stylist like Proust.

Let me give a quick example, not from Proust but from Joyce. Being dutiful and scrupulous when translating the closing elegiac paragraphs of Joyce’s “The Dead” will get you absolutely nowhere. Whatever Joyce did in English needs to be done in the target language as well if you wish to convey the elegy of snow “falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves.” To capture the stunning Miltonian beauty of “dark mutinous Shannon waves” you may ultimately have to do something no translator will admit needs doing: you may have to depart from the text in order to capture not just its meaning, but its cadence, its luster, its stunning magic. In other words—and I should bite my tongue—you may need to pad, to adorn, to interpolate.

When I condoned Scott Moncrieff’s practice of inserting certain words that were not in Proust, it was by no means because I was trying to be mischievous; it was because he had understood how the Proustian sentence works, how it advances all the while anticipating an unavoidable undertow, which takes the sentence, which the reader has just read, and “illuminates it”—to use Proust’s own words—“retrospectively.” As I suggested in my review, this retrospective tow needs to be remanufactured by the translator. Without it, all you have is, as I said in my review of Lydia Davis’s translation, prose.

Ms. Davis can certainly translate a sentence by Proust; but she still doesn’t get how it works. She tells us that “it is not difficult for an experienced writer to compose a cadenced sentence.” Well, seeing she claims she knows how to, why didn’t she?

Contrary to appearance, the passage by Joyce I’ve just quoted may not be so difficult to translate. Neither, sometimes, are Proust’s more elegiac moments. What is difficult to translate and what I specifically concentrated on in my review were moments where Proust describes as minutely as possible, and as no one had ever done before or after him, the psychological currents that run between one person and another, between those who do not wish to reveal anything about themselves and the narrator who is forever deciphering their hidden motives.

What I tried to suggest in my review was that the sentence, as conceived—or as practiced—by Proust, was not only a vehicle for speaking his melancholy yearning for things that were, or never were, and might never be again; the sentence was also a medium for decrypting and unpacking, layer after layer, clause after clause, the Russian-doll universe that people turn out to be, Marcel included. The sentence is how Proust sees, or rather how he reveals, that universe. Revelation is key. Description is only interesting insofar as it leads to recognition and surprise.

I want to thank Professor Muller for pointing out that À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs opens with an absolute construction. I was fully aware of this. Students of Greek will instantly remember the genitive absolute; those of Latin, the ablative absolute. An absolute clause contains a noun or pronoun and almost always a participle that are set apart from the rest of the main sentence, and indeed have no grammatical connection to it. Let me quickly give an example of a nominative absolute. Consider the following sentence: “Hamlet, having become more and more refractory and, by so doing, having put not only his life in jeopardy, but possibly those of Horatio, to say nothing of Gertrude, his doting mother who had lost her husband and recently married her late husband’s brother, Claudius decided to takes charge of things and summoned the help of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz.” Hamlet may at one point have seemed to be the subject of the sentence; he is not. Claudius is the subject. If I had padded the Hamlet sentence with several additional clauses to put off the surprising appearance of Claudius, you would have naturally been led to expect that Hamlet was definitely going to govern a verb that was sooner or later going to materialize in the sentence. When confronted with Claudius as the subject, you therefore had to perform a double take, because, to all intents and purposes, “Hamlet” was a red herring and had thrown you off semantically and, I’d like to propose, syntactically as well. The sentence gave every indication of going one way, but suddenly turned out to be headed in a totally different one. This, incidentally, is J.A. Cuddon’s very simple definition of an anacoluthon in his Dictionary of Literary Terms.

An absolute clause can be very long, but it doesn’t necessarily throw you off. Professor Muller’s reading of the sentence, though correct, would have been relevant had we been dealing with a relatively clear sentence. But the sentence in question not only starts with an absolute construction, but wedged in that absolute construction is an adverbial clause that further defers the resolution of the absolute construction. We do not read “My mother having expressed her regret that Professor Cottard was away from home….” Instead, we read: “My mother, when it was a question of our having M. de Norpois to dinner for the first time, having expressed her regret that Professor Cottard was away from home…,” and it goes on and on, letting you think that my mother is the subject, only to arrive at the real subject much, much later: my father. So, technically, yes, it is an absolute construction and thus not ungrammatical; but because it changes subjects midway and takes—perhaps I should say deviates into—a totally unexpected direction, it has to be an anacoluthon. To this effect, let me defer to Huntington Brown, in his article in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics, where he writes: “Lausberg [the author of the classic work Handbook of Literary Rhetoric: A Foundation for Literary Study] finds the commonest form of anacoluthon to be the so-called nominative absolute.”

All this, of course, because the sentence as translated in Penguin’s version of À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs does not even attempt to convey the full drama of the sudden switch from ma mère to mon père. And pace Lydia Davis, I’ll still call this a syntactic Stromboli.

Which brings me to the general editor of the Penguin Proust translation, Christopher Prendergast. His letter would suggest that I am not “remotely attuned to, and capable of remembering, points of grammar” and further down that I have betrayed “a failure to understand the English language.” As I am not a native English speaker, I stand duly chastened for having mistakenly criticized someone so visibly attuned to the finer points of English prose. I wrote in my review that Penguin USA had made the right decision when it restored the old title, Swann’s Way, and not published the volume with its current British title The Way by Swann—the implication being that the British title was singularly awful. Mea culpa, for having omitted the apostrophe “s.” The Way by Swann’s changes everything, but sounds awful just the same!

And as for copyright laws making it impossible for American readers to lay hands on the last volume of the series, Finding Time Again—also awful!—maybe this reprieve will give Penguin USA enough time to go in search of, and possibly find, a better title.

  • Email
  • Print