C.K. Scott Moncrieff
C.K. Scott Moncrieff; drawing by David Levine

“If it works, don’t fix it.”

Around 1907, before he had chained himself for good to an 800-page book that would ultimately grow to 3,000 pages, Proust wrote a letter to Robert de Billy to scotch a rumor that he was translating Praeterita. The rumor had merit. Ruskin’s three-volume autobiography of a self constantly unwoven and rewoven in the writing is closer to A la recherche du temps perdu than any novel in English. Proust had already published two passionately annotated translations of Ruskin’s essays. He had read Praeterita. The characteristic sinuosity of his style and the remarkable concision of thought it embodies developed in great part during the five or more years he spent in the closest of all embraces with Ruskin’s English. What concerns us particularly here is that the whole complex problem, tactical and technical, of transmitting a work of literature from one language and culture to another was familiar ground to Proust.

By 1920, less than a year after he had miraculously won the Goncourt prize, Proust was complaining to his editor, Gaston Gallimard, that not enough was being done to arrange an English translation of The Search. He was wrong. A Scotsman of wide literary interests, employed as private secretary by Lord Northcliffe of the London Times, had already discovered Proust’s novel through the prize. He began to translate it without authorization and was casting about for a publisher. Considering the length and difficulty of the novel, we should be grateful that Chatto and Windus and Random House soon agreed to take on the whole project and that for the ten remaining years of his life C.K. Scott Moncrieff gave up everything (except for an occasional binge to translate Stendhal’s short sentences and Pirandello’s plays) to devote himself to Proust. When he died in 1930 Moncrieff was working on the last volume. What he produced is widely considered a masterpiece of twentieth-century translation into English.

Yet there has been some carping. Many critics, myself included, have pointed out annoying bloomers and occasional excesses of style. In 1954 a near-definitive French edition of A la recherche came out in three volumes of the Pléiade series. Pierre Clarac and André Ferré had worked for years over Proust’s manuscripts, typescripts, notebooks, galley proofs, and errata slips. For he not only made corrections but continued to write and compose at great length through the very last stages of proofreading.1 Moncrieff had worked from a partly faulty text.

For these reasons we are now offered a “reworking” of Moncrieff’s translation that follows the Pléiade edition and has been thoroughly checked for soft spots and errors. On the dust jacket the publishers call it “the definitive English version of one of the great masterpieces of the twentieth century.” Terence Kilmartin, an experienced translator of de Gaulle and Malraux and longtime literary editor of The Observer, spent four years on the task. Anyone in the business knows how to make a preliminary check on him in about an hour of riffling. Yes, he caught “o’clock” and “custom” in the opening pages and changed them to “time” and “habit.” He straightens out the tricky pronouns which duped Moncrieff into producing patent nonsense in the scene where Swann first kisses Odette. Kilmartin has improved the malapropisms that fascinate Marcel in the speech of the hotel manager in Balbec and even taken the trouble to find London street vendors’ cries that correspond to the Paris cries Proust quotes in The Captive. Moncrieff simply left them in French without so much as a note.


Tam, tam, tam,
C’est moi qui retame,
Même le macadam,
C’est moi qui mets des fonds par- tout,
Qui bouche les trous,
Trou, trou, trou.


Tan, ran, tan, tan, ran, tan,
For pots or cans, oh! I’m your man.
I’ll mend them all with a tink, tink, tink,
And never leave a chink, chink, chink.

We are dealing with no ordinary translation. The full account of the work on it makes it begin to sound like the product of a committee, though not to the extent of the King James Bible. After Moncrieff’s labors came three successive translators of the volume he left unfinished: Sidney Schiff (who used the name “Stephen Hudson”), Frederick Blossom, and Andreas Mayor. Mayor, having displaced his rivals, also prepared notes for the revision of all Moncrieff’s version. He died before he could do the work. Using Mayor’s notes as well as comments garnered from critics who had discussed the translation, Kilmartin revised everything except Mayor’s version of the last volume.

One very practical question in all this turns out to be how does one go about comparing two (or more) translations with the original? I shall not describe the devices I tried out and the corporal mime movements they entailed. In the end I had to bring in a second party to read Moncrieff aloud while I followed Kilmartin’s revision and glanced at the original as needed. In such circumstances one can usually sense by a blur or an incongruity in the English when one should check the French. It took two weeks to make adequate soundings. I came away more convinced than ever that one can best enter Proust’s tidal narrative and the oceanic current of his thought by saying every word and by sustaining vocally every interrupted and detoured sentence to its destination.


This long private performance confirmed several suppositions. First, the “old” translation (unretouched Moncrieff followed by either Blossom or Mayor) works remarkably well. You need not throw away the edition in which you have read Proust, or still hope to read him, in the hope of obtaining the real thing that has been unavailable all these years. Moncrieff was a pro with staying power. The improvements average only a few words per page.

On the other hand Kilmartin’s “fix” of Moncrieff has not caused deterioration or breakdown according to the principle implied by my epigraph—a persuasive New England proverb. He was wise enough not to tinker idly and to keep repairs to a minimum. Kilmartin peered at or listened to every line of The Search. Small readjustments turn up everywhere, not just in sudden clusters. In a recent number of the London Review of Books John Sturrock reports intelligently on Kilmartin’s running improvements.2 I shall not make the case again. The translations of slang of course can work only for one culture. The American ear may not be happy with “loutish” for voyou or with “demirep” for demicastor.3

In the opening pages of Cities of the Plain where a comically disingenuous Marcel discovers the homosexuality of Baron de Charlus and Jupien, Moncrieff did his job well in a difficult scene. Tone and pace are both right. But Kilmartin was watching. Moncrieff has Jupien say to the Baron, “Aren’t you naughty!” Kilmartin restores the concreteness of the original: “What a big bum you have!” It is also better to have Marcel’s eyes opened by “a transformation” in Charlus than by “a revolution.”

Kilmartin makes many other improvements. I wonder, however, whether in a version that systematically changes “shew” to “show” he should have left Moncrieff’s “I then bethought myself…” for “J’avisai…” (it means simply, “I noticed…”). And when Jupien says, “Je vois que vous avez le coeur d’un artichaud,” Kilmartin changes only Moncrieff’s adverb and accepts, “I can see you are thoroughly fickle.” All my instincts tell me that we should be given not an explanation but an equivalent of the artichoke heart. In another place “professeur” for some unknown reason comes out “usher” in both versions. When Moncrieff accurately though awkwardly renders “Il m’arrive…” as “It falls to my lot, now and then….,” Kilmartin confuses things badly by modifying it to “It occurs to me now and then….” Most readers will wince when they come upon the sentence that ends “…used to couch with him at the hour when Dian [sic] rose.” Kilmartin takes it spelling and all from Moncrieff. A second-year student would know enough to write “…used to go to bed with him at the hour when Diana arose.”

There are more complicated matters. A translator must be particularly sensitized to certain buoy-words or expressions that recur in a work and mark its channel. Impression and croyance (belief) are two such words for Proust. Yet on the very first page Kilmartin accepts Moncrieff’s translation of croyance as “impression,” a term Proust usually reserved for specially privileged, waking perceptions. Then there is the innocent, almost nonexistent word pan, meaning piece or side or section of something. As a child Marcel watches a ghostly pan de château on his bedroom wall projected by the magic lantern. Years later he can remember only a tiny pan lumineux or pan tronqué out of all his crowded childhood in Combray. Toward the end of the novel the writer Bergotte dies while muttering to himself, “Petit pan de mur jaune.” It is the symbol of Bergotte’s whole art-idola-trous life, and he knows it. Pan, therefore, must be heard as a structural rhyme, a recurring eyelet through which one can thread the themes of perception, memory, and art. But in translation all is lost. Pan comes out as three different words—“wing,” “panel,” and “patch.” The intended linkage disappears. It should be the same word in all cases. “Patch” would have served best.

Another structural rhyme closely related to pan forms out of two widely separated occurrences of the expression, “Mort a jamais?” Moncrieff rendered it both times as “Permanently dead?” Kilmartin unfortunately changes the second instance to “Dead forever?” and weakens a vital connection.


Back on the first page I accept Kilmartin’s acceptance of Moncrieff’s version of the opening sentence. The words “For a long time I used to go to bed early” seem now almost engraved in English. Unfortunately they do not accurately render the nebulous syntax and temporality of the French sentence. But no one has proposed a better version. I refer those concerned with this question to my discussion of that alluring sentence in Proust’s Binoculars.4 Three lines below Kilmartin omits the comma in the sentence that should have started, “And, a half an hour later, the thought….” In some wonderful remarks on Flaubert’s rhythmical use of et, Proust explains precisely why he wanted a comma after “And.”

Since its appearance a decade ago, Andreas Mayor’s translation of Time Regained has been judged the only one of the three to match Moncrieff’s sustained performance. Inspection shows that Mayor worked with brilliance. His phrasing catches the abrupt shift in tone needed for the famous pastiche of the Goncourt journal. He also makes sudden and disconcerting leaps toward freedom. Moncrieff would never have changed a specifically literary and probably Baudelairean figure, “ce qui forçait à changer de dictionnaire pour lire” into the vernacular expression, “in which case I had been barking up the wrong tree.” Brilliant, but out of place.

And Mayor needs close watching on other scores. I find it hard to believe that in the long passage on the inadequacy of pure aestheticism and connoisseurship Mayor can have intended to omit the two essential concluding words of the sentence in which Proust mocks them as “bachelors [of Art]!” At times he feels no qualms about inverting the order of sentences in the Pléiade.5 The most inexcusable case occurs on the next to last page of the novel where the entire accumulated weight of 3,000 pages is passed precariously from word to word, sentence to sentence. If Mayor could tamper with Proust’s prose at that moment, what may he have done in pages where I did not check up on him?

Mayor also flubs another one of the subtle rhymes that pins the whole book together at a crucial juncture. As Marcel returns from a sanatorium to Paris years after the principal events of the novel, the train stops in the open countryside. Marcel is troubled by his lack of response to a special effect of sunlight on a line of trees. Mayor misinterprets the passage to refer to the horizontal contrast between the “luminous” side and the “shady” side of the trunks. But Proust’s words carefully recapitulate two earlier scenes (in Combray and in the Bois) during which a church steeple and tall trees take on a heightened significance because their upper section lights up in the sun’s rays while their base or trunk sinks into shadow. In the later passage in the train, the overall action of the book is at dead low tide, measured by Marcel’s distance from his earlier responses to a contrast between a bright summit and a dark base. A translator must be aware of these interior correspondences in order to put them in relief.

My last comments concern format and presentation. The type is clear and fully readable in these stout, clothbound volumes. Did anyone consider the possibility of following the Pléiade example all the way and cutting both weight and bulk in half by using Bible paper? War and Peace exists in such an edition. And why is there not one word of introduction or even a brief chronology of Proust’s life to give some idea of the origins and development of this lifelong novel? Uninitiated readers may want quiet encouragement and some basic equipment before starting out on the long journey. Twenty pages could have done it all, and the first volume is almost a hundred pages shorter than the other two. As the only piece of front matter Kilmartin’s modest “Note on the Translation” is given too much prominence, especially when one is looking for something else. The sparse notes strike me as inadequate. Others will probably consider them all that is needed.

Kilmartin and his editors have redeemed themselves from many of these complaints by reproducing the detailed, almost page-by-page Pléiade résumé or synopsis at the end of each volume. Their utility as guides to the story and characters and in facilitating cross reference between French and English texts helps justify this new edition. Unfortunately, through negligence or out of a desire to save space, someone has dropped many individual entries and frequently as many as two or three entries together. It happens throughout; the usefulness of the synopses is accordingly impaired. No one caught the hilarious misreading in the synopsis for the second volume that has Morel attending Madame de Villeparisis’ party before he has entered the story and started his social climbing.6

One aspect of the presentation remains: the titles. “Overture” as a name for the first fifty pages is Moncrieff’s invention and occurs nowhere in the Pléiade. Why was it kept? For the same reason I question the subtitles on the contents page for Within a Budding Grove, especially now that the synopsis removes any need for them. Within a Budding Grove, held over from Moncrieff, has a lovely sound. But in Proust’s title A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs it is incontrovertibly young girls that are budding—or blossoming.

It’s probably a minor matter, but the general title of the novel is not. Proust knew English well, had earned his spurs as a translator, and lived long enough to protest strongly against “Remembrance of Things Past.” The phrase Moncrieff lifted from a Shakespeare sonnet has a soft, passive ring to it; Proust’s title is resolutely active, and he chose it in preference to less dynamic possibilities like “Intermittencies of the Heart.” We have before us an exhaustive revision purportedly “correcting errors and confusions” in Moncrieff. It was probably the unique opportunity to re-baptize this novel properly in English as In Search of Lost Time. I understand that editors at both Random House and Chatto and Windus debated the issue and decided not to change a title already established in people’s minds and in printed catalogues. Where was Terence Kilmartin, our spokesman and deputy, with the weight of his literary authority? If he agreed, he should be ashamed of himself. In any case he should have thought of this matter of title before he signed anything. He could have made his conditions and called on the rest of us to support him. I believe we could have organized an impressive picket line in William IV Street and on 50th Street. “Remembrance—never, Search—forever.” Nothing would have been more pleasing to the semi-invalid asthmatic in his cork-lined bedroom, who was his own indefatigable one-man publicity department.

It might have been easier on everyone if I had been able to use this review as the occasion for a major new assessment of Proust’s literary stature at the close of the twentieth century and his relation to the parlous state of the novel. But the appearance of a translation of a modern classic that claims to be “definitive” requires close scrutiny. Definitive it is not. Vastly improved, yes. I take my hat off to Kilmartin for accepting the thankless task of cleaning up after a great translator, knowing that he would have to take the blame for all remaining weaknesses and would receive little credit for his contributions. (He should have been asked to go on and clean up after Mayor also.) I believe the decision was right to “rework” Moncrieff and not to start all over from scratch.

This “new” version will probably discourage anyone from reprinting the “old” Moncrieff text, which I understand is now in the public domain.7 However I hope it will not dissuade a bold young translator—or even an old hungry one—from attempting another version of at least the first volume, a version that follows different principles and responds to Proust by developing a style of its own. An adaptation? A new genre? We have at least half a dozen competing versions of Madame Bovary in print, all trying to be faithful. None claims to be definitive. Proust deserves all the benefits of an open market.

Addendum: I should mention a few recent books. In Proust and the Art of Love, J.E. Rivers has written what strikes me as the best study yet on sexuality and homosexuality in his work. The book develops a significant critique of standard Freudian theory on the origins of the latter. Rivers argues with considerable force that androgyny supplies an overarching metaphor for Proust’s universe in which all parts and poles are inverted, and that, in spite of Proust’s use of stereotypes for male homosexuals, his treatment of girls and women “shatters stereotypes and challenges some of the most fundamental assumptions of Western civilization.”

Beside Rivers’s probing study, Randolph Splitter’s Proust’s Recherche: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation appears almost trivial. His potentially intelligent reading is constantly thrown off course by references to Freud, Lacan, Lévi-Strauss, and Derrida, as if fitting Proust into their categories and theories would somehow vindicate or certify his accomplishment. The other way around might make more sense.

A highly useful and intelligent volume, Proust dans la recherche littéraire, has been written by a Swedish critic, Sigbrit Swahn. The survey he makes of five major topics in Proust criticism and scholarship—the genesis of A la recherche, first-person narrative and autobiography, treatment of character, and structure—is so judicious that it seems unfair to criticize his neglect of Proust’s style and his themes. In presenting other people’s work, Swahn unobtrusively establishes his own sound views.

This Issue

June 25, 1981