We’ll say there are two kinds of novelists: the snail and the swallow. The swallow is quick, agile, and able to speed across long, tireless stretches. Nothing a swallow does goes wrong; mistaken turns are instantly corrected, bad weather is put to good use, and poor judgment can be tweaked just enough to look like a flash of genius. In the implacable assembly line of prose, nothing is ever wasted or thrown away. By contrast, the snail is slow, deliberate, fussy, cramped. Swallows travel and seek out the world; the snail burrows into itself. The swallow acts; the snail retracts, guesses, speculates. A swallow chugs life down the way whales take in water, plankton and all, while the snail ingests choice bits down a multichambered spiral, where its appetite, like its vision, is eternally whorled. Balzac, Dickens, and Fielding are swallows, even Tolstoy.
Not Gogol, not Stendhal, not Meredith, certainly not Proust. The difference between them is neither the speed with which each author turned out works of fiction nor the emphasis some have placed on plot or style. It lies in something else. If to the swallow life is an open book, to the snail it is unfathomable. Everything, from love, friendship, desire, and death to the very art that portrays love, friendship, desire, and death, is essentially twisted and coiled along a narrow passageway where good judgment and clear thinking are less likely to lead to truth than paradox and guesswork.
Consider this passage from Jane Austen’s Emma:
Mr Knightley’s eyes had preceded Miss Bates’s in a glance at Jane. From Frank Churchill’s face, where he thought he saw confusion suppressed or laughed away, he had involuntarily turned to [Jane’s]; but she was indeed behind, and too busy with her shawl…. Mr Knightley suspected in Frank Churchill the determination of catching her eye—he seemed to be watching her intently—in vain, however, if it were so—Jane passed between them into the hall, and looked at neither….
In the crowded room where Mr. Knightley, Jane Fairfax, and Frank Churchill happen to be playing psychological hide-and-seek, Mr. Knightley begins to suspect that something is afoot between Frank and Jane. Frank, who just a while earlier had inadvertently compromised Jane by almost letting out the secret of their flirtation, is trying hard to communicate a silent apology to her. It’s all a very tricky, shifty business, and sorting out this congested traffic of touch-and-go signals requires not just an observant cast of characters but a highly articulate and agile pen.
We are in the domain of the snail.
Writing such prose may be difficult enough, but translating it—over and beyond the unavoidable problems of accuracy—is no easy task either. The subject is too subtle; one wrong word or misplaced accent and an insight is instantly flattened or snuffed out. One may succeed in translating these insights correctly and still fail to convey their luster, the sense of difficulties overcome, or the thrilled pleasure that went into writing them down.
What is reminiscent of Mme de Lafayette and of the roman d’analyse in this scene is not just the thoroughly disabused character of Austen’s observations on human nature, on human desire, on human dissimulation; it is, above all, her description of those ethereal, multilayered undercurrents that run between one person and another. This would become Proustian territory par excellence. Proust, like Austen, is meticulous when conveying these subliminal currents. Some are so elusive as to remind readers that they have just entered the universe of psychological verisimilitude, whose most telling landmark is the crafted insight. What flows between one person and another is so provisional, so measureless, and so indiscernible that one might be tempted to borrow the words of the medieval poet William IX of Aquitaine and call these subliminal currents dreyt nien, “just nothing.”
The chronicle of these insights, to echo Flaubert’s own word for the kind of novel he wished to write, could itself be called un livre sur rien. Between one character and another, nothing visible seems to happen, nothing is really being said, nothing actually intercepted, nothing touched, seen, heard, smelled, proven, etc. And yet writers like Jane Austen and Marcel Proust are clearly onto something when they talk of “confusion suppressed or laughed away.” Their talent lies precisely in taking these manifold, ineffable flutters of intuition and pinning them down like struggling butterfly wings.
Mr. Knightley, whose gaze is limited to seeing “symptoms of intelligence” and “symptoms of attachment between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax,” doesn’t quite know what these symptoms are symptoms of. Nor is he quite certain that they are symptoms at all. Nor does the narrator tip the reader off any more than is necessary. Mr. Knightley may see “disingenuousness and double-dealing” everywhere he looks, but that is all he sees. How does one catch someone’s desire to catch someone else’s eye? How does one describe a sign that is no more than an intention to emit a sign? One may catch a flustered inflection on a face, in a gaze, in a voice; but a flustered look that has been suppressed or laughed away has already been successfully concealed.
Enter Charles Swann. A guest at Mme de Saint-Euverte’s crowded soirée, Swann is still aching after having been made a total fool of by a woman he was fairly confident was in no position to cause him any sorrow. As he wanders through the crowd, Swann is asked by M. de Froberville, an army general, to introduce him to the young Mme de Cambremer.
The scene is very short—157 words in French—and one that a reader can overlook, for the simple reason that the scene would seem to describe very little and gives absolutely no evidence that its reading of Mme de Cambremer’s manner is based on anything other than the narrator’s odd mixture of insight and cunning. Here is the passage in French:
Quand enfin Swann présenta M. de Froberville à la jeune Mme de Cambremer, comme c’était la première fois qu’elle entendait le nom du général, elle esquissa le sourire de joie et de surprise qu’elle aurait eu si on n’en avait jamais prononcé devant elle d’autre que celui-là, car ne connaissant pas les amis de sa nouvelle famille, à chaque personne qu’on lui amenait, elle croyait que c’était l’un d’eux, et pensant qu’elle faisait preuve de tact en ayant l’air d’en avoir tant entendu parler depuis qu’elle était mariée, elle tendait la main d’un air hésitant destiné à prouver la réserve apprise qu’elle avait à vaincre et la sympathie spontanée qui réussissait à en triompher. Aussi ses beaux-parents, qu’elle croyait encore les gens les plus brillants de France, déclaraient-ils qu’elle était un ange; d’autant plus qu’ils préféraient paraître, en la faisant épouser à leur fils, avoir cédé à l’attrait plutôt de ses qualités que de sa grande fortune.
And here it is as translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff, the original English translator of Proust, who began translating À la recherche du temps perdu in 1922, while Proust was still alive:
When Swann did finally introduce M. de Froberville to the young Mme. de Cambremer, since it was the first time that she had heard the General’s name, she hastily outlined upon her lips the smile of joy and surprise with which she would have greeted him if she had never, in the whole of her life, heard anything else; for, as she did not yet know all the friends of her new family, whenever anyone was presented to her, she assumed that he must be one of them, and thinking that she would show her tact by appearing to have heard “such a lot about him” since her marriage, she would hold out her hand with an air of hesitation which was meant as a proof at once of the inculcated reserve which she had to overcome and of the spontaneous friendliness which successfully overcame it. And so her parents-in-law, whom she still regarded as the most eminent pair in France, declared that she was an angel; all the more that they preferred to appear, in marrying her to their son, to have yielded to the attraction rather of her natural charm than of her considerable fortune.
The passage is fairly straightforward in French. Having been introduced to a total stranger, Mme de Cambremer would like to appear both tactful and genuinely warm when meeting someone who could easily be a friend of her new in-laws. She would like this “friend” to receive her beaming attention as though he were someone she had heard spoken of a great deal. But she restrains her amiability, for it would be unseemly on her part to appear overly familiar with a stranger. She must, therefore, temper her behavior to suggest that she has too much tact not to forget herself, but that her innate sympathy is so genuine that it could easily overflow the bounds of tact. Does it actually overflow, or does it simply suggest that it might? Or does she display a struggle to contain it and, by so doing, allow her “struggle” itself to pass for evidence of sympathy? Or, to put it otherwise, does she want to get credit both for her reserve and for her friendliness, without exhibiting much of either? “Disingenuousness and double-dealing” indeed!
Some reflections on the above passage as rendered by Scott Moncrieff:
(1) Would Proust ever have said “to outline a smile on her lips”? Where else in the body are smiles outlined?
(2) “In the whole of her life” is equally pure invention on Scott Moncrieff’s part. Nothing in the sentence in French suggests anything like it. Moreover, “in the whole of her life, heard anything else” is simply hyperbolic. What “anything else” might mean is “anything else about him.” But what the French is referring to is “any other name but that one.”
(3) “With an air of hesitation which was meant as a proof” sounds unnecessarily wordy and laborious compared to the French, “elle tendait la main d’un air hésitant destiné à prouver….”
(4) The quotation marks surrounding “such a lot about him” are a classic way of emphasizing reported speech. Proust frequently puts quotation marks to suggest another voice than the narrator’s, usually with ironic intent—but in this particular case, he doesn’t do so. Scott Moncrieff has simply inserted something his trained ear has encountered many times before in Proust.
(5) There is a big hiccup in the last sentence. “…All the more that they preferred to appear, in marrying her to their son, to have yielded to the attraction rather of her natural charm than of her considerable fortune.” “In marrying her to their son” is a prepositional clause which is almost immediately followed by an adverbial clause “rather of her natural charm”—awkward and a touch archaic. Moreover, the close parallel construction “of her natural charm” and “of her considerable fortune” governed as it is here by “the attraction rather” risks being lost on the reader. The emphasis on the contrastive adverb “rather” might well have come after, not before, the items being contrasted.
And this is a passage that has been around for eighty years! Does it work, though? Yes. It works. For the simple reason that it manages to convey the layered character of Proustian insight. Mme de Cambremer outlines a smile of joy and surprise in the event that the person introduced to her may turn out to be a relative of her husband’s—so why not be anticipatorily friendly and seem especially well-disposed to someone she has heard “such a lot about”? So much for the smile.
Now comes the hand. She holds it out to the stranger in a manner that is meant to convey two messages in one: that thrilled as she might be to have finally met him, she is nevertheless restrained by an “inculcated” sense of decorum before strangers whom she might otherwise have been especially happy to meet. All this to say nothing of the dig aimed at her in-laws whose motives are lost on no one: they have put an extraordinarily high value on her amiability in order not to seem to have placed any on her wealth.
Here is an almost identical example, also from Scott Moncrieff’s Swann’s Way. In describing Doctor Cottard, the narrator notices that the doctor’s smile is intriguingly tentative:
Dr. Cottard was never quite certain of the tone in which he ought to reply to any observation, or whether the speaker was jesting or in earnest. And so in any event he would embellish all his facial expressions with the offer of a conditional, a provisional smile whose expectant subtlety would exonerate him from the charge of being a simpleton, if the remark addressed to him should turn out to have been facetious. But as he must also be prepared to face the alternative, he never dared to allow this smile a definite expression on his features….
This does not mean that Dr. Cottard’s smile is indeed provisional. Proust simply provides an interpretation alleging that the smile is no less double-edged than Mme de Cambremer’s. Not a statement of fact—but an interpretation of facts. The long excursus exposing manifold intentions behind a smile ends by impugning the good faith of the person scrutinized. Dr. Cottard is a hypocrite. Mme de Cambremer is a hypocrite. Frank Churchill is a hypocrite. Jane Fairfax is a hypocrite. You can’t prove it, of course, for they’re not necessarily guilty of what is being intuited about them. But the jury’s heard the expert witness—the narrator—and though the evidence may have to be struck from the record, it has already poisoned the reader’s mind.
To go back to Mme de Cambremer, here is another version of the same passage by the late English critic and poet D.J. Enright, who produced a “re-revision” (as he calls it) of the late Terence Kilmartin’s 1981 revision of Scott Moncrieff’s translation:
When Swann did finally introduce M. de Froberville to the young Mme de Cambremer, since it was the first time she had heard the General’s name she offered him the smile of joy and surprise with which she would have greeted him if no one had ever uttered any other; for, not knowing any of the friends of her new family, whenever someone was presented to her she assumed that he must be one of them, and thinking that she was showing evidence of tact by appearing to have heard such a lot about him since her marriage, she would hold out her hand with a hesitant air that was meant as a proof at once of the inculcated reserve which she had to overcome and of the spontaneous friendliness which successfully overcame it. And so her parents-in-law, whom she still regarded as the most eminent people in France, declared that she was an angel; all the more so because they preferred to appear, in marrying their son to her, to have yielded to the attraction rather of her natural charm than of her considerable fortune.
There are some minor differences between this and the original Scott Moncrieff version. Enright gets rid of both Scott Moncrieff’s and Kilmartin’s relative pronoun “that,” thus smoothing the sentence’s pronomial ruffles. And Enright, like Kilmartin before him, suppresses Scott Moncrieff’s spurious “she had never, in the whole of her life, heard anything else” to read “if no one had ever uttered any other.” More importantly, Scott Moncrieff’s awkward “as she did not yet know all the friends of her new family, whenever anyone was presented to her, she assumed that he must be one of them, and thinking that she would show her tact by appearing to have heard ‘such a lot about him'” is ironed out by Kilmartin’s neat parallel participials (as they stand in the original French): (1) “not knowing any of the friends of her new family, whenever someone was presented to her she assumed that he must be one of them,” and (2) “thinking that she was showing evidence of tact by appearing to have heard ‘such a lot about him.'” Scott Moncrieff was rightly trying to avoid the repetition of present participles, –ing endings, thus producing something unbecoming in the translating. Unlike Kilmartin, Enright gets rid of the quotation marks in “such a lot about him.”
Here again is Scott Moncrieff:
…she would hold out her hand with an air of hesitation which was meant as a proof at once of the inculcated reserve which she had to overcome and of the spontaneous friendliness which successfully overcame it.
Enright, following Kilmartin, renders it as:
…she would hold out her hand with a hesitant air that was meant as a proof at once of her inculcated reserve which she had to overcome and of the spontaneous friendliness which successfully overcame it.
Aside from substituting the restrictive relative pronoun, “that,” for the nonrestrictive “which,” Kilmartin’s other major difference here is changing Scott Moncrieff’s “with an air of hesitation” into the much smoother “with a hesitant air.”
Finally, here is Lydia Davis from her recent translation of Swann’s Way, the first volume in the new edition of À la recherche du temps perdu in six volumes, each of which is translated by a different person. Davis renders the above passage in the following way:
…she would put out her hand with a hesitant air meant as proof of the inculcated reserve she had to conquer and the spontaneous congeniality that succeeded in overcoming it.
In an attempt to even out the prose by eliminating as many relative pronouns as possible, Davis alters “an air of hesitation which was meant as a proof” to “a hesitant air meant as proof.” Similarly “the inculcated reserve which she had to overcome” is changed to “the inculcated reserve she had to conquer.” This accomplishes three tasks: it is economical; it updates the prose; and it works around the thorniest problem facing anyone translating French into English: pronouns, especially relative pronouns. The grace of French lies in an author’s ability to use pronouns, many, many pronouns, and to manipulate them with the full dexterity of a three-card monte dealer. Try translating the clipped, heavily pronomialized maxims of La Rochefoucauld and see what you come out with in English: a few whiches lobbying with a few thats, and behind them the ever-clunky pronoun-with-preposition combinations (for which, without whom, before whom, after which) jockeying with that other bête noire of English prose: ending a clause with a preposition.
Although Lydia Davis’s prose translation seems to use the most current, idiomatic English, it runs into problems of a totally different order. These are not problems of style. Like Enright and Kilmartin and Scott Moncrieff before her, Davis is perfectly capable of keeping pace with the intricate folds of Proust’s long sentences; nor is her problem one of not reproducing Proust’s tone, which she never betrays. She knows how to reach those peaks of lyricism just as she is cautious to convey every nuance of implied humor. Rather, her problem is one of cadence. Scott Moncrieff had crafted a language—a syntax, a voice, a register—which, as I pointed out earlier, despite some noticeable shortcomings and inaccuracies, was able to convey the scope and sweep of Proust’s vision in a language that did what Proust’s language had done in French.
When it comes to a master stylist like Proust, a translator’s aim should be to capture both the luster of Proust’s insights and the stylistic pitch of his sentences. To write protracted sentences in English because Proust wrote long sentences in French is to miss the point, just as to mirror a long string of subordinate clauses in English because they were there in the French may produce something that is seemingly quite accurate but also quite monstrous in English. By the same token, to translate a French Latinate word (which couldn’t be unnatural in French) into an English Latinate word (as Scott Moncrieff and Davis frequently do) is to forget that English has semantic resources of its own and that these may sometimes provide solutions that are less Gallic than the French intended. A similar loss of semantic resonance occurs when, to catch the demotic flavor of French argot, a translator resorts to Liverpudlian slang.
Let’s take a second look at the fragment I originally found fault with in Scott Moncrieff’s translation:
…she hastily outlined upon her lips the smile of joy and surprise with which she would have greeted him if she had never, in the whole of her life, heard anything else.
This is, as we’ve seen, inaccurate, if not outrageous, since it was totally manufactured by the translator. But “if she had never, in the whole of her life, heard anything else” has the advantage of conveying a cadence that echoes Proust’s exactly. It is a minor insertion—but it captures Proust’s tonality without throwing his meaning off course. And it captures it because it does something that is typically Proustian: it inserts six words the better to let the wave of the sentence swell before striking the shoreline.
Similarly, Enright’s “offered him the smile of joy and surprise with which she would have greeted him if no one had ever uttered any other” dilutes without altogether losing that cadence. Lydia Davis’s “ventured the smile of joy and surprise she would have given him if no other name but that one had ever been uttered in her presence” is the most accurate of the lot. But it does plod.
Compare the following three fragments—
…and thinking that she would show her tact by appearing to have heard “such a lot about him” since her marriage….
…and thinking that she was showing evidence of tact by appearing to have heard such a lot about him since her marriage….
…and thinking it would be tactful of her to look as though she had heard such a lot about him since she was married….
Again, the last may be the most accurate, but if there were ever any doubt that Proust was writing more than just prose, Davis has cleared it up. We are, in fact, reading prose. The magic and thrill of the dreyt nien is quite lost here.
What must have thrilled Proust in the passage about Mme de Cambremer is also the simultaneity of both the woman’s professed tact and her alleged congeniality. These are, once again, elusive and imperceptible wisps of intuition, but they are stylistically paralleled in the French—“la réserve apprise qu’elle avait à vaincre et la sympathie spontanée qui réussissait à en triompher.” The clausula—the little fillip at the end of a period—is clearly there in the French, bolstered as it so frequently is by that tiny yet powerful pronoun en. And well should tact and congeniality be paralleled, since the genius of the insight here lies not so much in having detected how the two operate on the unsuspecting M. de Froberville as in how they are both surreptitiously yoked together as one another’s necessary co-conspirators and partners in deception. Her tact is suppressed behind the promise of overbrimming congeniality, while her congeniality proves its genuineness by showing it cares nothing for tact.
Proust is also frequently in the habit of prefacing similarly paired juxtapositions with an à la fois, meaning “both x and y,” or “at once x and y.” Scott Moncrieff, Kilmartin, and Enright, attuned as each is to Proust’s cast of mind, picked up the missing conjunction—“at once”—and inserted it. Davis, more dutiful and more responsible as a translator but probably less attuned to the inner workings of Proust’s language, does not. The price for leaving out what Proust himself had left out is this: the simultaneousness and collusion between the two terms are totally lost. In Davis, tact and congeniality are enumerated, as though they belonged to a list of foibles; in Scott Moncrieff their collusion is at once paralleled, juxtaposed, and ultimately exposed. Big difference.
Proust’s treatment of Mme de Cambremer is wicked but it is nothing compared to the unsparing portrait of her brother, Legrandin, given in the earlier pages of Swann’s Way. Legrandin is a pretentious engineer who, behind his simple country bonhomie and the adopted sensibilities of a would-be aesthete, harbors the obsequious, shifty-eyed determination of a career snob. When the young Marcel, who is fascinated by the towering aristocratic figures of the Guermantes family, asks M. Legrandin whether he knows the Guermantes, Legrandin is forced to confess that he does not—but he confesses it, as the Jesuits would have said, with mental reservation and in such an evasive manner that he gives his failure to know the exclusive Guermantes set the spin of an undeclared boast. Not to be outdone by his sister, he couches in one gesture several others. This allows Proust the novelist to weave multiple interpretations at the latter’s expense.
Here is Scott Moncrieff:
“No, I do not know them,” he said, but instead of uttering so simple a piece of information, a reply in which there was so little that could astonish me, in the natural and conversational tone which would have befitted it, he recited it with a separate stress upon each word, leaning forward, bowing his head, with at once the vehemence which a man gives, so as to be believed, to a highly improbable statement (as though the fact that he did not know the Guermantes could be due only to some strange accident of fortune) and with the emphasis of a man who, finding himself unable to keep silence about what is to him a painful situation, chooses to proclaim it aloud, so as to convince his hearers that the confession he is making is one that causes him no embarrassment, but is easy, agreeable, spontaneous, that the situation in question, in this case the absence of relations with the Guermantes family, might very well have been not forced upon, but actually designed by Legrandin himself, might arise from some family tradition, some moral principle or mystical vow which expressly forbade his seeking their society.
The first part of the sentence, so crystalline in Proust, makes no sense whatsoever in Scott Moncrieff’s English rendition: it should have read something like
…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, he recited it….
Here is the same passage by Kilmartin:
but instead of vouchsafing so simple a piece of information, so very unremarkable a reply, in the natural conversational tone which would have been appropriate to it, he enunciated it with special emphasis on each word….
Much, much better. “Vouchsafe” takes us back to Victorian English. Enright dittoes Kilmartin’s change, with the unfortunate adoption of “vouchsafe” in 1992! Davis avoids the verb “vouchsafe” and replaces it with “instead of giving so simple a piece of information…in the natural, everyday tone.” Incidentally, Davis’s adjective “everyday” is the most elegant solution here and captures the adjective courant far better than Scott Moncrieff’s, Kilmartin’s, and Enright’s “conversational tone.” Lydia Davis’s hand is surer. As always, she writes in a contemporary idiom, whereas Scott Moncrieff, while never laborious, tends to trip on himself and get his wires crossed. Davis, moreover, always follows Proust’s word order.
The meaning of what happens in this scene is easy to understand. Legrandin does not wish to admit that he has no relations with the Guermantes, but proclaims it in such a way that his admission is intended to show both that he is not in the slightest bit embarrassed by it and that the absence of relations between him and the Guermantes is of his and only of his choosing. And he states this fact with a degree of “vehemence which a man gives, in order to be believed, to a highly improbable statement.” The sandwiching of “in order to be believed” right between “a man gives” and the indirect object (“to a highly improbable statement”) is typically Proustian. “So as” has been emended by Kilmartin to “in order” to produce “vehemence which a man imparts, in order to be believed, to a highly improbable statement.” Again, “imparts,” like “vouchsafes,” sounds a tad archaic and abstract. Enright dittoes Kilmartin here as well. Davis restores the smoother “so as” but retains “imparts” to give us: “with the insistence one imparts, so as to be believed, to an improbable statement.” “Imparts” is not as simple as apporter (“brings” or “lends”), but Davis is the only one of the four to translate the French noun insistance as “insistence” and not by the exaggerated “vehemence.”
The paragraph becomes quite treacherous by the end. Like his sister, Legrandin gives to one gesture two meanings. “With at once” (Proust’s à la fois) is, as I mentioned earlier, a typical move by which Proust opens up at least two prongs of interpretation. This allows his sentence to warn the reader that it is just about to bifurcate along parallel, complementary tracks. The trick of course—and Proust had mastered this better than any other writer—is to open up with an “at once” that introduces the first term of two (or more) parallel terms while managing to keep the reading voice suspended long enough so that when the second term appears, it is by no means unexpected but, in fact, welcomed, since room had already been made for it beforehand. This is what gives the Proustian sentence its stunning ability to deploy syntactic ambiguities and to resolve them along the way. This also allows Proust to open a rather long parenthetical statement that is not allowed to disturb the sentence too much, since, by the time the second term of the parallel construction is introduced, the reader will pick up the parallelism exactly where he had left it. “With at once (a) the vehemence” (quoted earlier) is finally resolved by “and (b) with the emphasis of a man who…” Enright, following in the steps of Kilmartin, keeps the parallel construction but adds something a touch too abstract and Jamesian: “with the grandiloquence of a man who…”
Lydia Davis takes an entirely different tack. She is reluctant to preface the parallel with the “at once x…and also y” formula. Such a construction would represent a stylistic maneuver that many contemporary writers might hesitate to adopt since it asks their readers to bate their breath and keep reading all the while anticipating an eventual second term. This move forces the reader to read contrapuntally, which means reading x in the present with an eye on a forthcoming y, which clearly interferes with the linear reading one expects from, say, newspapers, magazines, Harlequin romances, and living novelists I would prefer not to name.
Proust’s sentences imitate the passage of time syntactically. One reads in the present but is constantly invited to anticipate developments in the immediate future. Actually, one does not anticipate anything; one is only given the impression of having anticipated things. This impression is brought about at the end of every sentence by Proust, when we are sent back to a time when we guessed—or should have guessed—that something was being announced without being revealed yet. This ability to write things in three tenses is what confers the power of many sentences by Proust. Events are never linear in Proust. Synchronicity, call it trichroni-city, is the norm.
The disadvantage of Davis’s decision to bypass that simple “at once” undermines Proust’s characteristically contrapuntal vision. If the cadence of a parallel construction is not set up properly, by the time the reader reaches the second prong, he may find it difficult to see it as the secret sharer of a first prong introduced earlier. Davis merely resorts to “and also” as a way of joining two parallel terms that now fail to be related. This ultimately deemphasizes not just their connection, but, as I suggested earlier, their complicity.
Legrandin’s move is a tricky one. He proclaims what he cannot hide, all the while letting on that he has no intention whatsoever of hiding it. Proust’s laconic “ne pouvant pas taire une situation qui lui est pénible” (unable to overlook a situation that was painful to him) is rendered by Scott Moncrieff as…
with the emphasis of a man who, finding himself unable to keep silence about what is to him a painful situation, chooses to proclaim it aloud, so as to convince his hearers that the confession he is making is one that causes him no embarrassment….
Wordy. Kilmartin and Enright hardly touch this: they replace the “so as” with “in order to,” which Davis restores to “so as.” “Finding himself unable to” is almost clumsy compared to Davis’s
…and also with the expressive force of a person who, unable to keep silent about a situation that is painful to him, prefers to proclaim it so as to give others the idea that the confession he is making is one that causes him no embarrassment.
Something may be gained by this brevity—but the “and also” is most un-Proustian and totally deemphasizes the contrast.
Despite their differences, all four of the versions of Swann’s Way—by Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin, D.J. Enright, and Lydia Davis—provide serious, good-faith renditions of the French. If Davis tends to be more accurate than Scott Moncrieff, her cadence is less resonant. Moncrieff was trying to reinvent something like an epic style to echo Proust’s; Davis is not aiming that high. Hers is the case of a scrupulous and dutiful writer translating a French novel that happens to be written by Proust, the way Scott Moncrieff had translated French novels that happened to be written by Stendhal. Davis is more meticulous and far less hasty than Scott Moncrieff, less willing to take chances, unassuming in her diction, always honest, and frequently Gallic in her choice of words. But Enright, after reworking Kilmartin and Scott Moncrieff, is the closest to the source. Let’s take a look at two passages about Mme Verdurin, that awful woman who is poison personified.
Here is Enright:
Mme Verdurin, seeing that Swann was within earshot, assumed an expression in which the twofold desire to silence the speaker and to preserve an air of innocence in the eyes of the listener is neutralised in an intense vacuity wherein the motionless sign of intelligent complicity is concealed beneath an ingenuous smile, an expression which, common to everyone who has noticed a gaffe, instantaneously reveals it, if not to its perpetrator, at any rate to its victim.
Davis could not sound more awkward, more obscure, more Gallic, and ultimately more “translated”:
Mme. Verdurin, seeing that Swann was two steps away, now wore that expression in which the desire to make the person who is talking be quiet and the desire to maintain a look of innocence in the eyes of the person who is hearing neutralize each other in an intense nullity of gaze, in which the motionless sign of intelligence and complicity is concealed beneath an innocent smile, and which in the end, being common to all those who find themselves making a social blunder, reveals it instantly, if not to those making it, at least to the one who is its victim.
What is missing in this passage from Davis’s translation is something bigger than all of her virtues: the psychological nuances are such that Davis’s semantic tact and meticulous accuracy will not come to her rescue. Suddenly, the finesse, the astuteness behind the gaze that does not really gaze is lost in a sea of fatuous prolixity. Gone is the cadence that might shed more light, gone the sweep that could have given the irreducible comic meanness of the episode its near-tragic register, gone the sense of mastery on the part of the writer—and the translator. Gone not just the style, but the voice, which is the temper, the attitude, the inflection of style. The larger scope of Scott Moncrieff’s and Enright’s Proust is simply not present in Davis. Davis’s prose runs more naturally on neutral—which is not necessarily a fault. But it’s not really a virtue either, because in the end the real question should be not which of the four available versions must a prospective reader purchase, but why a new translation in the first place? Why ever a new Proust?
As I have intimated in these pages,* Viking Penguin would like nothing better than to have their version of Proust by their six translators become the standard English-language Proust, especially since theirs, like Enright’s, incorporates the most recent changes made in the French Pléiade edition of 1988. And perhaps the elitist, Edwardian accent flitting over Scott Moncrieff’s text may seem dated. The way Virginia Woolf’s and Lytton Strachey’s and Evelyn Waugh’s and E.M. Forster’s and Ruth Bussy’s prose could be regarded as a touch dated as well. We may require an English version of Proust that speaks not to readers who have been sent to British public schools, but to Baby Boomer and Gen-X high schools. Their taste has been partly shaped by post-colonial Anglophonic writers, by writers from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, by magical realism, by minimalist-psycho-jittery realism, and by what every reviewer today regards as the highest form of literary craft: clear, understated prose.
Understated is in. Understated is good.
Perhaps one should be bold enough to make the same claim about Proust’s French as well. If his English version needs updating and dressing down, then in light of the infusion of post-colonial Francophone works, of Verlan, Franglais, anti-Franglais, Beure, and post-deconstructuralist jargon, by the same logic perhaps it is time to update Proust’s French as well. Otherwise the moral couldn’t be simpler: leave well-enough alone.
—This is the first of two articles.
December 1, 2005