Far from Proust’s Way

The six volumes of the new Viking Penguin translation of Proust received rave reviews in England. And yet the titles of the first two volumes approach monstrosity. Du côté de chez Swann, traditionally translated—despite Proust’s initial objection—as Swann’s Way, appeared in England as The Way by Swann, which echoes something along the lines of “How’s by you?” “By me is fine.” It is fortunate for Lydia Davis, the translator of Volume One, that Penguin USA decided to delete all traces of The Way by Swann and restored the old way, Swann’s Way. À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, the title of Proust’s second volume, for which he was awarded the prestigious Prix Goncourt, was not so fortunate. C.K. Scott Moncrieff’s title Within a Budding Grove was a most felicitous rendering of an untranslatable title. The title of James Grieve’s translation, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, is gobbledygook. What is a young girl in flower? Is she dressed in Laura Ashley prints? Or is a young girl in flower a girl who is just about to blossom? This punctilious and ultimately priggish commitment to word-for-word accuracy turns out not only to be a cunning way of attracting attention and of publicizing a radically new translation out to make sweeping changes, but it is, all said and done, thoroughly deceptive. Accuracy, particularly in this volume, is proclaimed, not practiced, promised, not delivered.

On the subject of titles, the final volume of the series, which is not out yet in the United States, is translated as Finding Time Again. What a thoroughly absurd title when Miltonian English is staring us right in the face: Time Regained. This is D.J. Enright’s title. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin erred with Time Recaptured.

Enright had made “cosmetic” changes to Scott Moncrieff’s Remembrance of Things Past and changed its title to In Search of Lost Time, this, of course, being an exact translation of the French. Conversely, however, Remembrance of Things Past, derived from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30, was a good enough title, and changing it was like deciding to change the title of the Book of Genesis to In the Beginning. So much for the title of the volume.

The very first words in James Grieve’s In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower do not bode well. While Lydia Davis’s treatment of Swann’s Way was always scrupulous, exacting, and judicious, here a romp around the china shop is the norm. In French, the volume begins with two words: Ma mère, “my mother.” But “my mother” is not the subject of the sentence. Here is the text in French:

Ma mère, quand il fut question d’avoir pour la première fois M. de Norpois à dîner, ayant exprimé le regret que le professeur Cottard fût en voyage et qu’elle-même eût entièrement cessé de fréquenter Swann, car l’un et l’autre eussent sans doute intéressé l’ancien ambassadeur, mon père répondit qu’un convive éminent, un savant illustre, comme Cottard, ne pouvait jamais mal faire dans…

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