In July 1903, when he was thirteen, Charles Scott Moncrieff took the entrance exams for Winchester, traditionally the most scholarly of the English public schools. One of the things he was asked to do during the three days of the examination was to translate the following eight lines from the fifteenth book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses:
Omnia mutantur, nihil interit: errat et illinc
huc venit, hinc illuc, et quoslibet occupat artus
spiritus eque feris humana in corpora transit
inque feras noster, nec tempore deperit ullo,
utque novis facilis signatur cera figuris
nec manet ut fuerat nec forma servat eandem,
sed tamen ipsa eadem est, animam sic semper eandem
esse, sed in varias doceo migrare figuras.
His remarkably beautiful rendition of these verses, which his proud mother later copied into her diary, reads:
Everything is changed but nothing perishes. The spirit wanders, going hence, thither, coming thence, hither and takes possession of any limbs it pleases. With equal ease it goes from beasts into human bodies and from us into beasts, nor in any length of time does it fail. And as wax is easily moulded in new shapes, nor remains as it had been before, nor keeps the same form, but yet is itself the same; so do I teach that the soul is ever the same, but migrates into different shapes.
Only a boy extraordinarily sensitive to the rhythms of language, who had not only remembered but responded to English poetry and the syntactical splendors of the King James Bible, could have composed this passage. Not surprisingly, Scott Moncrieff’s translations from Latin and Greek in the examination that year were awarded higher scores than anyone else’s, for it turns out that the astutely ingenious, poetic use of language for which he is celebrated in his great translation of Proust was his from an early age.
Although Jean Findlay writes that in the years after World War I “translation in Britain did not occupy a significant place in literary culture,” a number of important translations were in fact made during the reign of George V by people like Arthur Waley, Constance Garnett, H.T. Lowe-Porter, and Ezra Pound, as well as Scott Moncrieff. Whether or not translations were adequately recognized in the literary world, what is important to remember is that schoolboys of Scott Moncrieff’s public school world spent a very great part of their days memorizing and translating.
Shortly after World War II, before beginning college, I spent a year studying at Shrewsbury School in Shropshire, where the noble tradition of literae humaniores, by now much etiolated in most such schools, was in its final flourishing. We spent most of our time in class translating from Greek or Latin, and then, back in our rooms, we spent much of our time translating into Greek or Latin. For there was a long tradition in England of translating from English into classical languages in order to master them. The scarcely believable final assignment our form master gave us in June of that year was to translate the last act of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra into Greek tragic meter in the style of Aeschylus.
The world in which it was possible to give such a sophisticated assignment in translation to mere schoolboys has, even in England, disappeared by now. But whether translating from a classical language or into one, Scott Moncrieff would have had a prolonged apprenticeship in the art of translation. The universally acknowledged genius in the perfection of this art, at least in the more difficult task of translating into a classical language, was Scott Moncrieff’s close friend, the legendary Ronald Knox, who taught at Shrewsbury in 1915 and 1916; his fabled achievements were still widely quoted there more than thirty years later. Perhaps his single most inspired tour de force is his splendidly demented translation into pseudo-Greek of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” but there is also considerable delight to be derived from, among a host of other linguistic feats, the switchboard stichomythies of his Aristophanic parody, “Fragment of a Telephoniazusae.”1
Although he has always been celebrated for his monumental translation of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, not much has been known about Scott Moncrieff himself. Jean Findlay, who is his great-great-niece and has had access not only to family lore about her great-great-uncle but also to voluminous family papers, has given us at last a full portrait of this admirable man who, for most of us, has until now been only a shadowy figure.
While he was still a student at Winchester, Scott Moncrieff somehow met Oscar Wilde’s great friend Robbie Ross, with whom he corresponded and whom he visited, without telling his parents, from time to time in London. He became part of the homosexual circle around Ross, and in a letter to a friend, Ross praised the young man for writing “delightful letters full of racy criticisms about literature.” Scott Moncrieff knew all about the notorious Wilde trial ten years earlier, was quite aware of his own homosexual inclinations, felt at ease with Ross and his male friends, and, as so many English schoolboys have, had crushes on several of his schoolmates. It would also appear that he was not inexperienced in sexual matters, because a short story with the Chaucerian title “Evensong and Morwe Song,” which he wrote and published in the school paper during his last year at Winchester, begins just as two boys have finished having oral sex. As Findlay recounts, his authorship of this scandalous story ultimately prevented Scott Moncrieff from going on to Oxford as he had hoped.
For five years after Winchester, he lived mostly in Edinburgh, where he studied first law and then English under George Saintsbury, the distinguished scholar of both French and English literature. During this time, he formed friendships with a handful of men who, in addition to Ross, were to remain close to him: Christopher Millard, Richard Ball, Philip Bainbrigge, and Vyvyan Holland. Millard, who became Ross’s secretary and collected first editions, was described as “the sort who couldn’t resist, when out on a country walk, leaping the hedge and raping a ploughboy,” and he was in fact twice jailed for homosexual offenses. Ball, who became a friend of Scott Moncrieff’s mother as well, was an artistic craftsman with whom he may possibly have had a brief affair. Bainbrigge, who was quite probably the man Scott Moncrieff loved more than any other, was a gifted classicist who later taught Greek and Latin at Shrewsbury and was a friend of Ronald Knox; he was killed at the Battle of Épehy in September 1918. And Vyvyan Holland, Oscar Wilde’s second son, who was resolutely heterosexual, not to say downright priapic, was one of Scott Moncrieff’s very closest friends; their chummy, teasing, adolescently pornographic correspondence, now at the University of Texas in Austin, reveals aspects of both men one might not otherwise have suspected.
Two of the three dominant occupations of Scott Moncrieff’s life listed in Findlay’s subtitle are no doubt unexpected—that he was a soldier and a spy. Since he was in his twenties when World War I broke out, it’s hardly surprising that he served as a soldier, but one might not have guessed what a dedicated, proficient, exemplary officer he was. His patriotic commitment to his military service was similar, mutatis mutandis, to the fervid engagement of Chris Kyle, the author of American Sniper: he eagerly enlisted, because he felt strongly that it was his duty to his country, and he flourished in the hardships of battle. Somewhat bizarrely, when he wrote home he spoke not so much about death and the horror of the trenches as about how much he liked France and Belgium, the loveliness of the flowers of spring there, the behavior of frogs and nightingales, and the beauty of the churches he attended. He was contemptuous of Siegfried Sassoon’s cynicism and anger about the war and dismissed his war poems “as a regrettable incident.”
His men adored him, admiring his ability to “stroll…about No Man’s Land as cool as if he were on the parade ground” and feeling that “his presence in the front line, under a severe strafe, imbued us with a strong feeling of safety and security.” Another man, a captain who served beside him, “declared that Charles was the bravest officer he had ever seen, ‘offensively brave’ he added. Charles would light a pipe and stroll along a sap to see if there were any Bosches at the far end.” But he suffered badly from miserably debilitating trench fever and, much as he hated to be away from his comrades, he repeatedly had to be sent back to England or to the south of France for convalescence. Eventually, he was badly wounded in his left leg by friendly fire, almost lost the leg, and limped ever after. While he was in the trenches, he converted to Catholicism in July 1915.
During the last year of the war, Scott Moncrieff met Wilfred Owen at Robert Graves’s wedding to the painter Nancy Nicholson (sister of the artist Ben Nicholson) in January 1918. He became a devoted admirer of Owen and his poetry, and the evocatively archaistic translation of the Chanson de Roland that he made at this time was much influenced by Owen’s innovative use of half-rhyme and assonance. Perhaps more than anything else, it was his appreciation of Owen’s poetry that showed him his own inferiority as a poet. His dedication of that translation to Owen not only celebrates Owen but, in delineating the moral qualities that inform the medieval poem, Scott Moncrieff also defined his own personal principles: “To pursue chivalry, to avoid and punish treachery, to rely upon our own resources, and to fight uncomplainingly when support is withheld from us; to live, in fine, honourably and to die gallantly.”
It seems clear that Scott Moncrieff became enamored of Owen, although possibly not to the extent Findlay believes: it’s impossible to know just how far their relationship went. Owen’s two biographers, Jon Stallworthy and Dominic Hibberd, disagree about this, Hibberd conjecturing that Scott Moncrieff seduced Owen on August 30, 1918, in London, Stallworthy insisting that nothing of the sort occurred. Owen was killed in battle in northern France a week before the war ended.
Scott Moncrieff’s career as a spy occurred much later, toward the end of his brief life, after he had gone to live in Italy in the autumn of 1923; it is, disappointingly, of little interest. Like so many other Englishmen at that time, he moved to Italy because life there was much cheaper—and no doubt also because homosexuality was more acceptable and far less perilous in the adopted land of Baron von Gloeden, famous, or infamous, for his photographs of naked Sicilian boys. Scott Moncrieff’s appointment as an intelligence agent, observing troop movements in railway stations and at naval bases and keeping an eye on British citizens living in Italy who supported Mussolini, provided him with a regular income that he supplemented with royalties from his translating. But his career as a spy doesn’t seem ever to have been very interesting or exciting.
As he gradually settled in Italy, moving about at first from Florence to a village outside Lucca to Viareggio to Rapallo on the Ligurian coast, then back to Florence, and finally residing mostly in Pisa, which he adored, he was busily translating the whole time, having decided that translation would be his career. After starting with Swann’s Way in England, he completed the second book of Le Côté de Guermantes in five months in Italy and then the two books of Sodome et Gomorrhe, the publication of which was delayed in England because of fears it might be prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act. But he kept busy out of necessity, because by then he was financially supporting his nine nephews and nieces. So he turned to Stendhal, who was of course much easier to translate; as he explained with customary ribaldry to Vyvyan Holland, “You can do it straight on to the typewriter without even stopping to masturbate, as in the case of Proust.” Over the next two years he translated La Chartreuse de Parme and Le Rouge et le noir as well as Armance and the Renaissance tales of L’Abbesse de Castro; he also published a translation from medieval Latin of the letters of Abelard and Heloise.
Just how much, if any, Italian he knew when he arrived in Italy is unclear, nor do we know how he acquired his Italian. He told his London editor, Charles Prentice, that he read “prayerfully” newspapers from Milan and Turin, “but I shall never speak the language, still less write it, which seems to be immensely difficult.” He began reading it all the same, and one day at a book stall in Viareggio he discovered Pirandello. He started translating two of Pirandello’s novels in 1925, and in his enthusiasm wrote with excited exaggeration to Vyvyan Holland, “I am going to translate the complete works of Pirandello, in two hundred and eighteen volumes; it will be very difficult, as I do not know any Italian.”
However he acquired it, and despite his disclaimers, his Italian appears to have been almost perfect. Scott Moncrieff has an uncanny ability to render idiomatic Italian colloquialisms into another tongue and culture, somehow preserving not only the meaning but the register and tone of voice as well. His principal translation of Pirandello is the novel Si gira (later retitled Quaderni di Serafino Gubbio operatore), which he entitled Shoot! It is a fictional jeremiad written in 1916 against the mechanization of life and the motion picture industry’s irrevocable alteration of our mental attitudes and assumptions. This little-known novel, much admired by Walter Benjamin, has been described by the film historian Tom Gunning as “the first serious (and still perhaps the most probing) novel written about the cinema.”
If one compares Shoot! with Pirandello’s original, the resourcefulness with which Scott Moncrieff solves one knotty problem after another is impressive. What is equally impressive is his ability to replicate the rhythms of Pirandello’s first-person narrative, just as he does with Proust. But of course, the rhythms of Pirandello’s comparatively straightforward Italian are very different from those of Proust’s intricately convoluted French. Pirandello has a memorable description of a caged tiger, quite possibly indebted to the famous panther portrayed in Rilke’s Neue Gedichte (New Poems) seven or eight years earlier (Pirandello knew German and had translated Goethe), which has been rendered by Scott Moncrieff with notable deftness. Throughout, Pirandello’s ironies and his latent anger are admirably conveyed.
But it is, of course, for his translation of Proust that Scott Moncrieff is, and will continue to be, most remembered. This is the version of Proust that Joseph Conrad thought was preferable to the original and that Scott Fitzgerald deemed a masterpiece in itself; this is the version much admired by Ernst Curtius and used by James Joyce in Finnegans Wake; and this is the version that Virginia Woolf found akin to a sexual experience. It is how most Anglophone readers experienced Proust’s great novel throughout most of the twentieth century.
It was on October 22, 1919, that Scott Moncrieff, while he was working for Lord Northcliffe at The Times, first suggested a translation of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu to the London publishers Constable & Co.; but they, never having heard of Proust, thought he meant the Abbé Prévost and were not interested. He eventually signed a contract with Chatto and Windus, which published the first volume, Swann’s Way, in 1922, just before he moved to Italy. In 1924, Within a Budding Grove was published, and The Guermantes Way in 1925. After a hiatus while the publisher tried to determine whether publication of Sodome et Gomorrhe would be prosecuted, it was finally published in 1929 under the palliative title Cities of the Plain, and the same year saw the publication of The Captive. The last of the books he published, The Sweet Cheat Gone, appeared in 1930, the year of Scott Moncrieff’s death from stomach cancer at the age of forty.
His method of translating seems to have been unusual, but it explains a lot about the nature of his achievement. He had a way of mulling over what he was about to translate, which struck the Florentine publisher Pino Orioli as exceedingly casual:
He carried in his left hand the French volume he was translating, read a few lines of it, interrupted his reading in order to talk to me, and then took a notebook out of his pocket and wrote in English the few lines he had just read, leaning against a pine tree.
Scott Moncrieff seems to have wanted to hear the French read aloud first, whether by himself or by one of his friends; he would think about it for a moment or two, and he would suddenly jot down the translation, which he would then read aloud to himself. What this modus operandi reveals is how important the rhythms of language were to him, more important than verbatim accuracy. For he clearly wanted to capture the feeling of the original as well as the meaning. As he once put it, “the question is to write a line that you know the original author would approve.”
He also appears to have had an astonishing facility in rendering Proust’s extended, serpentine sentences. One of the women who read the French text aloud to him wrote, “I often used to look ahead and wonder how he was going to get over some of the fences…. He surmounted them without a moment’s hesitation.” Unfortunately, the text Scott Moncrieff had to work from was filled with printer’s errors, and although he recognized a number of them for what they were, he worried about “how far I am justified in tidying up the discrepancies when translating.”
But he also made errors in translating, not because he was defeated by the exceptional challenges of Proust’s prose but simply because, like Homer, he sometimes nodded. He races gracefully across the most forbiddingly rock-strewn terrain only to stumble over a pebble. There is a well-known example in Un amour de Swann where he mistranslates à sa pensée as “for her mind,” when Proust meant “for his mind,” and I was once told that at some point he misreads cheveux for chevaux, but I don’t know where that occurs. One could make a considerable list of such tiny mistakes.
There have been two revisions of the Scott Moncrieff translation to correct these errors and to bring the text into conformity with the current French text, which, by incorporating manuscript additions and additional text left on bits of paper by Proust, is several hundred thousand words longer than what was published in his and Scott Moncrieff’s lifetime. Penguin has also commissioned an entirely new translation, each volume of Proust’s novel rendered by a different translator. All of these translations were brilliantly analyzed in these pages by André Aciman almost a decade ago in two magisterial articles.
The subsequent interchange between him and Lydia Davis, the translator of the Penguin volume of Swann’s Way, is instructive. For Davis, the Scott Moncrieff translation is “an oppressively overwrought, even saccharine text,” but Aciman, who appreciates the greater accuracy of Davis’s version, also understands how it fails to achieve the cadences, sonorities, and stylistic subtleties of Scott Moncrieff’s version:
Scott Moncrieff had crafted a language—a syntax, a voice, a register—which,…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.2
One cannot fail to be impressed by both the genius and the integrity of this gifted man. Though he was at best a mediocre poet, he was nevertheless one of the great prose craftsmen of his age with a polyglot poetic sensitivity. He was also one of the most entertaining letter writers of his time, witty, observant, highly intelligent, mordant. In his Who’s Who entry, under “Recreation” he listed only nepotism; for, without an immediate family of his own, he devotedly supported his nieces and nephews financially, ensured their education, and encouraged them in their development.
Devoutly religious, he wrote for G.K. Chesterton’s Catholic periodical, The New Witness, and appears to have helped Ronald Knox in his conversion. He was an equally dedicated patriot, proud to be a member of his Scottish regiment. He was also homosexual, in the post-Wildean era when that was highly dangerous. Of necessity, he concealed his sexual orientation from everyone but close friends, and except for his affair with Bainbrigge, which was abbreviated by death, he does not seem to have had a sustained relationship; he efficiently satisfied his physical needs with rent boys. Scott Moncrieff had a large coterie of friends and admirers, both male and female, to whom he was loyal and generous. One would have liked to have been one of them.
For a collection displaying his linguistic virtuosity, see Ronald Knox, In Three Tongues, edited by L.E. Eyres (London: Chapman and Hall, 1959). ↩
See André Aciman, “Proust’s Way?,” The New York Review, December 1, 2005; “Far From Proust’s Way,” The New York Review, December 15, 2005; and “‘Proust’s Way?’: An Exchange,” The New York Review, April 6, 2006. ↩