Books & Ideas

Style Over Substance

Translating Proust

June 16, 2014

Swann’s Way
Marcel Proust
translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff
edited and annotated by William C. Carter Yale University Press, $22 (paper)

Just over a hundred years ago the first great novel of the twentieth century was published to absolutely no fanfare. After being turned down by a host of French publishing houses—including Gallimard, on the advice of André Gide—the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu was printed at Marcel Proust’s own expense in November 1913. Half a year later war broke out, paper was rationed, the lead used to set the book was melted down for munitions, and public attention was drawn far away from the miracles of memory related therein.

During the war Proust expanded his novel from a projected three volumes to seven. By 1919 Gide had changed his mind about this work in progress, and Gallimard proudly published its second volume. Within a Budding Grove promptly won France’s most prestigious literary prize, Le Prix Goncourt. National, then international, praise followed—in abundance. A few years later Virginia Woolf would sit down to thank a friend for sending her a slab of nougat from Saint-Tropez, but, put in mind of France by the package, she soon found herself talking only of the novel. “My great adventure is really Proust,” she wrote, “I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes. How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped—and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp. The pleasure becomes physical—like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined.”

One of the most striking aspects of the reception of Proust’s work is how far and how fast that serenity and vitality stretched. One might think that a novel of more than 3,000 pages in which nothing of historical note happens would have a hard time finding an audience at home, and a still harder time abroad. But it did not. As Erich Auerbach wrote in 1925 in one of his first publications (recently made available in English in Time, History, and Literature: Selected Essays of Erich Auerbach):

The eruption of [Proust's] work—distinguished by its huge proportions, its complexity, and a difficulty caused by the unparalleled extravagance of its web of language—into the world was so sudden and so thorough that it is difficult not to see it as a result of some kind of spell that had been cast. For how else might we explain the way that in those restless times, hundreds of thousands, all across Europe, gladly made their way through thirteen densely printed volumes, enjoying page after page devoted to conversations with no identifiable theme, to a few trees, to an act of waking up in the morning, and to the inner development of a jelaous feeling, so that they might take pleasure in the variety of an individual’s emotions that lay hidden in every sentence? All the more astonishing is the fact that a great number of Proust’s admirers are not French.

While early advocates of Proust—among them Walter Benjamin (who would dedicate an important early essay to Proust in 1929) and Samuel Beckett (who would write the first book in English on Proust in 1930)—could read his work in the original, it was thanks to the efforts of translators, including Benjamin himself, that it came to reach, and to hold, the global audience it has.

'Beautiful books are always written in a sort of foreign language,' Proust said.

That international audience has been particularly well served this past year in celebration of the centennial of Swann’s Way. Manuscripts of the novel that had never before left France were shown at The Morgan Library and Museum in New York. A collective “nomadic reading” was organized by the French Embassy in New York, with 120 participants reading aloud in locales as private as Ira Glass’s Brooklyn bedroom and as public as the New York Botanical Garden. Yale University’s Saybrook Underbrook Theater reconstructed the cork-lined bedroom in which Proust wrote much of the novel, and in which he died, so that one hundred participants could read aloud from the book in the language of their choice. The anniversary saw not only public events but also a wave of new publications, from a special issue of Gallimard’s literary magazine, in which writers from George Steiner to Jacques Jouet assess Proust’s achievement, to a series of new scholarly studies. Most notable for the English language reader among these publications is Yale University Press’s new annotated edition of the original translation of Proust’s masterpiece.

The first volume of the Yale project, published to coincide with the centennial, clearly aspires to become the new pedagogical standard. The project’s start, however, is less than auspicious. The problems it encounters cast new light on the difficulties of such an enterprise.

• • •

Even under the most favorable circumstances translation is a difficult process, punctuated by moments of stark and alarming impossibility. In Against Sainte-Beuve, the work that grew into In Search of Lost Time, Proust declared that “les beaux livres sont écrits dans une sorte de langue étrangère”—“beautiful books are always written in a sort of foreign language.” Proust did not, of course, have in mind actual foreign languages, nor was he alluding to the exceptionally rare phenomenon of a beautiful book written in another language than the author’s native one (as would be two of the finest novels of the following generation—both inspired by Proust—Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Beckett’s The Unnamable). Instead, the foreign language Proust had in mind was one he was in the process of inventing—the foreign language that is every great artist’s own. Proust experienced that foreignness himself when he translated John Ruskin’s The Bible of Amiens and Sesame and Lilies into French. His sense of the idiosyncrasy of the task was so strong, and his doubt as to whether he had sufficient mastery of the language to accomplish it was so pronounced, that he once remarked, “I don’t claim to know English. I claim to know Ruskin.”

Like Ruskin, Proust has been fortunate in his translators. His first English translator, the Scottish writer Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff, who had already translated Stendhal as well as such different works as Beowulf and The Song of Roland, began work before Proust finished the novel. In 1920 Moncrieff resigned his post at The London Times to dedicate himself entirely to translation of Proust’s work in progress. He would labor on it until his death in 1930, by which point he had translated six of the seven volumes.

The translation Moncrieff produced was a masterpiece. That said, it was not without its share of controversial choices—beginning with the very title. Faced with the formidable challenge of rendering the supple À la recherche du temps perdu, with its final words meaning both lost and wasted time, Moncrieff decided simply to rename the book. The title Remembrance of Things Past was one he took, as more than a few authors of the period were inspired to do, from Shakespeare. (William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is from 1929, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World from 1932.) Moncrieff renamed Proust’s work after Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 (nowhere referred to in Proust’s novel), going so far as to add Shakespeare’s lines as an epigraph. In a letter written from his deathbed, Proust thanked Moncrieff for his efforts but took issue with the title, pointing to the lost register of lost time—the past the narrator is trying, through the magic of memory, to recover.

Proust died a few months later, and Moncrieff maintained his title, as well as a good many other departures from the letter of Proust’s text. The translation was warmly received and served as the means through which Anglophone readers came to know one of the greatest writers of the century.

There is always a tension in translation between the spirit and the letter, between conveying things we might call tone, mood, feel, or music, and being as literally faithful to the original as possible. Moncrieff excelled at both. He created a rich and recognizable style that became, for English readers, Proust. Because the translation was the only one in existence for so very long, it naturally became closely intertwined with the fate of the work in the English-speaking world. But translations age differently—and more quickly—than originals, and Moncrieff’s monumental achievement, with its many Edwardian intonations, came to feel increasingly dated. With this in mind Moncrieff’s translation was reviewed and revised in 1981 by Terence Kilmartin, and then re-reviewed and re-revised in 1992 by D.J. Enright, who changed its title to the more literal In Search of Lost Time. Ten years later, with the book at last out of copyright, a new translation was produced with a different translator for each volume, beginning with Lydia Davis’s 2002 translation of Swann’s Way—which she lobbied energetically, but in vain, to have retitled more literally as The Way Past Swann’s Place.

This brings us to what is most curious about Yale University Press’s centennial edition: its decision to turn back the clock. The volume editor, William C. Carter, a critic and biographer of Proust, has chosen to reinstate Moncrieff’s original translation rather than synthesize the efforts of those who have come after him. Kilmartin and Enright both disappear from the title page, and Carter makes clear that while he has accepted Enright’s title In Search of Lost Time, he has endeavored to undo many of the efforts of those revisers so as to return to something like the urtext of Moncrieff’s translation. Why? Carter’s answer is simple. Moncrieff’s translation is “generally regarded as the best rendering of any foreign work into the English language.” Here begins the strangeness of this volume. Moncrieff’s was an astounding achievement, but is it greater than the King James Bible? Is it greater than Alexander Pope’s Iliad or Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf? These are difficult comparisons to make, but what is certain is that, while Moncrieff’s translation is greatly admired, simply stating that it is “generally regarded as the best rendering of any foreign work into the English language” is misleading, given that it is no longer even simply regarded as the best rendering of Swann’s Way into English, with readers today generally divided between Davis and the conjoined efforts of Moncrieff, Kilmartin, and Enright. It is surely a strange way to celebrate a birthday to expend so much editorial energy not on the original text but on an outdated, if accomplished, translation.

To expend so much energy on an outdated, if accomplished, translation is a strange way to celebrate Proust.

There are many reasons for departing from Moncrieff. For example, before the first, famous line of Proust’s novel—“For a long time I went to bed early”—Moncrieff gave the book’s opening section the heading “Overture.” If we turn to the other translations we find no such heading, and for good reason: it is nowhere in the French text. It is not even in Proust’s drafts. It is there because Moncrieff liked it. Carter concedes that “Proust did not title this section,” but justifies it by citing a letter Proust wrote in 1913 in which he compared Swann’s Way to an overture. Such a comparison might be helpful for understanding the structure of the work, but it is surely no justification for changing the author’s text. Had Proust wanted to make the analogy explicit, he had only to do so. This is not a sign that Moncrieff was a poor translator, but it is a sign that he was a very free one, ready and willing to depart from Proust’s text where he deemed it desirable. What is stranger than Moncrieff’s initial insertion, though, is Carter’s reinstatement of it. This is, of course, a mere detail, one easily forgotten, but other matters soon follow.

While Carter is lavish in his praise of Moncrieff, he does not limit himself simply to declaring that Moncrieff was better than those who emended him. In his introduction he observes that the changes made by Kilmartin and Enright “were not always felicitous or accurate.” Knowing that his readers may want some justification of this claim Carter gives an example, one that could hardly be more revealing. Early in the novel the narrator’s grandmother remarks of a country church that, while it may not be beautiful by any conventional standard, she has a great fondness for it, saying “I’m sure that if it played the piano it would not jouer sec.” The last words are one of Carter’s test cases of needed correction. Jouer sec means, literally, to play dryly, and figuratively, to play without genuine emotion. It is a musical idiom characteristic of the narrator’s grandmother, who, in all things, prefers authenticity of feeling to fashionable sophistication. Moncrieff gives the phrase an Edwardian inflection: “I am sure it would really play.” Kilmartin, in his turn, changed it to “I am sure it wouldn’t sound tinny.” This version succeeds in using a musical idiom—tinny—but replaces what is an emotional distinction with a technical one (as well as creating the problem that while brass instruments may sound tinny, it is hard to imagine a piano doing so). It is thus an interesting solution, but it leaves something wanting. In the next round of revisions Enright ratified this change. And here is where the picture grows more complicated. Carter dismisses these earlier attempts, without pointing out what is wrong with them, and serenely announces his own translation by declaring: “Here is the version that matches Proust”: “I am sure it wouldn’t sound dry.

There are two problems here. One would expect a translator to have a more nuanced sense of translation than to say that one version simply “matches” Proust’s French. Carter’s version “matches” Proust in being a quite literal translation, but that, surely, does not automatically make it a better translation, for literal translations can easily produce utter nonsense. But this is only one problem. In Davis’s, the first and only new translation of Proust’s book since Moncrieff, the phrase in question is translated as “I’m sure if it could play the piano it would not do so dryly.” Carter has highlighted this passage to justify his alterations. And yet not only does he fail to note that a very similar choice had already been made a decade earlier in Davis’s translation, he nowhere notes the existence of Davis’s translation—not once, not anywhere. A first-time reader happening upon this book and its comparison of various translations —and it is clear that Yale University Press has designed the new edition for just such a reader—would have no idea that another translator was on the case.

This is not the only occasion on which Carter presents as improvements upon Moncrieff translations that closely resemble Davis’s. Carter notes, for instance, how, confronted with Proust’s “mon sommeil fut profond et détendit entièrement mon esprit,” he found Moncrieff’s “my sleep was so heavy as to completely relax my consciousness” wanting. In the name of “restoring Proust’s sentences or phrases to their original simplicity” Carter changed the line to “my sleep was deep and relaxed my mind,” without noting that Davis had already rendered the line “my sleep was deep and allowed my mind to relax entirely.” Simply to ignore a major translation by a major translator, who is herself also a major writer, feels arbitrary from a critical point of view and irresponsible from an editorial one—all the more when that translator’s choices so closely mirror, and anticipate, his own. To be perfectly clear: there can be no question of Carter having plagiarized Davis’s translation. What is supremely strange is that he omits any mention of it, which might incline the reader to think it was deemed beneath notice. And yet at key points of difficulty that Carter presents for the reader’s consideration he comes to very similar conclusions as to what best “matches” Proust.

• • •

What Yale is presenting to the reader is not only a revised translation, but also a new set of annotations. Annotation is a complicated matter, particularly concerning works of Proust’s generation. Many of these are deemed so complex or difficult as not just to invite but to require annotation. T.S. Eliot, for instance, produced his own annotations to The Waste Land, and current editions routinely reproduce those annotations, alongside additional ones—including annotations of his annotations. James Joyce’s Ulysses, published in 1922, the year of Proust’s death, is an equally famous case in point. Finnegans Wake without annotation is frankly alarming. But few modern editions of a work can rival the depth and breadth of the annotations in the French critical edition of Proust’s novel, overseen by Jean-Yves Tadié. In the first volume of this four-volume edition, the one in which Swann’s Wayis found, the text of Proust’s novel ends on page 630 and is followed by almost 1,000 pages of annotations and variants. Moreover, those annotations are of an astonishingly high quality: always precise, never garrulous. Interpretation is kept to a minimum and no single reading of the novel is advanced as the right one.

The Yale edition is the first extensively annotated edition of Proust’s novel in English: Davis’s translation has some annotations, but far fewer. Given the quality and extent of the French critical edition’s annotations, the reader might assume that Carter would draw from among them for his more modestly sized edition while adding entries on matters that need special highlighting for an English reader. But the lines he tends to follow are different than those traced by Tadié.

The task of the annotator can be understood as imparting a maximum of information with a minimum of personal intervention. The annotator is, in this, like the curator or editor: most effective when least visible. And this is, of course, difficult. Carter insists, for example, that it is crucial for an understanding of In Search of Lost Time that jouer sec be translated as “sound dry” not only because it matches, but because he hears in it an allusion to “the theme of sterility, of the wasteland” in the novel—a point to which Carter returns on multiple occasions and which is clearly important to his vision of the work, as is evident both in his biography, Marcel Proust: A Life (2000), and his study Proust in Love (2006). Proust, however, nowhere uses the term “wasteland” and never alludes to Eliot’s poem of that name. The novel’s narrator may see sterility in the high society he comes to court and barrenness in the unproductive life he later leads, but that is not fear in a handful of dust, lilacs breeding in the dead land, or a peace which surpasseth understanding. This is not to say that Eliot’s poem cannot offer an interesting parallel or a useful interpretive lens through which to view Proust’s work, or that it would be wrong to group Eliot and Proust together as poets of the dry and the barren. But readers would be better served by commentary on terms that do occur in the text, and repeatedly—those so common they routinely stand out to first-time readers. Beckett, for instance, began his book on Proust with a discussion of “habit,” which recurs throughout those same pages, and receives no such annotation.

The art of annotation also involves consistency: in choosing a level of specificity and holding to it. And here too we find a problem. The vast majority of Carter’s annotations are straightforward, clear, and helpful. But a significant minority raise troubling questions. Some 150 pages after his grandmother’s remark about the church of Combray, for instance, a grander medieval church is described, on which are figured, among other things, “certain anecdotes of Aristotle and Virgil.” This is indeed interesting and peculiar—and we might well wonder what these anecdotes are and thus what these pagans are doing on the façade of a French cathedral. The narrator soon turns to other matters and this could be left to the reader’s own curiosity, as are many such allusions elsewhere in the novel. And yet, Carter elects to insert a footnote here. The entire note reads: “Aristotle (384–322 B.C.), Greek philosopher revered by theologians and philosophers of the Middle Ages.” This is at once too much and too little information. There is something a little absurd about the idea of someone happening upon Proust’s novel, choosing a university press annotated edition of it, reading more than 150 pages in, and yet not knowing that Aristotle was a Greek philosopher. But even if we know that he was a Greek philosopher, that he lived from 384–322 B.C. (which might be written, for the standards of a secular century, B.C.E.), and that he was revered by theologians and philosophers of the Middle Ages, does this help us understand what these anecdotes depicted on a medieval cathedral are meant to be? Presumably, telling us that Aristotle was revered in the Middle Ages—rather than, say, other very relevant facts about Aristotle, such as that he was the student of Plato and the teacher of Alexander the Great—is to help us understand the passage. But does it? It seems that Carter is content with the idea that medieval thinkers admired Aristotle—and so he might have ended up on the façades of the churches of the day, doing one thing or another. But what Proust is asking his reader to envision is anything but reverential—Aristotle on all fours with a beautiful woman astride his back, riding him like a horse.

Questions of translation are, inevitably, questions of interpretation.

Proust, like Ruskin, was fascinated by the art of the Middle Ages, and returns to it often in his work. He is alluding here to a scene from a story, unknown to the ancient world, that became popular in the Middle Ages and is represented on the façades of a number of French cathedrals of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. According to this bit of inventive and malicious gossip, Aristotle was accompanying Alexander the Great on a military campaign in India when he decided to try and end his pupil’s relationship with a beautiful courtesan. To avenge herself she seduced the philosopher, demanding as proof of his love that she be allowed to ride him like a horse. As she was doing so Alexander came along and drew the lesson that beauty is—or, at least, can be—more powerful than wisdom. This image of Aristotle on all fours, bridled and mounted by a woman, was frequently depicted during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and was even to be seen on the façades of cathedrals in Rouen, Caen, Lausanne, and Lyon. Proust’s allusion proved easy for his French annotators to trace, not only because of such public depictions in the French-speaking world, but because the motif was discussed by one of Proust’s favorite authors, the medieval art historian Émile Mâle. Is this image of the philosopher bridled, chastened, and conquered essential for an understanding of the novel? No (although it will find a parallel in the wise narrator being seduced and publicly manipulated by a beautiful woman, just as Swann was before him). Does it require annotation? Not necessarily. But surely if it is going to be annotated the reader should be pointed in the right direction.

Four further types of annotation present problems worth noting. I have grouped them into four categories, each with a single example.

Signposting. Some of Carter’s annotations tell us of things to come, or of how we are to react at certain moments in the text. One note interrupts our reading to tell us that the narrator’s father, who has just commented on the weather, will do so often in the coming pages and that it will be a “source of humor in this section of the novel.” Should not the humor—if humor there is—be allowed to unfold in its own time? Is it not likely to be diminished if we are told it is

Non sequitur. Some annotations simply do not seem to match their passage. For instance, the narrator, watching the projections of a “magic lantern,” sees the following: “The castle and the meadow were yellow, but I could tell their color without waiting to see them, for before the slides made their appearance, the bronzed sonority of the name Brabant had given me an unmistakable clue.” Carter notes that “Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) is the poet who most influenced Proust” and continues for ten further lines summarizing a poem nowhere alluded to in the passage, comparing its synesthesia to that of Rimbaud’s poem “Voyelles.” It is true that Proust was interested in and influenced by Baudelaire, but why tell us here, and in this way? Instead, a device few of us are likely to have seen—a “magic lantern”—receives no annotation.

Bizarre precision. Some annotations give more information than consistency would warrant. For instance, in an otherwise perfectly informative note on the Jockey Club, an exceptionally exclusive social club of which Swann is a member, Carter notes that “in Proust’s day, it was located at 1 bis, rue Scribe.” No map is given in the volume that would allow us to locate it, no scene takes place at the club, and the corresponding addresses of a great many other Parisian localities are not given.

Inconsistency. At one moment we read that Swann, in Moncrieff’s translation, is “embarrassed.” Proust’s expression is “être sur la sellette,” an almost exact match of the English idiom “to be on the hot seat.” Carter chooses to maintain Moncrieff’s “embarrassed,” but then leaves a note telling us that Moncrieff passed up the corresponding idiom for the vaguer “embarrassed.” Were the principle of this note followed, there would need to be hundreds of others like it to explain choices confronted by the translator. Would it not have been better to reserve notes for cases where no good translation was available—where the idiom to be translated has no easy English equivalent? In the novel’s closing paragraph, for instance, we read of a forest that Proust wryly calls désaffectée, and which Moncrieff translates as “deconsecrated” and Davis as “disused.” Désaffectée literally means no longer in use; it is a cold administrative term with a glimmer of affect at its heart. But earlier in the sentence Proust alludes to the sacred spaces of Greek and Celtic religion, so Moncrieff’s “deconsecrated,” which on its face seems a wild overreach, is actually an ingenious solution. It seems to me such resourcefulness is at least as deserving of annotation as those cases where the translator simply chooses one of several obvious possibilities.

I have, of course, pointed here to problems, and it bears repeating that they are exceptions. A great many annotations are exemplary, providing useful information in a convenient manner. Particularly helpful is Carter’s attention to religious language and the indirect or ironic use of it, as in the excellent notes on the narrator’s choice of such terms as “real presence” and “viaticum” (in the case of his mother’s kiss). Every reader has a different set of interests, different areas of familiarity, different degrees of curiosity. And so no project of annotation could meet the needs of all readers. But this edition raises more problems than it need have. It is to be hoped that subsequent volumes in the series present fewer.

• • •

After noting in Against Sainte-Beuve how beautiful books are written in a sort of foreign language, Proust observed of such works that “beneath each word each of us places our understanding or, at least, our image, and which is often a misunderstanding.” Many of the misunderstandings and disagreements of those who have dedicated so much to understanding Proust’s book are a natural result of our different images, our different imaginations, our different perspectives. And so while we readers may wish for more inclusive or more balanced editions, we should not lose sight of the fact that questions of translations and annotations are, inevitably, questions of interpretation—and, as such, will vary.

After a long illness Proust died in bed, at work on his novel. Therein the great writer Bergotte, at the end of his own long illness, rises from his deathbed to view an exhibition of Johannes Vermeer’s paintings. While gazing at the View of Delft he is offered a final revelation and suffers a fatal stroke. “They buried him,” Proust writes, “but all through that night of mourning, in the lighted shop windows, his books, arranged three by three, kept vigil like angels with outspread wings and seemed, for him who was no more, the symbol of his resurrection.”

The great many new volumes assessing, examining, exploring, and translating Proust’s novel on view in the lighted shop windows of the world make it clear that, for his own works, one hundred years later, there is no sign of such a vigil lifting.

Photograph: Martin Gautron.

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“Proust died a few months later, and Moncrieff maintained his title, as well as a good many other departures from the letter of Proust’s text. The translation was warmly received and served as the means through which Anglophone readers came to know one of the greatest writers of the century.”


Not only is any translation, no matter how well conceived, not the same, or even similar, than the original. But also every reading of every text, whether in the original or a translation, is unique and not to be compared with the presumed intentions of the author. All reading involves translation and interpretation. The text is never what is written, but what is understood. And for that, the reader must bring one’s own highly individual, intensely private remembrance of past experience, both recent and fast receding, to bear on the perceived meaning. That is bound to be different for each coming to the text, be it for the first time, or the umpteenth.


Meaning depends on the pretext the individual reader brings to the text in terms of life experience, figments of anticipation, prejudice and presumption; the context surrounding the time and place of reading, including mood, agenda, environmental ambience, as well as personal health, blood chemistry and socio-cultural orientation; and finally the subtext each reader manages to 'read between the lines', the sense that is patently not intrinsically there, on the page.


Needless to say, all of this means that each reading of a text, no matter how iconic and universally acclaimed as given, is imperceptibly perceived differently by each reader. Every time again.

"But even if we know that he was a Greek philosopher, that he lived from 384–322 B.C. (which might be written, for the standards of a secular century, B.C.E.),"
Did Proust use "B.C.E.?"
Nobody seems to be sure what "B.C.E." even stands for. Wikipedia explains: "BCE is the abbreviation for Before the Common/Current/Christian Era (an alternative to Before Christ, abbreviated BC)." It strikes me as ostentatiously anti-Christian.

Marcel Proust did not live in a "secular century" (nor of course do we) (if only!), but more importantly, the darling would not have wished to offend his mother's faith with an "ostentatiously anti-Christian" expression. if such were true of BCE, which it is not. In the alternative, never was his writing ostentatious in any way, so it is absurd to suggest he could have used it in the unlikely event that it had been known to him.  Such a storm in a teacup about a parenthetical remark!  Hilarious!

Um, his mother was Jewish...

Despite his mother's religion, Proust was so determined not to offend ANY French Catholic's sensibilities that he told Celeste Albaret (a presumably devout Catholic) to wrap his hands in his rosary and then to call the priest--but only after he was already dead. And that Jewish mother of his mustn't have been too terribly serious about Judaism, because she told both of her sons to retain their father's Catholicism.

Ostantateously? Certainly Common Era, or Christian era is neutral language by any definition. Christ means messiah, savior of the world, and is appropriate for believers in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. You mistake anti-Christian or non-Christian, a very common Christian belief. 

Where the practice was universally to abbreviate, with reference to Christ, "B.C." and "A.D.," the conscious decision on the part of many to move away from these designations because they are Christian is, in fact, anti-Christian.

The expression "anti-Christian" connotes more aggressive, or a more assertively negative stance against, Christianity than the preference for a non-Christian, a non-religious, nomenclature requires. "BCE" does not take any stands against any religion.

Proust wouldn't even side with the secularist anti-clericals of his own period, so I doubt that he would fail to note that the active suppression of a Christian tradition in an erstwhile Christian society and culture is motivated by anti-Christian impulses. If Europe were a pagan or even Muslim society in its antecedents, it would be different, but it takes a certain kind of <i>energy</i> to turn upon one's heritage. And Western Christianity, NOT his mother's Judaism, was Proust's cultural heritage, as the <i>Search</i> makes clear to anybody who reads it carefully. For instance, note its remarkable exclusion of France's Enlightenment writers and thinkers, in favour of her 17th century classics, in its store of allusions.

@ Steve Saller 
And so what if BCE is "anti-Christian"? The viewpoint at the time and place of creation of the BC/AD terminology for dating was completely and agressively Christian-chauvenist. Perhaps that could in some way be justified. Perhaps it was initially meant to be used not by the entire world but by those they considered to be the most important people in the world, i.e. Europeans. That it came to be used as the worldwide historical standard is fine. In our now much smaller world, such standards are necessary for ease of communication. But our present world is not a Pan-Christian one. Changing from BC to BCE (which, as a historian, I have always understood to mean "Before the Common Era") simply makes sense.

One point this exellent review fails to notice in favor of Scott-Moncrieff version is that, just by being written in an idiom of Proust’s time and full of unself-conscious mentionings of thigs characteristic of that time (e.g. a “magic lantern”), it presents the modern reader of English with something like what the original presents to the modern reader of French, while more modern translations are inevitably distanced from the original in this respect. While reading Scott-Moncrieff (as while reading, say, Galsworthy) we are automotically back in the atmosphere of the early-20th century. No self-conscious, and therefore potentially awkward, adjustments of tone were necessary to put us there.

Yes it is an excellent review, and I look forward eagerly to reading the Yale edition, while continuing to wrestle with the infinitely superior original.  It is remarkable (dare I say Proustian) how having read the novel - possibly many years previously - in translation facilitates comprehension of the French, even in the absence of  conscious memory of a particular passage.
The Scott-Moncrieff translation captures La Recherche beautifully, both linguistically and, as Mr Leopold remarks, by evoking the world of Proust's own time and memories.  I do hope no future translator "updates" his angels of the telephone exchange to ISPs, or magic lanterns to Notepads. 
In regard to the difficulty of translating the title... surely the novel is now so universally well known that it can be known by its French title. A host of non-English titles leap to mind.  Would we appreciate "Mrs ..." as much as we do "Madame Bovary", even if, like a recent Australian radio broadcaster, our pronounciation might be "M'dharma BOVE-areee"?  I suspect M. Proust would approve.

In the famous "madeleine' passage in the final volume, Scott Moncrieff translates "messe" as 'church-time" rather than "mass" ("I did not go out before church-time") . (This was changed to "mass" by Kilmartin.) Was this an unself-conscious reflection of anti-Catholic feeling in Britain in the 1920s? Or did he consciously decide to avoid offending anti-Catholic readers of his translation? Whichever, translations always reflect the circumstances under and audience for which they are written.

I thought that too when I was being considered for editing the Norton Montaigne a while ago. I immediately suggested they use the Florio translation. Now I am doing my own of Montaigne I find that not only would one have to annotate Florio beyond what might be necessary for the primary text but that his waywardness, however thrilling a connection it gives us to the energies of Shakespearian English, is just too often too free with the original to be accurate. It can stand in tandem with the original meaningfully and precisely for that reason not in place of it for non-French readers of our time. We also have significant insights into Montaigne's modes of working and thought Florio could not possibly have. That is the paradox of the culmulative effect of scholarship over time. I find that the case with Moncrieff too. His version gives us an insight into modes of English verbal feeling Proust would certainly have recognized intimately, but Moncrieff's liberties in tone and often vocabulary demanded a more sober translation to replace it. The anecdote of the title is also disturbing. Surely Proust's thoughts on the title should trump anyone else's if they are not wildly off the mark. Apart from the obvious fact that he was a prose master himself and had nurtured this one project for almost two decades, he had sufficient (if not perfect) knowledge of English to make an informed judgement on the matter.

“… he had sufficient (if not perfect) knowledge of English to make an informed judgement on the matter.”


Oh dear. Is that a grand assumption in your polemic, or are you just happy to show off your superior knowledge?


Hi Mark, if I may? Without prejudice or malice aforethought. Nobody knows what you know, that’s certainly true. You are, without a doubt, the ultimate, all-time, most reliable world authority on what you know. But that, alas, is about as far as it goes. And that’s the whole darn trouble with all world authorities. Nobody knows what they know, because each world authority is the only one who knows what s/he knows.


By the same token, you don’t know what anybody else knows. We do seem to hold rather a lot of things in common, that’s true. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, would we. Most of the time, we just assume that we are intelligently, and therefore meaningfully, talking about the same thing. And that, most of the time, most of what I know is sure to be, more or less, exactly what you know, give or take a hypothesis, or ten. While, all along, we can never be quite certain.


And that’s the whole darn trouble with every conversation. And lecture and sermon. And book and letter and newspaper. And the media, always the bloody media. We keep believing, because there really is no alternative, that the words we use and see and hear actually mean something specific, unambiguous. We keep believing, because we have no other choice, that, “on the balance of probability beyond all reasonable doubt”, we can actually tell each other the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.


And that’s the whole darn trouble with the truth. We keep believing, because there’ll be hell to pay if we don’t, that there is such a thing as the truth. Even as we know, as sure as you’re reading this here and now, that nobody knows what the truth is. And nobody knows, like you know, what you know and nobody knows, like I know, what I know. And ne’er the twain shall ever have a blessed clue what the hell the other is actually going on about.


And that’s the whole darn trouble with language. We keep believing, because if we don’t, we’re all dead, that the words we use convey meaning. That what I say and write and read and hear has inherent meaning. That the ‘gist’, if you will, sort of flies through the air intact and uncorrupted. And arrives at the intended destination in good order, in the spirit, as it were, in which the sender has every right to believe the sense was accurately communicated. Even as we all know, don’t we, beyond all reasonable doubt, that that is certainly not reflected in my experience, nor in yours, and that therefore it simply can’t be true.


That meaning cannot be communicated. That what we do appear to exchange, with all the best intentions in the world, are but indistinct noises and blurry images. Semantic dots and dashes. Son et lumière, that’s all. And that what we make, you in your small corner and I in mine, of those primordial signals is what we are then obliged, God help us, to treat as the ‘inherent meaning’ of the text. Without the slightest possibility of ever determining exactly what each other actually had in mind, as we speak. All we ever have is the raw sensory data. And that is most certainly never anything like what we take away.

Dear Paul: In what way is Edwardian English a more accurate represenation of Third Republic French than, let's say, contempory English? Would late Tsarist Russian be better than contemporary Russian? Would early 20th-century Chinese be better than contemporary Chinese? It's unclear that just because Scott Moncrieff wrote in English during the same period that Proust was writing French that his English is therefore going to be closer to Proust's French. My sense is that languages are not similar that way. However, if there's research that demonstrates that Edwardian English is a particularly apt vehicle for translating Third Republic French, I'd love to see it. Let's be honest though, a better question is: in what way is Scott Moncrieff's English a particularly apt vehicle for translating Proust's French? The answer can't simply be that they wrote in their respective languages in the same time period.

"In what way is Edwardian English a more accurate represenation of Third Republic French than, let's say, contempory English?"
Having read Proust several times, in French; and being a fan of Henry James (as a good example of a contemporaneous author), I can say that Proust's French is much closer to contemporary French than Henry James' English is to contemporary English. There are many idioms, and items, in the text that are very different - the magic lantern, horse-drawn carriages - but Proust's French is not that different from French literary fiction today, other than the often long sentences. 

The answer, Madeleine, is fairly obvious: Moncrieff, as a contemporary, knew Third Republic French (and, in particular, Proust's version of it) and Proust, for the same reasons, knew and read Montcrieff's Edwardian English. 

The problem I found with Moncrieff's Edwardian Engish is that it has jarring effect. It takes us out of this French aristocratic ambiance and throws us into another country. To a large extent Moncrieff seems to find a way to convert the rhythms of Proust into English to the extent that his sentence structure can be as incomprehensible as that of Proust. He is obsessed with finding an English equivalent for everything even the puns (Actually quite good). This doesn't work when he uses the English equivalent of aristocratic French slang.

I have read Proust in French but I would prefer to read an English translation that does not try to preserve Proust's obtuse sentence structure. Sometimes it feels like affected bad writing. Please excuse the heresy.

Proust's prose is not obtuse in French once you get used to it; it is, instead, periodic and quite pithy and has a certain musical sonority. It does take patience and getting used to, and, in order to enjoy it one should not try to so much to <i>analyze</i> all of its meaning as to <i>hear</i> its music, which is almost Wagnerian. In some ways, it's more poetry than prose, and the breathlessness of its long sentences is, I think, deliberate.

The obvious explanation for the choice of Moncrieff's original is that it's out of copyright. Perhaps this was too sordid for Carter to mention.

This is clearly a collaborative vanity project by Carter and Yale UP.

Am I the only one to be puzzled by this article? What exactly is the author trying to say? Perhaps I was defeated by the pedestrian prose, or perhaps this article is yet another example of the meandering, nattering pointlessnes of so much "literary" or "critical" writing today, at least the stuff I read on the Internet. Perhaps this article is another sign of the destruction caused by post-modernism, deconstruction, cultural studies, etc.  Speaking of pedestrian prose, here's the last sentence: "The great many new volumes assessing, examining, exploring, and translating Proust’s novel on view in the lighted shop windows of the world make it clear that, for his own works, one hundred years later, there is no sign of such a vigil lifting." Really? How dull compared to Proust's sentence quoted just before.

Wow. What a cranky reply. I don't know if you were the only one to be puzzled by the article. I wasn't. And while I agree that the last line is inelegant, I found the writer's argument and use of examples clear and convincing. I dunno, dude. Really? Proust's sentences are the index by which you measure the dullness of expository essays? You must be disappointed a lot. Sounds like an sour old person with a relatively unfocused axe to grind who hasn't been happy since 1948.

How generous of BR to publish my comment, as grouchy as it was.
I stand by what I say, but I admit I certainly could have been nicer. By the way, what is an "unfocused axe"? Surely a more apt simile/metaphor(?) would be "dull axe" or something like that. But there I go again complaining about imprecise writing. 
To be somewhat more constructive and perhaps to plunge the figurative knife in deeper, compare this article to the journalism of George Orwell, actually to almost any essay/article of his. Then you'll see why I complain! And I see this kind of dull, unfocused writing all the time, especially about art. 
So, at the end, what is the writer saying? You claim it's clear and convincing, but no opinion or thought is expressed as far as I can tell.

George Balanchine: asking every piece of writing you read to be comparable to the prose of Orwell (or the even better prose of Mencken, if you want some more Platonic Ideals) is a fool's errand. (Spinoza: "All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.") It is also a sure sign of the cantankerousness of old age, lamenting as you do the golden days when all writing, evidently, was clear and precise. You must not have ever read very much journalism in those days of yore.

Besides, there is nothing imprecise in the last sentence: the string of four present participles makes for some inelegance, as the comment above mine acknowledges, but not imprecision. Your own inability to read closely does not mean the last sentence expresses "no opinion or thought." The author is quite plainly drawing an analogy between Bergotte and Proust himself. The quoted sentence from Proust says Bergotte lives on in his books, and the author's last sentence says the same about Proust himself, whose books (arranged in the "lighted shop windows") still receive a great deal of attention, one hundred years later. Perhaps you missed what the author said earlier in the essay: "That international audience has been particularly well served this past year in celebration of the centennial of Swann’s Way [...] The anniversary saw not only public events but also a wave of new publications, from a special issue of Gallimard’s literary magazine, in which writers from George Steiner to Jacques Jouet assess Proust’s achievement, to a series of new scholarly studies." The last sentence echoes this earlier part of the piece.

Dear George, I said "unfocused axe" because you seemed to be bemoaning all literary theory since the New Critics, although you don't mention Structuralism, and I wasn't sure if you would praise or blame the New Critics for the later developments you mention. In any case, some general curmudgeonry about lit crit of the last 50 years or so. I understand the writer to be saying the following (I do this from memory after quick read of the article once yesterday):
--Carter doesn't give convincing reasons justifying the new revision, and his silence about the Penguin translation is noteworthy
--Carter's annotations are idiosyncratic and not as helpful as they perhaps should be
The author provides examples for these claims.
While not accounting for the entirety of the article, these opinions and thoughts are clearly expressed, and convincing to me, at least.

Whew! Little did I know that M. Durantaye is a Harvard professor. I just thought he was some would -be journalist fresh out of college who didn't know better. Well, there goes my chance for attending graduate school at Harvard!

Here are two sentences from this article:

"During the war Proust expanded his novel from a projected three volumes to seven." far and how fast that serenity and vitality stretched."


Do I really have to go into detail about why this is not great writing? 'Stretching' serenity and vitality? Really? I mean, is serenity being stretched in a plane parallel to the earth's surface? Or is it just being twisted about in a random fashion?


The other sentence makes Proust sound like a corporate brand manager planning to expand her/his product line from three items to seven.

Anyway, in my phillipics I usually mention Dwight MacDonald, a really great critic and journalist and deadly opponent of what he called "mid-cult" which, come to think of it, this article is a pretty good example. You(or anyone else) might find him interesting.


P.S. You said "unfocused axe" because you were not thinking clearly. An axe cannot be "unfocused", it is not a lens, camera, or movie projector. An axe can be dull or sharp, it can be double-headed, if that's the correct way to describe a two-headed axe. 


And neither of you realize that my pen name, George Balanchine, is really the name of the great Russian-American choreographer who helped found American ballet in the 1930s? Or perhaps you knew it along and just decided to keep quiet?


George, when somebody looks into your eyes and says, “I love you”, what is that person saying? Doesn’t that rather depend on who is speaking, to whom, at what time and place and under what particular, indeed highly specific, circumstances? One of your children? Your partner or spouse? One of your parents? Siblings? Business partner? Or one of your dearest and/or most hated relatives? A pernicious neighbour or landlord, perhaps? Or only the little old nobody you helped across the street the other day?
In each of which deeply emotional and intensely personal cases, what you get is more, much more, than what is patently, pedantically and intrinsically there, literally, in the text.
Isn’t all meaning rather ambiguous? If meaning could really ever be patently obvious, if the words really did say what they really mean, in any and every text, what has all the bloody fuss been about?
All the holy and unholy wars over the correct interpretation of the Bible. Or the Koran. Or The Brothers Karamazov. Or the Declaration of Independence and all those Constitutional imperatives. Or the vehement debates in that benighted House on the Hill, as to what the legislation actually says, let alone what the hell it might actually mean. Or what the Founding Fathers, bless their patriotic souls, really intended. Or what your insurance policy covers, if you’re lucky, and what it does not?
By the way, be very careful with that axe. No matter how clumsily designated as, “double-headed” or “two-headed”, yours sounds very like a dangerous oxymoron. You might be thinking of a double-edged axe, with which I might well have split the mote in your tired, literalist eye.
You see, “I”, as your gentle reader, have no way of knowing precisely and unequivocally what “you”, as my magnificently pontificating writer, could possibly mean by the words you use. You know what you know and I know what I know. And ne’re the twain …
Meaning cannot reside in the text, you see. Never. We must make it up, you and I. First, on the basis of what we bring to the text, the pretext, if you like, derived individually from where you have been and where I have been, and what you and I have learned there and can remember.
Secondly we depend, like it or not, each in our own inimitable way, on the context, the circumstances surrounding our encounter with the text, including, among lots of pedestrian factors, how you feel, your mood, state of health and agenda, climatic ambience and your bank balance.
But finally, and here is the crux of the matter, it will always be what you manage to ‘read between the lines’, no matter what the text, that shall be for you, and you alone, the meaning of the words, for now. Tomorrow, all that will once again be subject to internal, reflective review, based on what you know now, that you did not yet realise only yesterday.

"I might well have split the mote in your tired, literalist eye."
I see, taking an axe to my face now, are we? 
Sorry, I really don't know what to reply to this.
You certainly seem to have gone through the post-modernist funhouse with your "meaning cannot reside in the text" remark. But what is it with you people? Even that consummate careerist Terry Eagleton says theory is dead. And yet here you are, failing to answer a very simple question: is the article well-written or not. But then, that's not even a valid question for you, is it? 

"cranky" "sour old person" "1948" Really?
I agree with the gist of what you are saying to him, was pleased and was going to pass your comment by. But I could not. Do you even know the word "ageist"? Rhymes with sexist, racist, etc.? From what in his comment did come to understand his age? From whom did you learn that people who get older are correctly described as cranky and sour? Or that all cranky and sour people must therefore be old?
I'm afraid, my dear, that you fit the definition of an Ageist. Please think about it.

Good article in general, however...I almost stopped reading at the first line.  I know that to Proustians, there are no other novels that compare (and hey, I just finished Proust myself several months ago - no argument about his greatness).  But among the novels published earlier in the 20th Century than Swann's Way are these:  Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, Under Western Eyes and The Secret Agent by Conrad; Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann; The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl by Henry James; Petersburg by Andrei Bely; Kipling's Kim; Samuel Butler's Way of All Flesh; Musil's Young Torless; Gide's Immoralist; Wharton's House of Mirth; Forster's Room with a View and Howard's End; not to mention any number of great popular classics (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Wind in the Willows, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Call of the Wild).  It is a strange kind of tunnel vision to call Swann's Way the "first" great novel of the century, even if you're looking for something truly modernist (Petersburg? Musil?).  One wants to know that the author of an essay on translation knows the meaning of the word "great...."

Indeed, and the Henry James trilogy is probably the first great 20th century novel(s) that goes in the same direction of Proust. 
P.S.: it's quite hard to get through the captcha on the comment form... these letters look like cuneiform...

you are absolutey right. the line read "first great modernist novel" but the modernist got lost in the editing. first great modernist novel is also debatable, but less so. 

Proust, however, nowhere uses the term “wasteland” and never alludes to Eliot’s poem of that name.

Indeed, it would be astonshing if Proust had alluded to The Waste Land, in Du côté de chez Swann or anywhere else, given that Eliot's great poem did not appear in print until November 1922, a month before Proust's death--and even then only in a small American magazine. (It was published in book form a month later.)
Also: B.C.E. is a ponderous affectation; its use is hardly demanded by "the standards of a secular century," whatever those may be.

It's hard to give much credence to an article which starts out with a blatant translation error:
“les beaux livres sont écrits dans une sorte de langue étrangère”—“beautiful books are always written in a sort of foreign language.
There's no "always" in the French...
But the author maes many valid points about translation. A former translator myself (French > English), I was often confronted with the kinds of problems that make translation interesting but frustrating. In literature, you simply cannot translate much of what is written; you can add footnotes to help explain certain things, but how, for example, do you adequately express the change, at one point in La Recherche, where Proust starts saying "tu" to one of his friends? This works fine in, say, German, but not at all in English. That's an extreme case, but one that is an example of the many choices one has to make.
I've come to the conclusion that Proust is untranslatable; at least in a manner that may express his fiction appropriately. The language itself isn't complicated - though I seem to recall an article I read some thirty years ago that said that the vocabulary of La Recherche was over 18,000 different words - but the style makes it very hard to maintain Proust's idiolect in English.
I first read Proust in English, in the early 1098s, in the Moncrieff/Killmartin translation. When I moved to France a few years later, I read it in French, in the Pléiade edition, and have read it several times since then. While, when I first read it, I didn't have the vocabulary to fully understand it, the second time around my French was fluent. But I only truly understood Proust when I listened to an audio recording of the entire work; you can only truly grok Proust's tone when you realize that he wrote to sound like someone speaking; that his divagitions and long sentences are those of natural conversation. f I were to translate Proust, I would use late Henry James as my model of English; Henry's tone is very similar to that of Proust. 
But for those who cannot read the original, Carter's volume is probably the best way to approach it. I discussed his project with him a couple of years ago, and what he is doing is taking a very good translation and tweaking it. While the notes may not be perfect, they're certainly more than what we have in other translations. Carter is respecting the oldness of the language, something that the newer Penguin edition doesn't do. And we need that; you can't read Proust with a voice sounding like the early 21st century.

I couldn't read the majority of this essay in anything like good faith after the author accused Carter of "plagiarizing" Davis's translation. How can he make that accusation while citing only two examples and ignoring the fact that the standard is very, very different when it comes to translation. You can change the tense of a verb or add just an adverb and you will have translated the line or sentence anew - translation thrives on these small tweaks, which in other fields, say journalism or scholarship, would undoubtedly constitute plagiarism. Also, can it really be plagiarism when the work in question is neither Carter's nor Davis's? Honestly, I can't believe the Boston Review would even publish such an accusation without forcing the author to raise these qualifying points. It seems almost unethical on Durantaye's part to have written something like that.

You must not have read the essay at all. The author explicitly says he is NOT accusing Carter of plagiarism: "To be perfectly clear: there can be no question of Carter having plagiarized Davis’s translation."

No, I'm afraid you need to read more closely. I realize the way he's written the sentence, it can be interpreted in opposite ways, but given the context in which it appears, how can you not read it as, "Without a doubt, Carter plagiarized"? The passage in all its strained and calculated ambiguity is this:
"Simply to ignore a major translation by a major translator, who is herself also a major writer, feels arbitrary from a critical point of view and irresponsible from an editorial one—all the more when that translator’s choices so closely mirror, and anticipate, his own. To be perfectly clear: there can be no question of Carter having plagiarized Davis’s translation. What is supremely strange is that he omits any mention of it, which might incline the reader to think it was deemed beneath notice. And yet at key points of difficulty that Carter presents for the reader’s consideration he comes to very similar conclusions as to what best “matches” Proust."
Clearly Durantaye is accusing Carter of plagiarism. He's being extremely slippery, but if you can read with any kind of discernment, you know what he's saying, especially the bit about how strange it is that he doesn't mention Davis's translation at all, much less cite it - the suggestion is that he's consciously avoiding drawing the reader's attention to the parallels. Combined with the other accusations of "ignor[ing," being "irresponsible"; Davis's choices "mirror[ing]" and anticipat[ing]" Carter's own; and Carter having reached "very similar conclusions" in his translation choices: all this points to an accusation of plagiarism, which Durantaye clearly wanted to make without just plainly saying it.

Tinny is a technical term referring to a sound that has too much high frequency in it.  It is quite common for pianos to sound tinny when the action is slightly out of adjustment, causing the high notes to be too prominent.  Indeed, this is sometimes thought of as a feature of certain pop styles; it can be deliberately created by piano technicians.  So the author's dismissal "while brass instruments may sound tinny, it is hard to imagine a piano doing so" is contradicted by something you can learn in ten minutes from Dr. Google.
Surely it would be worthwhile finding out whether sec is a similar French technical term?  If so, Kilmartin would be quite simply correct in his revision of Moncrieff.

The refrains resound in Proust as in symphonic music alluding to his private dialogue within his melieu rethought in language.

Sec - crisp. dry. Suppress the sound as quickly. Do not allow it to reverberate.

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