Join the conversation
Subscribe to Our Emails
Boston Review is a public space for the discussion of ideas and culture. Sign up for our newsletters and don’t miss a thing.
William Carter revisits the original C.K. Scott Moncrieff translation to celebrate the centennial of Swann's Way. Why turn back the clock?
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.
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox
Readers Also Liked
Printing Note: For best printing results try turning on any options your web browser's print dialog makes available for printing backgrounds and background graphics.