Alain de Botton is the author of Essays in Love (1993), The Romantic Movement (1994), Kiss and Tell (1995), How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997) The Consolations of Philosophy (2000) and The Art of Travel (2002). His books have been translated into sixteen languages.
There’s long been a sense that Marcel Proust’s great novel is unnecessarily wordy and difficult. ‘I fail to see why a chap needs thirty pages to describe how he tosses and turns in bed before falling asleep,’ wrote one editor who read the first volume of In Search of Lost Time in manuscript-form in 1913. ‘What is the point of all this? What does it all mean? And one phrase goes on for forty-four lines!’ wrote another faced with the same bundle of papers a year later. Even after the book eventually found a (vanity) publisher, the accusations of verbosity continued. In 1921, Proust received a letter from an American, who described herself as twenty-seven, resident in Rome and extremely beautiful. She also explained that for the previous three years, she had done nothing with her time other than read Proust's book. However, there was a problem. ‘I don't understand a thing, but absolutely nothing. Dear Marcel Proust, stop being a poseur and come down to earth. Just tell me in two lines what you really wanted to say.’
Unlike their French counterparts, English readers have always had one option when faced with they idiosyncrasies of Proust’s text: to wonder whether it might perhaps all be the fault of the translation. This may explain the numerable times I’ve been asked by well-meaning Proust initiates: ‘Which translation should I buy?’ – as if there were many translations on the market and as if picking the wrong one might make Proust seem appallingly long and difficult; whereas the right one would deliver the unparalled delights one is often taught to expect of him. But in fact, there has until now only ever been one translation of Proust into English, currently in print with Vintage; it was written by C.K. Scott Moncrieff in the 1920s, then updated by Terence Kilmartin on the basis of the new French Pléiade edition of 1954, and further touched up by D.J.Enright, who followed an updated 1987 Pléiade edition. Such are the virtues of this translation that the French critic André Maurois once said, only half-jokingly, that French readers would be advised to learn English in order to enjoy Proust at his best.
Now Penguin, in an admirable gesture that must be closer to a labour of love than a pursuit of profit, have brought out an entirely new translation claiming on the dustjacket to offer Proust as one always wanted him to be: ‘These superb editions bring us a more rich, comic and lucid Proust than English readers have previously been able to enjoy.’ The most immediately striking feature of the translation is that, in an effort to speed things up, it is the work of no less than seven different people, who have been working for the last five years under the general editorship of the Professor of French at Cambridge, Christopher Prendergast.
Scepticism about this peculiar multi-translator approach is quickly allayed once one starts reading. For a start, Prendergast has picked on a highly distinguished range of translators, so that even if one ends up with a favourite (mine was James Grieve, who did Volume 2), there’s never a sense of an awkward gear-shift as one moves from book to book. Secondly, while it would be folly to hire seven different people to translate J.K. Huysmans Against Nature (approximately 200 pages long), In Search of Lost Time’s great advantage in this context is its enormous length (3,096 pages in the Penguin edition). One would have to suffer from a photographic memory or hyper-sensitivity to remember, let alone be disturbed by, any changes of tone that do occur between volumes. It is Proust’s voice that one follows; while the translators remain self-effacing handmaidens, their task helped by a general editor who has taken care to impose a uniformity of names and other details.
Nevertheless, plenty of challenges remain for the Proustian translator. One of these stems from the way that the French language changes much less slowly than English: you only have to read Pascal’s Pensées, written in 1660, then switch to Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne Burriall, written in 1658. The former sounds like it could have been written yesterday, the latter verges on incomprehensibility. As a result, the old Scott Moncrieff translation can on occasion feel very anachronistic. Characters say, ‘By jove,’ and ‘Old Boy,’ and come across as Edwardian, whereas their French counterparts continue to move with the times. The Penguin edition has generally modernised matters, and attempted to present a more casual narrative voice, which can at times feel a little too contemporary. To get a representative sense of the minute yet palpable differences between old and new editions of Proust, compare these two sentences. From Scott Moncrieff: ‘In theory one is aware that the earth revolves, but in practice one does not perceive it, the ground upon which one treads seems not to move, and one can rest assured.’ From the new Penguin: ‘Theoretically we are aware that the earth is spinning, but in reality we do not notice it: the ground we walk on seems to be stationary and gives no cause for alarm.’
Another challenge comes from the infuriating habit of languages to fail to provide direct equivalents of words and tenses from other languages. Proust’s work is peppered with untranslatables. One of the more famous is the French word ‘Maman’ (of critical importance in the novel), which is neither ‘mummy’ nor ‘mother’, but suggests at once the intimacy of the former and the seriousness and maturity of the latter. Scott Moncrieff plumped for ‘Mamma,’ Penguin have opted for ‘Mama.’ I might have been tempted to go for ‘Mum’ – none of which are of course quite appropriate. Then there is Proust’s distinctive use of the perfect tense, most famously in his first sentence: ‘Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.’ Scott Moncrieff went for: ‘For a long time I would go to bed early,’ Penguin for: ‘For a long time, I went to bed early.’ One might also have: ‘For a long time I used to go to bed early,’ or ‘Time was when I went to bed early’ or ‘Time and again, I have gone to bed early.’ Alternatively, one could settle for the option offered by one member of the public when, a few months ago, Penguin asked visitors to its website to have a go at translating the first sentence of Proust; ‘For absolutely bloody ages it was lights out early.’
To add to the difficulties, many passages of Proust are made up of regional accents and dialects, which have no direct equivalents: and there is always something disturbing (unavoidably so) about hearing the narrator’s provincial French cook, Françoise sounding like a Cockney or, as in certain points in this edition, a Geordie.
Then there are all those long sentences, or rather, sentences which give birth to a succession of subordinate clauses, and only tie up and make sense when one reaches the end. As one reads Proust’s sentences (the longest of which comes in the fifth volume and is about four metres long), one has to have faith that he will eventually set one down in a new, comprehensible place, though for a long time, one can be left floating around in words without knowing what is happening and where one is going. Take the following sentence from the new translation (my italics): ‘If a person can be the epitome of a place, conveying the charm and tang of its special savour, then this was demonstrated, more so than by the peasant girl I had longed for in the days of my lonely rambles along the Méséglise way, through the Roussainville woods, by the tall girl whom I saw come out of the keeper’s house and start walking towards the station, along a footpath lit by the slanting rays of the sunrise, carrying a crock of milk.’ Whatever complications this prose style may present, at its best, the confusion of not knowing what is going on in mid-sentence is amply compensated for by the intensity of enlightenment one is offered at the journey’s end.
It is a measure of how good this translation is that the ordinary reader will not have to spend too long thinking about it. Translation, like plumbing, is something one generally only has to think about when something has gone wrong. Any infelicities that there are can be jumped over soon enough and one is never far from a phrase that feels so acute and so true, that it seems to be expressing an essential truth of the soul hewn out of primordial psychological matter.
The greatest praise one could pay this new edition of In Search of Lost Time is therefore to say that it allows us to forget both that we are reading the work of many different translators and, for long sections, that we are even reading anything that began in a foreign language at all. Like the best translations, it lets the author speak.
This piece was originally published in the Sunday Telegraph.
Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time:
The Way By Swann's
In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower
The Guermantes Way
Sodom and Gomorrah
The Prisoner and The Fugitive
Finding Time Again
Proust box set
J. K. Huysmans, Against Nature
Blaise Pascal, Pensees
Alain de Botton
The Consolations of Philosophy
The Art of Travel
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