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On translating Proust

When the first two volumes of the "Penguin Proust" were available in the United States, the New York Review published two long and extraordinarily mean-spirited reviews by André Aciman, a professor at City University of New York, born in Egypt to a French-speaking family. He edited The Proust Project, in which two dozen writers and scholars -- including Lydia Davis! -- wrote about their favorite passages from the Search. I'll bet Davis regretted her contribution when she read Aciman's critique of her translation of Swann's Way! The reviews appeared in the December 1 and December 15, 2005, issues of NYR. Davis's response, along with several others, was published on April 6, 2006. I treasure it as an analysis of Scott Moncrieff's mostly-wonderful but awfully fusty translation. (As is so often the case, Davis impresses me because I feel the same way about Scott Moncrieff and to a lesser extent about his updatings by Kilmartin and Enright.)

Seeing Proust through clouded glass

To the Editors:

Andri Aciman's review of my translation of Proust's Du Côté de chez Swann (Swann's Way) ... returns me to the intriguing problem of the flawed C.K. Scott Moncrieff translation.

Scott Moncrieff had considerable persuasive skill as a writer, his version was the first and for a very long time the only English translation available, and Proust's novel is powerful enough to shine through almost any translation: for these reasons, the Scott Moncrieff version has become deeply entrenched, and the experience of reading Proust has been, for readers confined to English, inextricably identified with Scott Moncrieff's flowing but misrepresentative version. For them, Scott Moncrieff's style is the voice of Proust.

But it is not. Proust, in French, is plainer, and clearer.

The adulterations of Proust's text by the Scott Moncrieff translation, even after the two revisions [by Enright and Kilmartin], proliferate on every page, and their two main sins are (1) to pad the text, and (2) to intensify it artificially. There are the more egregious departures: the additions of chunks of material and imagery not in the Proust, ranging from pregnant silences to houseboats, clocks, and kindled desire; the omissions of whole sentences; the insertion of hyperbolic metaphors -- Proust's l'entrée des Enfers ("the entrance to the Underworld") becoming "the jaws of Hell"; his oubli ("forgetting" or "oblivion") becoming "the waters of Lethe." Then, subtler but more pervasive, Scott Moncrieff's constant interpretive embellishments of Proust's single words, so that "often" becomes "too often"; "charm," "special charm"; "strange," "strange and haunting"; "painful," "exquisitely painful"; balconies that "float" in the original now only "seem to float." Third, and most unfortunate, a plain word will be translated by a more loaded one. The reader without access to the French will not know that Proust's disait ("said") becomes Scott Moncrieff's "remarked," "began," "murmured," [or] "assured them; "small" becomes "tiny"; "held" becomes "squeezed"; "emptied" becomes "purged"; "interesting" becomes "fascinating." It is the accumulation of such changes that creates an oppressively overwrought, even saccharine text. The Scott Moncrieff version is not outdated. The problem is that, in it, we do not see Proust clearly but rather through clouded glass; wrapped in scarves; lost in a forest.

And this is the version which Aciman says comes "closest to the source."

It is not difficult for an experienced writer to compose a cadenced sentence. But my aim was, precisely, to follow the lead of Proust's own text as closely as possible, unadorned by my own interpretation, uninflected by my own writing style, not simplified, but not complicated, not obscured, ... not updated. And because of the beauty of Proust's prose, the work was an endless pleasure; what a privilege to spend one's day deciding to toss out the nice enough "catastrophic deluges," for instance, in favor of the more peculiar, but closer, "diluvian catastrophes."

If behind Scott Moncrieff's "poetry" lie too many unexposed betrayals, Aciman's metaphorical flourishes, too, obscure his errors of fact: the one who "smoothed the pronomial ruffles" was not Enright but Kilmartin; again, "Here is Enright," says Aciman, before quoting a version entirely by Scott Moncrieff/Kilmartin. The only "syntactical Stromboli" in Aciman's article is created not by the good grammarian Scott Moncrieff, but by Aciman himself, who, evidently puzzled by Scott Moncrieff's reformulated appositive, "improves" the version with hopelessly muddled direct and indirect objects:

".... but instead of giving so simple a piece of information to so unsurprising an answer the casual and conversational tone that would have been appropriate to it...."

Lydia Davis
Port Ewen, New York