An Imperfect Classic

The subject of literature in translation always fascinates me. Remember what Ezra Pound said,

English literature lives on translation, it is fed by translations, every new exuberance, every new heave is stimulated by translations, every allegedly great age is an age of translations, beginning with Geoffrey Chaucer.

I believe this but I also believe my daughter who is a professor at a large university when she insists that you should read literature in the original language: reading a translation is hardly better than not reading. This seems very much in line with an article appearing in The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik. The subject C. K. Scott Moncrieff as exposed in a new biography by Jean Findlay which, of course, also deals with Moncrieff’s greatest triumph, his translation of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu by Marcel Proust.

Go to The New Yorker to read the complete article.

Why an Imperfect Version of Proust is a Classic in English

C. K. Scott Moncrieff

The art of translation is usually a semi-invisible one, and is generally thought better for being so. A few translators’ names are familiar to the amateur reader—we know about Chapman’s Homer, through Keats, and Richard Wilbur’s Molière is part of the modern American theatre—but mostly translators struggle with sentences for even less moment (and money) than other writers do. One key exception to this rule is C. K. Scott Moncrieff (1889-1930), whose early-twentieth-century English version of Marcel Proust’s masterpiece, “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu,” has been a classic in our own language since the day of its first publication. Newly published volume by newly published volume, working almost as a simultaneous translator, Moncrieff inserted Proust into the English-speaking reader’s consciousness with a force that Proust’s contemporaries in continental languages never really got. Mostly thanks to Moncrieff, Proust is part of the common reader’s experience in English. John Middleton Murry, in an early review, wrote, “No English reader will get more out of reading ‘Du cote de chez Swann’ in French than he will out of reading ‘Swann’s Way’ in English,” and amateur book readers, for whom other works of mega-modernism—“The Man Without Qualities,” or “Buddenbrooks”—remain schoolwork, still read Proust. Everybody tries to climb Mt. Proust, though many a stiff body is found on the lower slopes, with the other readers stepping over it gingerly.

But the ease of Moncrieff’s translations also started a fistfight, ongoing, about whether his Proust is Proust, near Proust, Anglicized Proust, or not Proust at all. That Moncrieff called Proust’s book “Remembrance of Things Past,” borrowing from Shakespeare, rather than anything close to a literal rendering of the title “In Search of Lost Time,” is typical of what the translation’s detractors kvetch about to this day. The first full-length biography of Moncrieff is now out, written by Jean Findlay and bearing the cumbersome title “Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C. K. Scott Moncrieff, Soldier, Spy, and Translator.” And though it occasionally makes one wish that the old form of the brief life would come back into fashion (Moncrieff was an interesting man who led an exceptional life, but he was not that interesting nor that exceptional) the book still helps us see how someone who was not even particularly expert in the original language managed to make a great French book into a great English one. …

The picture of the times that Moncrieff’s life provides is interesting, but what matters most is the book he made from the book he found. He began translating Proust in 1919, after returning with a serious leg wound from what was called “gallant service” in the war. In a spirit very nearly casual, he interspersed his translations of the later volumes with a great deal of other work. What made his Proust translation so superior—so much so that Joseph Conrad could actually say that he thought Moncrieff was a better translator than Proust was a writer?

Proust himself, in a cranky letter of thanks, put his finger on the conventional complaint about Moncrieff’s version—which was that Moncrieff tended to smooth out or sweeten certain knotty or perverse moves in Proust. …

… forced to make Proust a little more elusive and enigmatic and allusive than he is, Moncrieff turned instinctively to [Henry] James’s elusive and enigmatic allusiveness, the English equivalent nearest at hand. Beginning in a desire to placate English Puritanism, the little cloud of Jamesian evasion extended, charmingly, elsewhere in the book. Fudge is sweeter than straightforwardness, if also always a little more cloying. Euphemism and sublimation were habits of the English aesthetes more than of the French ones—the Gallic taste is for abstraction and ellipsis instead—and this lends a particular poetic tone to Moncrieff’s translation. (Proust is often abstract and usually elliptical, but rarely delicate.)

Don Quixote

It is ironic that I found the more recent translations of Proust in the Penguin Classics editions even more cleaned up, clarified, and made pleasant. Since Lydia Davis translated the first volume, Swann’s Way, I feel justified to shift focus to an earlier translation she received accolades for: Don Quixote. This edition is exactly what modern readers want: it is cut back, corrected, made more approachable, and written in modern prose and idiom. But other than the plot, it is hardly Cervantes. I shouted out and pounded my fist when I read Davis’s Quixote. Perhaps this is also the rap against Montcrieff but it might also the power of a good translator, just as long as the readers are aware that they are reading a version of the original as reimagined by the translator.

Having read Swann’s Way in French and major sections of Don Quixote in Spanish, I can get up on my soap box and caste my fist to the heavens. But then I go home to finish reading a recent Chinese novel and tip my Gus to the translator, thanking him (or her) for allowing me to read a good book without having to spend years learning Mandarin Chinese.

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