Essays

Loaf or Hot-Water Bottle

Closely Translating Proust

Lydia Davis
Graphic with loaves of bread and water bottles on a black and orange background. Illustration by Laura Padilla Castellanos
Illustration by Laura Padilla Castellanos

I’m going to write about translating the first volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the book that has been called, in English, Swann’s Way for almost all its life in English, and which I’ve been calling, at various times in the past five years or so, Swann’s Way, By Way of Swann’s, The Way by Swann’s, and Along the Way by Swann’s. (Vladimir Nabokov, in his lectures on the book, called it The Walk by Swann’s House.) This translation was published first by Penguin UK in England in fall 2001 as The Way by Swann’s and then in a slightly revised version by Viking Penguin in the U.S.A. last year as Swann’s Way.

An entire, if short, essay could be devoted to the problem of how to translate the title. Other essays arising from this translation project might concern Proust’s famous long sentences; C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s style of translating; Moncrieff himself; other first translations of classics, such as Willa and Edwin Muir’s of Franz Kafka and Constance Garnett’s of the Russians; nineteenth-century questions about the novel form and the fact that Proust hesitated to call this a novel (just as Leo Tolstoy denied that War and Peace was a novel and Nikolay Gogol declared that Dead Souls was a poem). But in this essay I’m going to write almost exclusively about close translation – how I proceeded in my translation of what is again being called Swann’s Way.

First, a little necessary background – and I’ll open with a sentence that, if not constructed with Proustian elegance, is at least long and contains subordinate clauses. It came out that way when I wrote it, as though I wanted to put all the information in one long, unbroken sentence, as in fact I think Proust wanted to do in his long sentences:

After having worked as a translator from the French quite consistently for thirty years or so, pausing only briefly to work on my own stories, and stopping for an extended time once only, as far as I can remember, to finish a novel, continuing to enjoy translating most of the time, working on a range of books of all degrees of excellence and non-excellence, of interest and of no interest, since this was how I earned most of my money and was therefore not in a position to choose, most of the time, what I wanted to translate, books ranging from a sentimental biography of Marie Curie to histories of China and art catalogues, and including several innovative novels by Pierre Jean Jouve, a volume of travel essays by Michel Butor, several books of fiction and literary philosophy by Maurice Blanchot, I was thinking, one day, though not for the first time, that sooner or later I would like to give less attention to translation and more to my own fiction, when, in the early afternoon, the phone rang.

The call was from Penguin UK asking if I would like to be part of a team of translators that was to do the whole of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time for the Penguin Classics series, each translator taking on one volume. I wanted very much to do this, but it was a large commitment of time. After a little hesitation, though, considering both selfish and unselfish motives, I said I would, and I also opted, since I was given the choice, to translate the first volume, Du Côté de chez Swann – the only one, as it happened, that I had read even in part. I wasn’t able to start work on it right away, because I was finishing another translation, a book by the early Surrealist and ethnographer Michel Leiris, the third volume of his four-volume La Regle du jeu (Rules of the Game), an exploration of self and language that he called an autobiographical essay. In fact, the immensely long and complex sentences in that book were good preparation for Proust.

At the time I was invited to join this translation, I, like many people I have since questioned, had read only a small portion of Proust’s three-thousand-page novel. Even good readers – and good writers – have told me that when they tried to read it, they got sleepy. Many fall asleep thirty pages into Swann’s Way and never return to it. Advocates and enthusiasts of Proust say the action in the novel really picks up after the first book. But of course others say that some of the most beautiful writing is in this first volume. I owned the revised Moncrieff translation but had not read it; I had read about two-thirds of Du Côté de chez Swann in French, carefully underlining the words I didn’t know and writing the English in the top and bottom margins. But this reading had been some decades ago, back in the 1970s.

I had a number of questions for myself early on in this project. After the first – whether to do it at all – the second was how to proceed. This book was certainly exceptional – would I do it differently from the way I had done almost all the other translations?

After just a little debate, however, I decided I would embark on it, at least, in the same way; I did not know whether some different method would evolve or if the experience itself would be different.

When I approach a translation I don’t generally read the book first, I translate more or less “blind,” looking only a page or two ahead, sometimes not even that. The book and the work of translating are both much livelier experiences for me if I don’t know exactly what’s ahead, if I work my way forward and watch how the book unfolds. Many very orderly people can’t imagine working this way, but the fact is that a number of other translators do – I seem to remember that William Weaver, for instance, worked this way in his numerous translations from the Italian. And so I was not going to go back and re-read Du Côté de chez Swann, or even finish reading it before I began translating.

These same orderly people would object to another choice I made: I did not want any further knowledge of Proust himself or his life to influence the way I read the book. I decided not to read biographical material or critical work that discussed his style and his themes, that gave the sort of overview that might come between me and the words on the page. I wanted to confine myself to a rather raw, naive reading of the text as I wrote my first version in English. Then, when I had a working draft, I would begin to read around the text and let other influences affect it. So I was in the curious situation of knowing relatively little about Proust and about the novel as a whole – and deliberately keeping myself in ignorance.

I would also not look at other translations – to me, this went without saying. Once I read something, it’s very hard for me to get it out of my head. I did not want to absorb the tone, rhythm, diction, of Moncrieff before establishing my own. And so I did the first draft – amounting to about 550 pages in manuscript – without looking at the other translations.

What I mean by “other translations” in the plural is this: the first translation of A La Recherche du temps perdu, and the only one, for many people, was done by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, a former military man – a captain wounded and decorated in World War I – and the translator of a number of other works of French literature, including The Song of Roland and Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma. He began translating Du Côté de chez Swann, which he called Swann’s Way, right after its publication in 1913. (The last volume was translated by Stephen Hudson after Moncrieff’s death.) Moncrieff’s translation is considered by many to be a masterpiece and is much admired and loved: the sun probably never sets on readers of Moncrieff’s Proust. Some people become incensed, or at least pained, at the thought of tampering with any of it, beginning with Moncrieff’s title for the whole novel, Remembrance of Things Past, which he took from a Shakespeare sonnet and which is a lovely title, but which Proust himself objected to. Moncrieff’s translation and the later revisions of it do have problems, however, and much as I came to admire Moncrieff’s work, I will have to differ with his choices throughout this or any discussion of close translation.

In 1981, nearly six decades after the publication of Moncrieff’s Swann’s Way, came Terence Kilmartin’s revision of the entire Remembrance. Based on a corrected edition of the French, this brought the translation closer to the original, cut many of Moncrieff’s gratuitous additions and embellishments, and corrected most of his misreadings. Kilmartin, however, had died before finishing his revision, and then another, more definitive French edition appeared in 1987, and so another revised translation, incorporating most of Kilmartin’s revisions and adding further revisions by D. J. Enright, the late English poet and scholar, was published in 1992 under the corrected general title of In Search of Lost Time.

Another early question that haunted me was whether a new translation was needed at all.

Besides the original Moncrieff translation and these two revisions, all of which are available, there is another translation of Swann’s Way that is less well known in the United States, by James Grieve, a writer and professor of French living in Australia; this was published in Canberra in 1982. His approach is entirely different from mine, and from Moncrieff’s, in that he does not attempt to stay terribly close to the word order, syntax, and word choices of the original.

Some people think that Richard Howard is translating the whole of the Proust or that he has translated it. In fact, Howard began the project back in 1988, but he did not go on. The first pages of his projected translation appeared in The Paris Review in 1989, and they were useful to me for comparison.

Another early question that haunted me was whether a new translation was needed at all.

This was a real worry. If the Moncrieff was faithful to the structures of the sentences and beautifully written (according to some, anyway), and if it had then been twice revised on the basis of corrected originals, so that Moncrieff’s more extravagant flourishes of style and departures had been fixed and his most extreme archaicisms or preciousnesses or squeamish euphemisms cleaned up in a fully contemporary edition, then, I thought, wouldn’t one have the ideal English version? Well, no. One problem is that neither Kilmartin nor Enright – as far as I can see from a number of close comparisons along the way – was as good a stylist as Moncrieff, so that although the latest version is undoubtedly more correct than Moncrieff’s, the newly rendered passages are not always up to the standard of the original translation. The text throughout could also be brought much closer to the French. There is still a great deal of “padding” in the revised versions. Not all the archaicisms have been eradicated – you will still come upon such expressions as “I bethought myself” – and not all the mistakes have been corrected.

For instance, one entire sentence, though a short one – four words – was omitted from Moncrieff and both revisions. The context is the description of a family dinner that includes Swann and takes place in the days when the narrator is a child. His frustrated grandfather keeps trying to get Swann to tell a certain story and is foiled by the actions of two annoying female relatives. Proust remarks: “These efforts were fruitless.”

In another spot Kilmartin, in his revision of Moncrieff, shortened a sentence slightly and in doing so gave it a structure that was now grammatically wrong. Moncrieff’s original reads: “Wait until you hear me say ‘Good morning, Françoise,’ and I touch your arm before you give it to her.” Kilmartin has: “Wait until you hear me say ‘Good morning, Françoise,’ and tap you on the arm, before you give it to her.” (The day I discovered this was a day of minor excitement. A translator’s excitement is after all a strangely localized thing – and hard to convey because it arises from minutiae so tedious to explain.)

Another example of what seems to me a change for the worse in the revision is this: the young narrator, overcome by emotion at what he sees before him in the landscape, brandishes his rolled umbrella and exclaims: “Zut, zut, zut, zut.” This is a peculiar problem – for Zut you need to find a word that usually expresses anger or spite or annoyance but that can also express an adolescent boy’s enthusiasm or wonder and can be said four times in a row. No solution seems quite satisfactory. It is translated by Moncrieff – and in the end this was my choice, too – as “Damn, damn, damn, damn.” It is changed by Kilmartin, unfortunately, I think, to: “Gosh, gosh, gosh, gosh.” James Grieve has: “Oh, dash it all! Dash it all! Dash it all!”

In the midst of the second draft, I began to read a little about Proust’s life, and his style, and consistently checked my work against the other translations. Sometimes a puzzling passage was clarified or a guess seconded. I wanted to check to make sure I hadn’t gone wrong, but I was also simply curious to see how the other translation had solved a problem, especially a tricky one. Often another version made me confirm that mine felt right to me, or it induced me make it better. Sometimes I found a word I hadn’t thought of using: in Moncrieff, say, “housetop” for “roof.” (After all, one is always on the lookout for more vocabularies.)

Interestingly, the Moncrieff and my version were almost entirely different at every point in every sentence, even though our aims were so similar. Only every page or so would they coincide exactly in a phrase or short sentence such as: “‘No, I don’t know them,’ he said,” or “Where there was a waterfall,” or “Sometimes we would go as far as the viaduct.” Sometimes Moncrieff had a closer, more literal version of a phrase, one that I had thought of and rejected as too literal, and when I read it in print I saw that it worked and restored it.

I’m not certain whether I even asked myself that other important question early on: Did I intend to do a close translation or a free translation? I have always opted for a close translation – except, say, in the case of the Marie Curie biography, whose language was so coy and sentimental that I really had to make changes in the style. A close translation is both harder and easier: harder because the confines are so tight, but easier for that same reason – you don’t have as many choices. I prefer the tight confines and the puzzle-solving. And since you make the rules yourself, you can give yourself permission, after all, to depart as far as you need to in order to create a text that reads really well in English.

In the first draft I kept extremely close, intentionally, to the point of oddness, because what you think you can’t do – what you think won’t work in English – actually may work, and unless you try it you won’t know. Many very close, even completely literal, solutions did work. But there were also oddities in the first draft that I couldn’t keep, so I took them out, though I liked them: for instance, for désorbité, meaning “out of one’s element, removed from one’s familiar surroundings,” I had “disorbited.” That had to go, but I enjoyed it while it lasted. In the second draft, I began moving away from the very closest versions, but only as far as necessary to make a good piece of writing.

Another aim of a translation done so many years after Moncrieff’s – nearly ninety years – should be, one would think, to achieve an idiom that is at least more the idiom of our time. And another early question to myself was: What kind of diction or language would it be written in? Would my version sound very contemporary? Was that even possible? I would pose the question to myself now and then, as if I were wondering what the weather would be. I did not really make a decision, but found that as I began translating, the question answered itself – the diction more or less chose itself.

The fact is that the goal of making a close translation determined the diction in at least two ways that I can see now: first, staying close to the word choices of the original, which are often plainer, simpler, or blunter than what Moncrieff chose, and insofar as possible adding nothing that was not in the original, necessarily produced a text that was sparer and plainer than Moncrieff’s, and therefore more contemporary to us in its style. (Of course this implies, interestingly and correctly, that Proust himself, though writing at the same time as Moncrieff, was writing in a style more akin to the style of our time than Moncrieff was.) But second, staying close to the sentence structures of the original, which are often elaborate and full of dependent clauses, can’t be done without using a diction that is somewhat more formal than what we might most commonly see in our own contemporary fiction.

The writing of our time favors shorter, simpler sentences than the writing of the past. We’re impatient with having to hold a part of a sentence in our mind while we hear another, subordinate part or several layered subordinate parts, à la Henry James or Nathaniel Hawthorne, before we’re allowed to put it all together. Here, for instance, is a sentence of Hawthorne’s, taken almost at random from a dedicatory note in his Our Old Home: English Note-Books, published in 1863: “Only this let me say, that, with the record of your life in my memory, and with a sense of your character in my deeper consciousness as among the few things that time has left as it found them, I need no assurance that you continue faithful forever to that grand idea of an irrevocable Union, which, as you once told me, was the earliest that your brave father taught you.” By my count, if one includes not only the subordinate clauses but even some of the adjectives (“brave father”), eleven or twelve facts or ideas are built into this one sentence.

Proust does have plenty of short and simple sentences, beginning with the first sentence of the whole novel: “For a long time, I went to bed early.” But a great many of his sentences have a monumental architecture and delayed gratification. Malcolm Bowie in Proust Among the Stars, discussing the syntax, makes the point that some confusion is part of the experience of reading Proust: “The temporality of Proust’s sentence is insistently heterogeneous,” he says. “Moment by moment, the flow of time is stalled, and unpacked into its backward- and forward-looking ingredients. The reader who does not hesitate is lost.”

The work of this translation has had some of the pleasure and absorbed concentration of doing a hard word puzzle – a crossword or an acrostic. I say to myself: Here is the problem. See if you can end this sentence on the word “dove” or “alone” or “path” or “lost” or “sleep” without using the passive voice. See if you can include three words beginning with the letter “p” in the last phrase of the paragraph. See if, for oiseuse, you can find a word in English beginning with “o” and ending in the -z sound that means the same thing and, if possible, has the same derivation. Handily, for this last problem, there was the perfect solution, “otiose,” which I would never normally use in any writing because I can never remember what it means. I associate it wrongly with “odious.” It actually means, like the French, “at leisure” or “idle.”

“Otiose” is a borderline case – a word that is used in contemporary English prose but not commonly. It’s acceptable, it’s not too obscure to use, but many readers will probably have to look it up in the dictionary. I don’t mind that, of course.

In this project I consulted five dictionaries regularly and several others occasionally. The oldest was one I had found in an extensive second-hand bookstore called Editions in the Catskills. This is a two-volume French-English dictionary published in 1885, when Proust was fourteen. It is based on the dictionary of the Académie Française and various English-language dictionaries including Noah Webster’s and Samuel Johnson’s. It includes a definition, in French, of the French word, which is useful because it tells me what this word meant to the French at that time, when Proust was entering what this dictionary defines as his adolescence. (The definition was the same then as ours now, the period extending from puberty to manhood, but that period, then, was understood to last from age fourteen to age twenty-five.)

I also used my French-French dictionary, the Petit Robert, far more than I had ever done before, and this was one of the ways that this project did in fact turn out to be different from previous translations.

Whereas I have always had the habit of reading the etymologies of English words to get to the heart of them – to find, for instance, that within the word “gregarious” is the root grex, greg meaning “herd”; if you are gregarious, you like to mingle in the herd – now I found I was often reading the etymologies of a French word as well, trying to get to know the word better, trying to see if what I chose for the English could have the same concrete origin as the French, for instance. Sometimes I might even translate into English, not the word itself, but the word’s origin: for instance, alors, “then,” comes from the Latin illa hora, “at that hour.” So I felt I had the option of translating alors as “at that hour,” though I’m not sure I ever did. Whether I did or not, knowing the derivation gave me a clear sense of just how specific alors is compared to “then.”

Or another example: It was interesting to me to discover that hélas, “alas,” which occurs seventeen times in the book and was a problem for me, is made up of hé! and las, meaning “oh, misfortune!” – though I never did write “oh, misfortune!” in the translation. But I wondered whether I should use the word “alas” at all, since it seemed to tip over into the excessively archaic; then I noticed that it appeared in e-mails from my friends from time to time and obviously still had a place in contemporary language. (After I discussed this with a friend well versed in the classics, she began using, in her correspondence, the Greek for “alas” – eheu, a nice sort of sneeze.) I did keep all seventeen and eventually began to hear the recurring “alas” as a sort of Greek chorus repeating its general comment on the events unfolding in the plot.

Being aware of the etymology of a word, French or English, seemed to give me more options in my choices of equivalents. For instance, there is the French s’entasser, meaning “to pile up” or “to heap up.” Usually I would favor an Anglo-Saxon monosyllable like “heap,” but in at least one case I chose to translate s’entasser as “accumulate” – whose derivation is the Latin ad + cumulare, “to heap up.”

Reading so many etymologies, I became much more aware of Latin as the direct ancestor of French and the constant presence within the language, especially the Latin of those vulgar Roman soldiers in Gaul. And, too, I found that, paradoxically, whenever you go minutely, microscopically into a single word, you enter some large place, some area of history or culture you had never entered before. You think about the relation of boulevard to the word it was derived from, “bulwark.” You wonder why in the world losange, meaning a lozenge or diamond shape or rhombus and derived from a Gaulish word, changed gender from feminine to masculine in the eighteenth century. And why, in the twelfth century, the French abandoned the Latinate word for rooster – jal, from gallus – in favor of the onomatopoetic word coq.

I learned more, this way, about one of my problem words, Zut. It is apparently a euphemistic form of merde (the s-word) and another onomatapoetic word, though I’m not sure what sound it is imitating. What is interesting is that the young narrator’s wonder at what he sees is expressed by him first, in the novel, with this relatively inarticulate utterance – Zut, zut, zut, zut – whereas later, in the pages about the steeples of Martinville, he will write something very articulate in response to his excitement. And after doing so, he will burst into song. As though Proust is offering us three forms of expressive reaction to the excitement of inspiration: an inarticulate utterance like zut; a piece of articulate writing; and a song.

The surprises I had translating this book resulted in part from looking more closely than ever before at a single word, looking into the histories and meanings of individual words in both languages. In translating you become very aware of synonyms, because you are always looking at every possible way of saying something. But how far apart most so-called synonyms really are; eventually, what leap out are the differences. “Anyway” is different from “in any case,” because a “way” is different from a “case.” “For instance” is different from “for example,” because an “instance” is different from an “example.”

Then, there are the differences between the French and English so-called equivalents. The commonest equivalent of toujours is “always” – though you can sometimes use “ever” or “forever” – and yet how different toujours really is. It is a shortened form of tous les jours, “all the days,” “every day,” whereas “always” is a shortened form of “all ways,” “in every manner,” or “by every route.” One word refers to time and the other to manner; they came to their meanings by different routes. Toujours also has the constant presence within it of jours, “days,” and since jour can also mean “daylight” and “light,” toujours also has the constant presence of “light.” Toujours also has the advantage of its built-in rhyme – it sounds better.

And in fact the sound of Proust’s words plays such a large part in the effect of his work that this becomes an important aspect of translating him. The obvious translation of gens is “people.” But gens is a quick word – think of jeunes gens, “young people” – and close in sound to genre, meaning “kind” or “sort,” and to gentil, meaning “nice.” Our English “people” is longer and more ungainly, and close in sound to “feeble” or “pebble” or “peep-hole” or “peeper” – what you hear in the swamps in the spring. The associations of the two words are very different, yet in the case of gens we usually do not have any alternative.

After all, no choice is simple, even one that seems simple. After the young narrator, sitting up by the coachman, has borrowed a piece of paper from the doctor and written his piece about the steeples, he says: “And then I began to sing.” That was how I translated it. But before making that decision final, I considered the alternative: “And then I began singing.” Although the two were so close, I had to ask myself how they were different and which was more effective. I realized that to my ear, the infinitive – “to sing” – had a more distinct feeling of beginning to it than the present participle – “singing” – which implies continuing action.

Another way in which this translation was a different experience was that I became more specifically aware of the different elements in my practice of close translating – what I can identify, after the fact, as my “rules”:

First, at the level of the individual word, I want to give the closest equivalent whenever possible: for disait, “said,” I will almost always use “said,” not “remarked,” “began,” ”murmured,” “took the opportunity to say,” or “assured him.” Moncrieff will often replace a plain or a neutral word with a more expressive or loaded word: for tenu, “held,” he has “squeezed”; for petit, “little,” he has “tiny”; for intérêt, “interest,” he has “fascination”; for vidés, “emptied,” he has “purged”; for regardait, “looked,” he has “peeped.”

What Moncrieff is doing in this last case, and what he does to some degree throughout, is to bring his understanding of the context into his choice of the word. Moncrieff knows that Aunt Léonie is looking over the tops of her glasses at her guests as she makes fun of Swann, and so he supplies the word “peep.” But that is giving the reader of the English more than the reader of the French, who works with the more neutral word “look” to form an image of Aunt Léonie.

Because of the close relationship between French and English, there are many words that are identical, of course. Some are perfect equivalents, and lovely in their own right, like ”lacustrine” for lacustrine. James Grieve rejected “lacustrine” in favor of “lakeside,” and when I read Grieve’s choice I worried: was mine too obscure? Then I opened a book of John Ashbery’s poems and happened on the title “These Lacustrine Cities” and was reassured.

There are other perfect equivalents, though, that a translator hesitates to use, which is maddening, because although they are the same words and mean just what the French means, they are so unfamiliar to a reader that they may express very little.

One of these is the word “aurora.” The French distinguish, interestingly, between two words for dawn, aube, or the first, white light in the sky; and aurore, the pink or rosy gleam in the sky before the sun rises. We actually have the same word, “aurora,” meaning the same thing, but we tend to be familiar with it only in the term “aurora borealis,” which means literally “northern dawn.” Where Proust uses the word aurore, I did hesitate between “aurora” and something more vivid like “rosy dawn.” But in the end I opted in favor of the perfect equivalent: if a less familiar word may be less immediately evocative, it does add something else to a text – its surprise, its novelty.

Many words, of course, used to have the same meaning in English as in French and no longer do – you encounter them throughout a Henry James novel, for instance. One meaning of solitude in French is a solitary or lonely or isolated place and “a solitude” once meant the same in English. In my old dictionary, I find these equivalents.

Failing the identical word, you sometimes find a pleasing, expressive cognate that is also close in sound to the French – for instance, “tumble” for tomber, “to fall,” but that is rare.

The second “rule” of close translating would be not to add any material that is not in the original. A difficult word for a translator is the French oubli, which means “forgetting,” “forgetfulness,” “failure of memory,” “oblivion”—we don’t have a good equivalent for those two syllables. In one passage, for oubli, Moncrieff has “waters of Lethe,” Lethe being the river in Hades whose waters cause forgetfulness of the past. Moncrieff has added a mythological reference that is not in the original. This is an instance of the extravagant Moncrieff that was not corrected by Kilmartin. In another spot – also uncorrected – he adds a metaphor: for l’entrée des Enfers, “the entrance to the Underworld,” he has “the jaws of Hell.”

Another kind of addition is the insertion of words whose only function is rhythmical or syntactical: if you’re going to change the original for the sake of rhythm, or stress, or to reproduce some element of the original syntax, you would rather add to the text, of course, than subtract from it. If you are a conscientious translator, however, you won’t want to add new material, so your only recourse is to double, duplicate, repeat material, to, in effect, “pad” the text. You may double an adjective: “strange” becomes “strange and haunting”; or you may add filler words like “rather,” “perhaps,” “quite” – which have the effect of attenuating or diluting the original. Moncrieff will sometimes add a false or redundant specificity – “himself” in “he himself” or “peculiarly” in “peculiarly gentle.” Or he will add emphasis: “for me so painful” becomes “so exquisitely painful to myself”; “uninteresting” becomes “quite without interest.”

In more substantial additions – where Moncrieff again brings his prior knowledge of the context into his choice – “crow” becomes “solitary crow” because Moncrieff already knows it’s alone; or the single word “confidence” in the original becomes “newfound confidence.” Arguably, Moncrieff is not adding a new idea, but he is making the passage wordier than the original, and sometimes redundant. And apparently translations in general do, as a rule, tend to be longer than their originals partly for this reason.

The third rule would be not to subtract anything from the French, especially by condensing: for instance, Proust talks about “the place surrounding” a certain woman of whom the narrator is daydreaming; I would rather not substitute the word “setting” even though “setting” means “the place surrounding” a thing or “the place in which” the thing is.

Proust’s style is natural and unaffected, and, surprisingly, often plain and blunt. There is something very strong and elemental about the repetition of the word “good” that I would not want to lose.

More obvious may be not to leave out words or images. For instance, the family is going for a walk on a Saturday evening after church. For nos pas solitaires, “our solitary steps,’” Moncrieff has “our steps in the silence.” Here he is both adding and subtracting. Solitary steps in the evening that incite the dogs to bark does suggest silence, but one doesn’t have to spell it out. Perhaps Moncrieff was bothered by a family having “solitary” steps. And yet that contradiction is interesting.

The fourth rule would be to retain repetitions: repeat words that Proust repeats, rather than introduce variations. Sometimes Moncrieff seems to want to avoid Proust’s deliberate repetitions, which he may hear as inelegant. For instance Proust, in one long sentence, one of the famous ones about the afternoon falling piece by piece with the ringing of the churchbells, uses the word bonne, “good,” for the smell of the air – la bonne odeur de l’air – and then eight lines down the page uses the word again in bon dîner, “good dinner” – pour lire jusqu’au bon dîner qu’apprêtait Françoise, “to read until the good dinner which Françoise was preparing.” Moncrieff translates bon dîner as “good dinner,” but la bonne odeur de l’air becomes “the fragrance of the air.” Proust’s style is natural and unaffected, and, surprisingly, often plain and blunt. There is something very strong and elemental about the repetition of the word “good” that I would not want to lose.

The fifth rule would be to respect the sentences as Proust wrote them: to retain each sentence intact, whether it is long and full of dependent clauses or short and simple. Fewer than one-quarter of the sentences in Swann’s Way, incidentally, are extremely long – more than ten lines in length.

The sixth would be to retain the same order of elements in a sentence, so that they unfold for the reader in the same order. Often this means sacrificing something else: au marché de Martinville would be most literally translated “at the Martinville market”; by changing that to “at the market in Martinville,” you reproduce the rhythm and the word order of the French and end with the word “Martinville.”

I tried, whenever possible, to begin and end sentences and especially paragraphs with the same word or at least phrase that Proust did. So my seventh rule would be to begin a sentence or paragraph with the same word or words as in the original. For instance, in one passage about the walks the family took, Proust begins two consecutive sentences with the word jamais, “never”: Jamais dans la promenade du côté de Guermantes nous ne pûmes remonter jusqu’aux sources de la Vivonne. … Jamais non plus nous ne pûmes pousser jusqu’au terme; “Never, in our walk along the Guermantes way, could we go as far as the sources of the Vivonne. … Never, either, could we go all the way to the end-point that I would so much have liked to reach, all the way to Guermantes.” I had several second thoughts about this. The “never, either” reads a bit strangely, and so at one point I revised it away and followed Moncrieff’s compromise – “Nor could we go all the way to …”; later I re-read the French and decided I couldn’t let the repetition “Never … Never …” go, even if “Never, either” was strange.

The eighth rule, then would be to end a sentence or paragraph the same way as in the original: preferably the very last word should be the same. For instance, to end with “Martinville,” as the original does, rather than “market.”

Ninth would be rather a tall order, but often possible: to reproduce the play of sounds, especially the alliteration and the assonance, as much as possible.

Of course the book is filled with it: faisait refluer ses reflets; or the abba structure of this phrase: lâcheté qui nous détourne de toute tâche; or this sort of symmetrically balanced construction, which occurs over and over: j’éprouve le résistance et j’entends la rumeur des distances traversées. (With the rhyming word at the end.) This sort of soundplay is particularly noticeable at the ends of paragraphs, especially at the end of a long sentence that is building by the accumulation of words and images. One extreme example, though it’s a short, simple sentence in this case, comes at the end of a pretty description of Françoise’s scullery as a Temple of Venus: Et son faîte etait toujours couronné du roucoulement d’une colombe. (Note the t’s, ou’s, r’s, c’s, and the final echo in couronné/colombe.)

Where Proust describes the water of the Vivonne River as filling, like some distant port, de la rose et du rêverie du couchant, I have the option of reproducing the alliteration with “the rose and reverie of the sunset” rather than translating rose more literally as “pink.” Sometimes I go a little farther than Proust does in one passage as compensation for not being able to go as far as he does in other passages: where he talks about a certain street with ses particularités curieuses et sa personnalité revêche I add one more term of alliteration by rendering the phrase as “its curious peculiarities and its cantankerous personality.” Some sounds just naturally come out right because of the cognates – something that would not happen often with English and Farsi, for example – so that without any effort on my part au marché de Martinville will have the same echo in English: “at the market in Martinville.”

The tenth rule is not to normalize something that seems odd at the moment. For instance, the “solitary steps” mentioned earlier; or the cooing separated from the dove. Or the metaphors that Moncrieff regularly turns into similes: in Proust a balcony floats in front of a house; in Moncrieff it only “seems” to float.

My last rule came from something I discovered fairly late in the translation, part way through the second draft – that even Proust’s punctuation could be followed quite closely. After punctuating “by ear” or by instinct in the first draft, unthinkingly, I began to look at Proust’s punctuation per se, to see if I could follow it more closely and in particular if I could punctuate as lightly as he does. It is possible much more often than one would think. After I was finished revising the translation for the American edition, for instance, I re-read the opening of the sentence above: “Never, in our walk along the Guermantes way, could we go as far as the sources of the Vivonne,” comparing it to the original, and realized that I could have removed two commas that were not in the French and that were not necessary, but this latest revision will have to wait for a future edition: “Never in our walk along the Guermantes way could we go as far as the sources of the Vivonne.” Yet this enterprise of matching Proust’s punctuation is not just a game: the absence of pauses in a sentence reproduces something of Proust’s headlong and breathless delivery and is deeply native to his style, as one can see from reading his letters.

I shall close by offering a typical example of the sort of debate that went on even over a fairly simple sentence, this one involving food.

The word boule means, most simply, “ball,” but in the following context may mean “loaf of bread” or may mean “hot-water bottle,” and would make sense in either meaning, because it is something comforting and warm that the servant Françoise makes or prepares or the young narrator.

Françoise has just been furiously slaughtering a chicken down in the scullery, calling it “filthy beast, filthy beast,” and Marcel is horrified by her cruelty and wishes the family would fire her immediately. But then he selfishly asks himself: “Mais qui m’eût fait des boules aussi chaudes, du café aussi parfumé, et même … ces poulets?” The closest translation of this was, I thought: “But who would have made me such warm loaves, such fragrant coffee, and even … those chickens?” Actually, still more literal, and possible, would be: “But who would have made me loaves so warm, coffee so fragrant, and even … those chickens?” (This was an instance in which the more literal version would have worked, though in the end I did not retain it.)

Proust has used a plain verb – faire, “make” – for all three elements. He has also begun a parallel structure with des boules aussi chaudes, du café aussi parfumé, but departed from it with: et même … ces poulets. These are three things Françoise makes for Marcel. There is something elemental about the idea, simply, of making. But Moncrieff preferred to replace “make” by his own verbs, a different verb for each noun, enriching the sentence significantly, and at the same time he completed the parallel structure of the sentence: “But who would have baked me such hot rolls, boiled me such fragrant coffee, and even – roasted me such chickens?”

There’s something very nice about that, the alliteration of “baked” and “boiled,” and the heartiness of “roasted.” You get a better sense of the delicious food with those verbs. This is a good example of the good writing in the Moncrieff translation. Proust, however, could have given each food its own verb and chose not to. He could also have created a completely parallel structure and also chose not to. At this point I can only guess at his reasons – maybe he wanted to draw us up short with the uneloquent “those chickens.” (One reason I believe so strongly in staying as close as possible to the original author’s choices rather than “improving” him is that we as translators should not presume to have understood everything he was trying to do; by presenting his text as he presented it, to the extent possible, we offer Anglophone readers the chance to read and interpret without our meddling.)

Now Kilmartin evidently objected to “boiling” the coffee, so he took it out and replaced it by “made,” which I think is rather weak, because although he is partially restoring Proust’s verb, he is not completely restoring it, and the nice parallelism of Moncrieff’s version is disrupted, since the three particular cooking verbs – baked, boiled, and roasted – become baked, made, and roasted: “But who would have baked me such hot rolls, made me such fragrant coffee, and even … roasted me such chickens?” Whereas Moncrieff and his revisers translated boules as “rolls,” James Grieve opts for “hot-water bottles” and his version is longer: “But, then, who would there have been to fill those nice hot-water bottles, to make me such fragrant coffee and even – to roast me those chickens?” He also keeps Moncrieff’s full parallel structure and follows Kilmartin’s lead in his uneven mix of particular and general verbs. There are two other votes for hot-water bottle: one in a nice footnoted French edition of the Combray section of Swann’s Way edited by Germaine Brée and Carlos Lynes, Jr., the other in my Harrap’s dictionary: “hot-water bottle” is given as the equivalent, while the only reference to bread is a military term, “ration loaf.” But then I find, in the Petit Robert, the phrase boule de pain – “ball of bread.”

Now, I was already leaning away from the “hot-water bottle” solution and toward the “loaf” solution because of the other two terms of the sentence. Also, our local baker, across the river, sells what he calls a boule that is a round loaf. At last I called him to ask him about it – he already knew about the Proust translation because he had baked me some petites madeleines. He told me that boule is a common term for a shape of bread, like baguette or ficelle. I asked him if it could be used to refer to a roll, since Moncrieff and Kilmartin translated it by “hot rolls,” and he said that it is definitely not a roll but a loaf, and that in the 1970s in San Francisco you used to be able to order a “boule of soup” – soup served in a hollowed-out round loaf that you would eventually eat. (After that, in a restaurant in Connecticut, I found chili offered on the menu served in what was called by the inventively Frenchified name of “bread boulé.”)

Somewhere in the course of these discoveries, a person I was talking to about it suggested that since English-speaking readers now know the word, the perfect equivalent for boule would in fact be the same word, boule. But there is an interesting problem involved in this solution: the word may be identical to the French, but the context is different, so the word changes too. (Even the fact that it is a French word in a translation from the French changes the effect of a word.)

To Proust, the word would refer to a common sort of loaf, consumed by the broadest spectrum of society, including those who, in America, buy Wonder Bread and Freihoffer, but also those who buy Arnold’s, Pepperidge Farm, and baguettes and ficelles from small upscale bakeries. The word boule in an English language book, however, would refer only to an elite, effete item.

So the only equally universal English equivalent would be “loaf.” In order to retain the idea of “ball,” I could call it a “round loaf” – it would not be an awkward insertion here since Proust is already waxing a bit lyrical: “such warm loaves” would become “such warm round loaves.”

And at this point I thought I was done with the problem. However, fresh doubts were raised by an assiduous graduate student, and two native Frenchmen of a certain age were consulted; one of them said that it could be either a loaf or a hot-water bottle but that Proust had made great use of hot-water bottles and called them boules as a shortened, affectionate form of the standard term bouillottes; my other informant declared that a boule was definitely a hot-water bottle, preferably the kind made out of metal that he had grown up with, and in the end he clinched the decision in favor of the hot-water bottle by pointing out something I had not thought of: that of course Françoise would not have made her own boules but would have bought them at – where else? – the boulangerie. (The word boulangerie does indeed come from the Picard word boulenc, “one who makes bread in the shape of a ball.”) So that is just one example of how, in the course of a translation, as you explore all the possibilities before making a final decision, you go a considerable distance in a circle before ending up not far from where you started – but much better informed.

Lydia Davis is the author of Essays One, her first collection of nonfiction. Her most recent collection of stories is Can’t and Won’t.
Originally published:
April 1, 2004

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