By Dennis Abrams
I have to admit that I’m both extraordinarily picky and extraordinarily insecure when it comes to picking the “right” translation of a foreign language writer into English.
The pitfalls of translation selection became obvious to me a number of years ago, when I was hanging out at my friend’s bookstore in New Orleans. A mutual acquaintance came in, looking for a copy of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. John had four different translations available, so we read the first paragraph of each, trying to determine which version to recommend.
Not only was the language in each translation slightly different from the other, but the meanings themselves were subtly different. This discovery raised a basic question: If you don’t read the original language, how is the common reader to know just which translation comes the closest to capturing the essence of what the author was originally trying to convey?
Fortunately, when it comes to Marcel Proust and In Search of Lost Time, there are really only two major translations for the English language reader to choose from. The first is the celebrated translation by Scotsman C.K. Scott Moncrieff, done between 1922 and 1930. The first translation of Proust’s work into another language, it was published under the rather unfortunate title “Remembrance of Things Past,” a phase taken from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30, rather than the more accurate In Search of Lost Time.
This translation has itself been revised twice – the first time in 1981 by Terence Kilmartin, using the new French edition of 1954 – and then re-revised by D.J. Enright and published by Modern Library in 1992. Today, this version is considered by many to be a landmark in the art of translation. In the words of Richard Howard, “A triumph of tone, of a single (and singular) vision, this ultimate revision of the primary version accords the surest sled over the ice fields as well as the most sinuous surfboard over the breakers of Proustian prose, an invaluable and inescapable text.”
Three years after the Modern Library edition was published, Penguin Books, under the editorial guidance of Christopher Prendergast, undertook an entirely new translation based on the authoritative French text of 1987-89. This time, though, instead of using just one translator, Penguin decided to use a team of seven translators – one for each volume.
So with those to choose from…which one to read? When I first read In Search of Lost Time ten years ago, I read what was then the translation – the classic Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright. But now that the new Penguin translations are available, and even though I had my doubts (Proust wrote in one voice – shouldn’t just one translator’s voice be heard?), I asked Eric Karpeles, author of Paintings in Proust, and the man who has read Proust more often than anyone I know, which version he recommends.
His response? Read the Lydia Davis translation of Swann’s Way, published by Penguin, then read the rest of the series in the Modern Library Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright translation. What is it about the Davis translation that he likes? “Even though I’ve read the Moncrieff several times and know it quite well, what I like about the Davis is that it has less of an Edwardian English overlay to it. Davis removes some of the fustiness of the language of the period, which Proust did not have in French. She manages to retain an authenticity of tone, making it fresh and seemingly less pompous, infusing it with more of a Proust-like delicacy.
There you have it. I’m going to be following Eric’s advice and read the volume of the Penguin Books translation of Swann’s Way, before switching over to the Modern Library Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright translation for the remaining books in the series. If you’ve already purchased the Modern Library version though, don’t worry. Anytime I post a quotation from the Davis, I’ll post the corresponding quote from the Moncrieff as well, which should, in an of itself, be an interesting look into how differences in translation can translate into differences in meanings.
FYI, the Modern Library edition is also available for the Kindle. I have a Kindle. I use a Kindle. I like my Kindle a lot. But reading Proust on a Kindle just seems wrong somehow. If anyone feels differently about this, please let me know.