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A Proustian morning. Thoughts on the 1923 English translation.

October 22, 2010 11 comments

 I’ve just finished reading “A l’Ombre des jeunes filles en fleur”, which is the French title of the second volume of In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. I stayed in the mood by spending my morning Boulevard Haussman in Paris. I walked by the building in which Marcel Proust lived from 1907 to 1919. How ironic, it’s a bank now.

I was on my way to the Musée Jacquemart-André, which is a Proustian experience in itself. It is a mansion built in 1875 for Edouard André, a rich banker. He and is wife Nelie Jacquemart were art lovers and collectors – their budget for investing in art was as big as the Louvre’s financial resources of that time. They had no children and upon Nelie’s death early in the 20th century, their mansion became a museum.

The visitors enter the museum through a paved alley leading to a gravelled courtyard. The majestic mansion is then in from of them. You can perfectly picture Madame de Guermantes or the Princesse du Luxembourg arrive here in their carriage.

Inside, the journey in the past continues, with an incredible staircase. In the music room, I imagined Swann surrounded by aristocratic women, listening to the Vinteuil Sonata. In the reception room, I felt the ghosts of couples meeting here, women in gorgeous satin gowns and men in tailored-made black suits. In the private apartments, I admired the rich furniture and envied Nelie Jacquemart’s cosy office located on a balcony. I felt like an intruder in M. André’s bedroom, there was even a log in the chimney, as if he were to come home in a minute.

Well it was a delicious time and a place I recommend for a literary excursion. (They have really good brunches on Sundays, in a Belle Epoque café.)

Posts on A l’Ombre des jeunes filles en fleur will come soon. I found a 1923 translation on line to help me with the quotes I wanted to insert. It is named Within a Budding Grove and was translated C. K. Scott Moncrieff. The link is here. In my opinion, it is not a totally satisfactory translation but it’s free, so I shouldn’t complain. It’s so prude. Sexual allusions are hidden behind more neutral words. The French title literally means “In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower” It evokes more adolescence that Within a Budding Grove doesn’t it?

The English text made me sigh, it sounds outdated, even to me. Proust’s prose is made of long sentences and he sometimes uses complicated words. However, it’s never pompous or heavy and it doesn’t sound outdated. Of course, a contemporary writer wouldn’t write that way. Nevertheless, it sounds natural and the reader never sees the work he put in his sentences. This translation sounds artificial to me.

I checked on Amazon, there is another translation by James Grieve published by Penguins Classics. It is entitled In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, which is faithful to the French title. I downloaded a sample on my kindle to have a look at it.

Here is the first sentence in French:

Ma mère, quand il fut question d’avoir pour la première fois M. de Norpois à dîner, ayant exprimé le regret que le professeur Cottard fût en voyage et qu’elle-même eût entièrement cessé de fréquenter Swann, car l’un et l’autre eussent sans doute intéressé l’ancien Ambassadeur, mon père répondit qu’un convive éminent, un savant illustre, comme Cottard, ne pouvait jamais mal faire dans un dîner, mais que Swann avec son ostentation, avec sa manière de crier sur les toits ses moindres relations, était un vulgaire esbroufeur que le marquis de Norpois eût sans doute trouvé, selon son expression, “puant”.

 Here is the first sentence of the 1923 translation:

“My mother, when it was a question of our having M. de Norpois to dinner for the first time, having expressed her regret that Professor Cottard was away from home, and that she herself had quite ceased to see anything of Swann, since either of these might have helped to entertain the old Ambassador, my father replied that so eminent a guest, so distinguished a man of science as Cottard could never be out of place at a dinner-table, but that Swann, with his ostentation, his habit of crying aloud from the housetops the name of everyone that he knew, however slightly, was an impossible vulgarian whom the Marquis de Norpois would be sure to dismiss as — to use his own epithet — a ‘pestilent’ fellow.

 Here is the same sentence, in the 2002 translation:

When it was first suggested we invite M. de Norpois to dinner, my mother commented that it was a pity Professor Cottard was absent from Paris and that she herself had quite lost touch with Swann, either of whom the former ambassador would have been pleased to meet; to which my father replied that although a guest as eminent as Cottard, a scientific man of some renown, would always be an asset at one’s dinner-table, the Marquis de Norpois would be bound to see Swann, with his showing-off and his name-dropping, as nothing but a vulgar swank, a ‘rank outsider’, as he would put it.

 The first translation is really faithful to the French text but sounds strange in English, at least to me. The second one is more modern, with simpler words which do not correspond to the French ones in terms of level of language. The general idea is there and it’s easier to read. Too easy.

None is ideal. The first one is so faithful it becomes bombastic and the second ones simplifies the vocabulary to a point it is almost a betrayal but lighter to read. I’m glad I don’t have to make the choice.

And now I really wonder what  the French translations I read are worth.

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