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A Proustian morning. Thoughts on the 1923 English translation.

October 22, 2010 Leave a comment Go to 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The English text made me sigh, it sounds outdated, even to me.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.

  1. October 23, 2010 at 2:27 am

    I spent a while with Proust in translation at a coffeshop today (Lydia Davis’ Penguin translation of Swann’s Way), so it was very nice to see this Proustian post of yours! I’m reading Madame Bovary in French right now and hoping to get to Eugénie Grandet in French next month, but it will be a LONG time before I ever work up the nerve to try Proust in the original. Thanks for the photos that accompany your post!

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    • October 23, 2010 at 3:39 pm

      Thanks for the comment, I see we both had our Proustian moment lately.
      I didn’t know you could read French, that’s a nice discovery. And you speak well if you can read Madame Bovary. I understand why you’re intimidated by Proust in French. It’s already difficult for a Francophone and I’m not ready to read Ulysse in English either, by the way.
      With time, I discover more and more Anglophones who speak French. So, I think I shall type quotes coming from French books in original version and give their translation.

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  2. October 23, 2010 at 10:11 pm

    I have the Moncrieff translations. I’ve been meaning to get to Proust for years. Did start at one point, but put the book down, & lost my sense of the book when I tried to return to it. The comparison with the translations makes me think I got the wrong one. I bought the Moncrieff editions after comparing them side-by-side to another (can’t remember the other one, but the Moncrieff was superior). Oh well. I’m stuck with the ones I’ve got.
    I echo the thanks for posting the gorgeous photos. Reminds me of the film Time Regained (Raoul Ruiz).

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    • October 23, 2010 at 10:46 pm

      This translation thing is complicated. The Moncrieff is close to the text but it sounds unnatural. Of course English is not my mother tongue but I’m under the impression that an Anglophone wouldn’t express what Proust wanted to say the way she translated it. The other translation is better on that aspect but less “word-to-word” with the original text and sounds more English. What I really don’t like in the second translation are the simple words. If you tried to translate it back from English to French, there is no way you would come from “showing-off” to “ostentation” or “it was a pity” to “ayant exprimé le regret”.

      The Musée Jacquemart-André is one of my favorite museums in Paris, with Napoleon’s house in Rueil-Malmaison, not far from Paris. I have a thing for furnished houses. I’m glad you liked the photos.
      I’ve seen Time Regained, I loved it. It is an exploit to have caught the essence of such a long work as In Search of Lost Time and to be able to make a movie out of it. What makes of In Search of Lost Time a magic masterpiece was restranscribed in Time Regained.

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  3. October 25, 2010 at 7:57 pm

    I tend to find translations that are too modernised annoying (the examples you mention here would annoy me, do annoy me). That said, some of the modern translations of Zola are marvellous. I’m thinking, in particular, of Zola’s The Earth which in my version was full of ripe language (including a few swear words).

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  4. October 25, 2010 at 8:20 pm

    To clarify, I understand what you mean about the modern translation sounding more natural, but the ‘ostentation’ vs ‘showing off’ takes liberties.

    Sometimes when I’ve had to compare translations, sentences are almost identical, and then a word will be changed in an almost nit-picking, why- even-bother way.

    The examples you gave in the review caused me to question my Moncrieff choice (not that I’ve read them yet), but the vocabulary example in your comment pushes me back to the original Moncrieff. Now all I’ve got to do is read it!

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    • October 25, 2010 at 10:21 pm

      What I don’t understand is why the 2002 translation doesn’t use “stinky” for “puant”, because that’s we say. Just like you would say that someone who has unacceptable positions — racist thoughts for example — “stinks”, in French you say “puant”, which also has a small “show-off” in it and is colloquial. Very strange for Proust’s prose and also bizarre in the Marquis de Norpois’ mouth. Anyway, “pestilent” doesn’t seem colloquial to me and “rank outsider” pure invention.

      That’s why I said I’m glad I don’t have to make the choice. According to Richard’s comment there is a translation by Lydia Davies. Maybe this one is better.

      And I hope you’ll read In Search of Lost Time, I’d be glad to discuss it with you.

      PS : What’s the address of your film blog ? Have you seen Biutiful with Javier Bardem ?

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  5. October 26, 2010 at 10:07 pm

    No I haven’t seen that film yet–although it is in my rental queue. I rarely go to the cinema these days.
    The address is http://www.phoenixcinema.wordpress.com. I started the blog about 3 years ago and don’t post there as much as I used to.

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  6. October 30, 2010 at 7:03 pm

    I have the Moncrieff, Kilmartin, Mayor volumes which take the 1923 translation and update them a bit. I doubt they’re perfect, but I preferred them to the Penguin ones and they have the merit of having the same translators throughout.

    I do rather envy your literary day out. Such lovely pictures.

    Translations are tricky territory. If one enjoys a book then the translation can’t be all bad, but whether it’s faithful is impossible to say. To an extent we take a leap of faith when we read a translator, and we never quite read the original.

    Modernity of language is a particularly difficult issue. Too modern and the work no longer seems of its period, it seems anachronistic. Too much of its period though and it seems dated. Either way there’s definite pitfalls.

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    • October 30, 2010 at 7:16 pm

      Except that it edits a bit on love and sensual aspects, I prefer the Moncrieff translation too. It’s more faithful to the original text.

      If you ever go to Paris, this Museum is a jewel. These days, there is an exhibit about Science Fiction at the Cité des Sciences (la Villette) and an extraordinary exhibit on Monet. Tempted?

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  7. October 31, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    Hugely, but I’m trying to buy a house presently so money is unfortunately tight. I love Paris, so I will look out for this museum next time I’m over.

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