In my Proust reading group we are reading the translation by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and I’m so glad. I know some readers find Moncrieff’s prose too ornate or outdated. Roger Shattuck finds “annoying bloomers and occasional excesses of style.”[1] Lydia Davis, who has a horse in this race as the translator of the competing Penguin edition of Swann’s Way, has written of Moncrieff’s “extreme archaisms” and his “preciousness.”[2]

Well, yes, Moncrieff does get carried away sometimes. A typical example mentioned by Davis is when he translates the perfectly ordinary French word “l’oubli” (forgetfulness) as “the waters of Lethe,” thus adding “a mythical reference that is not in the original” as if he wanted to show off his classical education.[3] Sometimes he commits surprisingly basic errors, including falling for the most common of all faux amis: mistaking the French word “actuel” for the English “actually.”  A more amusing example comes in “Swann in Love.” When Swann probes Odette about lesbian affairs in her past, he says,

“What is really terrible is what one cannot imagine. But you‘ve been so sweet to me; I don’t want to tire you…I’ve quite finished now. Only one word more: how many times?”

In French that’s “Il y a combien de temps?” which any beginning French student knows means “How long ago?” not “How many times?” Moncrieff can’t possibility not have known the meaning of this phrase. But as Christopher Hitchens suggests in a beautiful piece in the Atlantic, perhaps in committing such a basic error, Moncrieff was “giving away his own proclivities.”[4]

There is something endearing about finding mistakes of this order in a translator as great as Moncrieff. It makes me feel a closeness to him, as if I were looking over his shoulder while he is working. And anyhow, as Hitchens says, “What’s the occasional faux ami between real friends?’

Arthur Waley, who was translating The Tale of Genji at the same time Moncrieff was translating Proust, famously made his share of mistakes as well. In the opening chapter of his translation, Genji’s father the Kiritsubo Emperor writes a poem in the wake of the death of his wife, Genji’s mother. The poem is addressed to the dead woman’s mother, Genji’s grandmother, and expresses the father’s concern for his little son who has gone away from the palace with his grandmother:

“At the sound of the wind that binds the cold dew on Takagi moor, my heart goes out to the tender lilac stems.”[5]

“It was of the young Prince that he spoke in symbol,” Waley adds, helpfully teaching the reader how to read poems in the Tale, which often reference plants and flowers rather than referring directly to people. But “Takagi moor” here should be “Miyagi Moor.”  That it be Miyagi and not Takagi is important because the first character in the word “Miya” (宮)also means “palace” or “prince,” and the place name “Miyagi” is associated poetically with the plant ko-hagi, which Waley renders ‘tender lilac stems’ (although other translators have “bush clover.”) This early on in his translation, Waley has missed or ignored those allusions and mistranscribed the toponym. Perhaps it got garbled as he turned from the long side of his famous L-shaped desk, where the original text stood open, to the shorter side, where he typed out the English, often without looking back. The mistake was never corrected in any subsequent edition. It’s still there in the 2010 edition I am now teaching. When I recently splurged and bought a copy of the first (abridged) French translation of the Tale of Genji, published in 1928, I opened it to find Waley’s “Takagi moor” there too, like an old friend.[6]

Unlike Waley’s Genji, Moncrieff’s Proust has been revised, not once but twice: first by Terence Kilmartin in 1981 and then again by D.J. Enright in 1992. Together, Kilmartin and Enright have caught most of Moncrieff’s mistakes, and updated his word choices. In some cases, when the archaisms are Moncrieff’s and not Proust’s, as in the example of the “waters of Lethe,” this updating is justifiable.  But sometimes the zeal to modernize results in unfortunate losses. I’m thinking of one instance, for example, when the narrator uses the word “mithridate” and Kilmartin / Enright update it to “immunize.” But it’s Proust himself who uses “mithridate.” In the change to “immunize” we lose Proust’s wonderful allusion to the fierce Mithridates, the half Greek, half Persian King of Pontus who famously ingested poison from a young age in order to render himself immune.

Moncrieff’s original, unrevised by Kilmartin or Enright, is now hard to find. But luckily for us, the fantastic audiobook recording narrated by Neville Jason uses the original Moncrieff and since my reading group is both listening to and reading the revised Modern Library edition, I keep noticing differences, and they have made me even more fond of Moncrieff.

One thing I have noticed is that Moncrieff has a tendency to translate idioms literally. For example, in Sodom and Gomorrah, towards the end of the long party at the home of the Princesse de Guermantes, the character Madame de Galardon, an embittered social climber, says of her cousin the Duchesse de Guermantes that she “has no brains, is as mischievous as a weevil, and has shocking manners.” The phrase “mischievous as a weevil” nearly jumps off the page. It appears to be a sort of makeshift idiom that Moncrieff came up with to translate in quasi-literal fashion Proust’s perfectly ordinary French idiom ““méchante comme une teigne,” the literal meaning of which is “mean as scabies.” “Mean as a rattlesnake” might be a good equivalent in English. In Kilmartin and Enright’s revised edition, “mischievous as a weevil” has been replaced with the accurate but boring phrase “as nasty as can be.” But I miss Moncrieff’s “mischievous as a weevil.” Like scabies, weevils are what Wikipedia calls “proboscis-possessing” insects, known for chewing their way through and burrowing into things. While Madame de Galardon uses the phrase to tar her cousin, it bounces back at her too as a description of her own attempts to burrow her way into the exclusive parties of the Faubourg St. Germain. The hissing sound of the word “mischievous” and the fact that “weevil” rhymes with “evil” complete the effect, making Moncrieff’s phrase sound even more sinister. I can picture Moncrieff smiling to himself when he came up with this one, having a ball translating. Meanwhile, “as nasty as can be” is so pedestrian that Kilmartin (or is it Enright?) disappear behind it.

It’s not an exact parallel, but the way phrases like this make you picture Moncrieff sitting at his typewriter, twirling his moustache and translating, reminds me a little of how Proust sometimes shows his own face behind his fictional facade. An example I noticed recently, also in Sodom and Gomorrah, is when, a propos of a reference to someone mispronouncing the name of François Fénelon, the seventeenth-century author of The Adventures of Telemachus, the narrator suddenly cries out that he himself knows very well how the name “Fénelon” should be pronounced. Why? Because he has “as my dearest friend the best, bravest, most intelligent of men, whom no one who knew him could forget: Bertrand de Fénelon.” This Fénelon was a man whom the author himself, not the narrator, loved dearly and who had recently died on the battlefield in World War I when Proust was writing. He was a model for the narrator’s close friend the Marquis de St. Loup. That the real-life model, now dead, appears here in the same pages where his fictional alter-ego is still alive is one of those uncanny moments, more and more common as the novel advances, when the line between the narrator and the author blur and ontological levels are mixed. Later on in the same volume, in a remarkable passage about two maidservants whom the narrator befriends and who engage in banter with him that sounds like two dominatrixes humiliating a masochist client, Proust gives one of them the name of his own housekeeper, Céleste Albaret.

It is sometimes said of Moncrieff that since he was born in the Victorian era, or simply because he was English, he must have been a prude who felt the need to censor the references to homosexuality, and sexuality in general, that are so common in the novel.[7] His choice to title the fourth volume Cities of the Plain rather than just translate the French, Sodome et Gomorre, is often cited as an example. Fair enough. As Jean Findlay, author of a wonderful recent biography writes, “Proust was stylistically and morally foreign to a protestant English audience, and bridging that gap was part of Charles’s role.”[8]  But Moncrieff was also a gay man. And as Findlay also shows, he had a wickedly camp sense of humor and was not at all a stuffed shirt. I have been delighted to find many instances where Moncrieff picks up on and emphasizes a gay subtext, adds one of his own, or tones down a homophobic remark.

Proust famously switched the genders of men he was attracted to in real life, making them women in the novel. In the second volume, À l’ombre de jeunes filles en fleurs, a title which Moncrieff renders, also a little coyly, as Within a Budding Grove, the narrator writes about his attraction to a peasant girl carrying milk whom he glimpses from the window of his train when it stops “at a little station between two mountains.”  Moncrieff, perhaps intuiting that this young woman whom the narrator describes as a belle fille, was a transformation of a man whom Proust may have himself encountered in a similar situation, translates belle fille as “this strapping girl.” The word “strapping” makes her sound like an athletic young man. Kilmartin, or Enright, have changed this to “handsome” girl.[9] This is a choice I don’t really understand. “Handsome” maintains the masculinity of Moncrieff’s “strapping,” but it loses the sexy athleticism. And to my ear at least, “handsome” sounds rather frumpy when used for a woman. Thus what was arguably a “gay projection” or a translator’s identificatory choice on Moncrieff’s part has been toned down, but not removed entirely. If strict accuracy was the goal, why not just use “beautiful girl” to translate Proust’s belle fille?

Eve Sedgwick has written about a case where Moncrieff misreads an idiom in a way that at least partially defangs a homophobic remark about Proust’s famously closeted gay character, the Baron de Charlus. The Verdurin circle are fascinated by Charlus and like to have him around, and yet they can’t help but generate what Sedgwick calls a “ceaseless spume of homophobic wit” around this “painted, paunchy, tightly buttoned personage.”[10] In an especially hateful passage, the narrator describes how these people see Charlus as a “box of dubious and exotic origin exhaling a curious odor of fruits….” The sentence ends with a gut-punch of a conclusion to the unfunny joke that Charlus is a fruit. A fruit, that is, “..the mere thought of tasting which would turn the stomach.”  The line is correctly rendered in the Kilmartin/ Enright version. But Moncrieff’s original has the phrase “stirred the heart” in the place of “would turn the stomach.” “Stir the heart” is a literal rendering of soulever le coeur, the idiom Proust has used. I supposed one needs to be very advanced in French to recognize that the literal meaning of this phrase is not what it actually means. Either Moncrieff’s French wasn’t up to it, or he chose to take some of the edge off this homophobic scene by translating it this way. Perhaps it was a mix of both: a more or less conscious collaboration between his imperfect French and his partiality for Charlus. Of course the correction is correct. The homophobia is there in the original and it’s important for us to know how hateful the Verdurin circle can be. But Moncrieff’s failure faithfully to bring it across it endears him to me all the more. That Eve Sedgwick picked up on this example makes me love her more too.

Perhaps the most famous instance of Moncrieff’s gay sensibility shining through in his translation is his rendering of the phrase “ce chichi voulu,” which appears in another reference to Charlus in The Captive, as “this deliberate ‘camping’.” Kilmartin writes that this may be the first recorded example of the use of the word “camp” in English in the sense in which it is used today, “preceding the lexicographer Eric Partridge’s tentative date of 1935 by six years.”[11]

Beginning with Proust himself, many have criticized Moncrieff’s choice to translate the title of À la recherche du temps perdu as Remembrance of Things Past. Proust was unhappy that it missed what he called the “intentional ambiguity [in the phrase “temps perdu”] between Lost time / Wasted time, which finds itself again at the end of the work, in Time Regained. [12] Others have found fault with Moncrieff’s choice of the word “remembrance” because it suggests that memories of the past can be summoned up at will, when the whole point of Proust’s novel is to explore the workings of involuntary memory. But Moncrieff did not just pull his title out of thin air. He took it from Shakespeare’s Sonnet #30, which begins:

When to the sessions of silent sweet thought

I summon up remembrance of things past…

It’s a choice that Christopher Hitchens described as “perfectly brilliant.” Not only, Hitchens wrote, “…do the sonnets share [with Proust’s work] a similar ambiguity as to whether they are addressed to a man or woman, they also “…anticipate Proust in almost every respect, with their deep and melancholy reflections on the sorrows of love, the tortures of jealousy, and—this perhaps above all—the tyranny of time.”

As this example shows, Moncrieff did not simply translate (whatever that would be…) He enhanced Proust for English readers by docking his work up to a whole network of associations in English literature. Alongside Proust’s many allusions to French writers such as St. Simon, Montaigne, Balzac, and Madame de Sevigné, Moncrieff makes us hear echoes of Shakespeare, George Eliot, John Ruskin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Charles Dickens. Of course, Proust himself read and loved all of these authors. Edmund Wilson noticed already in 1928 that some of the comic passages in Proust exhibit “a violent grotesqueness almost unprecedented in French: Mme. Verdurin dislocating her jaw through laughing at one of Cottard’s jokes, the furious smashing by the narrator of Charlus’s hat and the latter’s calm substitution of another hat in its place.” These are “strokes which no one but Dickens would dare”; indeed, one hears in the name the “Verdurins” a direct echo of the equally superficial and obnoxious couple the Veneerings in Our Mutual Friend.[13] In the case of Ruskin, Proust spent years lovingly translating the great critic’s works into French and absorbing his style. In 1899, worried that he would never finish the massive novel he was writing at the time (Jean Santeuil), he wrote to a friend that he feared ending up like a French Casaubon, from Eliot’s Middlemarch.[14] In fact, Proust was so steeped in literature in English that an argument could be made that he was as much an English writer as a French one. Moncrieff’s own deep familiarity with English literature made him perfectly suited to translate Proust; he heard these echoes and was able to complete the circuit by bringing them back into English in his translation.

I’d like to close with one final example of how Moncrieff’s literary background and sensibility comes through in his translation.  In the section of Cities of the Plain / Sodom and Gomorrah called “The Intermittences of the Heart,” the narrator travels for the second time to the seaside town of Balbec. On his previous visit, described in Within a Budding Grove, he had traveled there with his beloved grandmother. She has now been dead for over a year. Her death is described in moving detail over dozens of pages in the first chapter of the third volume, The Guermantes Way. But no sooner has his grandmother breathed her last than the narrator seems to forget about her entirely. Chapter Two opens on a Sunday in autumn with the narrator claiming that he has been “born again.” “A change in the weather,” we are told, “is sufficient to create the world and oneself anew.”  Over several hundred pages that follow he spends his days going to glamorous parties, distracting himself and averting his eyes from the force of the loss he has suffered. Now, a year later,  he is back in Balbec and the hotel manager puts him in the same room where he stayed with his grandmother on that earlier trip. Immediately upon arriving in this room, he bends down to tie his shoes and is suddenly overwhelmed by the grief he had not yet allowed himself to feel. The scene is the novel’s most moving and elaborate example of the workings of “involuntary memory.”[15] Not long after he bends down to tie his shoes, this newly felt grief is driven home even further when he watches from his hotel window as his mother walks out onto the beach to see for herself the view of the sea at Balbec that she had read about in letters from her late mother. He imagines that what his mother is really looking for in the waves is her own mother, his grandmother.  This is described in rather gruesome language: as though she were “going in search of a corpse which the waves would cast up at her feet.” It’s an extraordinary scene in which we are presented with the mother’s grief through the eyes of her son’s belated witnessing of it.

The scene on the sand reminded me of when my family and I scattered my mother’s ashes into the waves on the beach in Tulum, Mexico in 2011, on the tenth anniversary of her death. So I sent the passage to my father and sisters. I used the old Moncrieff translation from Gutenberg since I could just copy and paste it into a text without having to retype it.  But reading it over closely I realized that Moncrieff translated the phrase “toute noire,” or “dressed all in black” to describe the narrator’s mother, as “sable figure.”

Like this:

“Carrying her mother’s sunshade, I saw her from my window advance, a sable figure, with timid, pious steps, over the sands that beloved feet had trodden before her, and she looked as though she were going down to find a corpse which the waves would cast up at her feet.”

“Sable” as Moncrieff uses it here is a term in the language of heraldry for the color black when it appears on a coat of arms. It’s a wonderful choice because it echoes the imagery of an earlier passage in which Proust uses an elaborate simile to describe how we incorporate into ourselves the personalities of those we have lost.[16] “As, in royal and princely families,” he writes,

“…upon the death of the head of the house his son takes his title and, from being Duc d’Orléans, Prince de Tarente or Prince des Laumes, becomes King of France, Duc de la Trémoïlle, Duc de Guermantes, so by an accession of a different order and more remote origin, the dead man takes possession of the living who becomes his image and successor, carries on his interrupted life…”

It’s a classic Proustian move. The narrator ennobles “the great sorrow that follows, in a daughter such as Mamma, the death of her mother” by comparing her introjection of aspects of her late mother’s personality to the inheritance of a princely title. In her grief, his mother essentially becomes her own mother: she wears clothes that emphasize their physical resemblance, treasures the objects her mother treasured,  and adopts her mother’s habit of quoting Madame de Sevigné and Madame de Beausargent in her letters. The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen.

If Proust’s narrator has made his mother’s grief into something noble, Moncrieff’s choice of the phrase “sable figure” to describe the mother in her clothes of mourning makes it more so. In addition to meaning “black” in the language of heraldry, the word “sable” in the plural can refer to black garments worn in mourning. Moncrieff had also used “sable” as an adjective earlier to describe the frock coat of the great Dr. Dieulafoy who attended his grandmother at her death with such solemn and impeccable dignity. Like a great actor “uttering not one word of condolence that could have been construed as insincere, nor being guilty of the slightest infringement of the rules of tact” Dr. Dieulafoy enters the room ‘in the sable majesty of his frock coat.” It was he, and not the vulgar and self-involved aristocrat the Duc de Guermantes, who had also come calling, “who was the great nobleman” in the room.

In Proust’s French, the word “sable” is not there in either of these phrases. As mentioned above, Proust’s narrator describes his mother as “toute noire” or “all in black.” Dr. Dieulafoy appears “in his noble black frock coat.” (“dans sa noble redingote noire”).  By inserting the word “sable” in both places, Moncrieff sets up his own echo between the two scenes. It’s an echo that works beautifully given the nature of these two scenes: his grandmother’s death on the one hand, and the mother and the narrator’s mourning of that death on the other. It is also a quintessentially Proustian technique to repeat words like this at far-flung points in the novel so as to set up an echo between them. Shattuck calls these “buoy words or expressions that recur in a work and mark its channel.”[17] Often, translators miss these “buoy words” and use different words to translate what is the same recurring word in the original, causing the “structural rhyme” to disappear. In a work as a long and complex as Proust’s, such losses are inevitable and Moncrieff misses his share of them.[18]  But what we see him doing here is to compensate partly for those losses by creating a structural rhyme of his own.

Moncrieff’s “sable figure” also echoes with the French word sable, meaning “sand,” and which does appear in the same sentence in French, just a few words further on. It’s the sand across which the narrator sees his mother “advancing with timid, pious steps…”.  Perhaps seeing that French word on Proust’s page reminded Moncrieff of his own use of “sable majesty” in the description of Dr. Dieulafoy at the scene of the grandmother’s death. Seeing the word there myself, I experienced one of those moments when you feel you are witness to the sparks flying across the network of words, as a translation emerges from the mesh of language in the mind of a great translator.

Incidentally, in the French, the phrase about the “corpse” that the narrator’s mother half expects to see cast up by the waves is a little less jarring. Proust has “une morte” (a dead woman). Here is the whole sentence cited above, now in French:

“Tenant à la main l’«en tous cas» de sa mère, je la vis de la fenêtre s’avancer toute noire, à pas timides, pieux, sur le sable que des pieds chéris avaient foulés avant elle, et elle avait l’air d’aller á la recherche d’une morte que les flots devaient ramener.”

I was struck to see there in this beautiful sentence the phrase “à la recherche.” As I mentioned earlier, Proust wrote this section as early as 1909, a dozen years before Sodom and Gomorrah was published and before he knew what would become the title of his great novel. But here already are the first three words of that title. Seeing it here, I felt I had come across the seed of the whole novel written to mourn the death of his mother, whom he would transform into the grandmother of his narrator. An alternative title of the whole work might be “A la recherche d’une morte.” (“In Search of a Dead Woman”).

***

I should say that in my enthusiasm for Moncrieff I do not at all mean to imply any global criticism of Kilmartin and Enright’s versions, nor of any of the other brilliant translators who produced the new Penguin translations that began appearing in British Penguin editions with Lydia Davis’s The Way by Swann’s in 2003. This essay is not meant as a systematic analysis or critique of the translations. I think they are all wonderful.

Of course, it does matter who translates and how. But perhaps especially with Proust, it can also make a big difference where you are in your life as a reader when you encounter him.  For a long time, I attributed the success I had in my early thirties in finally finishing Proust to the updated diction of the new Penguin translations. They had just started to come out and I read them in a feverish streak, ordering copies from England because copyright restrictions delayed their publication in the US. More recently, on my second time through in my fifties, as I have discovered the joy of reading Moncrieff, I have started to realize that, really, my ability to read all of Proust in those years had less to do with the relative ease and “readability” of the Penguin translations and more with the fact that my mother passed away suddenly in 2001. It was in the wake of her death that I finally read Proust through. He helped me to grieve that loss then and he continues to do so now.

 

The image above is taken from a manuscript copy of a  “Commonplace Book on Heraldry” showing heraldic colors, including sable. It is attributed to Jean Faucket, comes from “France, Burgundy, or the Imperial Court,” and is dated between 1488 and 1497. It has been digitized by the Beinecke Library at Yale, here:

https://collections.library.yale.edu/catalog/2027590

 

[1] Roger Shattuck, “Kilmartin’s Way,” New York Review of Books, no. June 25 (1981).

[2] Lydia Davis, “Loaf or Hot-Water Bottle: Closely Translating Proust (Proust Talk I),” in Essays Two: On Proust, Translation, Foreign Languages, and the City of Arles (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, n.d.), 215–38.

[3] Davis. 228.

[4] Christopher Hitchens, “The Acutest Ear in Paris,” The Atlantic, February 2004, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/01/the-acutest-ear-in-paris/378583/.

[5] Shikibu Murasaki, The Tale of Genji: The Arthur Waley Translation of Lady Murasaki’s Masterpiece, trans. Arthur Waley (Tuttle Publishing, 2010).

[6] Shikibu Murasaki and Kikou Yamada, Le Roman de Genji (Paris: Plon, 1928).

[7] Davis, for example, refers to Moncrieff’s “squeamish euphemisms.” Davis, “Loaf of Hot-Water Bottle: Closely Translating Proust (Proust Talk I).” 220.

[8] Jean Findlay, Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff: Soldier, Spy and Translator (London: Chatto & Windus, 2014). 191.

[9] Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove, trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin, and D. J. Enright, vol. II, In Search of Lost Time (Modern Library, n.d.). 318.

[10] Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick, “Proust and the Spectacle of the Closet,” in The Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 213–51.

[11] Terence Kilmartin, “Translating Proust,” Grand Street 1, no. 1 (1981): 134–46. 144.

[12] Proust’s remarks on the title in a letter to Moncrieff are translated in Findlay, Chasing Lost Time.

[13] Edmund Wilson, “A Short View of Proust,” The New Republic, March 21, 1928, https://www.readingproust.com/wilson.htm.

[14] In a letter written in 1899 to his friend Marie Nordlinger, Proust wrote, “”Je travaille depuis très longtemps à un ouvrage de très longue haleine mais sans rien achever. Et il y a des moments où je me demande si je ne ressemble pas au mari de Dorothée Brook [sic] dans Middlemarch et si je n’amasse pas des ruines.” Cited in Emily EELLS, “GEORGE ELIOT ET PROUST,” Bulletin d’informations Proustiennes, no. 24 (1993): 21–30.

[15] This section is one of those sections of the novel that Proust drafted early and later wove into his great novel. Until 1914, the plan had been to title the whole novel The Intermittences of the Heart. See Marcel Proust, A la recherche du temps perdu III, [Nouv. éd.], Bibliothèque de la Pléiade 100 (Paris]: Gallimard, 1987).  1431-2.

[16] The theory is exactly what Freud describes in his essay on melancholia as the “introjection” of pieces of the lost object into the ego.  Of course Proust describes it much more beautifully.

[17] Shattuck, “Kilmartin’s Way.”

[18] See Shattuck for some examples.