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December 28, 2009 7:21 PM   Subscribe

What's the best translation (or, rather, which might you recommend) of Proust's masterwork In Search of Lost Time?

A previous question here on Ask yields a vote for Lydia Davis. Can anyone comment as to whether there are other contemporary translations which compare to hers? Many thanks.
posted by jokeefe to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
Can't recommend anything myself, but an article in the New Yorker (quite possibly a review of a new translation) seemed to regard the Moncrieff translation as canonical, measuring other attempts by its standard. Just based on that, I was planning on reading the Moncrieff whenever I get around to it.
posted by LionIndex at 7:31 PM on December 28, 2009


Here's a comparison of a short excerpt, of course that famous part of it -

http://www.readingproust.com/madelein.htm

I took a course with a prof who is an expert on Proust and who preferred Moncrieff if it came to that (though we read the original French). Reading the paragraph here of Davis and Moncrieff.. it might be a matter of preference to you.. Proust is very very long, of course, and reading Davis might be exhausting because she seems to stick closer to the sentence structure of French. Which reads smoothly in French. But English sentence structure isn't the same, so her translated text still seems a bit foreign and strange, whereas Moncrieff reads more easily.

It might depend on what you want from a translator - do you want him/her to hew as closely as possible to the original text (keeping in mind an exact translation is never possible), even if this results in an English text that doesn't read easily in English? or do you want him/her to take decisions that might depart more from the original, but produce an English text that reads better in English.
posted by citron at 8:25 PM on December 28, 2009


Well, I wish I could offer a comparative assessment - but I have only read the Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright translation, which was very good. If you're looking for a specifically contemporary translation, though, I don't know of any other options besides the Penguin/Viking series (i.e., Lydia Davis) - my impression was actually that that was the only recent translation done, and really the only competitor to Moncrieff. You may be interested in this exchange of letters from the New York Review of Books, which resulted after a fairly negative review of the Davis translation by André Aciman (whose review is hidden behind a subscription wall).

Maybe try the first chapter of both, and then pick one. You have a lot to look forward to.
posted by chinston at 8:35 PM on December 28, 2009


If I were you, I wouldn't limit myself to contemporary translations. Many old translations are very good, and the books are retranslated because of differences in taste, not because the original lacked in quality. Fagles' translations of the Iliad and Odyssey, for instance, I found pretty awful compared to almost every other translation done over the last 300 years.

As chinston notes, try reading the first chapter of three translations in the bookstore. Don't look at who the translator is. Whichever catches your ear is the one to go with, and don't be worried if it isn't the latest.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 9:38 PM on December 28, 2009


If I were you, I would only trust the opinion of people who have read both the original and the translation. Many old translations are awful, and the books are retranslated because the original translator made poor choices, not because the new translators are uppity. Most early French translations of Dostoyevsky, for instance, were stupendously bad (I mean omitting whole paragraphs bad).

But there I am: French is my first language, and I know English fairly well, but I haven't read Proust in either the original or translation (the shame).

As someone who knows a little bit about literary translation, I have to take issue with something Aciman said in the exchange chinston linked to:

To capture the stunning Miltonian beauty of "dark mutinous Shannon waves" you may ultimately have to do something no translator will admit needs doing: you may have to depart from the text in order to capture not just its meaning, but its cadence, its luster, its stunning magic. In other words—and I should bite my tongue—you may need to pad, to adorn, to interpolate.

I have only met one person who made his living solely as a literary translator (a rare beast indeed), and he readily admitted that capturing "cadence", "luster" and "stunning magic" was part of the ultimate goal of a translation. But I don't think he'd cop to padding, adorning or interpolating.

There I still am, modern jackassing. My feeling, reading a bit of stuff linked from the Wikipedia article, is that Moncrieff & his continuators were pretty attached to making Proust "sound" like someone who was writing idiomatic English. But À la recherche du temps perdu was not written in idiomatic English; it was written in idiomatic French. If they've succeeded, the later translators will give you a somewhat weirder, but maybe truer, experience.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 12:37 AM on December 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Just to note that I'm not marking any particular comment as a "best answer" because each comment has been very helpful. Thank you all. I've just downloaded a pdf of the Moncrieff, which has the distinct advantage of being in the public domain. Wish me luck!
posted by jokeefe at 12:50 AM on December 29, 2009


If you're encountering Proust for the first time, it's probably best to dive in without worrying too much about selecting the 'right' translation. However, as I commented recently, the Scott Moncrieff translation is often criticised for being too solemn and humourless. Anthony Powell has a wicked parody of it in his novel The Military Philosophers in which he makes fun of Scott Moncrieff's convoluted syntax:

The Ottoman Ambassadress, now bent on demonstrating to me not only her familiarities with the Royalties present, some of whom I knew our hostess had invited out of sheer kindness of heart and would never have been at home to them if the Prince of Wales or the Queen of Spain were in her drawing-room the afternoon they called, but also her mastery of current appointments under consideration at the Quai d'Orsay or Rue Dominique, disregarding my wish to cut short our conversation, drew my attention to a young man wearing a cypripedia (the flower Bloch liked to call 'sandal of foam-borne Aphrodite') in the buttonhole of his dress coat, whose swarthy appearance required only an astrakhan cap and silver-hilted yataghan to complete evident affinities with the Balkan peninsula.

There is some truth to this, even though the Moncrieff translation is deservedly admired as a classic. So if you find it heavy going (I did), you might want to try the revision by Kilmartin and Enright, which smoothes out some of the difficulties. This article by Christopher Prendergast discusses some of the challenges of translating Proust, including the famous first line, 'For a long time I used to go to bed early' (or should that be 'would go to bed early'? or 'always went to bed early'?), and some of the good and bad points of the Moncrieff-Kilmartin-Enright version.
posted by verstegan at 2:05 AM on December 29, 2009


There are two readily available English translations of In Search of Lost Time: the translation by Moncrieff and Kilmartin that was revised by Enright, and the recent one published by Viking Penguin.

The feature that makes the Viking/Penguin edition interesting is that each volume of the series was translated by a different person, giving each volume a different feel. The massive disadvantage of the Viking/Penguin edition for US readers is that the final three volumes are not in print in the US, due to the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998. (Which means that my hardcover American edition is probably doomed to remain forever incomplete.) So if you go with the Viking Penguin version, after you finish Sodom and Gomorrah you'll have to either import the UK paperbacks, or switch to the Moncrieff translation anyway.
posted by Prospero at 6:24 AM on December 29, 2009


> I've just downloaded a pdf of the Moncrieff, which has the distinct advantage of being in the public domain.

True, being free is nice, but the fact is Moncrieff made a lot of errors (inevitable if you're the first translator of a very long and complicated book), and I would strongly advise you to spring for the revision by Kilmartin and Enright, which keeps Moncrieff's brilliant prose (I disagree with the criticism verstegan mentions) while fixing his mistakes and recasting some of the sentences to read better in English. Used copies are available quite cheaply.

> But À la recherche du temps perdu was not written in idiomatic English; it was written in idiomatic French. If they've succeeded, the later translators will give you a somewhat weirder, but maybe truer, experience.

That's a bizarre take on it. The vast majority of readers quite sensibly prefer a translation written idiomatically in their own language, and the idea that idiomatic French should be rendered in some sort of weird translationese seems self-evidently wrong. In any case, someone who admits "I haven't read Proust in either the original or translation" really has no business commenting here.
posted by languagehat at 8:12 AM on December 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


As others have pointed out, you really don't have a ton of options here. Moncrieff was the only game in town for so long that his translation has obtained something of a canonical status. And in the revised version, there are no really significant failings to complain about. I'd suggest reading at least a couple volumes of revised Moncrieff, and if you find yourself enjoying it, dipping into the new translation to get a comparitive taste.
posted by mr_roboto at 8:48 AM on December 29, 2009


the idea that idiomatic French should be rendered in some sort of weird translationese seems self-evidently wrong

There is a good bit of wiggle-room between "not quite idomatic" and "weird translationese"; I'm thinking of the former.

posted by Monday, stony Monday at 10:00 AM on December 29, 2009


As chinston notes, try reading the first chapter of three translations in the bookstore

There are only two translations of this work into English, so that would be impossible.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:42 AM on December 29, 2009


However, the unrevised Scott Moncrieff edition has, as others have pointed out, lots of errors. So one of the revised versions is preferable.

In addition to the errors, there is some bowdlerization in the unrevised Scott Moncrieff, especially around gay sexx0rs. Which is one of the high points of the work.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:44 AM on December 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


verstegan makes a really great point! It just struck me that, as a native English speaker who has read a lot of texts in French.. what took me the longest to catch was a sense of humor, whenever present. Because humor just isn't the same in different cultures, and because it can be subtle. In fact my French was advanced, but not advanced enough!, when I read Proust in French. There is so much difficult vocabulary, that I hardly would've noticed if anything in it was funny. It's a shame when a great work comes off as grim this way, when it's not. I think it might indeed be good to use the revised translation if it succeeds better at carrying over the humor.

I disagree with languagehat in that what necessarily results from hewing closer to idiomatic French is weird translationese. A matter of opinion here I suppose. If it's done well, it's only somewhat weird, and maybe you want to keep the weird, because if you aren't a native speaker of the target language you are stepping into a world that is always strange, and I like it when a translator respects and keeps some of that strangeness. Not to the point where it's an unreadable slog, though.
posted by citron at 2:28 PM on December 29, 2009


Oops, my bad. Meant to write "if you aren't a native speaker of the original language."
posted by citron at 2:29 PM on December 29, 2009


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