Translating Proust

Michael Kicey

University at Buffalo, SUNY


Since the days of Balzac, modern French literature has been unusually blessed with novelists who, in dealing with the manners and mores of the present or recent past, are not only alert and discriminating in their use of language, but also attentive to reproducing with the utmost accuracy the lived details of the moment they depict. Proust’s work is arguably the nec plus ultra of this meticulous, almost scholarly insistence on correctness of detail, while at the same time notoriously taking vast artistic liberties in combining the historical with the fictional, the prosaic with the improbable. Just a few years before his death, for instance, Proust extracted himself from cork-lined seclusion to call upon a duchess with the express purpose of asking her if she still possessed a certain hat which he had seen her wear at a certain party some twenty years earlier. She still had the hat; she was baffled; he was entranced. But Proust puts this Balzacian sense of fidelity to the real at the service of a thoroughly modernist temperament: in the space of a few pages, he happily melds a literary simulation of lived experience so exacting that it can only be described as hyperrealist – the world of aging duchesses, their outmoded hats, and specific afternoon parties a quarter-century earlier– with shifts in scene and sequence that openly flout whatever rules of logic, probability, or chronology his hapless reader might seek to apply. I defy anyone, for instance, to calculate the narrator’s actual age during his encounters with Gilberte on the Champs-Élysées: he is at once a small child, a hormonal teenager, and a world-weary middle-aged man.

Those seeking historically reliable, documentary detail in the works of Proust with an eye to teaching or understanding the French history and culture of his period must work under the caveat that just as the narrator’s boyhood, young adulthood, and old age freely bleed into and reshape each other in the meshes of his language and narrative, so do whole eras of international politics, high fashion, social controversy, popular slang, and erotic life meet and merge in the evanescent world of the Proustian text. Nothing is kept apart; everything fuses. Deleuze, in his book on Proust, called these intricate and suggestive networkings of moment to moment and idea to idea transversals. Indeed, Proust is more alive than possibly any other modern writer to the authentically transversal character of history and culture: existing in any given moment, we necessarily exist in many other moments simultaneously; looking from any given viewpoint, we necessarily look from many other viewpoints at once; living as any given self, we necessarily live the lives of many selves. In the same way that Proust’s involuntary memory conjures a world of affects and relations that shatter the mundane categories of voluntary memory, so does the spreading, branching, reticulating texture of Proust’s sentences both reflect and betray the lived experience of history, as the roots of a rapidly growing plant break through a clay pot. In a phrase: Proust loves life – the mental life of his narrator, the social and cultural life of fin-de-siècle Paris, the political life of France in the Third Republic – so vehemently, so immoderately that he leaves life itself far behind.

So much for Proust’s reliability as a witness to history. When one seeks to use Proust in the classroom as an exhibit in French history or culture, two more rather daunting problems arise. Even when we set aside the prospect of confronting unprepared undergraduates with Proust’s style, one has to admit that creating pedagogically viable excerpts of Proust is like carrying a pebble away from the Himalayas: you just can’t take Everest home with you. The other problem is more pedestrian, but potentially even more of a barrier to access for students without thorough background in the history of the Third Republic: just who the hell are all these people with titles, houses, offices, opinions, incomes, diseases, and lovers? Which ones were real people, or are based on real people? Why do they matter? What do they care about, and why do they care about it at this particular moment in France? What do some of these words even mean? The first of these two problems lies well beyond the scope of this review, and must chiefly be left to the discretion and judgment of the individual instructor: no impersonal guideline can make this sort of decision for you. The second problem is the primary justification for the very existence of Carter’s new edition of The Guermantes Way, and so leads us to the heart of the issue.

Carter’s edition excels in illuminating the culture, history, and even the vocabulary of Proust’s very specific and very complex moment in France, opening the door to this era for the uninitiated reader in ways that previous editions/translations of the novel have sorely neglected. On a single page selected at random (52), the otherwise uninformed reader may find Carter’s brief and cogent notes on matters as various as the meanings of the choice terms dentition and aigrette, the notably birdlike profile of a certain Comtesse Laure de Chevigné, and the exceptional fashion taste of a Mme Henry Standish and a Mme Élisabeth Greffulhe – all of which notes contributing small but still substantial measures to an understanding of the text and the social world from which the text derives. Even beyond the welter of proper nouns – historical and semi-historical places, persons, and events – with which Proust’s pages abound and most of which are opaque to the contemporary American reader, there is also incalculably much in the novel that does not prima facie appear to demand a clarifying footnote, unless an eye as discriminating and well-informed as Carter’s should happen upon it. Having authored a recent, extensive, and authoritative biography of Proust, Carter has the uniquely advantageous position among American Proustians of being in full command of the extant epistolary and documentary material related to Proust’s life and Proust’s France. The note on Standish and Greffulhe is a good example of how Carter’s information pays off for the reader: nothing in the footnoted passage trumpets the presence of historical persons behind the fictional characters being discussed, but the note grants us important insight into how Proust reflected on and transformed his own experience of contemporary French life to create this particular moment in his work.

Some may argue that Carter’s tendency to use the commentary as a platform for explicitly linking aspects of the novel to aspects of Proust’s experience may reinforce the still marked tendency of Proust criticism, following upon the method of George Painter’s magisterial two-volume biography (1959/65), to personalize and psychologize Proust’s work. But whatever steps Carter may take in this direction never become as tendentious as they were with Painter and his followers: the genre of a footnote commentary, after all, does not really allow such critical ambitions to be realized on the level of unified totality, which is the only level on which they make sense. Furthermore, Carter includes a number of intratextual references which not only show his command of the work as a whole but, more importantly, allow the reader to develop their own nascent sense of the novel’s total architecture, transversals included, with the aid of an experienced Proustian sherpa.

Among this edition’s numerous virtues should also be mentioned certain physical properties which may further endear it to serious readers: it appears as a handsome, relatively inexpensive, large-format paperback, with ample outer margins designed primarily to accommodate Carter’s commentaries, but equally inviting for the reader’s annotations. Hence notes and main text appear simultaneously under the reader’s eye and without the obtrusive jockeying for real estate that one occasionally encounters when lengthy footnotes cannibalize the text. To my eye, however, the black rectangle that surrounds the text and rigorously separates it from the commentary on every page is an odd affectation.

Psg. no. Number of changes from M % difference in quantity of changes between MC and MKE
1) 18 20 +11% (MKE more)
2) 13 21 +62% (MKE more)
3) 3 3 0% (MKE more)
4) 16 17 6% (MKE more)
5) 10 6 -40% (MC more)
6) 4 9 125% (MKE more)
7) 4 7 75% (MKE more)
8) 7 9 29% (MKE more)
9) 15 24 60% (MKE more)
10) 4 18 350% (MKE more)
11) 10 9 -10% (MC more)
Avg. difference: 60.72% (MKE more)

But there are shortcomings to Carter’s edition which limit its value. Readers who approach this publication expecting to find a strikingly new and authoritative translation of the work, and thus with the hope of holding in their hands that Holy Grail of Anglo-American Proustians – a comfortable reading edition that combines the most rigorously revised and purified translation with an exhaustive and illuminating commentary – will likely be nonplussed. Carter’s English text is founded upon the original C.K. Scott Moncrieff translation, which has long been available in the public domain and also serves as the basis of the Modern Library translation, as revised by Terence Kilmartin and D.J. Enright. For a long time, and despite its shortcomings, this latter, composite work has been held up as the scholarly standard. It’s true that in his revisions and additions to Scott Moncrieff’s work, Carter accounts for the latest findings of textual criticism to Proust’s text, as any responsible translator would. But his foundation is not markedly innovative. The question then arises to what degree Carter’s revision of Scott Moncrieff represents an improvement on the original that possibly also outstrips the Scott Moncrieff-Kilmartin-Enright version.

In the interests of objectivity, I decided to take a quantitative approach to describing the differences between the translations at hand. I took a random sample of eleven passages appearing at equally-spaced intervals throughout the work and varying in length, and compared the original Moncrieff version (M) with both the present Moncrieff-Carter (MC) version and the standard Moncrieff-Kilmartin-Enright (MKE) version respectively. Where either MKE or MC departed at all from M – and this includes both orthographic and stylistic alterations of varying complexity – I counted a single change. The tally of changes in each passage is shown in the central two columns of the table provided. I then calculated the difference in the quantity of changes between MC and MKE, which with two exceptions always showed a greater number in MKE, and then expressed this difference as a percentage of the tally of changes in MC. The average of these percentages, shown at the bottom of the table, reflects the degree to which MKE consistently reflects a greater proportion of changes to the original (M) than does MC: namely, about 61% more.

There are clear risks and shortcomings in trying to quantify differences between texts in this way, and rather than rehearse them here, I will assume that any sensitive reader of literature in translation will likely be aware of the most serious of them already. I admit I did not quantify the significance or scope of each change I discovered, such that the mere deletion of a pair of quotation marks, for instance, would count equally in my reckoning with the substitution of one entire lengthy phrase for another, nor did I apply any evaluative standard to each change I noted. I did at least attempt to control for the varying length of the passages already mentioned by expressing the differences between MC and MKE as a percentage. It must be emphasized that my conclusion here does not have anything meaningful to say about the relative value of M, MKE, or MC as translations of Proust’s original French, or whether MKE at least ends up being a superior translation to MC in qualitative terms: the result only signifies that on average, MKE reflects a significantly greater proportion of changes than MC does. In view of the data, it does not fall wide of the mark to say that my reader may take up whatever opinion she has heretofore formed of M as a more or less reliable guide to whatever opinion she may ultimately form of MC, since for the most part, and aside from additions and changes based on the recent textual criticism, they reflect much the same text.

In summary: Carter’s work, despite the shortcomings noted, is a welcome addition to the Proustian reader’s shelf. In pedagogical and research contexts where an understanding of Proust’s historical and cultural world takes precedence over questions of literary nuance, it has no peer in English and sets the bar very high for comparable future annotated editions, the lack of which has been sorely felt outside of France. Those readers hoping for a radical new departure in translations of Proust or a marked improvement on the scholarly standard translation will not, however, find what they seek in this edition.

Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way. Translated by C.K. Scott-Moncrieff, edited and annotated by William Carter. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018.

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