Proust Translations: Moncrieff, Moncrieff Revised, or Penguin?

The Modern Library edition of Proust translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmarten and revised by D. J. Enright.

The Modern Library set, translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin and revised by D. J. Enright.

I have been reading Proust for three weeks.

In Search of Lost Time is a page-turner.

That is a comment on middle age, is it not?  When I first read Swann’s Way, it seemed a collection of beautiful, haunting, digressive essays.

Now I see form and story, as well as elegaic essays, and will write soon about the second volume, Within a Budding Grove.

But I wonder, Which translation should I be reading?

I am reading the Modern Library paperback editions, translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin and revised by  D. J. Enright.  I used to have a fragile, falling-apart seven-volume Modern Library set in the original Moncrieff translation.  My husband read  Proust in the  Moncrieff and Kilmartin translation.

But is the original Moncrieff even better?

In an article in the Oct. 31 issue of the TLS,  “Faun’s Way,” a review of Jean Findlays’ Chasing Lost Time:  The Life of C. K. Scott Moncrieff, A. N. Wilson says that Findlay’s excellent biography reminds readers of Moncrieff’s literary genius and raises the question of whether his translation is better than Proust’s original.   Moncrieff’s is not a literal translation, but Proust himself very much admired it. Joseph Conrad preferred Moncrieff’s rendering to Proust.

Wilson writes,

Many of us with A level French are not quite able to read A la Recherche without frequently repairing to our frayed Harrap’s Dictionaries, and feel, if we are honest, that we have got more out of Proust by reading him in Scott Moncrieff’s pocket-sized, beautifully bound blue volumes, with their perfect dust wrappers designed by Enid Marx.  Many of us, indeed, would surely want to go further, and to say that we have derived more pleasure from these twelve volumes than from any other reading experience, and that, as well as basking in Scott Moncrieff’s prose, and luxuriating in the comedy of Proust’s characters, we have also learnt what little we know about life from reading and rereading them.

He goes on to say, “Scott Moncrieff’s twelve sky-blue volumes, therefore, belong to that special category of translations which are themselves literary masterpieces.”

And now I’m saying to myself, F–, f—, f—, I have the wrong translation then.

Coincidentally, I found a reference to the sky-blue Proust in Barbara Pym’s Less Than Angels.  When  Tom, an anthropologist, writes from Africa   about a memory that was “a moment out of Proust,” his girlfriend Deirdre is dismayed.

Must I then read Proust?  she asked herself despairingly, seeing the twelve blue volumes with red labels in Catherine’s bookshelves, for she was not much of a reader at the best of times.

The 12-volume sky-blue set of  Scott Moncrieff's Proust.

The 12-volume sky-blue set of Scott Moncrieff’s Proust.

All right, I don’t have the sky-blue Chatto & Windus, but I’m not panicking.  I love my paperback editions, whoever is responsible for the translation. The French editions of A la recherche were revised, first in 1954 and then in the ’80s:  hence the revisions by Kilmartin and then Enright.

I did find one of my old Modern Library editions (more than slightly foxed), The Captive.  Looking at the first page, I see very few differences in the translation.

Here is a sentence from Moncrieff:

The first sounds from the street had told me, according to whether they came to my ears dulled and distorted by the moisture of the atmosphere or quivering like arrows in the resonant and empty area of a spacious, crisply frozen morning; as soon as I heard the rumble of the first tramcar, I could tell whether it was sodden with rain or setting forth into the blue.

Here is the Enright revised:

The first sounds from the street had told me, according to whether they came to my ears deadened and distorted by the moisture of the atmosphere or quivering like arrows in the resonant, empty expanses of a spacious, frosty, pure morning; as soon as I heard the rumble of the first tramcar, I could tell whether it was sodden with rain or setting forth into the blue.

Does anyone have a preference?

Presumably there are whole paragraphs that don’t appear in the original Moncrieff.  But if you read the original Moncrieff, it is still Proust.  Yes?

And  there are the recent Penguin translations, each by a different translator.  Lydia Davis translated Swann’s Way.

Which Proust are you reading, or have you read?

Back to my Modern Library much-revised paperback editions!

13 thoughts on “Proust Translations: Moncrieff, Moncrieff Revised, or Penguin?

  1. I’ve read the first three volumes of the new translations but now I’ve been thinking of starting over with the Moncrieffs but I don’t know which one. I had The Captive once but I gave it away and now I’m annoyed with myself.


    • My old set was so beat-up: the 1929 Modern Library editions! Who would have thought I would ever want them back? Really, I’m quite content with the revised. The new Pengunis are certainly beautiful books! I do often like older translations, though.


  2. Mine are the Moncrieff/Kilmartin and I am very happy with them! I considered the original Moncrieff but because of the missing bits went for M/K which I think comes highly recommended from some sources and which Proust I think was happy about. I confess I won’t go for the new ones because a) they’ll probably contain modernisms and b) I don’t like the use of several translators as I think there might well be inconsistencies of style and tone. But I think it’s always going to come down to personal taste. There is an interesting article here:


    • Karen, all those revisions! Who knows if we need them? But I love my M-K-E translation, too. Thanks for the link to this lovely publication I did not know about. And that reminds me: we can download the original Moncrieff from Internet Archive if we want them.


  3. I’m bilingual and English-French translator, and I do read a lot of books in translation, including translated from my native language, French. But somehow for Proust (whom I am reading right now – in La prisonnière), I think the interest and richness of the text is its mastery of the French language, so I really have hard time recommending people to read it in translation


    • OH, I know what you mean! Translation is very, very difficult. It is always better to read the text in the original language. I don’t know French, but the translation can only be approximate. There are some awkward paragraphs in the Moncrieff-Enright, but I keep going. I’m reading The Guermantes Way.


  4. I’m so confused. I’ve now read that the Davis is pretty good so maybe I’ll begin again with the second volume of M/E which I’ve already bought. Or should I start again at the first volume?. As if I’m going to get to this anytime soon.


    • Ha! I’m confused, too. I started reading the Davis and put it aside because I thought my old Modern Library Moncrieff-Enright was better. Then A. N. Wilson wrote that the original Moncrieff was the classic, so I dug up two old old old Prousts from my collection. I haven’t switched to those yet, but should I? It would be so much better if we could read it in French, wouldn’t it?


  5. I’ve just started reading the Moncrieff and Kilmartin translation. I’m enjoying it, but I must say there’s something about that ‘crisply frozen morning’ that gets me.


  6. Moncrieff is musical. Contextualize him by also reading his translation of the Song of Roland. It will be apparent why his translation of Proust is in itself literary creation of the first order. I prefer to stick to the creators. Let the correctors type away like little goblins.


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