On Oct. 31 in the TLS, A.N. Wilson reviewed a new biography, Jean Findlay’s Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C. K. Scott Moncrieff. Wilson says that Moncrieff’s English translation of Proust is a masterpiece and raises the question of whether it is better than Proust.
I was fascinated by Wilson’s review since I am reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in the marvelous Moncrieff translation corrected by Terence Kilmartin and later by D. J. Enright. I do have two volumes of the Moncrieff original in old Modern Library hardback editions. Should I read this musty hardback of The Guermantes Way in the original translation? (The smaller print makes it less attractive.) My other flippant thought was, “Is Moncrieff’s translation shorter?” It is not.
In the Nov. 7 issue of the TLS, Christopher Prendergast, the general editor of the Penguin translations of Proust, wrote an outraged Letter to the Editor about Wilson’s “eccentric” claim that Moncrieff is better than Proust. He says he called Moncrieff’s efforts “heroic” and the translation “majestic” in the introductions to the Penguin translations. That does not, however, mean that the new translations are not superb.
Literary tastes naturally vary, and there are many ways of tasting Proust. Lydia Davis’s translation of the volume re-baptized by her, largely for reasons to do with Proust’s own tetchy reservations over Scott Moncrieff’s version, as The Way by Swann’s is characterized by Wilson as “technically more ‘accurate,’ but no one, reading it, could consider it an atmospheric piece of writing.” I leave it on one side what possibilities there are for us with The Way by Swann other than by “reading it.” By “no one,” I take it that…this is code for Wilson.
He then quotes two passages, the first by Moncrieff and the other by Lydia Davis, and asks us which we like better. The passage he chose? Davis’s is by far more vivid.
Translations fascinate me, and I am certainly not adverse to the Penguins. For one thing, these are gorgeous books. I respect the idea that we need new translations for a new century, and certainly there are different philosophies of translation. Do you go with Moncrieff’s title Swann’s Way, or Davis’s more literal The Way by Swann’s? (By the way, Davis’s is still called Swann’s Way in the U.S.) We do have a copy of Davis’s translation (the book sale), and though I admired the first 125 pages, I went back to my Moncrieff-Kilmarten-Enright. I prefer it.
What do others think of Moncrieff? In The Boston Review, on June 16, 2014, Leland de la Durantaye reviewed a new Yale University Press edition of the C. K. Scott Moncrieff translation of Swann’s Way, edited and annotated by William C. Carter. Carter believes the Moncrieff is the best, but de la Durantayef finds it very odd that Carter undid the revisions by Kilmarten and Enright.
There is always a tension in translation between the spirit and the letter, between conveying things we might call tone, mood, feel, or music, and being as literally faithful to the original as possible. Moncrieff excelled at both. He created a rich and recognizable style that became, for English readers, Proust. Because the translation was the only one in existence for so very long, it naturally became closely intertwined with the fate of the work in the English-speaking world. But translations age differently—and more quickly—than originals, and Moncrieff’s monumental achievement, with its many Edwardian intonations, came to feel increasingly dated. With this in mind Moncrieff’s translation was reviewed and revised in 1981 by Terence Kilmartin, and then re-reviewed and re-revised in 1992 by D.J. Enright, who changed its title to the more literal In Search of Lost Time. Ten years later, with the book at last out of copyright, a new translation was produced with a different translator for each volume, beginning with Lydia Davis’s 2002 translation of Swann’s Way—which she lobbied energetically, but in vain, to have retitled more literally as The Way Past Swann’s Place.
Translators have difficulty capturing the very real differences of the experience of reading a book in a foreign languages. For instance, the best translations of Catullus I have read are in David Ferry’s 2012 National Book Award winner, Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations. They are far from literal, but they capture the spirit. Are they Catullus? Sort of.
And so as a common reader, I am going with the Moncrieff-Kilmarten-Enright. I love it, so why switch?
That said, I am sure the Penguins are worth reading. Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary is a masterpiece.