The first translation of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, by CK Scott Moncrieff, may be a personal interpretation, but it’s a masterpiece in itself
In the anniversary year of the outbreak of the first world war, it is apt to look at Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. It was written before, during and after the war, its volumes appearing from 1913 to 1927. Its first translator was CK Scott Moncrieff, a man who was in many ways similar to Proust; a cultivated, literary, closet homosexual who had witnessed and appreciated the high point of the fin-de-siecle civilisation that fell headlong into war.
In 2007 Penguin published the first totally new translation of Proust since Scott Moncrieff’s. The new translation took seven translators seven years to complete. And they had the versions of earlier translators to lean on. In 1921 Scott Moncrieff was working alone, like a man scaling Everest for the first time: he had no route marked out, no helpfully drilled footholds.
In the following year – and F Scott Fitzgerald would later concur – his translation was hailed as a masterpiece in itself. Joseph Conrad wrote to him that “I was more interested and fascinated by your rendering than by Proust’s creation … You have a supreme faculty akin to genius.” But critics have since deemed his work “inaccurate”, “overinterpretive” or “flowery”.
Scott Moncrieff was not a mechanical translator; he was more like Gielgud interpreting Shakespeare, or Casals interpreting Bach. He took liberties with the title from the very beginning. He knew he could not find an English expression meaning time wasted and time lost, involving memory and still reflecting the beauty of what the novel contained, so he chose a line from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30: “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past.” This horrified purists, and still does, and so the new version translates the title as precisely as you’ll find it on Google Translate.
But there were reasons for internal technical inaccuracies. In postwar France there was a shortage of typesetters. The few who weren’t killed in the war were overworked with undertrained assistants. The first volumes of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu were printed with quantities of typesetter errors; Proust’s elliptical sentences were hard to follow and his handwritten annotations on top of the typescript indecipherable in places. Scott Moncrieff not only understood Proust on a personal and cultural level, he had also worked in a newspaper office and knew how typesetter errors occurred. Despite having no access to the original manuscript, Scott Moncrieff had to be both the translator and, in many cases, the interpreter, using guesswork and intuition to find the right word or probable meaning.
Nor did Scott Moncrieff have the time for slavish dedication to accuracy. He took on an enormous workload, including translations of Stendhal, Abelard and Heloise, and Pirandello, so as to feed “nine hungry nephews and nieces”. With one brother dead and the other improvident, he provided for their education and medicine. He also had commercial pressures: he needed to establish Proust’s genius in the English-speaking world. His translation is proof of one man’s dynamism: he completed all except the last of the 12 volumes (published after his death and finished by Stephen Hudson); like Proust, he worked himself to death.
Thirty years after Proust’s death, his brother Robert Proust, a medical doctor, and Proust’s publishers, Gallimard, put together all the notes they had found among his manuscripts. Proust would insert pieces of paper by way of revisions, and these gummed-on “paperoles” would often fall off. Gallimard and Robert Proust painstakingly reinserted these bits of sentences where they thought they ought to be. The result was an even longer novel: they added 300,000 words to the original 12 volumes. This “definitive version” was published by Gallimard in the 1950s, and reworked into Scott Moncrieff’s translation in the 1980s by Terence Kilmartin.
However, if you want to read the Proust that Proust saw published, that influenced Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, that is all of one piece and interpreted by someone as close to Proust’s sensibilities, education and experience as you can get, then you must read the Scott Moncrieff translation. Yes, it is an interpretation, but a version that goes through the sieve of his soul. It draws from his history, education and experience in the trenches. For him, translation involved the values, personality and intention that underlie the original: his duty was in part ethical and spiritual.
Chasing Lost Time: The Life of CK Scott Moncrieff: Soldier, Spy and Translator is published by Chatto & Windus