Proust Regained

John Sturrock

In the spring of 1920 Marcel Proust was fretting because the good ‘Gaston’ (Gallimard, his post-war publisher) had been unforgivably slow in arranging for translations of his now successful novel to be started. In the past 12 months Du Côté de chez Swann had been published for a second time (the little-noticed earlier edition was in 1913) and A l’Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleurs for the first time; and Proust had, strangely, won the Prix Goncourt, a corrupt award which he had wanted but which generally goes to works of uncomplicated mediocrity. There should, he thought, have been foreign editions pending of these first instalments of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, and an English edition mattered most of all. English was a language which Proust knew and had read in; with help, he had translated his dear Ruskin into French. His sense of symmetry, if not of justice, called now for his own deeply Ruskinian work to be turned into English, and if nothing had so far been done the fault must be Gaston’s because the English themselves were hugely enthusiastic about it: there had, he promised Jacques Rivière, been ‘eight or nine articles in the Times alone’.

This was a wild exaggeration born of the real neglect which the novelist was then feeling. He had, however, an advocate on the Times who was quite unknown to him: a Scottish infantry officer, lately demobbed, who was well connected but unfortunate enough to have been appointed private secretary to the bizarre Lord Northcliffe. C.K. Scott-Moncrieff had been keeping up with the books that were being read in Paris, and had been led by the Goncourt prize to Marcel Proust. Indeed, he had already written to J.C. Squire, that hub of the literary journalistic world, to see if he couldn’t now make something of his discovery:

Do you think that Land and Water would consider for a moment running Marcel Proust’s book ... as a serial in English? I am reading it with great absorption in rare moments of leisure, and I am prepared to make a very palatable translation of it, which is not easy. Publishers here seem very shy of acquiring droits de traduction – which costs money – when they can sweat indigenous authors gratis.

Land and Water – or The County Gentleman and L – W to give that weekly its full title – was a wonderfully unsuitable outlet for a serialisation of Proust, for all that writer’s reverence for the nabobs of the Jockey Club in Paris. It didn’t bite; nor did any London publisher. But Scott-Moncrieff was inspired and convinced and began his translation just the same, without waiting until he had been given the commission. Quickly, and understandably, he came to find Proust more to his taste than Lord Northcliffe, and Combray more interesting than Printing House Square: he resigned from the Times to work at them full-time. He found a publisher, Messrs Chatto and Windus, who in 1922 brought out the two volumes of Swann’s Way, so inaugurating the single largest, most distinctive and most venerated work of translation into English of this century.

Literary translators rarely make a name for themselves, save among their own kind. They are hired dependents of the authors whom they translate. If Scott-Moncrieff stands alone among the translators of the 20th century, then that is very much Proust’s doing: their names go together. In fact, however, it was translating that Scott-Moncrieff loved, not Proust. He did not start by translating Proust, nor only translate Proust once he had come together with him. His first translations were of Beowulf and the Chanson de Roland, whose gory, impetuous verses were an odd preparation for the coiled introspections of Swann’s Way. For the Chanson de Roland Scott-Moncrieff marked himself at beta double plus, a mark literary translators are prone to favour, in my experience, as being an ideal compromise between their self-esteem and that chronic sense of betrayal of the original which haunts their working days. (The giving of marks in itself is a reminder that translation begins at school, and that it remains a discipline more than an art.) During breaks from A la Recherche, Scott-Moncrieff took refuge in the altogether shorter and more urgent sentences of Stendhal, and in the plays of Pirandello. If he was drawn so greatly to Proust this may have been for technical rather than temperamental reasons, for he was not, by all accounts, a Proust-like man: but the awesome elaboration of Proust’s style, and the effortless precision of his mind, offered an ultimate test of the examinee’s powers.

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