The Thing

Michael Wood

What was it Proust said about paradise? That all paradises are lost paradises? That the only true paradise is a lost paradise? That it isn’t paradise until it’s lost? That paradise is a name for a favourite form of loss? He can plausibly be read as saying any of these things, and perhaps more than one at once. But the propositions are not identical, and it’s not easy to choose among them. Can’t we look at what Proust actually wrote? We can look at what he literally wrote, but that’s not quite the same thing.

Proust’s phrasing was ‘les vrais paradis sont les paradis qu’on a perdus,’ either ‘the true paradises are the paradises that one has lost’ or ‘true paradises are paradises that one has lost’ – I don’t see what we can do with the definite article except take it or leave it. Translating this sentence in its context, in the last volume of In Search of Lost Time, Ian Patterson has ‘the only true paradise is a paradise that we have lost.’ This is good because idiomatic, and it gets rid of the troubling plural. How many paradises could we bear to lose, and how many chances do we think we have? ‘Only’ seems a reasonable touch of emphasis. But should we get rid of the plural? And why has Patterson switched ‘the’ to ‘a’? Quoting the same sentence in his preface to the full set of new translations, Christopher Prendergast writes: ‘all paradises are lost paradises.’ This is impeccably aphoristic, and assumes that false paradises are just not paradises at all. Proust himself could be more accommodating, and at one point implies that almost anything may be paradise if it keeps us out. The life of the Duchess of Guermantes, the narrator says, ‘appeared to me to be a paradise I would never enter’. Scott Moncrieff, the earlier and best-known translator of Proust, is in this case quite literal about the famous sentence, and gives us ‘the true paradises are the paradises that we have lost,’ although even here there is a little slither, since in the summary of the same volume the phrase appears with a contraction and ‘we’ becomes ‘one’: ‘the true paradises are the paradises one has lost.’ The wording of Patterson and Prendergast is clear and self-contained, makes sense on its own. Scott Moncrieff sounds oracular rather than aphoristic; we shan’t know what his words mean until we have worked on them.

There is nothing wrong with any of these versions, and there is no court of appeal in the French text. As Prendergast puts it, ‘no one has monopoly powers over the “correct”.’ We can prefer one version to another, but then we are choosing one understanding over another: either (mostly) the understanding we ourselves have, or (better) an understanding we hadn’t thought of before. We often think the art of translation is all about accuracy and fidelity, and these are important issues. Many translations are full of elementary errors, and some are so literal as to be non-existent as translations – this is not fidelity but dogged transcription. But when accuracy is assured as far as it can be, and when we have seen that fidelity can take many forms, we are left with two far more interesting questions: what I am calling understanding, translation as a ‘take’, a way of hearing another’s words; and the endlessly fascinating differences among national languages.

‘The thing had been attempted,’ Shirley Hazzard writes in The Proust Project, ‘it had been done. It was incontrovertibly there . . . if it is to be challenged, it cannot merely be “redone”; it must be conspicuously bettered.’ ‘The thing’ is Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Proust, and I assume the faint pastiche of Virginia Woolf in Hazzard’s language is a homage to the era: the translation appeared between 1922 and 1930. Scott Moncrieff died in 1930, and the last volume was translated by Andreas Mayor. The whole work was substantially revised by Terence Kilmartin for an edition of 1981 (in relation to the Pléiade text of 1954), and revised again by D.J. Enright in 1993 (in response to what Prendergast calls ‘the curiously monstrous 1987 Pléiade edition’). Along the way the Shakespearean title Remembrance of Things Past turned into the more literal, and less literary, In Search of Lost Time.

Hazzard is grateful for Kilmartin’s revisions of ‘the thing’: ‘for the most part necessary and pleasing’, she says, and that is putting it mildly, since Scott Moncrieff’s triumphs of cadence were now and again interrupted by very broad errors. One at least still lingered for Carol Clark to correct in her version of The Prisoner. When sleeping, Albertine is said to shed ‘the various marks of humanity which had so disappointed me’, ‘ses différents caractères d’humanité qui m’avaient déçu’. Even in the most recent revision of Scott Moncrieff décevoir is still read as if it means ‘deceive’. Albertine sheds ‘the different human personalities with which she had deceived me’. Many readers have come to feel that Scott Moncrieff, for all his grace and flow, was a little more Edwardian than Proust was (or Proust was more modern than his translator) but Hazzard detects ‘translation fatigue – or more explicitly, version fatigue’ in the later work, even Kilmartin’s. In her view, no one can get over the fact that someone else got there first.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in