My Madeleine Is Rich

Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu has just been translated for the fourth time into the language of Shakespeare. This new edition of In Search of Lost Time was a huge project that took five years and the work of eight people. The project’s general editor, Christopher Prendergast, recalls how this multivoiced Proust came about.

Why this new translation, 10 years after the Kilmartin-Enright version?
Penguin publishers wanted its own Proust and got in touch with me. I said, “Why not?” Literary translation, especially of the great works of the past, never answers a pressing need, nor is it a competitive activity. Henry James said of the novel that “the house of fiction” is a house with many windows. Why not apply this thinking to translation? Also, Kilmartin and Enright’s work was essentially a revision of the first translation by Charles Scott Moncrieff. With Penguin, we weren’t doing a revision but rather a brand new translation, starting from scratch.

Why did you decide to have a different translator for each of the six volumes?
It seems to me that the heroic era of literary translation by a single person is over. For example, the American translator Richard Howard started a new translation of Proust 10 years ago, but abandoned it because of its unmanageable proportions. The Danish translator has just brought out her first volume after more than 10 years of work. So we felt we had to undertake it as a team. (This has been done in Germany and Italy, by the way.) Clearly, this method posed a number of problems. But at the same time, it presented advantages: Naturally, there is a continuity of tone in la Recherche, a Proustian voice, but at the same time there is also a wide variety of styles, an evolution from one volume to the next. The countrified air of In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower is quite different from the apocalyptic ambience of Sodom and Gomorrah. I felt that this changeable aspect of Proust’s style would come out more clearly in a translation by several people.

Have there been errors in past translations of Proust?
Inevitably. There’s a long list. Perhaps Scott Moncrieff’s most glaring error was to confuse “temps,” as in how long ago, with “fois,” or how many times, when Swann is questioning Odette about her lesbian past. Our translation is certainly not completely error-free. But you need to make a distinction between translation errors and different interpretations of the same passage.

An example: The famous phrase at the beginning of the novel (“Un homme qui dort, tient en cercle autour de lui le fil des heures, l’ordre des années et des mondes.” (A sleeping man holds, encircled around him, the passage of hours, the order of years and worlds.) Scott Moncrieff translated “mondes” as “heavenly bodies,” which strictly would be “corps célestes” in French. Our translator, Lydia Davis, simply put “worlds” instead. We wanted to be as literal as possible, and this preference also reflected the way we believed Proust ought to be interpreted. We sought to avoid excessive use of a metaphysical and religious vocabulary, which is indeed one of Proust’s vocabularies, especially toward the end of the novel, but one that perhaps has been overemphasized in translation. We wanted to do away with this overly “spiritualized” Proust.

How do the English see Proust?
For a long time, he was the exclusive property of a small minority who wore their knowledge of the novel as a sort of social and spiritual badge, and who considered the book itself as a sort of warehouse of exquisite epiphanies. Socially, the Proust phenomenon...was a bit like the appropriation of Jane Austen by what we call here the “Janeites.” A form of snobbery or fashionable sophistication (one of Proust’s major themes!) that hid all the novel’s ironic, scandalous, and transgressive qualities. Today, though, a lot has changed. We’ve seen a much more widespread, democratic dissemination of Proust.

English speakers know À la recherche du temps perdu as Remembrance of Things Past. Why didn’t you preserve this title?
Remembrance of Things Past was Scott Moncrieff’s invention; he picked out a quote from Shakespeare. Obviously, Scott Moncrieff wanted something that echoed English literature. But Proust himself hated the English title, and he was right....“Remembrance of Things Past” is quite pretty, but has absolutely nothing to do with Proust’s own title. “Remembrance” loses all the ambiguity of the word “lost”—even though “lost” doesn’t capture the meaning of “wasted” that is contained in the French word “perdu.” “Remembrance of Things Past” also loses the word “recherche,” which we’ve translated as “In Search of,” but which is a word with multiple meanings, as it means both “investigation” and “experiment.”

If you have to choose between making Proust more accessible to English readers and being as faithful as possible to the original, which way do you go?
No question: faithfulness. To make Proust more accessible or more reader-friendly isn’t our job as translators. For example, Proust, especially from Sodom and Gomorrah on, does some awfully odd things in marking and punctuating his dialogues, so that sometimes it isn’t at all clear who’s speaking. We could easily have made all of this more “natural” by adapting it to the English-language devices for dialogue. (This is exactly what Scott Moncrieff and Kilmartin did.) But we refused to do that....We did try to remain “faithful” to Proust insofar as our resources—linguistic, cultural, etc.—would allow. Scott Moncrieff also tried to be faithful to Proust, but his fidelity was defined and limited by the norms and values of his time.