BOOKS / Forever in search of lost truth: Gabriel Josipovici on the problems of translating Proust, and the new revision by D J Enright

THE COMPLEX publishing history of Proust's great novel, and of its renderings into English, has a profound lesson to teach us. Proust died while he was still revising his work and, as recent discoveries have shown, was in the process of radically rethinking its entire structure. Scott Moncrieff, his devoted English translator, died before he could finish his mammoth task, and Sidney Schiff, Proust's friend, tried to fill the gap while recognising that the French text of the last volume was woefully defective.

After the publication of the great three-volume Pleiade edition of 1954, Chatto felt that the last volume could now be properly dealt with, and entrusted the task to Andreas Mayor. In the 1970s, though, perhaps spurred on by the thought that the copyright was running out, but also because of the growing awareness of the inadequacies of Scott Moncrieff's translation, Chatto commissioned Terence Kilmartin to revise the whole work, basing himself on the Pleiade text.

The result was an immense improvement, but Kilmartin himself apparently felt that it needed further revision, though he was by then too ill to undertake it himself. At the same time a second major Pleiade edition had come out, in four volumes this time, clearing up a number of long- standing difficulties but, it must be said, raising others in the process. D J Enright has thus undertaken to revise the revision while keeping one eye on the new Pleiade.

What all this teaches us is that Valery was literally correct when he said that works of art are never finished, only abandoned. Our romantic hackles rise at this; we want to believe in well-wrought urns and the unearthly perfection of masterpieces. But these are myths; most works remain, like Calder's mobiles, floating in a breeze of possibilities. Scholars may advance our knowledge, money may buy a better text and a better translation, but the 'true' text and the perfect translation will, of course, always remain tantalisingly out of reach, and we had better learn to live with this when we read Shakespeare, or Joyce, or Proust.

Nevertheless, it might seem niggardly of Chatto not to commission a completely new translation instead of perpetually tinkering with the old one. However, the advantages of this arrangement perhaps outweigh the disadvantages, for instead of feeling that everything must be different in the new version, even where older translations have solved a problem perfectly satisfactorily, the reviser need only change when he feels he can improve.

What, then, has Enright done? To begin with and at long last, he has got the title more or less right. Kilmartin, I suppose, felt that the book had passed into English as Remembrance of Things Past (prefaced by the lines from Sonnet 30, where the phrase occurs), and so had let it stand. Enright sensibly re-translates (although In Search of Lost Time sounds a little Rider Haggardish and is moreover harsh on the ear, whereas A la Recherche du Temps Perdu is already tugging gently at memory and desire - but that is the frustration of translation).

He has also standardised and simplified the internal divisions and subdivisions. The effect is sometimes startling, as when on page 638 of Volume V he starts a new chapter, with its own title, right in the middle of what, in Kilmartin, was a continuous paragraph. But a glance at the four- volume Pleiade shows that Enright is here following its lead. On the other hand, though there are addenda to most volumes, these make no use of the new Pleiade material, but merely repeat Kilmartin.

As far as the actual text is concerned, Enright's hand has wisely been extremely light, for Kilmartin had, by and large, done an excellent job. He had corrected most of Moncrieff's blunders, such as 'if the heavens were doubtful' for 'si le ciel etait douteux' (Kilmartin: 'if the sky was overcast'), and had generally tried to make the tone as colloquial as that of the originals.

Thus, Scott Moncrieff's 'Preferring Racine to Victor, you may say what you like, it's epoch-making]' was changed to: 'Say what you like, to prefer Racine to Victor is a bit thick.' Enright keeps all these Kilmartinisms, and also many others where there is not much to choose between his predecessors, as with the opening sentence, 'Longtemps je me suis couche de bonne heure', where Scott Moncrieff opts for 'For a long time I used to go to bed early', and Kilmartin for 'For a long time I would go to bed early'. Neither is wholly adequate, but perhaps English is simply not equipped to deal with it.

There are places, though, where Kilmartin has failed to spot a lapse by Scott Moncrieff and Enright has not acted either. Thus, as Swann arrives at the Marquise de Saint-Euverte's he is horrified to see a giant footman bearing down on him. 'But', Scott Moncrieff translates, 'the harshness of his steely glare was compensated by the softness of his cotton gloves, so effectively that, as he approached Swann, he seemed to be exhibiting at once an utter contempt for his person and the most tender regard for his hat.' Kilmartin retouches the first part of this but leaves the secord intact, yet Proust had simply written: 'il semblait temoigner du mepris pour sa personne et des egards pour son chapeau' - contempt for his person and concern for his hat. It is the starkness of the contrast that makes the sentence - and the scene - so funny.

There are also places where Kilmartin seems to have gone more wrong than his predecessor, and where Enright has still let things stand. Such an instance is the word 'muflerie' in a key passage in the novel. Swann, having suffered the agonies of jealousy, wakes up one day to discover that he is no longer in thrall to Odette and, says Proust, 'avec cette muflerie intermittente qui reparaissait chez lui des qu'il n'etait plus malheureux, et que baissait du meme coup le niveau de sa moralite', cries out: 'And to think I wasted the best years of my life on a woman who wasn't even my type.'

Proust is here distinguishing Swann from the narrator, who will also suffer terribly from jealousy, but will not welcome so unquestioningly the death of his passion, realising that suffering and understanding go together. Scott Moncrieff has 'with that old, intermittent fatuity, which reappeared in him now that he was no longer unhappy', which is not entirely right, but is better than Kilmartin and Enright, who go for 'with that old, intermittent caddishness which reappeared in him when he was no longer unhappy'.

It is true that Harrap's French-English Dictionary gives 'caddishness' for muflerie, but the Petit Robert is surely right to gloss it 'goujaterie, grossierete, indelicatesse'. Caddishness suggests public school stories and our relations to others; Proust, however, is saying something quite straightforward about Swann's innate coarseness of character.

It is of course easy for a reviewer to carp. Enright has had a go at the well-nigh impossible closing sentence of the novel and has not, to my mind, done any better with it than his predecessors; on the other hand, there are here and there many tiny touches where, like Kilmartin before him, he has helped make the translation more colloquial, flexible and in tune with the great original.

Though no one who owns the Kilmartin should think of buying this version, anyone with no French and in search of a text to buy should opt for these six sturdy and well-printed volumes, priced at pounds 15 each (the frightful orange jacket should be torn off immediately upon purchase). It might be better, though, to invest the money in a crash course in French and go straight to the 1954 Pleiade edition, while stocks of that still exist.

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker