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

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The Independent Culture
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.