Wednesday, April 14, 2010

à la recherche de marcel proust

James McGirk has a Q&A with Lorin Stein, the new editor of the Paris Review, on the Economist's More Intelligent Life blog, here.

MIL: Who do you read for pleasure these days? Which authors, literary magazines, blogs or books would you recommend?

LS: I just reread "Swann's Way" for a class I'm teaching (I got to choose the subject of the class) [The class is called “How Proust can change your length".] It's the first time I've read Lydia Davis's translation. It's a revelation. I love Scott Moncrieff as much as the next guy, but this is something else. I don't see how any fair reader can compare the books and prefer his. Davis lets you see the workings of her text, she lets you feel the French through the English, her Proust isn't just "Proustian," he's funny sometimes, modern sometimes, decadent sometimes, archaic sometimes, economical, sharp, plainspoken and fancy whenever he needs to be. Saturday I overheard a customer asking the clerk at Saint Marks Books which translation he should buy and I couldn't help butting in.

I can't comment on these translations; happy to believe that both have much to offer. The one thing I'd say is, if you're thinking of reading Proust and you've studied any French at all, do order Du côté de chez Swann from amazon.fr so you can read at least a few of Proust's sentences in French.

People often say: "Well, I had a couple of years of French in high school but I've forgotten it all." What they mean is not normally, "I had a couple of years of French in high school, but when I looked at the first paragraph of Du côté de chez Swann I couldn't understand a word," what they mean is, "If I cast about in my mind the only French sentences I come up with are 'Bon jour' and 'Comment-allez vous?' so there's no point in even looking at a difficult writer like Proust."

The fact is, they may or may not have enough latent memory of the language - they actually don't know. They may or may not have enough latent memory so that a little help from a translation brings more back - they actually don't know. But it's entirely possible that the reason they gave up French was that they were forced to exchange banalities in the language and got bored; if they had been introduced to Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud early on, if they had been introduced to Proust, it might not have seemed so dreary and pointless.

If I may speak from my own experience, one of the reasons I now read French fluently is that I decided, when I was 19, to try to read A la recherche du temps perdu and kept going: it is sometimes magical, sometimes exasperating, but I found it impossible not to keep going back - and if you read a novel of a million-odd words you are likely to find that you know the language better than you did when you began.

It's not, of course, compulsory to read the whole thing, but it seems a shame not to see what this extraordinary prose is like. Davis, after all, cannot have undertaken the labour of translation if she did not love Proust; the translation is not meant to stand in the way of reading the original text, it offers a chance for those with no French to get some idea of what the book is like, and an invitation for those with some French to go further. (I feel silly making a self-evident point; the problem is, translations as generally published often do assume that the point is self-evident (and therefore need not be made in an introduction), while readers often take the existence of the English text to imply something rather different.)

Here's Davis, with interpolations

For a long time, I went to bed early.

Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.

Sometimes, my candle scarcely out, my eyes would close so quickly that I did not have time to say to myself: 'I'm falling asleep.'

Parfois, à peine ma bougie éteinte, mes yeux se fermaient si vite que je n'avais pas le temps de me dire : « Je m'endors. »

And, half an hour later, the thought that it was time to try to sleep would wake me;

Et, une demi-heure après, la pensée qu'il était temps de chercher le sommeil m'éveillait ;

I wanted to put down the book I thought I still had in my hands and blow out my light;

je voulais poser le volume que je croyais avoir dans les mains et souffler ma lumière ;

I had not ceased while sleeping to form reflections on what I had just read, but these reflections had taken a rather peculiar turn;

je n'avais pas cessé en dormant de faire des réflexions sur ce que je venais de lire, mais ces réflexions avaient pris un tour particulier ;

it seemed to me that I myself was what the book was talking about:

il me semblait que j'étais moi-même ce dont parlait l'ouvrage:

a church, a quartet, the rivalry betweem François I and Charles V.

une église, un quatuor, la rivalité de François Ier et Charles-Quint.


The difference between the two is that of the difference between musical instruments. If French were a piano, it would be a Pleyel. Here's the whole passage:


Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. Parfois, à peine ma bougie éteinte, mes yeux se fermaient si vite que je n'avais pas le temps de me dire : « Je m'endors. » Et, une demi-heure après, la pensée qu'il était temps de chercher le sommeil m'éveillait ; je voulais poser le volume que je croyais avoir dans les mains et souffler ma lumière ; je n'avais pas cessé en dormant de faire des réflexions sur ce que je venais de lire, mais ces réflexions avaient pris un tour particulier ; il me semblait que j'étais moi-même ce dont parlait l'ouvrage: une église, un quatuor, la rivalité de François Ier et Charles-Quint.

4 comments:

Adrian said...

Thanks for the nudge. I've read the Scott Moncreiff translation and always promised myself that, at some point, I'd read it in French. Perhaps now's the time...

Jeff said...

You say elsewhere "I'm interested in the fact that natural languages are translatable..."

Without exhausting the limited ink available in this constrained context, I wonder if you really believe that?...

Helen DeWitt said...

Yes, but I probably don't mean anything very exciting by it. I get, for instance, a Lands' End catalogue in the post; it's in German; there are lots of shirts on offer with something called a Stehbund. Apparently seen as a desirable feature in a shirt, but I have no idea what this actually is. I check my Deutsch-Englisch Pons, but it's not comprehensive enough (I think it makes sense to speak of comprehensiveness in this context). I am still in the dark as to this desirable shirt-feature, but I do think I could find out what it is, and if I did could describe it in English.

Anonymous said...

I heartily agree -- in fact, I started reading Proust in French because of the new translation. After a page and a half of the translation, I thought "this is too beautiful not to read in the original." I've been picking my way through ever since, getting more fluent as I go.