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In Search of Proust’s English

At the turn of the 20th century, Marcel Proust embarked on an unusual translation project. Despite not being able to speak English, he decided to translate Ruskin from English into French. He did this by having his mother (who could speak English) create a first draft of the translation into French, which he would then edit. In an attempt to answer to the obvious charge of incompetence, Proust wrote to one critic:

“…there isn’t a single ambiguous expression, a single obscure phrase on which I didn’t seek advice from ten English writers and for which I don’t have a file of correspondence… And by dint of going more deeply into the sense of each word, the bearing of each expression, the connecting thread of all the ideas, I have gained so exact a knowledge of this text that each time I consulted an Englishman… he would congratulate me on knowing English better than an Englishman. In which he was mistaken. I don’t know a word of spoken English and I don’t read English well.”

Before I had read it, reading In Search of Lost Time seemed as daunting a chore as its author’s previous translation project. I recall that prior to reading this novel, I was vaguely aware of a couple of facts about it: it contained sentences longer than a page, it was deeply philosophical, it described scenes in excruciatingly precise detail, and that it was preoccupied with pretentiousness (or snobbery). These points are more or less all true. However, aside from (most of) these, I am not sure what exactly gave me such a negative impression of it, or what changed my mind enough to let me give it a chance; but what I do remember is that after about 100 pages of what I then felt was a mediocre story, the famous moment with the Madeline appeared… Thereafter, I was hooked, and read the rest of the novel (which comes in 7 large editions in English) over the course of a couple of winter months. This about-turn in my attitude towards the novel reminds me of a sentence which appears in it: ‘Words do not change their meanings so drastically in the course of centuries as, in our minds, names do in the course of a year or two.’

Perhaps one of the main elements of my prior resistance to Proust was the vague feeling that he represented the impenetrable peak of French language and culture, both of which I knew next to nothing about. However, my hesitation quickly hurried away, like an anxious Swann towards his waiting carriage when he’s searching for Odette, and I came to realise that this lack of background knowledge doesn’t dampen one’s enjoyment of the story (and storytelling ability) of the novel’s narrator, Marcel.

Besides lost time, this novel also records Marcel’s search for a multitude of different kinds of knowledge: artistic, emotional, philosophical, etc. A good illustration of this curiosity comes in the novel’s second part, Within a Budding Grove, when he is travelling on a train:

“…in the pale square of the window, above a small black wood, I saw some ragged clouds whose fleecy edges were of a fixed, dead pink, not liable to change… Presently, there gathered behind it preserves of light. It brightened; the sky turned to a glowing pink which I strove, gluing my eyes to the window, to see more clearly, for I felt that it was related somehow to the most intimate life of Nature, but, the course of the line altering, the train turned, the morning scene gave place in the frame of the window to a nocturnal village, its roofs still blue with moonlight, its pond encrusted with the opalescent sheen of night, beneath a firmament still spangled with all its stars, and I was lamenting the loss of my strip of pink sky when I caught sight of it anew, but red this time, in the opposite window which it left at a second bend in the line; so that I spent my time running from window to another to reassemble, to collect on a single canvas the intermittent, antipodean fragments of my fine, scarlet, ever-changing morning, and to obtain a comprehensive view and a continuous picture of it.”

This searching, and ever-changing series of objects and perspectives, is one aspect that helps make this novel so fascinating. We get to almost live Marcel’s life with him, and witness his ever-growing wisdom in real (albeit lost) time.

However, though, like his creator, Marcel is an extremely articulate and perceptive writer, he frequently finds that words, like views of sunsets, aren’t straightforward. Early on in the novel, he laments his inability to communicate clearly with his lover:

“Besides, what good would it have done if I had spoken to Gilberte? She would not have heard me. We imagine always when we speak that it is our own ears, our own mind, that are listening. My words would have come to her only in a distorted form, as though they had had to come to pass through the moving curtain of a waterfall before they reached my beloved, unrecognisable, sounding false and absurd, having no longer any kind of meaning.”

Though this grappling between words and meaning seems clear enough in the English translation of the novel, reading Daniel Karlin’s Proust’s English has furthered my understanding of this aspect of Proust’s masterpiece. Karlin details the English language and culture’s hold over Marcel’s world, something I would never have been aware of without his book (unless I learned how to speak French). English words are used so frequently throughout the novel, that is it is clear that, as Karlin says, English is ‘the second language’ of the novel. (It is a shame that the use of English words isn’t marked off in the standard translations of In Search of Lost Time available in English).

Usually, when English appears, it brings with it awkwardness or confusion for Marcel, who doesn’t understand it. For example, in one scene, Marcel is at a café with Mme Swann, who keeps switching to English when she wants to speak to him and disguise what she is saying to those surrounding them – however, it turns out everyone else in the café except Marcel understands English. This is embarrassing for Marcel, but by later standards, mild; later on, when he is in the midst of his jealousy over Madam Swann’s daughter, he finds that having mother and daughter speaking English around him is more than just uncomfortable:

“…A language we do not know is a fortress sealed, within whose walls the one we love is free to play us false, while we, standing outside, desperately keyed up in our impotence, can see, can prevent nothing. So this conversation in English, at which a month earlier I should merely have smiled … served only to intensify and pinpoint my anxieties…”

The novel’s English, like Proust’s English, is confined to words and phrases (only once does a whole sentence appear: “I do not speak French”), but there is enough of it to tell us that Proust’s earlier translation project was not a wasted effort, after all. The frequent use of English words and phrases, which Marcel either doesn’t understand or misunderstands, is only possible because of Proust’s understanding of them. So although Proust wasn’t fluent in English, he knew enough of the language to add an English dimension to his novel, which, like so many other emotional, artistic, and philisophical discoveries (and, of course, sunsets) appears again and again to surprise Marcel, and us.

Further reading:
There are a few translations of Proust available in English. For this article, I was quoting from the Vintage Books editions.
In Search of Lost Time, Vol 1: Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust (Translated by C.K. Moncrieff, D. J. Enright, and Terence Kilmartin)
In Search of Lost Time, Vol 2: Within a Budding Grove by Marcel Proust (Translated by C.K. Moncrieff, D. J. Enright, and Terence Kilmartin)
In Search of Lost Time, Vol 3: The Guermantes Way by Marcel Proust (Translated by C.K. Moncrieff, D. J. Enright, and Terence Kilmartin)
In Search of Lost Time, Vol 4: Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust (Translated by C.K. Moncrieff, D. J. Enright, and Terence Kilmartin)
In Search of Lost Time, Vol 5: The Captive and The Fugitive by Marcel Proust (Translated by C.K. Moncrieff, D. J. Enright, and Terence Kilmartin)
In Search of Lost Time, Vol 6: Time Regained  by Marcel Proust (Translated by C.K. Moncrieff, D. J. Enright, and Terence Kilmartin)
Proust’s English
by Daniel Karlin

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