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Which Translation of Proust Should I Read?

January 7, 2011 | by

I am preparing to tackle Marcel Proust’s mammoth, his tomb of involuntary memories and I cannot decide on a translation. Should it be the original English translation by Moncrieff? Or the revision of Moncrieff by Kilmartin? Or the revision of the revision by Enright? Or the new translation that begins with Davis and continuous with six different translators? I prefer a translation that is as close to the original as possible, without the translator attempting to “update” the language for modern readers, without inserting words that the writer would have never originally used. Which translation should be trusted when it comes time to read the mammoth? —Manuel Garcia

For Swann’s Way, you can’t really go wrong. All of those translations are wonderful. My favorite is Lydia Davis’s. It sticks very close to the French, which I think you will like. And I think you will like Davis’s sensibility: she is no vulgar updater. On the other hand, the Scott Moncrieff translation may appeal to you because it’s contemporary with the original. In fact, Proust’s French is often more modern then Scott Moncrieff’s English. The anachronisms are all in the other direction.

I can’t vouch for the new translations of the later volumes. My advice is to read Swann’s Way in the Davis translation, then switch over to Enright. It will also be fun for you to compare Davis to Enright every once in a while. You’ll hear the difference right away.

Someone recently yelled at my friend for not inviting another friend to his party. I say, it’s right not a privilege. But my friend sucked it up, and apologized—even though everyone agrees that that person was totally out of line. What would you have done? —Edie

I don’t know, Edie. A soft answer turneth away wrath. The question is whether he apologized after the party or before.

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20 COMMENTS

14 Comments

  1. William L. Sandles | January 7, 2011 at 10:58 am

    Great read. I’m almost finished with the Moncrieff translation of Volume II, but I may try another translation when I get to Volume III.

  2. Drew Johnson | January 7, 2011 at 11:04 am

    I have an old copy of Lytton Strachey’s Books and Characters brought out by Chatto & Windus in the late 20s as part of a series called The Phoenix Library. In the back of the volume, advertising their other titles, they have this to say about the Moncrieff,

    “C.K. Scott Moncrieff’s version of Proust’s great novel is admitted to be the principal triumph of modern translation. There was at one time a fashion in Paris to read Proust in the English edition.”

    I’ve never seen another reference to this supposed fashion (I haven’t spent any time looking) but I think the idea of Frenchmen wandering round Paris reading Moncrieff’s Proust is pretty hard to resist.

  3. Chris Via | January 7, 2011 at 11:15 am

    Je suis d’accord! The Lydia Davis translation is superb!

  4. Mark Trainer | January 7, 2011 at 11:27 am

    I liked the Enright updates. I’ve always understood that Moncrieff felt it his mission to sell the work as Important, hence the Shakespearean title Remembrance of Things Past. And there’s not much to be said for Moncrieff volume titles like Within a Budding Grove and The Sweet Cheat Gone. There is so much in Proust that is subtle and funny, I think the grandiose framing of the books can undercut Proust’s intentions at times. With that said, Moncrieff’s sentences are pretty lovely.

  5. Robert Hunt | January 7, 2011 at 11:28 am

    I’ve read “Swann’s Way” in the Moncrieff and the Kilmartin, and I’d say that Davis brings the book to life like no other translator. I’ve only read the first two books in the new Penguin set, so I can’t say much about them. As a general rule, I prefer the Kilmartin over the original Moncrieff, but a lot of that is based on my memory of those eye-straining 10-point paperback editions of the 1970s.

  6. Thessaly La Force | January 7, 2011 at 11:38 am

    For those who missed it, you might enjoy reading what Lydia Davis wrote for us back in September about translation:

    http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/author/ldavis/

  7. Steve Mitchelmore | January 7, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    This is a non-problem really. The Kilmartin-revised Scott Moncrieff version is the one.

    A more pressing question for me is which edition to read. The Penguin Classic edition from 1981 with three, 1000-page volumes and a beautifully large typeface and dense line spacing is how I think Proust should be presented. As eye-straining as a hawthorn bush in bloom!

    The more recent, multi-volume versions with a small typeface and more white space just isn’t right for Proust’s sentences.

  8. Imani | January 7, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    It’s my one wish that Davis would translate the whole caboodle because the feller who did the 2nd in the Penguin Deluxe editions was not nearly as good. Not nearly. I gave up after that & decided to wait till my French improves but perhaps I’ll give Enright a chance.

  9. Nenad | January 7, 2011 at 4:00 pm

    There are two separate feels when reading the same piece of art being translated by different translators. Lydia Davis’s one is so fluent and clean

  10. Thomas J. Donahue Jr. | January 7, 2011 at 7:37 pm

    I first attempted reading Moncrieff’s Swann’s Way, finding a bit stiff. Years later I read the entirety of Remembrance of Things past in the revision of Moncrieff by Kilmartin, initially making it about half way. A few years later I read the whole thing non-stop, all approx. 3400 pages. The main obstacle was the richness of the language, like subsisting on a diet of nothing but the finest chocolate.

  11. ann roesch | June 2, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    I read Moncrieff’s Swann’s Way and have started the Penguin second volume, young girls in flower. I prefer Moncrieff, but I don’t have much experience.

  12. Josephine Bacon | July 7, 2012 at 6:13 am

    I am a translator, currently working on a book about Proust and containing quotations from his work that I have been asked to translate myself without using any of the previous versions. I confess I have not read any translations but Scott Moncrieff but what spoils his version is his prurience and his total inability to see the humour. He bowdlerises some of the text, for instance in the homosexual encounter between the two women Mlle. Vinteuil and her girlfriend. The descriptive passages in Proust are notoriously difficult to translate.

  13. Tamara Craig | February 5, 2013 at 6:23 pm

    I am re-reading “Swann’s way” in French and have started the translated version by Moncrieff – not happy… M misses the loveliness alltogether!

  14. Tom | June 18, 2013 at 9:58 pm

    I got a response from Denis yesterday. He asked me why I was having so much trouble reading Moncrieff’s Swann’s Way. I’ve “read” a hundred pages. If I were completely honest, I think you might believe I’m reading Proust for the wrong reason(s). Or maybe you would just see that Proust is simply too difficult for my brain. But I refuse to accept that this novel of such gigantic reputation is not worth plowing through. But I must be honest: my response after these first 100 pages is I just don’t find the concerns of Marcel to be particularly important. But I’m saying that in the light of the word I used above: gigantic. How can this author of such fame seem so unworthy to me? I’m guessing the problem is my attitude.

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