Proust, Lost in Translation


Arts & Culture


The first volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way was published almost exactly a hundred years ago. Its opening lines make one thing inescapably apparent: Proust’s style is inimitable; there is much more to it than long sentences, pauses for reminiscence and brittle cookie breaks, and whatever other tropes readers have associated with Proust. It is a style that tussles with our notion of literary temporality itself. Over the last century, countless translators have struggled with these famous opening lines:

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. »

Nobody seems to be able to agree whether to translate the verb of the principal clause as a conditional or a past participle, because while in French it is obviously the latter, it seems to act as the former. We’ve had various degrees of “went to bed early,” “used to go to bed early,” “would go to bed early,” each meaning more or less the same thing, but none hitting the nail directly on the head.

Scholars have found these lines, at once, undeniably charming and a huge pain to work with.

But in this seemingly untranslatable sentence, even among translators—whose very job it is to take troublesome idioms and phrases and grammatical twists and make them legible and appropriate, and to do so by imparting as much of Proust’s style and as little of their own as possible—there is so much variety that it raises another important question: How would this sentence have been handled by other writers?

Take the original, for instance:

For a long time I would go to bed early. Sometimes, the candle barely out, my eyes close so quickly that I did not have time to tell myself “I’m falling asleep.”

David Foster Wallace:

I am lying in bed early in the evening. A burnt honey colored candlewick sits on my rosewood bedside stand sending blades of smoke into the French countryside air. I am falling asleep, maybe my eyelids are closing or I have just started dreaming, but I don’t realize it yet.

Philip Roth:

In the summers of my youth, which we spent in the country, far from the city, I would go up to my room with the house still awake and full of people, even though it was still early in the night. My candle was already out by the time I was falling asleep, and bleeding melted wax onto the base of the stick.

Bret Easton Ellis:

I always go to bed early. That’s what mom tells me when she kisses me goodnight. She blows out my candle and says “you always go to bed early.” Although I really am tired, I haven’t realized it yet and I try to stay awake longer. I do that until I see I am already sleeping.

Sam Lipsyte:

That’s right, you heard me, it’s bed time. Now I have to cross this cluster frenzy of a salon and ascend upward toward my room. Barely tired. Barely night. Barely slumbering in my bed. But I’m already off dreaming away some dream I’m having.

A. M. Holmes:

Summers in Combray, I went to bed as soon as the big dinner parties reached an awkward point. Still watching them talk, I made my way upstairs. At that point a sudden grogginess hits me—the slow realization that I’m yawning, prematurely dreaming, putting my candle out.

Joyce Carol Oates:

It is an early evening dinner in Combray. Meanwhile a wisp of cold air comes through the living room, which was where we were all seated patiently. The Frigidaire was humming nervously in the distance. There was something rather exhausted about me, the others don’t seem to notice. A greatly growing sleepiness that comes from within yet seems still foreign.

Junot Díaz:

Back when I was only un niño, all pequeño and not much bigger than an Ewok I always fell asleep early. Even when I was with my family—me sitting in the corner inscrutably, them minding their own—I went to bed anyway. I tried to tell my tia that I wasn’t tired but I always passed out fucking precipitously.

John Updike:

He goes to bed as early as he possibly can. Always early. His sitting there is starting to make the adults feel uncomfortable. They’re trying to have a real conversation, not babysit some French kid. Why is he still sitting there? Don’t their stern looks and pouts make the picture clear? His yawning doesn’t help. The boy, walking up the stairs, almost falls asleep on his way. His vacant brown eyes are already dreaming.

 Alexander Aciman, a graduate of the University of Chicago, is the author of Twitterature. Recently, he has contributed to Condé Nast Traveler and Tablet Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @acimania