Proust, looking saucy.
Richard Howard first appeared in The Paris Review in our thirteenth issue—from the summer of 1956. Since then, several of his poems and translations have found their way to these pages, and in 2004, J. D. McClatchy interviewed him for our Art of Poetry series. In our Summer 1989 issue, George Plimpton spoke with Howard about translating Proust.
The first line of Remembrance of Things Past is one of the most famous in literature. How does your version differ from the others?
Three versions of Proust’s first sentence—“Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.”—have been published. The Scott Moncrieff-Kilmartin: “For a long time I used to go to bed early.” James Grieve (an Australian professor): “Time was, when I always went to bed early.” And mine: “Time and again, I have gone to bed early.”
And what is the thinking behind your version?
To begin with, “time and again” seems one of those cell-like phrases which sums up a meaning of the whole book, as long-temps does in French. I admire Professor Grieve’s “time was”, but it doesn’t have the notion of recurrence that I wanted. It seemed to me that what was needed was not only an opening phrase which would reveal the book’s meaning, but one that would begin with the word “time”, which would be the last word in the book as well, as it is in French.
Were there other considerations?
Roger Shattuck has an essay about this, and Alfred Corn has explored it in his essays too: in the whole book, the only use of the passé composé occurs, to all intents and purposes, in the first sentence. Oh sometimes characters use this tense in speech, but the narrative is virtually never in the passé composé (je me suis couché). So that one hears a deliberate little jolt there; I wanted to echo that.
A bit of history: if one had to remark on C. K. Scott Moncrieff as a translator, would one give him good marks?
Indeed. Very good. You know, he also translated a lot of Stendhal, as well as Chanson de Roland. His translation was initially done on speculation—because he admired the book so much. He sent it in to Chatto and Windus—on speculation!
There must have been a number of people who tried …
Ford Madox Ford said he would have liked to do it. He felt it was something he could have done. But as for the last volume, the actual translation … well, that’s complicated. Scott Moncrieff had died after completing the first six parts, and the seventh, Le Temps Retrouvé, was translated by Stephen Hudson (Sidney Schiff) in England, and by Frederick Blossom in America. Then this last part was translated anew by Andreas Mayor, and that’s the one in print now. It was so good that there were plans to commission Mayor to do all the preceding parts, but then he died too. Even Terence Kilmartin, who revised the Scott Moncrieff version, developed a brain tumor (which he has survived). Of course I took all this into consideration when I began the translation—I started with the last volume first. I thought that might just save me. Though the Mayor version is tough competition. I think it’s the only part of the book where my version may not show up as better. With the other volumes, I have some reason to hope that my work will hold up very well.
When you translate, can you resist taking a peek to see how other translators have done it?
I always look. I believe all translators do, in this situation. There’s not much danger of coming up with the same words, unless it’s a very simple sentence where there really is no choice. In Proust, the rhythm, the phrasing, the movement of the sentence, even the grammar—it’s all so complex that it would be almost impossible to repeat anyone else’s work. Because of that I’m all the more aware of the differences, and of how admirable Scott Moncrieff’s work often is.
What about Professor Grieve?
He began a new translation for the Australian National University in Canberra. I don’t believe he knew that Kilmartin was revising Scott Moncrieff. He had completed the first part, which he too calls Swann’s Way, before he found out. I don’t think he’s going on with it. Oddly enough, his lively translation is not very close to the French. It’s more like an improvisation on Proustian themes—and I don’t feel that’s what readers want. They want to read what Proust wrote. And as a translator, it seems to me, you have an obligation not to change, not to add … For instance, in that first sentence, Grieve adds the word “always”. I can’t see doing that. And throughout, Grieve adds, rewrites really. Nonetheless, I take great interest in reading him, and the other translators. They’re very helpful. Almost as helpful as the new French editors. Of course I don’t feel it would be honorable not to look at them. The honorable thing is to make as good a translation as you can. You get your “good” wherever you find it.
How many versions of the first line of Swann’s Way did you jot down before you decided what you wanted?
Oh, dozens. And people keep offering me more. Most of my correspondents are pleasant enough about their suggestions (though sometimes people are quite acerb: they assure me I am not qualified to undertake the task, and offer me the right version.) I remember one that began: “Repeatedly I remained in bed … ” And I had a letter from one woman, a doctor, who admitted that she had never read Proust but who insisted she could tell from the French title that I didn’t understand the book’s subject. She had not read the book, but she knew … I think that once you propose a problem or a puzzle, there are always people who want to solve it their way, and who feel you have not examined certain concepts … I must say I have given the matter a good deal of thought. I can’t imagine a new solution that would surprise me. But I still get suggestions from the most varied sources. And of course that’s fine. Perhaps everyone should translate Proust for himself—that would be a good way of reading him, no?
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