sexta-feira, 24 de maio de 2013

Reading Proust: Lost in Translation By Caroline Weber



Reading Proust: Lost in Translation

By Caroline Weber


Sam Tanenhaus, Caroline Weber and John Williams are holding a conversation about “In Search of Lost Time,” and welcome readers to join their discussion by leaving comments on the right-hand side of the blog. Once again, all translations in Ms. Weber’s post are her own.
As far as translations go, John, I’m afraid I’m not the best judge because whenever I reread the Recherche, I do so in French. That said, curiosity has on occasion prompted me to dip into the various English renderings of Proust over the years, from the classic translation by C.K. Scott Moncrieff (the first volume of which appeared in 1922, shortly before Proust died) to the two subsequent revisions of Moncrieff’s version (by Terence Kilmartin and D.J. Enright for Random House and the Modern Library, respectively) to, most recently, the new Penguin edition overseen by Christopher Prendergast (for which seven different authors have translated each of the novel’s seven volumes). And all these iterations seem to me to treat Proust’s original with considerable intelligence and integrity, albeit with striking differences of tone: Moncrieff is flowery where, say, Lydia Davis — the translator of the Penguin edition of “Swann’s Way” (2003) — is elegantly spare. While I myself happen to prefer Ms. Davis's version to the others — to me, her voice sounds the closest to Proust's somehow — I don't think one can go wrong with any of them.
As, however, to your question about whether one can fully appreciate the Recherche if one doesn't read it in French, I have to say that I don't believe one can, for the simple reason that the original version is so densely saturated with the colorful tones of other French literary lions — from Racine and Sévigné to Balzac and the brothers Goncourt — that the Anglophone reader is bound to miss out on myriad pleasures of specifically literary allusion and nuance, which Proust often deploys to tremendous comic effect.
To take the shortest example I can think of (for although Proust may in fact be the soul of wit, brevity is not his strong suit): in “Within a Budding Grove” (1919), Françoise, the narrator’s family’s unschooled but fiercely opinionated cook from the country, uses an antiquated expression of class snobbery, “sorti de la lie du peuple” [“from the dregs of the populace”], to proclaim the relative social supremacy of the “young man from a good family” with whom the daughter of the attendant at the Champs-Élysées’ public bathrooms has recently become engaged. That this young woman did not choose a fiancé “sorti de la lie du peuple” — an epithet the great memoirist of Louis XIV’s court, the Duc de Saint-Simon, notoriously applied to that king’s favorite architect, Mansart — confirms Françoise in her staunch belief that the mother of the bride-to-be, who presides over her toilet fiefdom with ludicrous hauteur, is a “marquise.” This belief, however, is itself patently absurd, as the covert citation from Saint-Simon ironically underscores. While Françoise proves as poor an arbiter of class standing as Saint-Simon (whose endless nitpicking about the nuances of caste hierarchy and protocol made his memoirs an invaluable resource for the class-obsessed Proust) is a discerning one, the two are united in their vehement disdain for perceived inferiors. Her use of “sorti de la lie du peuple,” in other words, is funny because it underlines the ways in which she both is and isn’t like Versailles’ most famous — and most famously imperious — chronicler.
But the joke doesn’t end there. The allusion to Saint-Simon also refers back to one of the wittier passages in “Swann’s Way” (1913), where the narrator describes Françoise, at that time in the employ of his elderly, “despotically” demanding Aunt Léonie, as investing the old woman’s “most negligible utterances and activities,” her “most insignificant occupations, her waking up [son lever], her lunch, her rest,” with as much importance as Louis XIV’s noble retinue attached to “what Saint-Simon called the mechanics [la mécanique] of life at Versailles.” After this direct evocation of the Sun King’s memoirist (and of the formal ceremony of the monarch’s daily waking, his lever), the narrator concludes:
[S]o it was that…an old lady from the provinces, simply by giving into her own irresistible eccentricities, and into a meanness that was born of laziness, could…without ever thinking of Louis XIV,…believe that her very silences, the slightest hint of a good mood, or of haughtiness, betrayed in her physiognomy, were, for Françoise, the object of a commentary as impassioned, as fearful as the one the King’s good mood, or his haughtiness, inspired in a courtier, or even in a great lord, who had presented him with a petition, at the divergence of an allée, at Versailles.

Reconsidered in light of this earlier passage (and indeed, the Recherche encourages nothing so much as revisiting previous discoveries from a perspective refined by subsequent experience), Françoise’s quip about a hypothetical, socially unqualified suitor for a pretentious bathroom attendant’s daughter becomes a leitmotiv, lending coherence and specificity to the grandiose provincial cook’s inadvertently hilarious character. And because I promised to be brief, I'll stop here for now. But tomorrow, I'll post another short piece about Proust's regrettably untranslatable — but profoundly amusing — literary humor.
Ms. Weber is currently at work on a book titled “Proust’s Duchess: In Search of the Exquisite in Belle Époque Paris,” to be published by Knopf in 2014.

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