What’s the best translation of In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past)?

You might think there are only two translations to choose from. Well. That’s what *I* thought.

But after many, many hours of collecting and organizing information on Marcel Proust’s masterwork, I can tell you, the situation is much more complicated…

Head over to the first of my Lost Time pages on We Love Translations to learn how many versions of the Scott Moncrieff translation the Anglophone world has produced (and is still producing!), plus details (on the second page) about the Penguin Prendergast project and the rather nebulous new Nelson and Watt project.

Intimidated by the scope and scale of the complete Search? If you want, you can read just a fraction of it. Visit my Swann’s Way page on We Love Translations for information on just Volume 1, and on the novella Swann in Love (which is contained within Volume 1).

If you want a quick-and-dirty recommendation, why not read the new, complete, modern, multi-translator Penguin version? Or at least the first volume of it? Lydia Davis translated Penguin’s Swann’s Way. She has a lot of interesting things to say about her process, and others (mostly) say positive things about the result.

Buy the Davis translation of Swann’s Way on Amazon

For more on Davis’s translation, keep reading.

Regarding the Title: Swann’s Way -or- The Way by Swann’s, translated by Lydia Davis

New York Times: “Translating Proust: Doing it Swann’s way?” by Mary Blume
“[T]he first volume is called The Way by Swann’s in Britain, but Viking has kept Moncrieff’s Swann’s Way. ‘The marketing people persuaded the others that a change would hurt sales,’ Davis says. Marketing experts are less dominant in England, says Simon Winder, Davis’s editor at Penguin. ‘It’s a strange thing to call it Swann’s Way, it’s so vague, it could be Swann’s way of making mayonnaise. We had a huge amount of argument internally about what it should be called. The Way Past Swann’s House was my favorite.’ Davis would have preferred By Way of Swann’s.”

Thoughts from the Translator’s Introduction by Lydia Davis

On the goals of her translation:
My intention was to reproduce the French without adding or subtracting material, or substituting an interpretation for what was on the original page; to be faithful to the beauty of some passages, the awkwardness or strangeness of others; to retain parallel structure when it was there, and the lack of parallel structure when it was missing; wherever possible, to begin a sentence or paragraph with the same word or words as in the original; and to end a sentence or paragraph the same way.”

On how to achieve a close translation:
“My aim in the present translation was to stay as close as possible to Proust’s original in every way, even to match his style as nearly as I could…. I wanted to reproduce as nearly as possible Proust’s word choice, word order, syntax, repetition of words, punctuation—even, when possible, his handling of sounds…. Often, especially at the close of a paragraph or a long sentence, Proust will string together, say, three adjectives beginning with the letter p; if the translation can do the same, it amounts to a sort of translation bonus.”

On how to handle the Proustian sentences and syntax:
“Preferably the very last word of a sentence should be the same—and this becomes especially important in those long, complexly structured sentences, since so often they are designed from the beginning to lead up to a particular climactic word. It almost goes without saying, although readers still ask translators to break them up, that the long sentences must be kept intact and must retain as many elements of their complexity as possible, above all the intricate architecture of syntax into which Proust inserts his parenthetical remarks and digressions, delaying the outcome for so long.”

On determining diction:
“One may suppose that a new translation will have a more contemporary tone or diction than an older one, that it will be more in the idiom of its time. Yet in the case of Proust, if one sets out to compose a very close translation, one finds that the very complexity of the syntax requires a certain formality, so that the diction, with its slightly old-fashioned quality, is somewhat predetermined.”

More Thoughts from Lydia Davis

The article at the link below is a detailed first-person account of Davis’s approach to translating Swann’s Way. I particularly liked hearing about her forays into etymology (word derivations) and “synonyms”, which I will not repeat. Click to read those bits, and to find out whether she chose “loaf” or “hot-water bottle”.

» The Yale Review: “Loaf or Hot-Water Bottle: Closely Translating Proust” by Lydia Davis

On approaching the translation blind:
“When I approach a translation I don’t generally read the book first…. [Moreover,] I decided not to read biographical material or critical work that discussed his style and his themes…. I would also not look at other translations…. In the midst of the second draft, I began to read a little about Proust’s life, and his style, and consistently checked my work against the other translations.”

On translating closely:
“I have [almost] always opted for a close translation…. A close translation is both harder and easier: harder because the confines are so tight, but easier for that same reason – you don’t have as many choices. I prefer the tight confines and the puzzle-solving…. In the first draft I kept extremely close, intentionally, to the point of oddness, because what you think you can’t do – what you think won’t work in English – actually may work, and unless you try it you won’t know. Many very close, even completely literal, solutions did work. But there were also oddities in the first draft that I couldn’t keep, so I took them out…. In the second draft, I began moving away from the very closest versions, but only as far as necessary to make a good piece of writing.”

On diction:
“The fact is that the goal of making a close translation determined the diction in at least two ways that I can see now: first, staying close to the word choices of the original, which are often plainer, simpler, or blunter than what Moncrieff chose, and insofar as possible adding nothing that was not in the original, necessarily produced a text that was sparer and plainer than Moncrieff’s, and therefore more contemporary to us in its style…. But second, staying close to the sentence structures of the original, which are often elaborate and full of dependent clauses, can’t be done without using a diction that is somewhat more formal than what we might most commonly see in our own contemporary fiction.”

On why to translate closely:
“One reason I believe so strongly in staying as close as possible to the original author’s choices rather than ‘improving’ him is that we as translators should not presume to have understood everything he was trying to do; by presenting his text as he presented it, to the extent possible, we offer Anglophone readers the chance to read and interpret without our meddling.”

The “rules” Davis gave herself for translating Proust, as given in the article:

  1. “at the level of the individual word… to give the closest equivalent whenever possible”
  2. “not to add any material that is not in the original”
  3. “not to subtract anything from the French, especially by condensing”
  4. “to retain repetitions”
  5. “to respect the sentences as Proust wrote them: to retain each sentence intact, whether it is long and full of dependent clauses or short and simple”
  6. “to retain the same order of elements in a sentence, so that they unfold for the reader in the same order”
  7. “to begin a sentence or paragraph with the same word or words as in the original”
  8. “to end a sentence or paragraph the same way as in the original: preferably the very last word should be the same”
  9. “to reproduce the play of sounds, especially the alliteration and the assonance, as much as possible”
  10. “not to normalize something that seems odd at the moment”
  11. “[to] punctuate as lightly as he does”

Others’ Thoughts on the Lydia Davis Translation of Swann’s Way


Publisher’s Weekly: “Swann’s Way: A New Translation”
“Relax: it’s fantastic. There’s no question that Davis’s American English is thinner and more literal than C.K. Scott Montcrieff’s archaically inflected turns of phrase and idioms, at least as revised by Terence Kilmartin and later by D.J. Enright. The removal of some of the familiar layers of the past in this all-new translation gives one a feeling similar to that of encountering an old master painting that has just been cleaned: the colors seem sharper and momentarily disorienting.”

Airmail: “A Swann’s (Three-) Way” by Josh Zajdman
“As you might expect from the celebrated short-story writer and translator Lydia Davis, her Swann’s Way translation, beginning with ‘For a long time, I went to bed early,’ is elegant, cool, and easily readable.”

The Cork Lined Room: “Which Translation Will We Read” by Dennis Abrams
“I asked Eric Karpeles, author of Paintings in Proust, and the man who has read Proust more often than anyone I know, which version he recommends. His response? Read the Lydia Davis translation of Swann’s Way, published by Penguin, then read the rest of the series in the Modern Library Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright translation.  What is it about the Davis translation that he likes?  “Even though I’ve read the Moncrieff several times and know it quite well, what I like about the Davis is that it has less of an Edwardian English overlay to it. Davis removes some of the fustiness of the language of the period, which Proust did not have in French.  She manages to retain an authenticity of tone, making it fresh and seemingly less pompous, infusing it with more of a Proust-like delicacy.”


The New York Review: “Proust’s Way?” by Andre Aciman
“Although Lydia Davis’s prose translation seems to use the most current, idiomatic English, it runs into problems of a totally different order. These are not problems of style. Like Enright and Kilmartin and Scott Moncrieff before her, Davis is perfectly capable of keeping pace with the intricate folds of Proust’s long sentences; nor is her problem one of not reproducing Proust’s tone, which she never betrays. She knows how to reach those peaks of lyricism just as she is cautious to convey every nuance of implied humor. Rather, her problem is one of cadence…. If Davis tends to be more accurate than Scott Moncrieff, her cadence is less resonant. Moncrieff was trying to reinvent something like an epic style to echo Proust’s; Davis is not aiming that high. Hers is the case of a scrupulous and dutiful writer translating a French novel that happens to be written by Proust…. Davis is more meticulous and far less hasty than Scott Moncrieff, less willing to take chances, unassuming in her diction, always honest, and frequently Gallic in her choice of words. But Enright, after reworking Kilmartin and Scott Moncrieff, is the closest to the source…. The larger scope of Scott Moncrieff’s and Enright’s Proust is simply not present in Davis.”

Times Higher Education: “Whiff of the Madeleine” by Richard Parish
The Way by Swann’s has an inelegance that should have been avoided, not least because the translator herself glances over and rejects the far more natural The Walk by Swann’s House in her own introductory comments. Davis sticks close to the French syntax and lexis for the most part and makes a convincing argument for doing so. As a result, she often gives a persuasive impression of the experience of reading Proust in the original. But such fidelity also runs the risk of Gallicisms…. In other respects, too, there are quibbles. First, alone in the series, Davis introduces a number of Americanisms into her text, both lexical… and syntactic…. More seriously, there are straightforward mistranslations.”


LA Times: “Seeking meaning, finding Proust” by Alexander Nehamas
“Davis replicates the hesitations and digressions, the backward looks and forward glances that swell Proust’s sentences and send them cascading to their conclusion — without sacrificing the natural air of his style, which Moncrieff often obscures. Her Proust is fastidious without being prissy. The effort to stay close to the original produces English sometimes less elegant than Moncrieff’s and occasionally too literal to make sense…. But she avoids Moncrieff’s Edwardian extravagances and tendency to expand Proust’s already ample prose…. Davis’ sans-serif version is bound to attract new readers to Proust and offer new pleasures to those who know him already…. Davis’ Swann’s Way is good enough to inspire a longing for the rest of the work — a longing that will be unsatisfied unless readers turn to Moncrieff, whose classic version has now found, if not a replacement, at least a worthy competitor.”

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