The Proust is in the pudding

Back in Madrid after a holiday in England’s green and pleasant land, as well as charming Glasgow and a somewhat remote Scottish island (Barra). At the time of this writing, independence is rumbling for Scotland. Most of the people I talked to were saying a definite “yes” – we’ll see what happens on the 18th!

Now translating (ES>EN) the latest volume of Barcelona publisher Treviana’s series on painters. This one is on Georges Seurat and, as usual, the book’s central text links the artist with a relevant literary figure. Treviana has followed this painter-writer format in quite a few other books that I’ve worked on (Manet/Flaubert, Sorolla/Blasco-Ibáñez, Velázquez/Pacheco, Raphael/Vasari…).

Anyway, I’m pleased to say that they’ve chosen Marcel Proust to be Seurat’s counterpart. And yes, come to think of it, stepping back from that swirl of multi-coloured dots to bring into focus a leisurely Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte is indeed a bit like assembling Proust’s lost world from its infinitude of tiny, sub-atomic components (madeleine crumbs, if you prefer). “The figure in the carpet” Henry James, another long-winded genius, might have called it.




Like the rest of the series, the Seurat book will be published in a bilingual Spanish-English edition with 60 high-quality reproductions of the artist’s works, and a CD representing the musical atmosphere and innovations of his day. I haven’t seen the CD yet, and am speculating as to what it might include (Debussy…?).

On the fascinating subject of translating titles…

The long-definitive English translation of À la recherche du temps perdu, by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, was given the non-literal title Remembrance of Things Past after a line in Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 30 (« When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past »). Hard to match this for its ability to conjure up an arte nouveau world of gaslight, drawing rooms, glass-walled conservatories with wicker chairs and so on, all by the simple turn of a phrase (the archaic use of “remembrance” as an abstract noun, the latinate syntax of “things past”…). No, it’s not strictly faithful but, for what is now a historical document as well as a work of art, it’s certainly expressive and beautiful. And, of course, it’s the title we’ve all come to know. So much so that the new (and highly acclaimed) translations of recent years seem a little jarring with their insistence on literality. In Search of Lost Time, after all, sounds like an Indiana Jones movie!

OK, I’ll defer to modern opinion on that, but what about volume 2 (in which Albertine makes her grand entrance)? À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur has been translated, too logically, as In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. Now don’t tell me this isn’t dreadful! Moncrieff rendered it quaintly as Within a Budding Grove, which has a perfect rhythm, and the botanical metaphor is more…well… graphic. Which goes to show that a translator is not just a kind of court reporter, but has aesthetic responsibilities as well.

Apparently, Proust himself was alarmed at the liberties Moncrieff was taking with his titles and they exchanged some indignant correspondence about this. However, when the English sales figures for Swann’s Way started coming in, the author changed his tune, and then died before the second book appeared in print. Moncrieff subsequently had his own way, but would die himself before the last volume was finished. The rest, as they say, is history.


C. K. Scott Moncrieff
C. K. Scott Moncrieff
In Père Lachaise, without a map, and frustrated because I couldn’t find most of the famous dead people I was looking for, I sat down for a rest and look who was there at my feet!
In Père Lachaise, without a map, and frustrated because I couldn’t find most of the famous dead people I was looking for, I sat down for a rest and look who was there at my feet!

« Translation is like a woman. If it is beautiful, it is not faithful. If it is faithful, it is most certainly not beautiful. » – Yevgeny Yevtushenko