I can’t remember the first time I read Proust—a fact that’s ironic on a number of levels. I’m pretty sure it was sometime during the summer of 2004, the summer after my first year of grad school. A friend who is something of a Proust evangelist forwarded me a Word document full of his favorite quotes from In Search of Lost Time after learning that I was interested in the relationships between objects and memory. Many of the quotes were from passages about art: “Through art alone are we able to emerge from ourselves, to know what another person sees of a universe which is not the same as our own and of which, without art, the landscapes would remain as unknown to us as those that may exist on the moon.” My reaction to Proust was of the kind that every artist wants a reader or viewer to have. I thought: this is how I feel.
In delving into Proust, I became interested not only in his writings, but in Proust’s own idiosyncratic, reclusive life and the history of In Search of Lost Time’s translation into English. The first English translation of the novel’s first volume, Swann’s Way, was by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and published in 1922. Like Proust, whose sole endeavor during the last years of his life was finishing his seven-volume novel, Moncrieff’s main occupation for the last eight years of his life was translating that novel. He died before finishing the seventh volume. Although Moncrieff took some creative license with his translation, adding superfluous embellishments to the text, his flowery, baroque interpretation was the standard for about sixty years. Excepting the revisions to Moncrieff by two different translators, there are only two other original English translations of Swann’s Way, one in 1982 by James Grieve and one in 2002 by Lydia Davis.
Each translator’s approach is different. Some adhere as closely as possible to the French; others imagine what Proust might have written had his native language been English. Moncrieff’s translation of the novel’s first sentence reads: “For a long time I used to go to bed early.” Grieve’s: “Time was when I always went to bed early.” And Davis’s: “For a long time, I went to bed early.” In either case, the translator is a mediator between reader and author. Unless one is able to read French, the reader must rely on Moncrieff, Grieve or Davis, and inevitably, despite the translator’s best efforts, meaning is lost.
I am currently producing my own “translation,” entirely in the form of drawings, of the first chapter of Swann’s Way, pieced together using every English translation of the text. It will consist of 28 individual drawings of photocopies of open books, each drawing consisting of two sequential pages from the first chapter of the book. The methodical, ritualistic process of reproducing each photocopy takes me about two weeks. This patchwork of texts will produce varying degrees of overlapping gaps from page to page, resolving into an incomplete and not-fully-readable rendition of the original. My completed drawing will be installed on the wall or in a display case so that viewers, if they choose, can read my translation, with all of its breaks and intersections, from beginning to end.
There are parallels, I think, between the occasionally flawed process of translation and the novel’s central theme of memory and, also, the holes, static, and misperceptions that incomplete or lost memories can leave behind. For Proust’s narrator, memories have an intrinsic relationship with objects and places. The first chapter ends with the madeleine scene, in which the narrator dips his madeleine into his cup of tea and “all of Combray and its surroundings, all of this, acquiring form and solidity, emerged, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.” However, the chapter is about more than just the transformative power of mundane objects. It introduces the value the narrator places on the examination of the minutest details of our sensory experiences and his dependence on habit and ritual, without which “our mind, reduced to no more than its own resources, would be powerless.”
Essay by Molly Springfield for NY Arts Magazine: Vol 12.