In the mid-1990s, Penguin decided to prepare a wholly new translation of Marcel Proust’s seven-part novel À la recherche du temps perdu, to compete with the existing version of C.K. Scott-Moncrieff (revised by Terence Kilmartin and D.J. Enright). The Penguin project was overseen by a general editor, who chose seven different translators, each of whom was assigned to work on a separate section of the text. The project did not evolve without difficulties, some of which arose from incompatibilities between the working hypotheses of certain members of the team. I was one of the team, and the word ‘demented’ in the title of my essay here refers not to those with whom I collaborated but to me, in the view or by the inference of at least one of my fellows.
As general editor of the new translation, Penguin chose Christopher Prendergast, a professor of French then at Cambridge. The people he selected for the project were all experienced translators or Proust scholars, or qualified in both domains. I, for one, had already translated the first part of À la recherche (Swann’s Way, 1982); I had published articles, papers and reviews on Proust; I had taught his work to advanced students of literature for many years. But in the event our ‘collaboration’ amounted to this: we had a meeting, at which three of the seven translators were not present; and we corresponded by e-mail. I had the naive expectation that we would all be in frequent correspondence with each other. In fact, I had frequent contact only with the general editor and with Lydia Davis in New York, with each of whom I exchanged dozens of messages over a period of about five years. One of the seven was not on e-mail, so there was next to no contact with him; others made scant use of it.
I had assumed that, like myself, my collaborators would have close to hand certain more or less indispensable texts: the full text of À la recherche du temps perdu, of course, preferably in both Pléiade editions of 1954 and 1987-89, and possibly also the Scott-Moncrieff-Kilmartin version; the full set of the Oxford English Dictionary (possibly online, as one can have it) for the essential duty of avoiding anachronisms; a well-stocked library of volumes about Proust; and his correspondence in the Philip Kolb edition. I also assumed that they would have access to Le Vocabulaire de Proust, Étienne Brunet’s computerised concordance of 1983. This Brunet title in particular I assumed the general editor would have to be familiar with, as it would greatly facilitate his job of cross-checking many things and coordinating certain usages throughout the volumes.
I thought it went without saying that everybody would also be able to consult the best and most essential dictionaries, that is, the Trésor de la langue française for nineteenth- and twentieth-century usages, the new large Robert, Littré’s dictionary and the Grand Larousse encyclopédique du XIXe siècle for nineteenth-century things. I later discovered that one of the other translators did not possess the full text of Proust and worked only with the Petit Robert, I tend to doubt whether any of them plied the Brunet concordance. By the third year of our collective endeavour, nothing had been done to list or identify those key words and expressions that, because they recur in more than one part of the work, required a single uniform equivalent throughout our different volumes.
It was only gradually that I became aware of the general editor’s predilection for what he calls the ‘foreignizing conception’. According to Lawrence Venuti, in his book The Translator’s Invisibility (1995), foreignisation is ‘a theory and practice of translation that resists dominant target-language cultural values so as to signify the linguistic and cultural difference of the foreign text’. Prendergast’s predilection for this became so marked that, in the General Editor’s Preface, he deemed the ‘naturalizing conception’, which he sees as conflicting with his foreignising conception, ‘demented’. He was overtly referring here to Terence Kilmartin’s statement that a translator ought constantly to ask himself: ‘How would the author put this if writing in English?’ This coincides approximately with one of my own working hypotheses, something known to the general editor when he said it was demented. It seems to have been a working hypothesis of few of the other translators, some of whom practised a literalism close to the ‘foreignizing conception’. This became apparent in many differences of view we had over textual matters.
When asked to define my position in relation to literalism, I sometimes say I am a creative fidelicist. As any translator knows, there is no incompatibility between fidelity and creativity; we did not need poststructuralist translation theory, Derrida or Venuti to tell us that no translation is ever quite ‘faithful’ and always somewhat ‘free’. Though literalism may be, in some circumstances, all one can rise to, it is in other contexts, where flying is required, as useless as a bike.
The general editor of the Penguin Proust did not invent foreignisation; there’s a lot of it about these days—there always was, though it used to be called bad translation. Is there a difference between foreignisation and poor translation? Or should language teachers foster in their students a gift for foreignising? Perhaps we should cease eliminating from their work the foreignness of syntax, grammar and usage that at one time pointed to their comparative incompetence? Although Prendergast endorses a principle of foreignisation, both in linguistic and cultural things, he gives little justification for it, beyond saying that ‘oddly unEnglish shapes’ of syntax are sometimes the best way of preserving the ‘estranging force’ of Proust’s extraordinary syntactic structures. Our contract with Penguin required us to translate Proust into ‘good literary English’. Does that include ‘oddly unEnglish shapes’ of syntax?
My shrewdest woe, once I was aboard and our Titanic was under way, was to discover I had fallen among literalists under the captaincy of a foreigniser. Since publication we have had close calls with icebergs, but, as I was not the vessel’s master, that has been less my concern than seasickness during the voyage.
The aim of one of my fellow translators was to try to match Proust ‘comma for comma’. Why use in English punctuation suited to the syntax of French? Different syntax needs different punctuation. The same translator tried to begin English sentences with a preposition, because that’s what Proust did in the corresponding sentences of his French, and believed in using ‘the same word as Proust’ or ‘the most direct equivalent’ of Proust’s word, a principle that flies in the face of elementary practice in comparative language study, for equivalents vary with contexts. Once one gets beyond rudimentary vocabulary (chien = dog, aller = to go, and so on), the principle is as useful as instructions on how to fly on a bicycle.
It was ruled that certain French words were to appear in our text, for reasons that I often disagreed with. One example is curé. It means neither more nor less than a parish priest or even just a priest. I assumed we would translate it with one or other of those equivalents, depending on context. Of those who expressed a view, no-one agreed with me; and it is curé that appears, italicised, in our English. The only explanation I ever received of why a French priest cannot be called a ‘priest’ was this, from one of my fellow translators: ‘I prefer curé over priest because of all its associations in French life and literature’, which left me none the wiser. Nor could I understand why, in dialogue, another of the translators inserts appellations such as mon vieux and mon petit, rather than using English equivalents. Sprinkling French vocables through an English text may be a way of avoiding what Venuti calls ‘the ethnocentric violence of domestication’, but since I could see no violence, I could see no reason for not domesticating them.
Two other editorial decisions went further to foreignise the text: on punctuation in dialogue and quotations in French. It was decided to abandon usual English convention for punctuation of dialogue, in favour of what was deemed to be Proust’s system. I never understood the reason for this, though if one aims to foreignise one’s English, then this is certainly a thorough way of doing so. But to speak of Proust’s ‘system’ is to dignify his practices, which were closer to muddle than to system. He had no aesthetic or literary reason for his punctuation of dialogue; it was a purely editorial contingency. When I told the general editor someone had said, on reading a draft thus punctuated, ‘Oh dear—I don’t like this punctuation—it’s so un-English!’, his reply was: ‘Some of us of course don’t mind a sense of the “un-English”.’ (A coda to this skirmish is that for the American version, published by Viking, the New York editors decided to undo something of this decision, making the dialogue more navigable for readers unaccustomed to French.)
On quotations in French, something similar happened. Proust quotes quite often from earlier writers: Baudelaire, Leconte de Lisle, Racine and so on. It was ruled that we retain the quotations in French, especially free-standing lines of verse, putting English translations in the endnotes. On lines quoted from Racine, one translator argued that no translation could equal the original. This is an admission of modesty, if not of defeat: if one is up to translating Proust, why be daunted by Racine? Viking decided to remedy this foreignisation too, and inverted the decision, so in the American edition quotations appear in English and the original in the endnotes.
Reviewers’ comments on the role of the general editor were mainly negative. They charged him with three things: first, a lack of effort to introduce uniformities to the different volumes, including lack of uniformity in foreignisation; second, his defence of the decision to use seven translators; and, third, his defence of foreignisation. The two most searching comments were made by Paul Davis in the Guardian (2 November 2002) and Richard Parish in the Times Higher Education Supplement (8 November 2002). Davis was highly critical of the general editor’s defence of oddly un-English shapes of syntax and predicted that literalism would force general readers to stop reading. Is that not one of the most persuasive arguments against foreignisation? Richard Parish, also a professor of French literature, went so far as to wonder whether the general editor had actually read all the text and the endnotes; and questioned whether this translation was in any sense a truly collaborative project.
One thing no reviewer noticed (this is as much a mea culpa as a comment on my collaborators) was that we never collaborated on the voices of the different characters. It only struck me after publication that this was a gross oversight. Crucial to Proust’s characterisation is caricature of speech: every major character has spoken mannerisms. Mimicry of voice is one of the features marking Proust as a comic writer. I gave individual voices to all the characters, notably Odette, with her Anglicisms and vulgar period trendyisms; Françoise, with her malapropisms, invented words, below-stairs parlance and peasantries, so to speak; Bloch, with his precious and excruciating literaryisms; Norpois, the cumbrous and the sententious; and Charlus, with his hysterical fluency in invective. Making these voices uniform in the whole edition might have been difficult, given the gulfs of taste separating some of us; but it should have been possible to agree at least on recurring catchphrases or idiosyncrasies. I expect readers sensitive to voice would be perplexed by the inconsistencies in this respect.
Collaboration is best done by a group who share methodologies and common goals, enjoy cooperating more than competing, have confidence in each other’s abilities, work closely together rather than apart, find loss of autonomy is compensated for by a feeling of solidarity and are overseen by someone who can lead by example, by being expert not only in the substantive task but also in getting on with others and achieving at least consensus among divergent opinions. If Penguin’s collaborators satisfied some of these desiderata, it is clear we fell far short in others. Reviewers had praise and censure for different aspects of the work but none praised it as a collaboration and several criticised what they saw as a lack of collaboration. The general editor predicted that the decision to use seven translators would be its most controversial feature. In.fact, this decision—or the general editor’s justification of it—provoked not controversy but near unanimity in condemnation. As for ‘foreignization’, those who noticed it, though they made no use of that term, lamented its presence.