Having learned from a correspondent that there is still no complete translation of Proust in Greek, I decided to find out when the full novel became available in Russian, and was surprised to discover it was not until 1999. I learned this from this 2002 article by Andrei Mikhailov, who starts off quoting the critic Georgii Adamovich (discussed here) as saying, in the mid-1920s, that Proust “will probably be loved in Russia” and goes on to explain why it took three-quarters of a century for that prophecy to be realized. It’s a sad story. The first volume was translated at the end of the 1920s by A. A. Frankovskii (1888-1942; biography in Russian), and Mikhailov says “There existed and still exists a fixed opinion that Frankovskii’s translation exactly and deeply renders all the stylistic peculiarities of Proust’s prose” and to compete with him “is to doom yourself to inevitable defeat” (adding that although he was a great translator, he was working from inadequate French editions and much has been understood since his day). Alas, Frankovskii died in the blockade of Leningrad, and by then Proust had been deemed “the height of literary decadence” and “a classic of bourgeois parasitism” by the Soviet literary establishment, so the four volumes that had appeared by the late ’30s (by various hands) were all that were available for decades.
Then, in the 1960s, another experienced and prolific translator, Nikolai Lyubimov (1912-1992), decided to try his hand. He was deeply immersed in both Russian and French literature and had translated Rabelais, Molière, Beaumarchais, Mérimée, Flaubert, Maupassant, de Coster, Anatole France, and Maeterlinck, so he was a good man for the job. One might wish that he had started with the later volumes, returning to the first if and when he had time, but he decided to start from the beginning, and his first volume came out in 1973, followed in fairly rapid succession by the second (1976) and third (1980). But his Sodome et Gomorrhe was held up by the censors until 1987 (even then being published with puritanical cuts); the following volume was published in 1990 and shows signs of haste and carelessness. He spent the rest of his life trying to finish La Captive:
But now he worked slowly and with difficulty, no longer flying through the text as in earlier years but gradually slogging through the intricate prose with indifference and even hostility. He complained of dizziness, headaches, insomnia, fatigue, and blamed Proust for it all. The doctors insisted he stop working. In October of 1992 he did, leaving the end untranslated and large gaps missing elsewhere. Two months later, on December 22, he died.
His widow refused to allow the publisher to emend his text, so it was issued gaps, errors, and all, just as he had left it (though an appendix provided translations of the missing pieces by another translator). Finally, in 1999, the final volume appeared in a translation by Alla Smirnova.
One of the guilty pleasures of reading about translations is the inevitable dissection of the inevitable gaffes; I’ll pass along a few of the more piquant. Towards the end of the “Swann in Love” section of the first volume, Proust says that Swann “était persuadé qu’une «Toilette de Diane» qui avait été achetée par le Mauritshuis à la vente Goldschmidt comme un Nicolas Maes était en réalité de Ver Meer” [“was convinced that a ‘Toilet of Diana’ which had been acquired by the Mauritshuis at the Goldschmidt sale as a Nicholas Maes was in reality a Vermeer”]. Mikhailov says “the notes explain what the painting was and when the sale took place, but not who this mysterious Морисюи [Morisyui] might be: a collector, a dealer, an incidental person? Lyubimov didn’t know (and neither did Frankovskii); the reference is actually to the well-known Mauritshuis museum in the Hague, which Proust himself visited.”
Lyubimov never went abroad, including Paris (such was our life back then), and there were many local realia unknown to him. So he has Odette walking along “аллеям Булонского леса” [the allées of the Bois de Boulogne] rather than the avenue du Bois de Boulogne (now avenue Foch), a broad street leading from the Arc de Triomphe to the Bois, which was a place where fashionable people strolled. The translator was also unfamiliar with the structure of Parisian cafés, not suspecting that several customers unknown to one another cannot sit at the same little table. Lyubimov was capable of taking “Luxembourg” (that is the Luxembourg Palace, where there was a museum) for the name of the tiny European state, and the name of the 18th-century portraitist Nattier for that of a profession (“braider”).
But I disagree with Mikhailov in his censure of Lyubimov’s rendering of the passage in which Charlus seizes on a question by Marcel to savage the Marquise de Sainte-Euverte: “Croyez-vous que cet impertinent jeune homme… vient de me demander, sans le moindre souci qu’on doit avoir de cacher ces sortes de besoins, si j’allais chez Mme de Saint-Euverte, c’est-à-dire, je pense, si j’avais la colique. Je tâcherais en tout cas de m’en soulager dans un endroit plus confortable…” [“Would you believe it, this impertinent young man… asked me just now, without the slightest concern for the proper reticence in regard to such needs, whether I was going to Mme de Saint-Euverte’s, in other words, I suppose, whether I was suffering from diarrhoea. I should endeavour in any case to relieve myself in some more comfortable place…”] Lyubimov writes: “Этот неделикатный молодой человек осмелился задать мне вопрос, поеду ли я к маркизе де Сент-Эверт. Нет, слуга покорный, я в ее сент-эвертеп не ходок. Уж больно она сент-эвертлява […] Мне эта сент-эвертунья, сент-эвертушка, сент-эвертихвостка не по нутру…” The passage is full of untranslatable puns on the name Sainte-Euverte, like сент-эвертеп [sent-evertep] “Sainte-Euverte-den,” where вертеп [vertep] is ‘den.’ Mikhailov thinks this is going too far and betraying the text; I say you have to allow great translators their occasional excesses. What would Urquhart‘s Rabelais be without his Urquhartisms?