Wine and Grapes and Perfect Serenity.

Leland de la Durantaye has a very nice Boston Review piece on Swann’s Way, its reception, the difficulties of translating it, and the problems with Yale University Press’s new annotated edition of the original Moncrieff translation. The problems begin with the fact that the editor, William C. Carter, chose to go back to Moncrieff rather than taking account of the improvements by Kilmartin and Enright and the entirely new, and much-lauded, version by Lydia Davis; there’s a troubling account of a particular passage in which the narrator’s grandmother says of a country church she loves that if it played the piano it would not jouer sec, and Carter announces his own “version that matches Proust” (“I am sure it wouldn’t sound dry“): “not only does he fail to note that a very similar choice had already been made a decade earlier in Davis’s translation, he nowhere notes the existence of Davis’s translation—not once, not anywhere.” There are also problems with the annotations; one, on the church of Combray with “certain anecdotes of Aristotle and Virgil,” reads “Aristotle (384–322 B.C.), Greek philosopher revered by theologians and philosophers of the Middle Ages,” providing information any reader of Proust is likely to know already while ignoring Proust’s point, that the church depicts “Aristotle on all fours with a beautiful woman astride his back, riding him like a horse.”

The whole thing is well worth reading if you like this sort of detailed and occasionally captious discussion; I’ll quote a passage near the start, about one early reader’s reaction:

A few years later Virginia Woolf would sit down to thank a friend for sending her a slab of nougat from Saint-Tropez, but, put in mind of France by the package, she soon found herself talking only of the novel. “My great adventure is really Proust,” she wrote, “I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes. How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped—and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp. The pleasure becomes physical—like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined.”

Thanks, Paul !

Comments

  1. A few years later Virginia Woolf would sit down to thank a friend for sending her a slab of nougat from Saint-Tropez, but, put in mind of France by the package, she soon found herself talking only of the novel.

    That “would” construction – “A few years later Virginia Woolf would sit down …” – is tolerable only in small quantities. Recently I ran across an English WiPe article on some historical events or other, connected with Germany, in which almost every sentence was formulated with “would” in that way. My guess was that it was written by a German who believed such a style lends elegance to historical narrative. But it only made the article sound as if produced by Google Translate.

    I suppose this “would” is an attempt to stress the past character of an event “in the relative future”. A happened at one time, B happened later, in the future with respect to A. But since both happened in the past, from the standpoint of a narrator of the two events, he doesn’t write “later B will happen” but “later B would happen”.

    In the present case, it would be simplest to write “A few years later Virginia Woolf sat down…”

    One reason I suppose that the article was written by a German person is that there is a similar elegance-locution available in German using sollen (that is equally annoying when overused). sollen used in this way does not mean “should”, but “would”: Einige Jahre später sollte Virginia Woolf sich daran machen, einen Brief an einen Bekannten zu schreiben, um ihm zu danken…. The article writer may have seized on “would” because he thinks: “At last I know how to render this kind of sollen in English !”

  2. Here’s the comment I just posted at the original article (held for moderation):

    Tinny is a technical term referring to a sound that has too much high frequency in it. It is quite common for pianos to sound tinny when the action is slightly out of adjustment, causing the high notes to be too prominent. Indeed, this is sometimes thought of as a feature of certain pop styles; it can be deliberately created by piano technicians. So the author’s dismissal “while brass instruments may sound tinny, it is hard to imagine a piano doing so” is contradicted by something you can learn in ten minutes from Dr. Google.

    Surely it would be worthwhile finding out whether sec is a similar French technical term? If so, Kilmartin would be quite simply correct in his revision of Moncrieff.

    It’s just amazing to me how even academics, are willing to spew this sort of stuff nowadays without making the slightest effort to check their facts, dammit. (Professors today!) I’ve grown used to it in linguistic matters, but whenever anyone writes “it is hard to imagine” etc., I always read it with a subtext “Personally, I’m ignorant and content to stay so.”

  3. Speaking of comments, “And neither of you realize that my pen name, George Balanchine, is really the name of the great Russian-American choreographer who helped found American ballet in the 1930s? Or perhaps you knew it along and just decided to keep quiet?” may be one of the best-worst that I’ve ever read.

  4. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I saw Matt’s comment before I saw George Balanchine’s, but if it had been the other way around of course I would have realized where it came from, and so, I imagine, would most educated people. But why say so? If someone decided to post at LanguageHat under the name Igor Stravinsky I would think it pretentious, but I doubt whether I’d feel it worthwhile drawing attention to it.

  5. Igor Stavinsky says:

    … comments …

  6. Say, I have some fine bonds for sale if anyone wants to make financial improvements (I do not say for whom!).

  7. Does “there can be no question of Carter having plagiarized Davis’s translation” mean “obviously he did” or “obviously he didn’t”?

  8. marie-lucie says:

    the narrator’s grandmother says of a country church she loves that if it played the piano it would not jouer sec, and Carter announces his own “version that matches Proust” (“I am sure it wouldn’t sound dry“)

    When I first read this (or rather skimmed through it) I misunderstood and thought that it referred to an actual piano in the church, instead of the church itself being compared to a pianist. I looked for the original French sentence by googling “Proust piano jouer sec”, and I found a number of quotations of the grandmother’s words: Je suis sûre que s’il jouait du piano, il ne jouerait pas sec.

    Without a context, I would interpret this as “I am sure that if he played the piano, he would not play dry(ly)”. The verb jouer in a musical context can only refer to the player, not to the instrument. Sec (Italian secco) refers to a manner of playing (sometimes mentioned in a composer’s note on the score), not to the sound of the piano itself, independently of the player’s skill (as “tinny” would be).

    The masculine pronoun in French does not only apply to humans or living beings, so who or what was the hypothetical player imagined by Proust’s grandmother? If it was the country church, the word would be a feminine one: une église or perhaps une chapelle, and the pronoun would be elle. Fortunately, another English-language source mentioned the church-spire rather than the church itself. Ha! le clocher! a masculine word to go with the masculine pronoun. The word was confirmed by a French source (written by a musician or music critic) which provided the missing reference in the grandmother’s sentence: Je suis sûre que s’il [le clocher de Cambray] jouait du piano, il ne jouerait pas sec And why would this architectural feature be imagined to play the piano? Because it contains les cloches, the bells that ring at regular times, punctuating the lives of the inhabitants. So what is compared to the sound of a piano is the sound of the bells, with the bell-tower (not the church) compared not to a piano but to a pianist. The bells of Cambray produce a full, rich tone, like a piano under the hands of a good pianist.

    So the English sentence matching Proust’s should maintain the human player metaphor and use the word play rather than sound.

  9. Excellent analysis!

  10. marie-lucie: Did you by chance once live at 221B Baker St?

  11. marie-lucie says:

    PO: No, but I have a large book with The Complete Sherlock Holmes. I am also a historical linguist, and that involves a fair amount of detective work! This search was great fun and did not take too long.

    “while brass instruments may sound tinny, it is hard to imagine a piano doing so”

    I think that the writer only knows pianos either from having attended concerts in which top musicians played on excellent, expensive, well-maintained pianos, or from recordings also featuring similar instruments and artists. Pianos that are older, rarely tuned, and of poor quality to begin with, as might still be found in some homes, as well as in public spaces such as schools, night clubs, and even shopping centres and railway stations, and many other places where they are also submitted to rough handling, will never sound like concert Steinways.

  12. Does “there can be no question of Carter having plagiarized Davis’s translation” mean “obviously he did” or “obviously he didn’t”?

    The article specifically said that there can be no question of this. And yet here we are. There’s always one, isn’t there?

    (Seriously, I was also a bit startled by that sentence as I find that turn of phrase ambiguous too, but it’s abundantly clear from the context that the author means “obviously he didn’t.” If the author of the article felt that the book was plagiarized they would surely devote at least as much attention to that as to the inadequacy of its footnotes about Aristotle, given that we are not living in a dry satire of interwar academia.)

  13. Bob Gillham says:

    The image on Aristotle is surely from the “Great Work” ascribed to him, which had this image as a woodcut illustration/frontispece. It’s a Mediaeval work about midwifery, contraception and sex, only glimpsed at it a long time ago…

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