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?


  1. That’s fascinating. I started my Proust reading career when I was about 14–apparently with the Lyubimov version. It was so good and so fascinating that I couldn’t wait to read the rest. Unfortunately, teenage attention spans being what they are, I lost focus somewhere in the beginning of In The Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (in Russian, the title is much more euphonious: Под сенью девушек в цвету). And thus I never got to solve the mystery of why my grandmother had only four of the volumes. I must say, though I absolutely loved Swann’s Way in Russian, reading it in the Montcrieff translation was much more of a drag–although it’s possible that this is only because the patina of newness had already worn off.

  2. Dan Milton says

    I guess I’m also unfamiliar with the structure of Parisian cafés (as well as the pertinent passage in Proust). Why can’t several customers unknown to one another sit at the same little table?

  3. John Emerson says

    I have a Chinese translation, from the Russian, of Rashid-ad-din’s history of the Mongols. As I remember, there were three Russian translators and three Chinese translators, no two of whom worked simultaneously. You have to conjecture that several of them met unhappy ends one way or another, with the manuscripts being passed from hand to hand until it was finished. (Though you can slightly more cheerfully think that in some cases translation started and stopped as the Mongols went in and out of fashion.)

  4. marie-lucie says

    I guess I’m also unfamiliar with the structure of Parisian cafés … . Why can’t several customers unknown to one another sit at the same little table?
    Because it would be extremely rude! unless they have just met for some reason and decided to sit together. In a big city cafe, the part what extends on the sidewalk (protected year-round by a glass enclosure) is typically crowded with little tables (regular height, but meant to hold three or four glasses or cups, not plates of food), each with two or three chairs, often with little space between the various sets of chairs. If you see a person sitting alone, you should assume that they are happy that way or that they are waiting for someone. Of course, in exceptional circumstances which bring people together who would not normally talk to each other, groups of strangers (who now have something in common) might crowd around the same tables, but this is not part of the normal routine of life. I don’t see that this is much different from sharing or not sharing a booth in an American diner.

  5. John Emerson says

    That may tell us more about Russian custom than French. The French custom seems commonsensical to me.

  6. michael farris says

    “One might wish that he had started with the later volumes”
    One might wish that … but translators IME (including my own self) are hard to please when it comes to the work of other translators, so I’m not surprised that he didn’t.

  7. From the above, am I to assume that it’s normal for strangers to sit at the same table in Russian cafes?

  8. am I to assume that it’s normal for strangers to sit at the same table in Russian cafes
    Can’t vouch for Russia, but I assume that cusoms are similar to those in other parts of central and eastern Europe: if there’s no spare table, it is both acceptable and normal to take the free seats at an occupied table.
    It’s a custom that takes some getting used to when you’re used to ‘your’ table being essentially private, but it makes sense – especially to the owner of the establishment.

  9. John Emerson says

    My German sister-in-law tells me that the German rules about intruding on strangers are extraordinarily strict. According to her, even walking up and saying hello for no good reason is regarded as intrusive.

  10. Great lecture. Read it, you won’t regret it.
    Thanks very much—that’s terrific! Here‘s the direct link, and I will point out that if you click the “multimedia” link at the bottom (third from the right, the loudspeaker icon) you can see and hear the lecture.

  11. Ohhhhh I long for a place where I can rely on having my table to myself….

  12. Arthur Crown says

    What would Urquhart’s Rabelais be without his Urquhartisms?

    For anyone with a spare half hour, I (not knowing who Thos Urquhart was) just read a transcription of a lecture about him and his place in Scotish literature. And I’m sorry I don’t know how to just print ‘here’, so it’s at:
    Great lecture. Read it, you won’t regret it.

  13. michael farris says

    In Poland in some kinds of places if there are no free tables you sit wherever there’s a free place (asking if it’s okay before you sit down though you’re expected to say yes). Most often you politely ignore each other (sort of like in an elevator).
    For some reason I thought that was the rule in Germany too.

  14. Crown, Arthur says

    …you can see and hear the lecture.
    Aha! Thanks. So now I’ve heard it as well as read it. There’s a sound of running water in the background, as if he is sitting in the bathtub.
    It makes me want to read the Rabelais translation. I would like to have heard more about why he might have written the trig. book besides that he might have been crazy (I feel there must be a good explanation).

  15. John Emerson says

    I’d have to talk to my sil. It maybe that th rule there is “sit down, but don’t say anything, and don’t make eye contact”. Based on the way she talks, the thing to remember is that whatever the rule is, it’s a very strict one.

  16. John Emerson says

    Urquhart’s Rabelais is easily available, bundled with Motteux’s translation of the remaining books. Questions of accuracy aside, it’s wonderful. “Wordsworth Classics” has an edition for $5-$10.

  17. Crown, Arfur says

    Urquhart’s Rabelais is easily available, bundled…
    And then there’s the Everyman edition that Corbett mentions in his lecture. You (I) can get for practically nothing at

  18. Christophe Strobbe says

    I decided to find out when the full novel became available in Russian, and was surprised to discover it was not until 1999.

    The first complete Dutch translation of À la recherche du temps perdu wasn’t available until 1999; translator Thérèse Cornips (and two others, C.N. Lijsen, M.E. Veenis-Pieters) worked on it for more than 20 years.
    I’m not aware of Dutch translations of Contre Sainte-Beuve (but it seems that translators were awarded a grant in 2004), Jean Santeuil, Les Plaisirs et les Jours or Pastisches et mélanges.

  19. Thanks, this was fascinating. I was amazed to find out that Proust has only recently been translated into Russian – and, apparently, also Dutch! I see that no-one has commented on your last paragraph about the translated passage; I just could not believe how liberal Lyubimov was with his translation!! Firstly (I speak both languages), it doesn’t really get across the meaning (or perhaps it does and I’m not getting it? if so then could you possibly explain which of the puns refers to diarrhoea? in the French, the euphemism is disambiguated). Secondly, it’s just so utterly different from the original! Perhaps I am being naive, but this just makes me never want to read another book in translation.

  20. Oh, I agree, it’s terribly unfaithful, and if there were much more of that kind of thing it would have been a terrible translation, but as a one-off explosion of translatorial exuberance I enjoyed it.

  21. From «Художественно-филологический перевод 1920–1930-х годов» (ed. Mariya Baskina; SPb: Нестор-История, 2021), via Facebook:

    Отличие «советских переводов» от довоенных замечательно описал Григорий Дашевский, причем в обоих случаях он говорил о хороших работах — переводах «В поисках утраченного времени» Марселя Пруста, выполненных Николаем Любимовым в 1970-х годах и Адрианом Франковским в 1930-х: «В переводе Франковского <...> слышна была умная речь автора <...>. Этот перевод говорил: „читатель и изображенная реальность — части единого мира, одного времени; интонация мысли едина поверх языков и сквозь языки; эта книга о нас — о современной душе”. Это был перевод во всех смыслах слова современный. В переводе Любимова интонация умной беседы совершенно заглохла <...>. Все заполнила „литература” — ее особенные, книжные, глухие к реальной речи элементы — повествование, описание, псевдонародное просторечие и псевдосветский жаргон. В переводе как будто слышно и то, что Любимов никогда не был за границей, и то, что он с презрением и отвращением смотрел на современную ему советскую действительность, включая и все ее умные разговоры. Этот перевод говорил: „никакой Франции нет; и на русском языке никакого умного разговора тоже нет; а есть только детские воспоминания и тома русской классики, на вневременной язык которой мы и переводим такую же вневременную всемирную литературу, от Рабле до Пруста, проецируя одну книжную мнимость на другую”. Этот был перевод вневременной — со всей той аморфностью и духотой, к которым обычно приводит вневременность». — Мария Баскина

    There’s considerably more at the link, but I thought this striking comparison of the Proust translations was well worth bringing here.

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