Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A question of translation

Reading Carol Clark's 2002 translation of The Prisoner, the fourth volume of In Search of Lost Time, yesterday, I was brought up short by one passage. It comes midway through the volume, at the outset of an evening party at the Verdurins' house. Madame Verdurin's sparkling guest list for the party has been assembled by--and therefore subject to the hatreds and feuds of--the Baron de Charlus. In the midst of that process Madame Verdurin makes the mistake of suggesting that they invite the Comtesse de Mole, to whom the Baron has taken a vigorous public dislike. In response, the Baron casually lets loose with some disdain:
"Well, well, there's no accounting for tastes," M. de Charlus had replied, and if yours, dear lady, is to spend your time with Mrs Todgers, Sarah Gamp and Mrs Harris I have nothing to say, but please let it be on an evening when I am not here."
Fans of Dickens will recognize these three women as characters from Martin Chuzzlewit--and their names, you can surely imagine, were quite a surprise coming out of the Baron's mouth.

A note accompanying the line explains:
M. de Charlus's reference in the original is to Mme Pipelet, Mme Gibout and Mme Joseph Prudhomme, minor creations of hte nineteenth-century writers Eugene Sue and Henri Monnier. They are chosen as examples of women utterly lacking in social distinction: Mme Pipelet, for example, is a concierge. Three comparable characters from Dickens have been substituted.
I understand that Carol Clark wanted to make sure that we didn't miss the Baron's point--and I think Clark is right to guess that your average reader of Proust in translation isn't going to know the characters the Baron actually cites. But am I alone in thinking that translating them to characters we know is overdoing it a bit? Couldn't the context have been provided in a note instead--especially since this more invasive solution didn't even eliminate the need for a note?

That was the solution opted for in the Moncrieff, Enright, and Kilmartin translation, which also manages to offer in the note the names of the novels from which the minor characters are taken: Pipelet from Sue's Les Mysteres de Paris, Gibout from Monnier's Scenes populaires, and Prudhomme from Monnier's Les Memoires de Joseph Prudhomme. The result is both cleaner and more informative, resting in a confidence that the reader will check the note, a confidence that doesn't seem unreasonable in such a lightly annotated text.

Even if I disagree with it, Clark's decision obviously isn't that big a deal: it distracted me briefly, but the moment passed quickly in the rush of the ensuing party. It does, however, serve as a good reminder of the difficulty of the job translators take on, of all the similar decisions like they have to make in a book, page after page. As a reader with no languages other than English at my command, the fact that nearly all of those decisions are pass more or less unnoticed in a good translation is an achievement that I greatly appreciate.

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