Vagaries of translations past

In The Year of Reading Proust (1999), Phyllis Rose related an anecdote that stuck in my head for a long time, because of its symmetry. It concerned the Englishing of the title of Proust’s multi-volume novel À la recherche du temps perdu.

Proust’s first English translator, C. K. Scott-Moncrieff, famously rendered the title as “Remembrance of Things Past,” drawing on a line from Shakespeare sonnet number 30, which begins:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought,
I summon up remembrance of things past
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste . . .

Recent translators, however, have preferred to be more literal and less allusive, and Proust’s title is today more often given as In Search of Lost Time. When, in Rose’s memoir, she mentions this change to a friend, he regrets it. It’s less sonorous, the friend complains, and furthermore, Scott-Moncrieff was not taking the liberty he seemed to be taking. As everyone knows, the phrase comes from a Shakespeare sonnet. But, continues the friend,

“. . . do you know that when Voltaire translated Shakespeare’s sonnets, he translated that phrase into French as ‘à la recherche du temps perdu’? That’s where Proust got it. So when Moncrieff wanted to translate Proust’s title, he went back to the Shakespeare sonnet Voltaire had been translating.”

It’s a perfectly formed anecdote. The pieces of the puzzle fit together exactly; the boldness of the first translator is justified by a knowledge of French literature that later translators lack. When I read Rose’s book, I went looking in Columbia’s library for Voltaire’s translations of Shakespeare’s sonnets, because the story made me want to see them with my own eyes. I couldn’t find them, but I figured I would run across them later, so I made a point of remembering to look for them again when I had a chance.

So I looked for them this afternoon, when I was in the New York Public Library. No luck. My guess is, Voltaire never translated Shakespeare’s sonnets. In the age of Google, if you spend an hour or two looking in scholarly databases for a piece of information about people of the stature of Voltaire and Shakespeare, and you can’t find it, it is not likely that it exists. There is no mention of such a translation among the volumes of the Oxford edition of the Complete Works of Voltaire. There’s also the circumstance that Voltaire was at times rather cranky on the subject of Shakespeare. He translated Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy in his Lettres philosophiques of 1726, and he called Shakespeare “a genius” and “sublime” in 1770, but by 1776 he was calling him a “huckster” and discounting his earlier praise of Shakespeare as an attempt “to point out to Frenchmen the few pearls which were to be found in this enormous dunghill.”

In a 1963 issue of Shakespeare Quarterly, a scholar named Ralph Aiken suggested that the phrase “remembrance of things past” may itself have come from French. Aiken noticed that the phrase appears in a 1579 English translation by Thomas North of an introduction that Jacques Amyot wrote to his 1559 French translation of Plutarch’s Lives. Amyot was praising written history as an improvement over and fitting heir to the singing of memory that happens in oral cultures:

Now therefore I will overpasse the excellencie and worthines of the thing it selfe, forasmuch as it is not onely of more antiquitie then any other kind of writing that ever was in the worlde, but also was used among men, before there was any use of letters at all: bicause that men in those dayes delivered in their lifetimes the remembrance of things past to their successors, in songes, which they cause their children to learne by hart, from hand to hand, as is to be seene yet in our dayes, by thexample of the barbarous people that inhabite the new found landes in the West, who without any records of writings, have had the knowledge of thinges past, welneare eyght hundred yeares afore. [Aiken’s italics]

Aiken notes that “North has followed the French with his usual fidelity; Amyot’s phrase is ‘la memoire des choses passees [sic],’ and not, unfortunately, ‘la recherche du temps perdu.'” So Aiken, a formidably well-read Shakespeare scholar, was on the lookout for an instance of someone translating Proust’s title the way Scott-Moncrieff did, before Scott-Moncrieff did, and didn’t seem to know of one.

Maybe Rose’s friend misremembered the name of the translator? A number of French translations of Shakespeare were available to Proust and Scott-Moncrieff, and perhaps the anecdote will turn out to be true with someone else’s name in Voltaire’s place. I looked up Victor Hugo’s prose translation of the sonnets, just in case. I was for a while baffled by Hugo’s decision to give to sonnet 30 the number XLIV, but eventually I found the one I was looking for:

Quand aux assises de ma pensée doucement recueillie j’assigne le souvenir des choses passées, je soupire au défaut de plus d’un être aimé, et je pleure de nouveau, avec mes vieilles douleurs, ces doux moments disparus . . .

Hélas, no luck there, either. For now, this anecdote, like the one of quayside New Yorkers clamoring to hear the fate of Little Nell, should probably be athetized. I’ll leave you with Hugo’s rendering of the sonnet’s closing couplet, because it’s pretty and ends up almost rhyming:

Mais si pendant ce temps je pense à toi, cher ami,
toutes mes pertes sont réparées et tous mes chagrins finis.