In Search of a Good First Line

Translating the first sentence of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu into Dutch is not an easy task, as translators Martin de Haan and Rokus Hofstede have found out. Here is how they came to a solution for their new translation of Du côté de chez Swann, due to appear in 2015.

It all seems so easy: ‘Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.’ No interpretation problems, no hidden meanings, no obtrusive words, no untranslatable idiom, no difficult sytax, no marked register, no tricky word play, no sounds effects, no metre, no intertextual allusions, no cultural references: for the reader who is not familiar with the sentence, this is nothing more than an ordinary, unemphatic statement by someone who wants to tell something about a period in the past that is now over. And yet this is probably one of the most discussed sentences in literary history. Of course all these learned commentaries weigh heavily on the shoulders of the translator, even if he or she has only read a fraction of them.

Worse still, one could even argue that the commentaries have changed the sentence, not only by highlighting aspects which the average reader (not to mention the writer) would never have thought of, but by giving the sentence an aura of importance. Famous words carry more weight then ordinary words, they appear to be their own origin and end, and as a consequence finding them not so very special is almost blasphemous. This also holds for the opening sentence of the Recherche: woe betide you if you don’t find it extremely expressive, melodious and meaningful. And woe betide you even more if your translation of the sentence does not reproduce the original in a completely identical way, because any other translation is a loss. Which is why the most literal translation is very likely to reappear at some point in any serious discussion on the possible translations of this opening sentence, because this is the only translation in which you can immediately hear the sacred French words resonate. In Dutch this would be: ‘Lange tijd ben ik vroeg naar bed gegaan’ (more or less similar to Scott Moncrieff, ‘For a long time I would go to bed early’, and Lydia Davis,  ‘For a long time I went to bed early’).

So what’s wrong with the literal translation in Dutch? Nothing really, except that no-one would utter this sentence spontaneously, the word ‘tijd’ (time) sounding slightly unnatural and superfluous. In fact it can simply be left out, which makes the sentence sound a lot better already: ‘Lang ben ik vroeg naar bed gegaan.’ Not surprisingly, this is the solution chosen by the first Dutch translator of Combray, Nico Lijsen (1979), who only adds another adverb to make it sound even more informal: ‘Heel [= very] lang ben ik vroeg naar bed gegaan.’ However, as we all know, the word ‘time’ is not innocent for Proust, whose novel is all about time and even ends with the word ‘Temps’. The element ‘-temps’ in ‘Longtemps’ might not be as conspicuous and important as some proustolatres would like it to be (in the galley proofs, Proust even considered changing the famous opening sentence into: ‘Pendant bien des années, le soir, quand je venais de me coucher, je lisais quelques pages d’un traité d’archéologie monumentale qui était à côté de mon lit’), still it cannot simply be left out with impunity. This is no doubt why the second Dutch translator of the same text, Thérèse Cornips (who only published her translation of Du côté de chez Swann in 2009, after translating all the other books of the Recherche), after leaving the element ‘tijd’ out at the beginning, sneaks it back into her sentence a bit further on: ‘Lang ben ik bijtijds gaan slapen’ (≈ ‘For a long period I went to sleep at an early time of night’). In this she copies the jocular solution proposed in 2002 by an imaginary translation programme, Tovertaal: ‘Heel lang ben ik op tijd naar bed gegaan.’ Both translations reintroduce the word ‘tijd’ in idiomatic expressions meaning ‘early’, but unfortunately this does not work very well, as both expressions can only be used to indicate an exception from the normal situation of going to bed late. Apart from this, ‘bijtijds’ is a very formal word which in modern Dutch is never used in this meaning, making Cornips’ first sentence sound artificially archaic.

What to do? There are some other words and expressions in Dutch containing the element ‘tijd’, but none of these can be used: ‘tijdenlang’ (≈ ‘time and again’, a solution proposed in English by Richard Howard) overemphasizes the duration in time, whereas ‘een tijdlang’ or ‘een hele tijd’ (≈ ‘for some time’, ‘for quite some time’) would imply that the period of going to bed early is caught between two periods of not going to bed early – which is not the case. So do we have to go back to the literal translation and take its slight stiffness for granted? That would be in complete defiance to the idea from which we set out to make this new translation. In our view, Proust was a modernist writer who did not aim at the high-flown type of beauty called for by the symbolist and decadent conventions of the day, but willingly went counter to these conventions by injecting his novel with a generous dose of informality, following the motto that the only way to defend language is to attack it. By making Proust sound more modern and casual than our two predecessors, we intend to correct the image the Dutch have of him – due to the archaizing Cornips translation, mainly – as a chic, old-fashioned writer. The informal tone of the opening passage in French is important: from the very start Proust makes it clear that it’s not a grand style he is after, but a completely new way of narrating, based on associations and reminiscences rather than on chronology and causality.

For how long did the Narrator go to bed early? We don’t know, but does it really matter? ‘Longtemps’ indicates an indefinite period in the past, a period with an end but without a beginning: things had always been like this and continued to be until the event that changed everything and marked the era from which the Narrator is now looking back. Proust’s early sketches of the opening passage make this contrast between past and present explicit: ‘Au temps de cette matinée dont je veux fixer je ne sais pourquoi le souvenir, j’étais déjà malade, je restais levé toute la nuit, me couchais le matin et dormais le jour. Mais alors était encore très près de moi un temps que j’espérais voir revenir et qui aujourd’hui me semble avoir été vécu par une autre personne, où j’entrais dans mon lit à dix heures du soir, et avec quelques courts réveils dormais jusqu’au lendemain matin’ (Pléiade I, p. 644).

Precisely because what matters here is not the duration of the indefinite period in the past but the fact that it is gone forever, the element ‘long’ in the French opening sentence is more or less redundant: together with the perfect tense of ‘je me suis couché’ (which, by the way, is not a stroke of Proustian genius but a pure grammatical necessity: any other tense is impossible here) the word ‘longtemps’ simply serves to take the reader from the present of the narration to the past that will be narrated. For the translator this offers a possible way out of the impasse: wouldn’t there be another way to express this temporal relation, preserving the important word ‘time’? This is how we came to the solution that probably will be our final choice: ‘Er is een tijd geweest dat ik vroeg naar bed ging’ (≈ ‘There used to be a time when I would go to bed early’, which in its approach is vaguely similar to James Grieve’s 1982 English translation, ‘Time was when I always went to bed early’).

All stipulated conditions have now been fulfilled: the tone is casual, the word ‘time’ appears and the reader is being beamed down from the implicit present of the narration to the past that will be described in the following sentences. The doors of the novel have opened, the sound-and-light show can begin.

[Published in In Other Words, Summer 2014, Issue 43]

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