Lydia Davis’s Proust: The Writer as Translator, the Translator as Writer

by Helane Levine-Keating

“When a foreign classic is retranslated, furthermore, we expect the translator to do something new to justify yet another version. And in raising the bar we might also expect the translator to be capable of describing this newness.” – Lawrence Venuti

Lydia Davis, 2013 winner of the Man Booker International Prize, Photo by David Ignaszewski

As Umberto Eco has written in his essay “Borges and My Anxiety of Influence,” “books talk to each other.” And if indeed “books talk to each other,” there is also a conversation—often unspoken—that goes on between fiction writers critics, and translators.

The fiction writer who also translates listens very carefully to the words that are written on the page. They are familiar words—they have influenced her writing for years. Throughout the process, she discusses each choice with the long-deceased writer whom she’s translating.

Proust bedroom

After the words have been strung into sentences, perhaps she dreams of meeting him in his cork-lined bedroom in Paris late at night when he is often wide awake and longing to talk. In the dream she asks him if he likes her translation, if he thinks she’s captured his humor, his particular point of view, his tone of voice. She asks him if she’s nailed the words with the same nails he’s used, more or less, and then she eagerly awaits his answer. A small smile plays on his lips. He coughs for a while, long enough for her foot to fall asleep as she sits cross-legged on the chaise longue near his bed. Finally she asks him again, this time in French, “Est-ce que ma traduction vous plaît ou non?” But in the dream there is no equivalent for “Yes” or “No.”

What does it mean, then, to be both a writer and a translator, who in each role is affected by the whims of the marketplace, the need to make a living, and, by extension, the critics who deem a text worthy or unworthy of being bought and read?

It’s fascinating to explore the intertextual and labyrinthine connections between Lydia Davis’s own fiction; her translation of Marcel Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann; her methodology for translating; the critical response to her work by critic, novelist, and memoirist André Aciman; and, finally, her fictional response to that particular criticism. As an award-winning writer of short stories, poems, a novel, and essays, as well as translations, Davis has focused on exploring in her “best stories . . . problems of language, its insufficiencies and irregularities, how lives can be undone—or remade—by a preposition or pronoun. . . . Misunderstandings pivot on the misapplication of an adjective or the absence of one,” as Jason McBride notes in an interview with the author.

I would add that Davis’s fiction also focuses on the inner workings of the mind, the convoluted thought processes we experience, the paradoxes inherent in language and thought. In this way, her concerns can be viewed as similar to those of Proust, for in language and the use of tenses one is inevitably concerned with time, be it lost or found. That she astutely portrays obsessive love without sentimentality but often with irony in her novel The End of the Story, first published in 1994, several years before she began to translate Proust, might be seen as pointing to Proust’s influence in light of his own famous portrayal of Charles Swann’s obsessive love of Odette de Crécy in the second part of Swann’s Way, with its own ironic ending in Swann’s words: “To think that I wasted years of my life, that I wanted to die, that I felt my deepest love, for a woman who did not appeal to me, who was not my type!” Even Davis’s narrator’s metafictional discussion of the act of writing the novel—where it should begin and end, what to include, the fallibility of memory constructed inside and outside of time—recalls Proust’s narrator Marcel’s reflections on choosing a subject for the projected opus magnum he dreams of writing, until we realize in the final volume, Time Regained, that the thousands of pages we have finally completed reading are, in fact, the very novel he has been imagining. Davis, it would seem, is an ideal translator of Proust.


However, despite some similarities between Proust’s and Davis’s themes and concerns, Davis has written in her 2004 Yale Review essay, “Loaf or Hot-water Bottle: Closely Translating Proust,” that she had only “read about two-thirds of Du côté de chez Swann in French . . . . back in the 1970s,” and had never read Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Proust —or Kilmartin’s and Enright’s revised versions of Montcrieff’s translations, for that matter—when Penguin invited her to translate her choice of the seven volumes. Furthermore, in her essay Davis claims she neither re-read the text in either French or English, or any of the criticism or biographical material before she embarked on her own translation, wanting to be sure they did not influence or taint her first draft. In fact, Davis notes that she had been preparing to focus solely on her own writing rather than working on translations when the Penguin offer arrived, and before she accepted she had to decide whether a new translation was necessary and advisable, given the devoted fans of the Moncrieff, Kilmartin, and Enright version. Ultimately, Davis chose to accept the project both for its pleasurable challenge and because she understood there were inaccuracies—words and phrases added or omitted or mis-translated—in all three versions of the Moncrieff translation, which she would have the opportunity to improve upon in a new translation. Presumably, Penguin’s decision to hire six different translators in order to expedite the completion of the new edition of the whole of In Search of Lost Time was based less on aesthetics and more on the publisher’s belief that it would be more profitable to see the entirety of In Search of Lost Time published simultaneously rather than waiting for one translator to complete all the volumes, for the stylistic and methodological differences between the six translators ultimately result in more of a separation between the volumes than might be considered desirable. While one understands the difficulty of the task, it would have been preferable to see Davis as translator of all the volumes, but even Proust himself did not live long enough to see his entire novel in print, let alone translated, and Moncrieff died before having time to translate Proust’s final volume, Le temps retrouvé, or Time Regained.

Swann's Way 1st Edition cover

Regarding her reasons for re-translating Proust, Davis herself has commented in the McBride Interview, “it is an ideal of mine to stay as close as I can to the original while still producing a living, breathing text in English. . . . In fact, imposing my own style would take away some of the enjoyment of translating for me—which is to leave my own style and my own sensibility behind and enter fully into the sensibility and style of another writer, to be able, in a sense, to take a vacation from my own writing, while still writing” and her discussion of her essay on her “close translation” reveals her desire to stay as close to Proust’s language in terms of etymologies of words, sounds, sentence length, tone, etc. Nevertheless, the critic André Aciman takes Davis’s translation to task in his December 2005 review, “Proust’s Way?” which appeared in the New York Review of Books.

After closely examining a passage from Moncreiff’s translation and Kilmartin’s and Enright’s subsequent “corrections,” Aciman turns his unflinching gaze on Davis’s version only to find fault: “Although Lydia Davis’s prose translation seems to use the most current, idiomatic English,” Aciman writes, “it runs into problems of a totally different order,” stating “These are not problems of style” or “the intricate folds of Proust’s long sentences” or of “reproducing Proust’s tone, which she never betrays.” For him, “her problem is one of cadence.” According to Aciman, though “Davis tends to be more accurate than Scott Moncreiff, her cadence is less resonant”: “Gone is the cadence that might shed more light, gone the sweep that could have given the irreducible comic meanness of the episode its near-tragic register, gone the sense of mastery on the part of the writer—and the translator. Gone not just the style, but the voice, which is the temper, the attitude, the inflection of style. The larger scope of Scott Moncrieff’s and Enright’s Proust is simply not present in Davis.”

Aciman concludes his damning-Davis-with-faint-praise review by rhetorically posing the question “why a new translation in the first place?” which he promptly answers with “leave well enough alone.” One must wonder whether Aciman’s ultimately negative review has impacted sales of Davis’s version for Penguin despite the positive reception her translation has received elsewhere.

Proust's notebook for Swann's Way


But the conversation between writers, translators, and critics does not stop with Aciman’s review, for in early 2006 Lydia Davis responded in a letter to the editor, to which Aciman in turn responded, and both letters eventually appeared in a later issue of The New York Review of Books. Davis’s reply makes the case that for many readers Proust has become “inextricably identified with Scott Moncrieff’s flowing but misrepresentative version,” stating that for those readers, “Moncrieff’s style is the voice of Proust. But it is not. Proust,“ she points out, “is plainer, and clearer,” a statement borne out by Richard Sieburth, the acclaimed translator from French and German literature, who notes that “as a translator, [Davis] is sort of wry and understated and so was Proust,” as quoted in The New York Times. Davis goes on to cite “adulterations” of Proust’s text in the Moncrieff translation, calling the text “oppressively overwrought, even saccharine,” and arguing that the issue is not that Moncrieff’s version is “outdated” but that we “do not see Proust clearly but rather through clouded glass; wrapped in scarves; lost in forest.” Scathingly, she adds, “And this is the version which Aciman says comes ‘closest to the source.’ It is not difficult for an experienced writer to compose a cadenced sentence. But my aim was, precisely, to follow the lead of Proust’s own text as closely as possible, unadorned by my own interpretation, uninflected by my own writing style, not simplified, but not complicated, not obscured, but not ‘updated.’” Indeed, Davis’s translation stays much closer to Proust’s text when compared to the Moncrieff/ Kilmartin/Enright version, once we “unentrench” ourselves and read and listen to both Davis’s versions and Proust’s actual text, unmediated by Moncrieff, as Davis herself was when she embarked on the project.

In his reply to Davis and several others who responded to his review, Aciman defends the Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright embellishments of Proust’s text by stating that Davis’s scrupulousness “isn’t enough—not when it comes to a master stylist like Proust,” suggesting that while “no translator will admit [it] needs doing: you may have to depart from the text in order to capture not just its meaning, but its cadence, its luster, its stunning magic,” cautiously adding that it may be necessary ”to pad, to adorn, to interpolate” lest one end up sacrificing art in favor of writing simply “prose,” which he believes Davis’s version is, adding rather mean-spiritedly that Davis “doesn’t get how [a sentence by] Proust works.” In reply to Davis’s claim that “it is not difficult for an experienced writer to compose a cadenced sentence,” Aciman acerbically quips, “Well, seeing she claims she knows how to, why didn’t she?”

One might assume that the conversation would end here, yet it continues, in its own Proustian way, moving back and forth in time, for the reader of Aciman’s review and the ensuing letters to the editor might not be familiar with The Proust Project, Aciman’s 2004 collection of 28 writers’ responses to Proust, including one by Lydia Davis as well as a preface and a response written by Aciman himself. It is worth noting that in his preface Aciman chooses the passage from Swann’s Way—citing Moncrieff, of course, rather than Davis—that describes Marcel and his family taking a moonlit walk around Combray, wherein Marcel, who is convinced his parents are lost, discovers, much to his and his mother’s delight, that his father has managed to lead them home to their back-gate by an entirely different route. For the deracinated Aciman, whose own Jewish family was forced to flee Egypt in 1965, as he recounts in his well-received 1994 memoir, Out of Egypt, “home” versus “being lost” is thus imbued with perhaps even greater meaning than Proust himself might have imagined when he depicted Marcel’s family’s moonlit stroll. Seeking to regain “lost time” himself, since neither a “home” nor a “homecoming” in its truest sense exists for the exile, Aciman sees in Proust’s passage a “homecoming” à la Ulysses, much as he reveals how he recognizes his own mother and father in Marcel’s. Thus, it appears that Aciman’s reading of Proust has been mediated by Aciman’s own life as well as his projections onto the text, and Marcel’s experience has been embellished, not unlike the Moncrieff translation of which Aciman approves, raising the question of whether such “embellishment” is desirable in translating and interpreting texts, not to mention in writing memoirs.

Obviously, as one of the 28 writers included in The Proust Project, Davis herself is fully familiar with Aciman’s preface. Given her own preoccupation with language and writing, Davis has not surprisingly chosen to respond to a different passage from Swann’s Way, which she calls “The Steeples Appeared So Distant.” In this passage, Marcel alludes to his desire to be a writer, but, since the reader already knows that “Marcel” grows up to be a writer even though Proust’s narrator Marcel appears not to know, Davis points out that the passage both employs dramatic irony, though she does not use this term, and addresses “the mystery of how a written thing first begs to be written and then comes into being.” If we now fast forward in time to the 2007 publication of Varieties of Disturbance, one of Davis’s short story collections, we will find a clever finessing of Aciman and his trashing of her translation in the “written thing [that] first begs to be written”: a short story that she ironically titles, “The Walk.”

Varieties of disturbance“The Walk” focuses on an evening at Oxford University where, after a conference on translation in which they’ve both presented, a translator and a critic who have previously met and corresponded decide to dine together followed by an evening walk around Oxford as the sky is still light, albeit not exactly “moonlit.” Though Davis has created a third person limited omniscient narrator, it is quickly apparent that we are viewing the critic through the translator’s eyes. As the translator cum narrator caustically notes about the critic,”He felt she kept too close to the original text. He preferred the studied cadences of an earlier version and has said so in person and in print. She felt that he admired lyricism and empty rhetorical flourishes at the expense of accuracy and faithfulness to the style of the original, which was far plainer and clearer, she said, than the flowery and obfuscating earlier version. . . . For his own presentation he had chosen to discuss the language of translation criticism, including his own, mischievously—or malevolently—taking as his examples the reviews of the participants in this conference. He had caused almost all of them discomfort and embarrassment, and stung their pride, for only one of them had received no bad reviews.”

One can’t help but suspect that Davis the writer is depicting Davis the translator with Aciman her critic in a scene worthy of Proust, in which the critic’s presentation is portrayed as either mischievous or malevolent, though it is the phrase “or malevolently”—set off by dashes—that resonates here. Further on in the story, while both are taking a stroll led by the translator, who happens to be more familiar with the layout of Oxford’s streets, the translator manages to lead them back to their hotel by a different route, much as Marcel’s father does, expecting the critic “would recognize a parallel with a scene in the book she had translated,” and she then quotes the passage from “the version he preferred.” This is the very passage from Swann’s Way that Aciman himself has focused upon so caressingly in his preface to The Proust Project, yet in Davis’s story the Aciman-like critic does not “recognize a parallel,” and the translator thinks to herself that “perhaps he was too occupied with reorienting himself.” A few sentences later, the translator again thinks that the critic will recognize another “parallel scene” as she recounts to the critic how she has spent time searching for the home of Charles Murray, “the great editor of the Oxford English Dictionary,only to be shown that the house sits directly across the street from her hotel, which is exactly where the critic and the translator are now standing. Once again she quotes the translated passage from Proust; however, now she slyly uses her own translation, which, of course, happens also to be Davis’s translation, but the critic is too engaged in gazing at the great editor’s house and mailbox to even notice the similarity with “the book he knew so well.” Thus the “mischievous” writer of the story and the “mischievous” translator depicted in the story have wryly conspired to reply to the critic’s “malevolence” by portraying this self-proclaimed harsh judge of translators as someone so caught up with himself that he is incapable of humor, the trait so central to Proust’s own observations throughout In Search of Lost Time. With deft irony, she makes the critic who wears his knowledge of Proust on his sleeve ironically blind to recognizing when a Proustian experience dear to his own heart is actually happening to him in the moment.

Proust 2In closing I turn to Marcel Proust himself, who was famous for being both a wry and mischievous—but, arguably, not malevolent—writer, translator, and critic. In his essay on “The Creed of Art,” Proust notes, “in cases of translation from one language to another (as well as from one art to another, witness all the times when the actual vehicle of a work of art baffles the critics, whether it be a foreign language or a technique he does not know about?) As it is beauty of statement that alone individualizes the idea and marks at what depth of the creative mind the idea was worked out, if this vehicle obscures the work of art instead of throwing light on it, we are reduced to guesswork, and often guess wrong.” In light of this, one may wonder, to which translation of Swann’s Way would Proust have answered the ultimately untranslatable oui ou non?


Helane Levine-Keating, PhD, is a Professor of English, Comparative Literature, Creative Writing, and Translation Studies at Pace University. She is a published poet, translator, and critic whose recent book review of Martin Häaglund's Dying for Time: Proust, Woolf, Nabokov (Harvard UP 2012) appeared in the Woolf Studies Annual, Volume 19, 2013. She is currently at work on a novel.


Aciman, André, “Proust's Way?” Rev. of Lydia Davis’s translation of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way. New York Review of Books 1 Dec. 2005: 1-10. Web.

—–ed. The Proust Project. New York: FSG, 2004.

——. Reply to “‘Proust’s Way?’: An Exchange” by Lydia Davis, Marcel Muller, Christopher Prendergast, Jan van Rij. In response to “Far from Proust’s Way,” Dec. 15, 2005. New York Review of Books 6 April 2006: 1-6. Web.

Blume, Mary. “Translating Proust: Doing it Swann’s way?” The New York Times. 5 Dec. 2003. Web. 3 March 2009.

Davis, Lydia. “Loaf or Hotwater Bottle?: Closely Translating Proust.” Yale Review. 92.2 (2004): 51-70. Print.

——-. “The Steeples Appeared So Distant.” The Proust Poject. Ed. André Aciman. New York: FSG, 2004. 14-22. Print.

——-. “Structure is Structure.” Interview by Jason McBride. Poetry Foundation. n.d. Web. 1 March 2009.

——-, trans. Swann’s Way. By Marcel Proust. New York: Viking/Penguin, 2003. Print.

——-. “The Walk,” Varieties of Disturbance. New York: FSG, 2007. 72-82. Print.

Eco, Umberto. “Borges and My Anxiety of Influence.” On Literature. Trans. Michael McLaughlin. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2004. 118-135. Print.

Proust, Marcel. “The Creed of Art.” On Art and Literature. trans. Sylvia Townsend Warner. New York: Meridian, 1958. 314-315. Print.

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