Helen DeWitt, translating Proust, and what is it that you want to do with you one wild and precious life

If you have read The Last Samurai and are in a state of nostalgia for the days when discovering Helen DeWitt was still ahead of you, go and indulge in her entire blog.

I can’t comment on these translations; happy to believe that both have much to offer. The one thing I’d say is, if you’re thinking of reading Proust and you’ve studied any French at all, do order Du côté de chez Swann from amazon.fr so you can read at least a few of Proust’s sentences in French.

People often say: “Well, I had a couple of years of French in high school but I’ve forgotten it all.” What they mean is not normally, “I had a couple of years of French in high school, but when I looked at the first paragraph of Du côté de chez Swann I couldn’t understand a word,” what they mean is, “If I cast about in my mind the only French sentences I come up with are ‘Bon jour’ and ‘Comment-allez vous?’ so there’s no point in even looking at a difficult writer like Proust.”

The fact is, they may or may not have enough latent memory of the language – they actually don’t know. They may or may not have enough latent memory so that a little help from a translation brings more back – they actually don’t know. But it’s entirely possible that the reason they gave up French was that they were forced to exchange banalities in the language and got bored; if they had been introduced to Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud early on, if they had been introduced to Proust, it might not have seemed so dreary and pointless.

If I may speak from my own experience, one of the reasons I now read French fluently is that I decided, when I was 19, to try to read A la recherche du temps perdu and kept going: it is sometimes magical, sometimes exasperating, but I found it impossible not to keep going back – and if you read a novel of a million-odd words you are likely to find that you know the language better than you did when you began.

The post quoted from made me think, fuck it, I’m going to try and read Proust. (It turns out ordering a book on French Amazon is easy enough. Understanding the emails you get afterwards, however, is another questions and unlike with Proust I am not quite so incentivised to sit there with Google translate, the latent memories of a dozen years of French lessons, and a sense that I have already lived for too long without doing this, and actually work out what the email means… so I assume the book will arrive soon, but who knows.)

I read Anna Karenina at school and it was amazing. I lived with that book for weeks. Of course, I read it in translation. There was a boy in the year above me who was studying Russian ahead of his languages degree and I asked for his recommendations for other books. He was pretty dismissive and told me there was no point reading a translation. If I wanted a long, nineteenth century novel why not just read all of Dickens in the original. I don’t think I read something in translation (other than some background stuff on my degree) for a decade after that.

When I realised that while his point was valid it wasn’t exclusively valid, I started reading some translated literature. The Howling Miller is one the best novels I have read and it made me want to learn Finnish so I could read it in the original. But learning Finnish seems like a big and impossible task. It would require a daily commitment, an app, a facility for languages that has so far eluded me, spending money, and a resilience against the inevitable failure to learn enough Finnish to read the damn book without spending years trying to memorise tourism phrases, irregular verbs, lists of food, and other things that are nothing to do with my eventual goal.

“It’s entirely possible that the reason they gave up French was that they were forced to exchange banalities in the language and got bored”.


When I read Helen DeWitt’s blog, all sorts of non obvious things suddenly seemed obvious. Longtemps, for example, obviously means for a long time. Long = long. Temp = time, as per, temporary, temporal, tempo. So I know the first word. File under, better than expected.

Here’s the whole sentence. Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. Once you know couché you can sort of guess the rest. There was something common-sensical and colloquial about de bonne heure, which I took literally as a good time, to mean early. In English we talk about making good time when we arrive early, for example.

The next two clauses are reasonable enough too

Parfois, à peine ma bougie éteinte, mes yeux se fermaient si vite que je n’avais pas le temps de me dire : « Je m’endors. » Et, une demi-heure après, la pensée qu’il était temps de chercher le sommeil m’éveillait ;

Yeux is eyes, and that makes sense. I looked up fermaient but once I saw the answer (closed) I remembered the endless use of fermez la bouche from my childhood. The phrase la pensée qu’il était temps I could just about read as the thought that it was time. I did not believe I could read phrases that well. It’s not particularly good but it is something and more than I expected. A little application then might go a longer way than expected.

Similarly, une demi-heure après is obvious, temps we have covered and sommeil I know from Frère Jacques. When I looked up ‘vite’ I learned that it derived from an onomatopoeia expressing rapid movement. I feel like I’ve heard people making that sort of ‘vvttt’ noise towards their dogs or children.

What I’m getting at is that rather than looking at the French and English and wondering what the fuck was going on, I was stitching together what I knew with what I was learning, and seeing the language with the benefit of another twelve years’ use of an etymological dictionary. I didn’t understand it but it did make sense.

Mary Oliver somewhere asks what is it that you want to do with you one wild and precious life. Spending half an hour working out what a page of Proust means is better than watching Netflix and better than failing to Learn French. So often intelligent people are taught (or mistakenly believe) that education is all about competitive advantage. You should study what you are really good at and get the best grades and be excellent. What that point of views misunderstands is the concept of margins. You should also study what you enjoy and what might be useful to you, after all you are your only competition. (Side note, a new word, ownly, meaning own and only together, as in you are you own competition and your only competition, showing both the fact of the matter and the exclusive nature of it, would be nice, if not actually useful here.)

Learning some French and reading some Proust is an inevitable improvement (whether for practical reasons or sheer indulgence). If I’d done this when I was seventeen, instead of idiotically taking that boy seriously, I would have benefitted from the indulgence, but also from the practicality of being able to read a bit more French. It’s not big deal either way. I have at other times spent a few months learning hieroglyphs, Greek, and Latin to not great avail. But it was enjoyable and helped me learn a little bit about languages, grammar, ways of expression etc. Sometimes you are in a foreign country and you see things that are mundane to the locals but weird and interesting to you. Everything is new to the new arrival. Reading is like that at it’s best, and I would rather spend my time (at the margin) reading twelve pages of Proust than another English language novel that is to a great extent pretty much as good as all the other English language fiction you can read.

Zena Hitz’s view of learning for its own sake is relevant here. The time I spent in the British Museum was much richer and more engaging because I knew something about hieroglyphs and burial culture (having also read Chapter 2 of Herodotus). That’s it. No other benefits were gleaned. But that’s huge. That was what I wanted to do with my one wild and precious life (at this margin).

Some people told us we should use lockdown to learn a new skill, a new language, whatever. Nah. But, using it to read twelve pages of Proust is a wonderful idea.

Here’s what I can already tell you about Proust. Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure, means Time and again, I have gone to bed early, or, Time was, I went to bed early, or For a long time, I used to go to bed early.

Longtemps comes from the Old French lonc tans, meaning long+time

Je me suis couché was confusing. Je suis is present tense but this sentence is past tense. Couché is the reflexive past participle of coucher, meaning to go to bed (rather than the transitive meaning to be put to bed), and so je suis takes the reflexive form je me suis. The apparent tense confusion is because this is the passé composé the tense compounded of past and present (much like the present perfect, which can refer to past actions still happening, ‘I’ve been writing this blog post all day’).

de bonne heure literally means the good time, and used to mean the right time, but since C16th has meant early. It is a sort of hendiadys, or compound phrase: the French don’t think of it as meaning good/right+time, just early.

This sentence famously sums up the main theme of the whole million word enterprise. In his syntax, grammar, and vocabulary, Proust has carefully set out the whole etymological notion of time. Temps comes from the Latin tempus, which is ‘from the root *temp- (to stretch, string), whence also templum (shrine) and tempora. Originally the word meant “what is stretched, stretching” → “stretch (of time)” → “time, occasion”.’

Stretching of course often sounds like stretching out ahead of you, like a road. But when you stretch dough or elastic it pulls both ways. Like these things, time as memory and anticipation, the notion of self, stretches before us and behind us, with no fixed sense of the start and the end, just of the stretch. That’s the uncertainty Proust creates in his opening sentence, partly with the passé composé.

Longtemps indeed.

Here are a couple of extracts from The Paris Review where Richard Howard discusses his translation of this line:

To begin with, “time and again” seems one of those cell-like phrases which sums up a meaning of the whole book, as long-temps does in French. I admire Professor Grieve’s “time was”, but it doesn’t have the notion of recurrence that I wanted. It seemed to me that what was needed was not only an opening phrase which would reveal the book’s meaning, but one that would begin with the word “time”, which would be the last word in the book as well, as it is in French.

Roger Shattuck has an essay about this, and Alfred Corn has explored it in his essays too: in the whole book, the only use of the passé composé occurs, to all intents and purposes, in the first sentence. Oh sometimes characters use this tense in speech, but the narrative is virtually never in the passé composé (je me suis couché). So that one hears a deliberate little jolt there; I wanted to echo that.

At the end he talks about all the letters he received on the various other options he should have used. As he says: ‘Perhaps everyone should translate Proust for himself—that would be a good way of reading him, no?’


9 thoughts on “Helen DeWitt, translating Proust, and what is it that you want to do with you one wild and precious life

  1. Excellent et touchant texte. L’apprentissage d’une autre langue constitue un défi, fort certainement, mais surtout une forme de fusion avec un autre espace.
    Apprendre une langue en lisant Proust, quelle belle idée. Et pourquoi pas le faire en Finlande?


    1. My French isn’t good enough to reply in French I’m afraid! Yes I thought about it for Finnish but this was a whim and it seems sensible to start with a language I know *something* about. So pleased you enjoyed the blog post 😊


  2. I used reading to improve my French, thinking to get a better flavour of the country and culture in that way. I was lucky enough to happen on a really engaging fictionalized version of a remarkable life – “Leon l’Africain” by Amin Maalouf, published in the Livre de Poche series – I think I might have bought it in a Carrefour. As word frequencies follow a Zipf distribution (the bulk of a text will be composed of the most common words), and so within a chapter or two, I found the reading came much easier. When I laughed at a joke, I realised my comprehension had reached a new level.

    I enjoyed the experience sufficiently to try to repeat it with Spanish, a language where I was starting essentially from zero – having a deadline (a holiday in Cuba) helped a bit. I was able to find a good “progressive reader” that began with “my name is…” and finished with a short history of the Spanish conquest of the Americas. In Cuba, I bought a copy of the local newspaper, as I understand it a sort of Cuban “Pravda”, and was able to get through a front-page editorial by Fidel Castro himself, in which he denounced foreign tourists for their lack of interest in Cuban schools and hospitals. By the end of the article, I felt fully repaid for my efforts.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I thought La Peste was pretty good but I’ve not read any French, except for the newspapers and the occasional scientific paper, since leaving school. And now I’m too tired or lazy, to remedy this sad defect. Or maybe I could start with something easy that we have around the house?

    French is my only hope: I loathed Latin and my German has gone (bar the ability to pronounce it). I’ve done evening classes in Italian and Spanish – good fun at the time but likewise largely vanished.

    Come to think of it, I’d like to learn to pronounce Welsh and Gaelic so that the place names seem less intimidating. But would I retain enough to make it worthwhile?


  4. Come to think of it, Gaelic is dying out so quickly in Scotland that it would be sensible just to write Gaelic place names so that they would be pronounced correctly in Scots English. The isle of Eye-lah, that sort of thing – of course “isle” would be left in its daft conventional spelling because it would add to the gaiety of nations.


  5. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    I only read two pages of Paris Match yesterday. It was about Elia Kazan and a film he failed to make about Greek-Turkish relations. It isn’t always easy to read French but the little makes for an alternative and memorable perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.