History’s greatest novelists include Tolstoy, Kafka, and Proust, and though none of them wrote in English, their books do a roaring trade across the English-speaking world. But not all aspects of their writing are easily translatable. Some of the best-known works of literature have moments that we English speakers are completely missing out on.
10. In Search Of Lost Time’s Opening
Writing a great opening line is a skill all by itself. Sentences like “Call me Ishmael” and “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” are almost as famous as the novels that contain them. The opening line of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, on the other hand, isn’t. In English, it simply reads: “For a long time I used to go to bed early.”
That’s not an especially striking way to start a 1.5-million-word text that’s meant to be one of the greatest ever written. The problem is that the French is simply untranslatable.
The original opens with the words: “Longtemps, je me suis couche de bonne heure.” Unfortunately for those of us who don’t speak French, the tense it’s written in has no English equivalent. Proust’s original shows he’s talking about an action that took place in the past but has effects continuing up to the present. The English version simply tells us about a former habit of his.
Then there’s the word longtemps. For French readers, it has a slightly mythic quality, like starting a story with the phrase: “a long, long time ago . . . ” Finally, bonne heure sounds really similar to bonheur or “happiness.” So, French readers immediately have in mind old myths, notions of happiness, and the passage of time. By contrast, English readers have nothing but someone who hates staying up late.