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Imaginary interview with Scots translator Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff

 

 

Jean Findlay (Moncrieff)

 

Charles_Kenneth_Scott-Moncrieff

       Jean Findlay  
   - the interviewer

 

    Charles Kenneth
      Scott Moncrieff
         (1889-1930)
      - the interviewee

Jean Findlay was born in Edinburgh. She studied Law and French at Edinburgh University and Theatre under Tadeusz Kantor in Kracow, Poland. She co-founded an award -winning theatre company and wrote and produced plays which toured to London, Berlin, Bonn, Rotterdam, Dublin, Glasgow and the Pompidou Centre in Paris. She spent years in London writing drama and book reviews for the Scotsman, and has written for the IndependentTime Out and the Guardian. She now lives in Edinburgh with her husband and three children.She founded and runs a publishing house called Scotland Street Press. scotlandstreetpress.com . She is the great-great-niece of CK Scott Moncrieff.
 

Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff (1889-1930)  is still known as ‘the man who translated Proust’.  Appropriately, the British prize for translation from French is known as the ‘Scott Moncrieff Prize’.[1] Jean Findlay, his great-great-niece, has written his biography, Chasing Lost Time, in which she shows the development of the translator going back to early childhood but also paints a warm picture of the full man: the soldier who retained his belief in the nobility of war despite witnessing and suffering from the effects of prolonged engagement in the trenches, the active homosexual at a time when an ‘act of gross indecency’ was a criminal offense, the fervent Catholic convert, the man who was at the centre of literary life in 1920s London and the spy sent to Mussolini’s Italy. Jean kindly agreed to conduct the imaginary interview that follows for the benefit of our readers.

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JF:   Good afternoon, if we are in the same time-zone.

CKSM: I can do any time-zone you like, good day to you too.

 

JF:  I hope you don’t mind this intrusion into your celestial repose, but we down here need some input, some ancient wisdom.

CKSM:  Well, I learnt ancient wisdom just as easily you can.  I memorized Milton’s Ode on a Christmas Morning age five.  I studied Greek and Latin at seven.  I earned a scholarship at 13 to Winchester School for my translation of Ovid.  It is all about hard work and the dedication of the mother.

 

JF: Your mother was quite a nurturing soul. She read you the classics all through early childhood.

CKSM: Yes, I was familiar with Ruskin and his ideas at an early age, which helped me understand Proust later on.

 

JF:  We’ll come to that, but let’s go back to your mother.  She was a writer herself wasn’t she?

CKSM:  Yes, she wrote regular columns for Sunday newspapers and contributed short stories to Blackwood’s magazine.  She earned enough to pay for her youngest sister to go through University.


JF:  Your father was a lawyer.

CKSM: A judge on the criminal bench, or a Sheriff as it is still called in Scotland.

 

JF:  And you were expected to follow your father’s shoes into law?

CKSM:  I did study Law at Edinburgh University, but then won a bursary to study a further degree in English, specializing in Anglo Saxon.  That all helped me translate Beowulf, Wisdsith, Finnsburgh, Waldere, and Deor, [2] which was published in 1921.

JF: By that time you had come through the First World War

CKSM: Yes, Beowulf [3] was some kind of warrior’s catharsis. As were my poems in the New Witness and reviews and the funny war serial which tried to see the lighter side of it all. It was hell of course, but I always tried to see the poetry, the camaraderie, the humour.  The letters to my mother were not descriptions of gore, they couldn’t be, they detailed the animals I found, the French people I met, the good times that were had with fellow soldiers.  

 

JF: You made good friends during the war and you fell in love.

CKSM:  Ha, yes, of course that is what I am famous for.  Falling in love is a fine thing to be famous for. It was a momentous yet subtle, Moncrieff wilfred-owentender love and one that still holds a mystery a hundred years later.  I am proud of that. There was a whole BBC World Service programme on Armistice Day 2019 just about my love for Wilfred Owen. I met him at the wedding of Robert Graves in January 1918 and he was a shy, reticent unknown poet, whose hair was already Moncrieff Robert Graves shot with white in his early twenties. You should not send poets to war, and I had two years before helped secure a home posting for Robert Graves. I tried to do that for Owen, but men were in shorter supply in that last summer of the war.  Too many had been wiped out.  We met often to discuss poetry. I was translating The Chanson de Roland and extolling the way that French poetry does assonance and consonance and Wilfred was experimenting with these in English. It was a hot, weary time with London full of soldiers and I remember meeting him for a short leave off the train and trying to find a bed for him in London and walking from Eaton Square to Cadogan Square  five times that night with my leg in a caliper,  (much of it was missing), discovering that he’d left his pocket book on my desk. I wrote a sonnet:

 

Last night into the night I saw thee go,

        And turned away; and heavy of heart I clambered

Up the steep causeway: weary, late and slow

        By my lone bed arrived. But, I enchambered,

Out cried the sullen alert artillery:

        Shrilled watchmen: woke the slumbering streets in riot.

And, was I sad for my night’s swallowing thee,

        Then I was glad because thy night was quiet.

 

JF:  Therein lies the irony. You helped get his first poems published, but you couldn’t get him off the list at the War Office and he was sent out to be killed. And, devastated after his death, you wrote another sonnet for Owen and put it into the dedication for the Chanson de Roland.

 

When in the centuries of time to come,

Men shall be happy and rehearse thy fame,

Shall I be spoken of then, or they grow dumb,

Recall these numbers and forget this name?

Part of thy praise, shall my dull verses live

In thee, themselves- as life without thee – vain?

So should I halt, oblivion’s fugitive,

Turn, stand, smile know myself a man again.

I care not: not the glorious boasts of men

Could wake my pride, were I in Heaven with thee;

Nor any breath of envy touch me, when,

Swept from the embrace of mortal memory

Beyond the stars’ light, in the eternal day,

Our contented ghosts stay together.

 

JF:  Although let’s be fair, that is really not all you are known for.  You went on to translate Proust.

CKSM: And Stendhal, Pirandello, Abelard and Eloise and more. But Proust you see would have understood me; in many ways we had a lot in common, both closet lovers of men, obsessed by genealogy, the Ruskin link, my time spent in France growing to love its cathedrals and villages, language and religion. I converted to Catholicism, and Proust is full of Catholic references.  I wish I had met him, although sometimes reading someone’s work lets you know far more about them than just meeting them. 

Stendhal (Moncrieff) Apelard (Moncrieff) Heloise (Moncrieff)
Stendhal
(Marie-Henri Beyle)


Pierre Abélard
(ou Abailard ou Abeilard)

Héloise

Stendhal [1783-1842]: French writer, considered one of the early and foremost practitioners of realism.
Abélard [1079 – 1142]: French scholastic philosopher, theologian and preeminent logician.
Héloise [1090-1164]: French nun, writer, scholar and abbess, who holds an important place in French literary history and in the development of feminist representation.


JF: 
They say a biographer knows even more, and a literary biographer knows most of all. But translating Proust is a magnum opus. 

Moncrieff Noel Coward
CKSM: I never finished it off: it finished me off.  Though it started gently enough.  He was the perfect mind to spend time with.  His novel is poetry, prose and metaphysics all rolled into one, with subtext, satire and innuendo in layers. Reading him slowed time down, translating slowed time down even more, and I needed to heal after the war.  I needed gentle minds and hearts.  Noel Coward introduced me to Eva Cooper [4] and I went to stay at Hambledon Hall in the country and read my Proust to her to start with.  Later I found other sympathetic minds to test it on.

 

JF:  You tested it on just about everyone you knew. 

CKSM: Yes, and moving to Italy helped a lot, there were so many English and American writers in exile.  The living was cheaper, the weather warmer and the churches, paintings and architecture are still food for the soul.  Also I loved swimming in the sea, even when I was a boy in Scotland, but after getting my wound and my recurring trench fever, I needed balmier waters. I rented beautiful rooms in Florence, in Pisa and finally in Rome, where I could concentrate on translation.

 

JF: But there was another job in Italy.  You were still working for the Government, reporting to the British Passport Office in Rome, a cover for spying activities.

CKSM:  We were keeping an eye on the rise of Fascism.  I remember noting on my first day in Italy that the country was being run by “teenagers on cocaine”. It was dangerous.  Not like the war, of course, but you had to watch your back. Louis Christie, Kings Messenger at the time, got badly beaten up by Fascisti in the street without warning and had to leave Rome for good.  For me, being a journalist/translator was the perfect cover.  I would wander down to the jetty at Livorno and chat to the sailors and discovered that the cargo they were loading on boats bound for Yemen was ammunitions for an uprising against the British Protectorate there, and among the crew were communications engineers and explosives experts. I also discovered army mobilisations and exercises taking place near Genoa.  

JF:  So Proust did not take over your life entirely. 

CKSM:  No, but I did develop a way of seeing things through his eyes and that not only showed the beauty in everything, but also the humour and the satire. Proust also bankrolled me. I got simultaneous contracts from New York and London, the Americans paid better and weren’t chicken about the content.  Chatto and Windus in London could not print ‘Sodome et Gomorrhe’, even though I translated it as ‘Cities of the Plain’, because of the Obscenity Laws.  Albert Boni in New York went right ahead and it was published in the US first because of this.

Moncrieff Luigi_PirandelloI also translated and tried to promote Pirandello to the English-speaking world.  I saw his plays and met him on several occasions. He was absent-minded, once he arrived for dinner 27 hours late. I had his blessing on my translations. I reminded Chatto and Windus that my instinct was good. ( I had advised them to buy the rights to Noel Coward’s plays and they had ignored that.) I was vindicated when Pirandello won the Nobel Prize for Literature later on.

JF:  There is a new translation of Proust: it took seven translators seven years.  What do you think of that?

CKSM:  That is 49 man years, longer than my lifetime.  Marvellous. Proust deserves to be re-translated for every era and to keep translators employed.  However, I do think that you need to keep my interpretation as a key to the times Proust lived in. 

 

JF:  The title you gave the whole novel, translating A la Recherche du Temps Perdu as Remembrance of Things Past, that still evokes controversy today, nearly a hundred years later.

CKSM:  Good, controversy is always healthy.  Let me explain.  It comes from Shakespeare’s sonnet number 30, “ 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.” When I translated Proust, all my readership would have been familiar with that sonnet and that line.  Temps Perdu in French means time wasted as well as time lost and time past, and sonnet 30 encapsulates all of these.  The modern translation, ‘In Search of Lost Time,’ limits the idea. I took all my titles of Proust’s volumes from poetry. I just never managed the last volume. Time got me first. I was still correcting proofs in hospital in my last days.

JF: You were also corresponding with T S Eliot.

CKSM: And reading Balzac, who said, ““le temps est le seul capital des gens qui n’ont que leur intelligence pour la fortune,” (Time is the only capital owned by people who have to live by their wits)

Moncrieff Urbs RomaJF:  You loved Rome and you died aged forty and are buried there. I found your grave in the Verano Cemetery, with the Alpha and Omega carved onto the stone.

CKSM:  Rome is the Eternal City, Urbs Aeterna.

 

 

[1] The Scott Moncrieff Prize  is an annual £2,000 literary prize  for French to English translation  awarded to one or more translators every year for a full-length work deemed by the Translators Association o have "literary merit". Only translations first published in the United Kingdom are considered for the accolade.

[2] This is the title of a volume of writings of early English authors which Moncrieff "translated" to the English of his day.

[3] Beowulf is an Old English epic poem. Produced between 975 and 1025, it is one of the most important works of Old English literature. The author was an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet, referred to by scholars as the "Beowulf poet".

[4] Eva Cooper was a cultivated society hostess who invited writers, such as the satirist Saki and Noel Coward the playwright  to her large house in Rutlandshire, where she looked after them and encouraged their writing.