- Editorial Preface
“Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.” “For a long time, I went to bed early”? Or, “For a long time I used to go to bed early”? Thus begins Marcel Proust’s À la recherché du temps perdu, published in English as In Search of Lost Time—or should it be Remembrance of Things Past? The first possibility, both sentence and title, comes from Lydia Davis and was published in 2002. The second is from C. K. Scott Moncrieff, who published the first volume of his translation before Proust’s death in 1922. Davis’s superb translation is far more faithful to the original French than Scott Moncrieff’s. But it is the Scott Moncrieff rendition that has been hailed as a classic of English literature in its own right.1
The Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies takes no stand on translations of Proust. Yet every HJAS contributor and, I daresay, nearly every reader wrestles with the problem at the core of these two Proust translations: how to balance the desire to render words as faithfully as possible against the need to take liberties to facilitate readers’ comprehension or capture hidden meanings behind the words per se. My own experience of translating lengthy texts for publication goes no further than a few months’ piecework long ago for corporate clients who valued speed and accuracy (in that order) over style. Still, in my own writing on early modern Japanese social history, I often find myself agonizing over how best to render terms like zaizai 在々 (a countryside dotted with peasant villages) and komae 小前 (members of peasant communities who hold land but are otherwise unprivileged)—even as I recognize my own discomfort with “peasant” as the standard translation of hyakushō 百姓 (something like “rural commoner” would be better). [End Page v] I have pretty much given up on finding a concise, idiomatic way to capture a common phrase like ōsetsukeraresōrō 被 仰付候 (receiving an order from on high): How does one translate the blank space between the passive-voice marker 被 (-rare) and the rest of the phrase? Rendering into English the expressed if formulaic respect for the usually unspecified authority behind the order is important but hard to carry off in idiomatic, twenty-first-century English.
This issue, like every other issue, of HJAS is full of translations of words, phrases, and concepts. Each of our contributors, in her or his way, has wrestled with many problems no less vexing than “Long-temps, je me suis couché de bonne heure,” and often more fraught than my mostly stylistic contortions over words like zaizai. To take just one example from each article: Chelsea Foxwell examines the character of early Meiji shinbun 新聞, “newspapers” that look like anything but. John Herman acknowledges the pejorative “raw” (sheng 生) and “cooked” (shu 熟) connotations of terms informing whether Miao people were “unincorporated” or “incorporated” (respectively) under direct Qing administrative rule. Michael Hunter inquires into the relationships suggested by the term “disciples” (dizi 弟子) in early China. For his part, Nathan Vedal invites us to wonder how to render a title like Huangji jingshi shu 皇極經世書. In an early draft of his article he used the relatively literal “Book of the august ultimate traversing the ages,” but in the end he settled on the more readily comprehensible “Supreme principles governing the world.”
1. Adam Gopnik, “Why an Imperfect Version of Proust Is a Classic in English,” New Yorker, March 30, 2015, https://www.newyorker.com/. Marcel Proust, À la recherché du temps perdu, was originally published in seven volumes between 1913 and 1927. The quotation here is from the first volume, Du côté de chez Swann (Paris: Gallimard, 1919), p. 9; Marcel Proust, The Way by Swann’s, trans. Lydia Davis, vol. 1 of In Search of Lost Time, ed. Christopher Prendergast (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 7; Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff, vol 1 of Remembrance of Things Past (New York: Henry Holt, 1922), p. 1.