C. K. Scott Moncrieff – The Ideal Translator

Found- a press cutting from The Bookman, March 1932 by one De V. Payen-Payne, a good evaluation of the life and work of C. K. Scott Moncrieff – in a review of a posthumous book by him. It may be a myth or an exaggeration but I heard that Scott-Moncrieff was working on his monumental Proust translation while on the staff at The Times and occasionally when he was stuck for the English mot juste (as it were) he would consult the entire office and everything came to a halt while the right word was found – world news be damned!


Painting of Scott Moncrieff by E S Mercer

It is a moot point whether a mother or a wife or any near relative can write the ideal biography. Not that this book pretends to be a biography, although it contains many details that only a mother can give, and will prove invaluable when the ideal biographer appears, and Scott Moncrieff’s work is assessed critically and compared with the lit he led. Some may think that too much space has been given to his experiences in the War and to the letters that he wrote to his family and friends when on service. Since 1918 we have a large number of such accounts, and Scott Moncrieff’s adventures, although most creditable to himself, were not very different from those of many other intellectual men thrown into the cortex of combat. Others too may think that the postscript is too personal for inclusion. Instead of it, an index would have been a desirable adjustment. 

Born in 1889, it is interesting to note, in view of his chief work in life, that he had a French ‘bonne’ at three years of age. After four years at a preparatory school at Nairn he took a Winchester scholarship in 1903, the blue riband of English education. In 1908 he entered the University of Edinburgh, being the fourth generation of his family to study law there. In 1914, a few weeks before the declaration of war, he took his M.A. degree with first class honours in English, where he had gained the friendship and esteem of the greatest English critic, George Saints-bury, then Professor of English Literature. Being in the reserve of officers, he was called up early in August, and by October he had landed in St. Nazaire, a lieutenant in the King’s Own Scottish Borders. In May, 1915, he was given his captaincy, and after the usual adventures in the Flanders mud he was severely wounded at Monchy-le-Preux in April, 1917, and was lame for the rest of his life. He was given the M.C., and in March, 1918, was at work at the War Office. Shortly after he began the translation of the “Chanson de Roland,” which was published in 1919. Many think it his most valuable work on which his future fame will be built. After occupying several staff appointments he became secretary to Lord Northcliffe in 1919, and was transferred to the editorial staff of ‘The Times’ in the next year. In September, 1921, he resigned to devote himself to the translation of Proust, by which he is best known to the world of letters. At this time he was to be seen at the Savile Club with his pockets full of the French text and his own versions, always eager to discuss his difficulties. In 1923 he installed himself in Pisa to obtain more leisure for his work, and he remained in Italy for the rest of his life, frequently in the society of Norman Douglas, Richard Aldington and other literary friends. His chief work on Proust was interrupted by translations of Stendhal, Pirandello and Bloch. All these rank him with the greatest of translators such as Florio, Urquhart and John Payne. Unfortunately he did not live to do the tenth and last volume of Proust, and his early death at Rome from cancer in February, 1930, was a great loss to English literature. But on the whole a happy life, for he did the things he liked and was always willing to place wealth in a secondary place. He was an ideal companion, a ready talker, taking all literature as his text, a generous host and a most sparkling correspondent. His friends, of whom he had many, will a lll regret the passing of a so bright a spirit. [De V. Payen-Payne]


2 thoughts on “C. K. Scott Moncrieff – The Ideal Translator

  1. Roger

    Scott-Moncrieff’s Proust is like Florio’s Montaigne and the Homers of Chapman and Pope: read with enthusiasm by people who do not need to read a translation.

    A franker book about his life, Chasing Lost Time: the Life of C K Scott Moncrieff, Soldier, Spy and Translator by his great-great-niece(?) Jean Findlay was published a few years ago.

  2. Jot 101 Post author

    Thanks Roger. A useful hint. Of course his first book is rather valuable and collected ‘Evensong and Morwe song’ – about 1908 (Winchester College).


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