Alexander Aciman notes that “countless translators have struggled with these famous opening lines” from Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way, which are emblematic of his distinctive prose style:
Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. 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. »
Nobody seems to be able to agree whether to translate the verb of the principal clause as a conditional or a past participle, because while in French it is obviously the latter, it seems to act as the former. We’ve had various degrees of “went to bed early,” “used to go to bed early,” “would go to bed early,” each meaning more or less the same thing, but none hitting the nail directly on the head. Scholars have found these lines, at once, undeniably charming and a huge pain to work with.
According to Aciman, a typical English translation renders the lines, “For a long time I would go to bed early. Sometimes, the candle barely out, my eyes close so quickly that I did not have time to tell myself ‘I’m falling asleep.'” He imagines the way other novelists might have written the passage. Here’s David Foster Wallace:
I am lying in bed early in the evening. A burnt honey colored candlewick sits on my rosewood bedside stand sending blades of smoke into the French countryside air. I am falling asleep, maybe my eyelids are closing or I have just started dreaming, but I don’t realize it yet.
And Bret Easton Ellis:
I always go to bed early. That’s what mom tells me when she kisses me goodnight. She blows out my candle and says “you always go to bed early.” Although I really am tired, I haven’t realized it yet and I try to stay awake longer. I do that until I see I am already sleeping.