books / Proust & Me Blog / marcel senegal

Marcel in Senegal

March 26, 2013 | By Rachael Small
Rachael Small © Kathryn Hamilton

Rachael Small recently received her MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Iowa. Her thesis, a translation of Abdellah Taïa’s debut book, ‘My Morocco,’ earned her a spot at the prestigious Banff International Literary Translation Centre in the summer of 2012.  A translator from the French and Spanish, she has lived in Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Dakar, Mexico, and even Iowa City.


Marcel Proust was a particularly strong presence at what felt (and still feels) like a pivotal moment in my life.  I was introduced to the Recherche eight years ago, in a French class at Bard College, taught by the charming and brilliant Eric Trudel.  This was only the second French literature course I had ever taken, and the first one where I felt that my imperfect understanding of the language did not distract from my enjoyment of the narrative. That same semester I made my first attempts at translation in a workshop with Susan Bernofsky. The course began with a discussion of Lydia Davis’s decision to retranslate the title of the first volume of the Recherche as The Way by Swann’s, a decision that challenged perceptions of textual fidelity and marketing strategy (American publishers would reject this retranslation of the title, while the British embraced it). 

But my Proustian moment wouldn’t come until a year later, when I was living with a host family in the Ouakam neighborhood of Dakar, a middle-class suburb to the north-east of the capital whose dusty streets are lined with houses-in-construction that bespeak a neighborhood on the rise.  I had moved in during the bird flu scare and my host mother, a well-to-do and well educated elementary school principal, had refused for months to cook poultry.  It would come the day the bird flu “broke” in the minds of the general public, when suddenly everyone felt safe eating chicken again.  In celebration, my host mother decided to serve Poulet Yassa, chicken marinated in a sauce of lemon, mustard, and onions, which is then thrown on the grill as the marinade simmers, returned to the sauce with coarsely cut carrots and cabbage, and finally served on a bed of rice and eaten out of a large communal bowl with the right hand. 

Before I knew what she was cooking, I could smell it, the sweet and savory scent of grilling chicken.  But there was something distinctive about this particular scent. With a mere whiff, I was instantly transported to my grandmother’s kitchen, where I spent every Friday night of my childhood watching my Bubbie prepare the Shabbat dinner and helping her set the table and light the candles.  In the words of Marcel Proust, translated by Lydia Davis, “I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside me.”  My sparsely decorated bedroom in Dakar had become my grandmother’s bustling, linoleum-floored kitchen in Los Angeles and, thousands of miles and nine years away, I was with her again.

I’d never had that experience before.  Despite previous encounters with sense-induced nostalgia, I had never been so fully moved.  Proust gave me a language with which to speak about this experience, a validation that what I was feeling was not necessarily the result of a bad reaction to Lariam (a malaria prophylaxis that I was taking at the time, notorious for inducing hallucinations and manic depression).  I believe that reading the Recherche prepared me for that moment and perhaps had as much of a hand in inducing it as my host mother did by cooking that meal.  Of course, my own experience returned me to thoughts of Proust, as it always would.  I am now reading Swann’s Way in English for the first time, thanks to Lydia Davis’s brilliantly meticulous translation, rediscovering a book that has altered the very way I experience the world.


Air France is a proud sponsor of 2013: A Year with Proust, a year long festival organized by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy.

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