This is from Proust, pay attention to the words 'peu délicat' and 'mal cotées':

et comme un jour, chez elle, elle dit devant lui que pour les soirs de première, de gala, un coupe-file leur eût été fort utile, que cela les avait beaucoup gênés de ne pas en avoir le jour de l’enterrement de Gambetta, Swann qui ne parlait jamais de ses relations brillantes, mais seulement de celles mal cotées qu’il eût jugé peu délicat de cacher, et au nombre desquelles il avait pris dans le faubourg Saint-Germain l’habitude de ranger les relations avec le monde officiel, répondit: – Je vous promets de m’en occuper, vous l’aurez à temps pour la reprise des Danicheff, je déjeune justement demain avec le Préfet de police à l’Élysée.

This was translated by Moncrief, Kilmartin and Enright as 'snobbish'.

One evening at her house he heard her remark how useful it would be to have a special pass for first nights and gala performances, and what a nuisance it had been not having one on the day of Gambetta’s funeral. Swann, who never spoke of his brilliant connexions, but only of those not highly thought of in the Faubourg Saint-Germain whom he would have considered it snobbish to conceal, and among whom he had come to include his connexions in the official world, broke in: “I’ll see to that. You shall have it in time for the Danicheff revival. I happen to be lunching with the Prefect of Police tomorrow at the Elysée.”

According to reverso one of the finest websites I've ever seen 'peu délicat' is almost always translated as 'a bit tricky' which is a rare English expression which means 'difficult' or 'hard'. I couldn't find any meaning of 'peu délicat' in CNRTL. So did the translators get it wrong? Also 'mal cotées' was translated as 'not highly thought of' which for the most part agrees with the website reverso but I'm just double checking.

I should also add that in some cases 'peu délicat' can be directly translated into English, such as: 'Turkey is accomplishing a none too delicate balancing act in accomodating both Ukraine and Russia'.

  • 2
    Reverso definitely gives you the results for "un peu délicate", not "peu délicate", which is quite different. Here, "un peu" means "a little, a bit" while "peu" means "not very, none too", which makes quite a difference. Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 9:27
  • interesting ....
    – bobsmith76
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 11:24
  • @bobsmith76 why make a big deal out of this when English has both "delicate" (marked by care, skill, or tact) and the perfectly suitable "indelicate"?... merriam-webster.com/dictionary/indelicate Commented Feb 8, 2023 at 8:06
  • It was translated as 'snobbish' and I want to know if this is a mistranslation.
    – bobsmith76
    Commented Feb 8, 2023 at 9:51
  • Kilmartin and Enright updated the translation to at least 1980s English. One can debate whether or not they succeded. But in any case, they should be using the 1980s meaning of the term. The translation under discussion is the 1992 edition. As a matter of fact, from now, I'm going to refer to it as the Kilmartin and Enright translation so as to avoid confusion.
    – bobsmith76
    Commented Feb 8, 2023 at 10:26

3 Answers 3


As the matter that concerns Swann is that of hiding or not from the eye of his entourage the existence of certain relationships of his, it is inescapable to conclude that what he is examining is the moral aspect of it; the rendering of his feeling in regard to it by the assertion that it would not be very "délicat" to do so must point, rightly, to the acceptation of this word in the TLFi that is situated on the level of what is moral or not.

(TLFi) délicat
I.− [L'adj. exprime une qualité entièrement positive]
B.− [En parlant d'une pers.]
3. [En parlant des relations soc., affectives ou morales]
c) [En parlant d'une pers. ou de son comportement moral] Qui est attentif dans son comportement à discerner exactement les valeurs morales.

• Votre esprit, si juste, si habitué à saisir les plus délicates convenances (Sénac de Meilhan, Émigré,1797, p. 1736).
• Xavier Frontenac, délicat jusqu'au scrupule avec les siens, (...) se montrait volontiers brutal avec Joséfa (Mauriac, Myst. Frontenac,1933, p. 91)
• C'est positivement dans cette espérance que je les [ces mémoires] ai rédigés par écrit, et ce sera mon excuse pour avoir rompu cette délicate et honorable réserve, qui empêche la plupart d'entre nous de faire une exhibition publique de nos propres erreurs et infirmités. Rien, il est vrai, n'est plus propre à révolter le sens anglais, que le spectacle d'un être humain, imposant à notre attention ses cicatrices et ses ulcères moraux, ... Baudelaire, Les Paradis artificiels,1860, pp. 388-389.

Hiding them Swann would therefore come through as "peu attentif dans son comportement à discerner exactement les valeurs morales". As has been remarked in another answer, a conclusion to the snobbishness of the act seems unjustified. Relying on a translation of "délicat" found in Harrap's bilingual dictionary, the basic terms could be "fine" or "discerning".

(Harrap's) 2. fine, refined, discerning, aesthétic (mind, taste, person, etc.)

  • … whom he would have considered it morally not very discerning to conceal, and among whom he had come to include his connexions in the official world, …

I am puzzled by the translator's choice. “Snobbish” doesn't seem right here.

The French adjective indélicat is very close to the English adjective “indelicate”: it means tactless, impolite, improper, uncouth. In both languages, the base adjective (délicat, “delicate”) has lost the corresponding meaning in common usage.

Although “peu délicat” is not a grammatical negative construction, it is semantically negative, and could be expressed as “plutôt indélicat” with no real change in position on the delicate-to-indelicate scale. Again a similar construction would in English: “hardly delicate” = “rather indelicate”.

I would have translated the sentence as “… whom he would have considered it hardly delicate to conceal” or “… whom he would have considered it rather indelicate to conceal” or “… whom he would have considered it somewhat uncouth to conceal”.

  • For me at least 'delicate' literally means 'easily broken' but in reality the word is almost always used in its metaphorical sense and in my opinion that metaphorical sense is usually rather vague, so just for clarity sake I would prefer a word other than 'delicate' but then again that that's the translator's dilemma - do you improve the original text by making it more clear or do you try to convey the vagueness of the original language?
    – bobsmith76
    Commented Feb 8, 2023 at 4:26
  • @bobsmith76 for me "(in)delicate" avoids the dilemma because it is similar to the French word in all regards - syntactically and by its polysemy/vagueness. Why use something else? So +1 for Gilles' answer. Commented Feb 8, 2023 at 13:45
  • 1
    Like I said, it's a translators dilemma and they didn't take sides as to what the translator should do. I don't have many problems with translating it into 'indelicate'.
    – bobsmith76
    Commented Feb 8, 2023 at 22:54

Even though this is not the topic, in the end snobbish was quite possibly a good translation at the time (1922) since one of the meanings of a snob is "One who has little or no breeding or good taste; a vulgar or ostentatious person" (OED1) which seemingly explains Moncrieff's (1889-1930) original translation ("[...] whom, therefore, he thought it snobbish, and in not very good taste to conceal [...]") from which is derived the translation provided in the question ("[...] whom he would have considered it snobbish to conceal [...]").

This is all because the word snob had its meaning reversed over time (Etymonline: "[...] The meaning later broadened to include those who insist on their gentility, in addition to those who merely aspire to it, and by 1911 the word had its sense of "one who despises those who are considered inferior in rank, attainment, or taste" [OED], which reverses the sense of a century before".).

A newer translation based on Moncrieff's, by William C. Carter, replaces snobbish with indelicate...


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