Yellow is the color of Lydia Davis's house, inside and out—a bright, sunny spot off a busy road in Port Ewen, N.Y. It seems, at first, an odd choice of color for this serious New York writer and translator whose narrative persona (Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, McSweeney's, 2001) is typically dour. But Davis's métier is oddness—she uses language as a means to "open up another way of seeing ordinary life." To cap a career encompassing several story collections, a novel and 30 translations from the French, she has newly translated Marcel Proust's Swann's Way, and soon it makes perfect sense to the PW visitor that this ancient yellow house, once a village schoolhouse, with its sloping, wide-planked floors and luxuriant summer garden, shares a marvelous affinity to Proust's "lost world of estates and lilacs peeking over the gate."

Davis moves deliberately in a sleeveless jeans jumper and sandals showing polished toes; her hair is cut short and she wears glasses. She speaks softly, frequently lost in thought as she ponders an example or analogy. She complains of encroaching chaos—the chaos of overcommitting herself to projects when she also a busy wife, mother, gardener and part-time teacher (at SUNY-Albany)—but there is none in evidence in her neat, cheery kitchen save the gently intrusive sound of riotous backyard birds. She has lived in this house upstate for 15 years with her husband, abstract painter, Alan Cte, and their son, now a teenager, who slumbers the morning away upstairs.

Davis has devoted three years exclusively to toiling over Marcel's childhood memories of Combray and elegant neighbor Swann's Parisian dinner parties in pursuit of the demimondaine Odette. Davis's process involves putting herself completely into the work at hand—and exploring the possibility of each word. Did Proust mean a loaf of bread or a hot-water bottle (boule)? Should she choose "gate" or "fence" (barrire)? Her translation of the first volume of Proust's classic In Search of Lost Time challenges C.K. Moncrieff's lusciously padded version of the 1920s (revised by Kilmartin, then Enright) and Irish-Australian James Grieve's whimsical 1982 one; Davis's version aims to be "so close that a student of Proust's writing style could study it without losing the beauty or flow," she maintains. All seven new volumes of Proust's In Search of Lost Time by different translators were published together last October in the U.K. as part of Penguin's Modern Classics series, directed by Christopher Prendergast at Cambridge; Davis's Swann's Way appears in America for the first time this month, followed next year with volumes by British translators Grieve, Mark Treharne and John Sturrock.

It is a herculean task to rewrite a 20th-century classic, but having done notable translations of such French stylists as Maurice Blanchot, Michel Leiris and Pierre Jean Jouve, Davis is used to putting aside her own voice for the long, painstaking effort. "It's a kind of writing—translating—it's everything but the invention. But it's all the craft aspect of it, and it allows you to write in a way that you don't write normally." She confesses with a modest laugh that when she was originally offered the pick of Proust's volumes back in 1995 by Paul Keegan (then the series editor, who had asked NYU French professor and fellow translator Richard Sieburth whom he thought Penguin should ask to translate, and Sieburth instantly suggested Davis), she chose the first volume—"greedily"—because she hadn't read the others. "I guess some prefer the last volume [Finding Time Again]," she says. "But I still haven't read them all." She doesn't like to read ahead when she does a translation, but works page by page in order not to know what's coming. "I like to start work each day with the unexpected," she says, and offers an analogy of fetching the mail and not knowing what one will receive (in fact, the startling news arrived one day that she had been named a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government, and she cried)."

She is also a master of syntax, as readers of her carefully wrought, minimalist stories know. Hewing closely to Proust's style meant following religiously his punctuation, and on this point Davis grows animated. "I hadn't even thought about punctuation in all my years of translating; I just simply wrote the sentence in English the best I could. But when I came to Proust, suddenly I realized, because of the rhythms of his sentences and the fact that he'll not have commas where I think he should, I realized, oh, there is something else going on here I should be paying attention to." She asserts, triumphantly, that the difficulty in Proust is in the sinuous construction of his sentences, not in meaning, as in Blanchot, for example, whose prose is dense and abstract, or in work by Anne-Marie Albiach, whose contextless poetry Davis found hardest of all to translate. And when she was stumped by Proust, which by her own omission wasn't often (there was one sentence...), she would ask a French person of a certain generation rather than chat with the other translators working away across the oceans. "They were a silent bunch, either too English or too busy," she notes with disappointment. "I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to have a rich discussion."

From the British publication to this one, there were another 900 alterations to make, mostly superficial changes in punctuation and Americanization of spelling—except for the title. The English championed boldly The Way by Swann's, Davis's more literal phrase, while the American version, directed by Michael Millman at Viking, kept to the traditional Swann's Way. Millman couldn't see a justification in changing the classic title beloved of readers, and feared, moreover, what an unfamiliar title might do to sales. English critics have greeted respectfully the corporate effort, though Davis looks forward to the publication of her own translation separately here, after a lonely haul, so that she can finally get a sense of readers' reactions.

Does she have to share an affinity with the writers she translates? No, she replies frankly: she works for pay. "If I were only a professional translator, I would work differently: I would research books and propose them to publishers. I have never done that, because it's been work for money, work to support myself." In the case of Blanchot (The One Who Was Standing Apart from Me, 1993; The Last Man, 1987), she says, "I was drawn to him and wanted to write his books because of those same elements in my own writing." She delights in using elements such as playing with language, circular language, fracturing, contradiction and other rhetorical tropes, though unconsciously: "A mown lawn had a sad sound to it, like a long moan." There are times when she has to translate writing that is abhorrent to her, such as a biography of Marie Curie she found "coy, sentimental and melodramatic," and she extracts her writerly revenge: "I began to amuse myself by copying out some of the worse sentences in a literal translation and I put together these pieces and made my own minibiography of Marie Curie in bad translation." The story, "Marie Curie, So Honorable Woman," eventually made its way to McSweeney's Quarterly.

Davis can pinpoint her first literary epiphany to age 13, while reading Beckett's Malone Dies: "I remember thinking, This is great! The spareness of it, the repetition, the kind of limited subject. 'I dropped my pencil.' I know I was drawn to that. I would see some similarity between Malone Dies and some of Blanchot's narrators and situations. So I knew before I ever met him these things were in me." Growing up in a family of writers, Davis always knew she was destined to be a writer, too, although "it wasn't an entirely happy fate." Her father is Robert Gorham Davis, a professor of English at Smith College, then Barnard, whose Ten Modern Masters was a big seller; both he and her mother, Hope Hale Davis, were part of the New Yorker set in the city, where Davis came of age and also went to Barnard. But music was her early love: she played the piano and violin seriously, composed and developed an ear for intonation; she studied music theory in high school, learning to deconstruct a piece of music. She credits her music training with her ability to analyze patterns in writing: "I hear as I compose, and part of the revision with last fiddling has to do with balance and rhythm and weight," she explains. Writing, on the other hand, "was a hard apprenticeship," and though it was the family profession, and inevitable ("like being from a family of shoemakers"), she found it tough going. "I wasn't happy with it until sometime in my 20s. The joy of it came later."

In the mid-'60s at Columbia, she met Paul Auster, who became her first husband. They spent 13 years together and have a son, Daniel Auster, a photographer: "It was a long partnership," Davis recounts guardedly, "and we helped each other with our writing very consistently, read each other's work and worked on translations together" (see The Station Hill Blanchot Reader, 1999). They lived in France and Ireland, and Davis began publishing stories ("The Thirteenth Woman"; Sketches for a Life of Wassilly) in small presses such as Auster's Living Hand and the Figures. She still is, in fact, a darling of the small presses: "I was very attracted to magazines that were open to inventive forms," she says. "I could do something I had never thought of doing before. And the more obscure the magazine, the more I could have fun with it." Although the New Yorker was an early ambition, Davis didn't consummate the family dream until "Thyroid Diary" was published in the magazine three years ago.

In Paris during the late-'70s, she met Jonathan Galassi, then poetry editor of the Paris Review, who had a hand in publishing her first stories there. She, Auster and Galassi all became friends, and Galassi introduced Davis to her first agent, Harriet Wasserman; when Galassi moved to Random House in the early '80s, he tried to get the publisher to acquire Davis's first book, without success ("Wasn't commercial enough," remarks Galassi; "same old story"). Wasserman, in turn, offered Break It Down to Farrar, Straus & Giroux, who accepted it. Pat Strachan was her editor, until Galassi came to FSG and eventually became her editor for the next two books (with Denise Shannon her current agent): The End of the Story (1995), a novel, and another collection, Almost No Memory (1997).

Davis has always worked on her own writing by "stealing moments" from other work, which may have something to do with her brevity of form (she doesn't agree, citing Proust's sternness with flabby writers who "grope their way toward a thought"), but her novel demanded all her attention. The End of the Story is a remarkable, nearly maddening account of an observing mind caught up in the minute aspects of a love drama—"A rather banal situation," Davis hurries to add. "The interest for me in that novel was not the story—I would quarrel with people who say it is—but in thoroughness, that is, looking at something from every side. And I gave way to that impulse." Another novel seems to be percolating—nothing conventional, mind you—but a kind of French grammar with a violent subtext, as she experimented with in "French Lesson."

For her latest collection, Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, she was lured away from FSG (only temporarily) by Dave Eggers at McSweeney's, who was very persuasive in offering Davis the prospect of a different audience. Davis was smitten by his "surprising ideas and inventiveness." He suggested the title and enlisted for the cover the arresting photo by rocker David Byrne of a Virgin Mary statue. The "experiment" with McSweeney's didn't necessarily yield a new readership, according to Galassi, who does not want to lose Davis as a writer. "It was part of the whole electronic sensibility of the time. But I don't believe it sold all that lustrously."

Davis's minimalist Proust will certainly win her (and him) new readers. She has finally grasped what Sieburth at NYU calls "the weird torque of the Proustian sentence"—the Beckettian Proust. Would she translate more of him? She is philosophical. "I thought this was the ultimate translation for me. Turns out it probably won't be, but I put so much into it that I wouldn't go on," she says, and hints that another famously prickly French stylist might be her next contender. "I would never write in the way that Proust writes," she asserts, and considers an analogy. "It's like an abstract painter in his spare time doing exact reproductions of Renoir just because it's so beautiful and different from what he does." She reflects a moment, catching the light from the sunny yard. "I don't know if it's a good analogy. An interesting idea, but I don't think it works as an analogy."