You are getting your Cyrano Sunday early this week, since I’ll be shooting a film trailer most of the day tomorrow and probably falling into bed when I get home.
Today’s topic is 'How not to go where everyone has gone before.' One of the most difficult aspects of translating a play as well loved as Cyrano de Bergerac is that you find yourself treading on the heels of giants. Because you are working from the same French text as other translators, it is difficult to make sure that you are creating something unique while still honoring the original author’s intent.
My two favorite translations of this play, were created by Brian Hooker and the Anthony Burgess. They were the references I used to double check myself as I was working on my own translation. Today I’m going follow an excerpt of the text from the original French, through both of their translations and then to mine. We’ll be working with a small piece of the famous Non Merci speech which is arguably the most powerful speech in the play.
Here is the French text with a rough word by word translation.
Et que faudrait-il faire?
And what is it that must be done?
Chercher un protecteur puissant, prendre un patron,
To seach out a protecter powerful, take a patron
Et comme un lierre obscur qui circonvient un tronc
And like an ivy dingy who encircles a trunk
Et s'en fait un tuteur en lui léchant l'écorce,
And makes it a prop and it laps against the bark
Grimper par ruse au lieu de s'élever par force?
Climbing by cunning in place of climbing by force?
Non, merci. Dédier, comme tous il le font,
No thank you. To dedicate, like everyone else he makes
Des vers aux financiers? se changer en bouffon
Some verses to the usurers. To change him to a buffoon
Dans l'espoir vil de voir, aux lèvres d'un ministre,
In the hope vile to see, from the lips of the minister
Naître un sourire, enfin, qui ne soit pas sinistre?
To be born a smile, finally, who will not be a disater
Non, merci. Déjeuner, chaque jour, d'un crapaud?
No thank you. To have lunch, each day, with a toad
Avoir un ventre usé par la marche? une peau
To have a stomach worn out by the walk? A little
Qui plus vite, à l'endroit des genoux, devient sale?
Who more quickly, to the place of the knees becomes dirty
Exécuter des tours de souplesse dorsale?
To make of turning a supple spine
No thank you
Let’s see how Brian Hooker dealt with this text in his 1923 translation.
And what would you have me do?
Seek for the patronage of some great man,
And like a creeping vine on a tall tree
Crawl upward where I cannot stand alone?
No thank you! Dedicate as others do,
Poems to pawnbrokers. Be a buffoon
In the vile hope of teasing out a smile
On some cold face? No thank you! Eat a toad
For breakfast every morning? Make my knees
Callous and cultive a supple spine —
Wear out my belly groveling in the dust?
No thank you!
There is some really lovely stuff in here. “Crawl upward where I cannot stand alone… Poems to pawnbrokers… Wear out my belly groveling in the dust.” And yet for me, he loses me a little in the second half of this except. “Eat a toad for breakfast every morning.” What does that even mean?
Now we move on to Anthony Burgess’s erudite translation from 1985. Burgess is something of a genius at following the original meter and rhyme scheme that the author Edmund Rostand established.
What would you have me do?
Seek out a powerful protector, pursue
A potent patron? Cling like a leeching vine
To a tree? Crawl my way up? Fawn, whine
For all that sticky candy called success?
No thank you. Be a sycophant and dress
In sickly rhymes a prayer to a moneylender? Play
The buffoon, desperate to engender
A smirk on a refrigerated jowl?
No thank you. Slake my morning mouth with foul
Lees and leavings, breakfast off a toad?
Wriggle and grovel on the dirty road
To advancement and wear the skin of my belly through?
Get grimy calluses on my kneecaps? Do
A daily dozen to soften up my spine?
No thank you.
I love the grittiness of Burgess’s translation. His adjectives in particular convey such vivid disgust that you can almost feel it writhing on your skin. But if you notice, he veers pretty far away from the French text in places. He also uses a few particularly “English” phrases that scream out at me as an American reader. We get a better sense of what the ‘toad’ is in this translation: an unpleasant person that Cyrano might batten off of to keep himself fed.
In my translation, I really wanted to capture some of the vivid mouth-feel of disgust from Burgess, but stay a little closer to the French text. I wanted it to feel like a flood of words finally overflowing from man who has suffered too much to continue to bear it in silence. However, I also wanted to try and clarify some of the more obscure moments. Here is the same speech from my translation:
What would you have me do for them, Le Bret?
Procure a pow’rful patron and become
A parasitic vine clinging to him
Winding my way with suckers up his bark,
Climbing by trickery instead of force?
No thank you! Should I dedicate a verse,
Like other poets, to the usurers?
Transform myself into a base buffoon
In hopes of kindling cheer with pow’r to crack
A smile upon some frozen statesman’s face.
No thank you! Should I get my daily bread
By fawning over some outrageous fool?
And wear my belly out with groveling?
And should I crawl to him on filthy knees,
Bowing until my back begins to break?
No thank you!
I totally have him spitting those alliterating Ps in the first lines. How do you think I did overall?