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Cyrano Sunday: Translating the Untranslatable or Impossibly Obscure.

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

Screenshot of Cassell's Dictionary of Slang By Jonathon Green

Screenshot of Cassell's Dictionary of Slang By Jonathon Green

Today’s Cyrano Sunday is all about what happens a translator runs into a part in the play which is either untranslatable or impossibly obscure. When you are working with a text that is more than a hundred years old, this happens more often than you would think. Our example is a small moment in the second act of Cyrano de Bergerac when the cadets come flooding into Ragueneau’s bakery, just before they demand the story of Cyrano’s fight with the hundred men. As they enter, they let fly a number of mild (to modern ears) curses firmly establishing themselves as rough, soldiering types.

In Rostand’s original French that moment is rendered like this:

CARBON (remontant à la porte, et criant à la cantonade, d'une voix de tonnerre):

Le héros refuse. Il est d'humeur bourrue !

UNE VOIX (au dehors):

Ah ! Sandious !

(Tumulte au dehors, bruit d'épées et de bottes qui se rapprochent.)

CARBON (se frottant les mains):

Les voici qui traversent la rue !

LES CADETS (entrant dans la rôtisserie):

Mille dious !--Capdedious !--Mordious !--Pocapdedious !

If we translate that into English with painful literalism it comes out something like this:

CAPTAIN CARBON (returning to the door, and crying to no one in particular with a voice of thunder):

The hero refuses. He is of a humor bad-tempered.

A VOICE (from outside):

Ah! Blood of God!

(A tumult outside. Noise of swords and bottle approaching.)

CARBON (rubbing his hands):

They are here who cross the street!

LES CADETS (entering the café):

A Thousand Gods !—Head of God !—Death of God !—The little hat (head) of God!

Obviously, you are not going to want to translate that literally because it is both awkward and ridiculous. The ridiculous part is exactly how Rostand meant it to sound because he is playing with how the sounds of the Gascon accent influence the French language; however, the awkward part is unacceptable. The first thing we are going to do as a translator is look at other translations and see how they handle the same problem. Unfortunately, when we reference our favorite translations, the Brian Hooker and The Anthony Burgess, we find that they have skipped the problem entirely by simply using the words in French. Well, that’s no help.

The next thing we might do is wonder if they have the same kind of mild curses in English that mean something similar. Here Shakespeare is tremulously helpful as his plays are full of all kinds of curses that begin with God and end with some kind of object or bodily secretion. So, if we use Shakespeare as our model we end up with “God’s Blood, A Thousand Gods, God’s Head, God’s Death, and God’s little hat (head).” Now we run into the problem of writing the translation in blank verse, so not only do we want to keep some of the meaning, and the feeling, but we also want to flow with the iambic pentameter. This is where the creativity in translation takes over.

First, we make the unilateral decision to throw out the notion of “God’s Head” or “Gods Little hat (head)” because we simply don’t want to contemplate those connotations. Then, we realize that “A thousand Gods” just seems to break the rhythm of the two-syllable curses, so we throw that out as well. We are left with “God’s Blood” and “God’s Death.” At this point, we go and do some research through Shakespeare’s plays and find a half-dozen more God oaths that we can use ending up with God’s Blood, God’s Wounds, God’s Death, and God’s this, that and whatever. However, it still doesn’t work rhythmically or with Rostand’s intention of rough, silly wordplay because the curses read too literally, liturgically and trocaichly. Then, we have the brilliant idea to drop the first G which is often done in 16th century literature with lower class characters for reasons of contraction and accent.

Suddenly we have something that reads like this:


No, I think not…

CARBON (returning to the door, and crying out with a loud voice):

Ah, he is out of sorts!

The hero does not want to celebrate.

THE CADETS (from outside):


(There is a tumult outside; the clanking of swords and bottles approaches.)

CARBON (rubbing his hands):

Now you’ve done it. Here they come in force!

ALL THE CADETS (coming into the café):

—’Ods Death! —’Ods Wounds! —’Ods Blood! —’Ods Bloody Bodkin!

Voila! Now we have something that conveys the slightly ridiculous feeling while still fitting with the rhythm of the verse and continuing the story. You might wonder if it worth going to so much trouble just for one line, but that is a question each translator has to answer for themselves. In our opinion, the answer is always, mais oui!

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