Updated: Apr 7
Hey friends, Thank you for your patience. My life has been changing a lot recently, and I had to take some time away. However I am back, and for your Cyrano Sunday this week we are going to be talking about how a translator deals with obscurity in a historical text.
To explore this concept we’ll be referencing the wonderful speech in the first act of Cyrano de Bergerac where Cyrano proceeds to insult his own nose in order to upstage the Vicount Valvert who has dared to offer him an utterly pedestrian insult.
DE GUICHE: Will no one take his challenge?
THE VISCOUNT: No one? Wait! I’ll bleed these affectations out of him! (advancing towards Cyrano who observes him, and settling in front of him with a smug air): Hey you… Your nose is… big… It’s very big.
CYRANO (gravely): Very!
THE VISCOUNT (laughing): Ha!
CYRANO (imperturbable): Is that all?
THE VISCOUNT: Well…
CYRANO: Are you sure? Is that all you can cogitate, young man, With this much to inspire your contempt?
The greatest difficulty for the translator with the following speech is that when spoken it should provoke a laugh or gasp for every insult and yet this is one of the places in the play where the language and meaning in the French has become both antiquated and obscure. Therefore the translator must take on a triple role of scholar, interpreter, and stand-up comedian in order to find a solution that works. Let’s go insult by insult and I’ll show you how I worked through from the original French text to my current solution.
Agressif: "Moi, monsieur, si j'avais un tel nez Il faudrait sur-le-champ que je me l'amputasse !" Aggressive: Me, monsieur, If I had such a nose It must be at once that I would amputate it.
So the first one isn’t too bad from an insult standpoint, but the passive voice in the French doesn’t seem to fit Cyrano’s bold style. I chose to make it both more direct, and more active, which I think makes it infinitely more insulting.
Aggressive: “Run, don’t walk, down to the surgeon; Give him this simple order: ‘Amputate!’”
Next we have the “Friendly” insult:
Amical: "Mais il doit tremper dans votre tasse ! Pour boire, faites-vous fabriquer un hanap !" Amicable: But it must dunk in your glass! In order to drink, do you have a special goblet made?
In this insult, I think the translator has to interpret the meaning in order to find the humor. As written in the French, it just sounds a little stupid. Basically what he is saying is that your nose is so big, you can’t drink without dunking it in your wine. I chose to focus on that part rather than the second half “do you have to have a special cup made in order to drink?” So my insult is based around the ‘Friendly’ tone. It’s absolutely not word for word with the French, but it still catches the meaning and is much funnier, I think.
Friendly: “Oh, it must be so difficult For you to breathe and drink at the same time.”
Next we have the ‘Descriptive’ insult:
Descriptif: "C'est un roc ! c'est un pic ! c'est un cap ! Que dis-je, c'est un cap ? C'est une péninsule !" It’s a rock, It’s a peak, It’s a cape! What did I say? It’s a cape? It’s a peninsula.
By the time I got to this one, I thought “Oh thank goodness, I don’t really have to do anything but write this one down because it still works.”
Descriptive: “It’s a bluff, a peak, a cape! A cape? Why no, it’s a peninsula!”
I particularly like the almost reference to Superman in the first line. “It’s a bird… It’s a plane…” It’s Supernose.
Next is the ‘Curious’ insult:
Curieux: "De quoi sert cette oblongue capsule ? D'écritoire, monsieur, ou de boîte à ciseaux ?"
What is the purpose of that oblong capsule A writing case, Monsieur, or a tool box?
This one is just not funny even in the French. What were you thinking, Rostand? I took my inspiration from the wonderful Steve Martin movie “Roxanne” and just made up my own ‘Curious’ insult.
Or Curious: “Does the whole of France contain Sufficient cloth to make your handkerchief?”
Bad translator perhaps, but better comedienne. On to the ‘Idiomatic’ insult
Wait what? There is no Idiomatic insult in the French. Nope. I totally stole that idea from “Roxanne”, and then made up my own. Yep. I’m a bad, bad girl, but funny.
Idiomatic, “Is it out of joint? It’s rather hard to tell. What do you think?”
I did have an excuse for this gratuitous addition in that I had to cut some insults later in the speech that were just too obscure to connect with a modern audience. Well, Burgess added in whole poems and scenes to his translation. What's an extra insult among friends?
OK back to the real French now with the ‘Gracious’ insult.
Gracieux: "Aimez-vous à ce point les oiseaux Que paternellement vous vous préoccupâtes De tendre ce perchoir à leur petites pattes ?" Gracious: "You must love the little birds Who paternally you care for to give them such a perch for their tiny feet?"
Thank goodness, another insult that still works with just a little simplification.
Or Gracious: “You must love the little birds, To give them this perch for their tiny feet.”
On to the ‘Truculent’ insult, or as I call it 'Antagonistic.'
Truculent: "Ça, monsieur, lorsque vous pétunez, La vapeur du tabac vous sort-elle du nez Sans qu'un voisin ne crie au feu de cheminée ?" Truculent: "That, Monsieur, when you smoke The vapor of tabacco goes out of your nose Without someone crying a fire in the chimney.
OK, the basic insult is pretty fun, but oh man, the awkward structure of the French. Let’s simplify it and try to make it more relevant to where we are right now.
Antagonistic: “You can’t smoke that here, Or someone will cry ‘Fire!’ in the theater!”
It’s as if his very nose is a cigar. I love my added reference to the theater. Very Meta.
So if we put these all together in my translation, you end up with this delightful string of insulting nonsense:
CYRANO: Are you sure? Is that all you can cogitate, young man, With this much to inspire your contempt? You might have said… a hundred things more apt And varied in affect, par example: Aggressive: “Run, don’t walk, down to the surgeon; Give him this simple order: ‘Amputate!’” Friendly: “Oh, it must be so difficult For you to breathe and drink at the same time.” Descriptive: “It’s a bluff, a peak, a cape! A cape? Why no, it’s a peninsula!” Or Curious: “Does the whole of France contain Sufficient cloth to make your handkerchief?” Idiomatic, “Is it out of joint? It’s rather hard to tell. What do you think?” Or Gracious: “You must love the little birds, To give them this perch for their tiny feet.” Antagonistic: “You can’t smoke that here, Or someone will cry ‘Fire!’ in the theater!”
There is, of course, more where that came from, but we will have to leave that for another day. Good night, friends, and it is good to be back.