July 13, 2008

Shakespeare en Français, a Geekery report.

It's Bastille Day! And I can think of nothing more appropriate to mark the occasion than to talk about Shakespeare. Allons-y!

Consider that unless you're fluent in Russian, you've never really read Chekhov; only someone else's translation/interpretation. Unless you're fluent in Ancient Greek, you've never read Oedipus Rex or Electra.

I have never experienced the actual words written by the playwrights that gave birth to modern theatre; Ibsen, Chekhov, or Strindberg; nor for that matter Brecht, Havel, Pirandello, Fo, etc. I have some familiarity with French, but still I've never really read or seen Molière, Corneille, or Racine. So apart from the universality of their themes, or recognizing the ancient comedy roots in Moliere, I'm not getting the pure unfiltered mind of a playwright who works in another language. So the intricacies of how they use language is lost on me.

It works the other way as well. We blather about Shakespeare's use of language, how the text is the key to unlocking the characters' emotional life, how the rhythm and alliterative devices in the verse are rich with detail, color, and life. Translate it into another language, and that disappears. You get a fuzzy outline instead of a sharp picture.

Some months ago I picked up a copy of Jean Anouilh's translations of three Shakespeare comedies, As You Like It (Comme Il Vous Plaira), A Winter's Tale (Le Conte d'Hiver), and Twelfth Night (La Nuit Des Rois), because I was so curious to see what Shakespeare sounds like filtered through another tongue, and through the perspective of another playwright.

Here's Jacques' famous speech from As You Like It (II.7)

Le monde entier est un plateau de théâtre et tous les hommes et toutes les femmes ne sont que les personnages de la pièce. Ils font leurs entrées, leurs sorties et chaque homme y joue plusieurs rôles, car la pièce a sept actes qui sont les sept âges de la vie. D'abord le bébé pleurant et bavant dans les bras de sa nourrice; ensuite l'écolier pleurant avec sa figure bien lavée du matin, se traînant à contrecœur comme un escargot sur le chemin de l'école; puis c'est l'amoureux qui soupire comme une fournaise en composant une mauvaise ballade en l'honneur des sourcils de sa belle; puis le soldat plein de jurons étranges, moustachu comme un léopard, jaloux de son honneur, prompt et hardi à la querelle, qui va poursuivant la bulle de savon de la gloire jusqu'en la gueule des canons; et enfin, c'est le juge qui s'avance dans son beau ventre bien rond, bourré de bon chapon, l'œil sévère, la barbe fleurie, débordant de vérités premières et des dernières nouvelles du jour. Le sixième âge vient alors et le transforme en une sorte de pantin maigre, en pantoufles, lunette sur le nez, vastes bajoues, aumônière au côté, perdu dans les hauts-de-chausse du temps de sa jeunesse, bien conservés mais trop larges, hélas! maintenant pour ses jarrets fondus. Sa grosse voix mâle est redevenue grêle comme celle de l'enfant rend un son de fausset et chevrote. Enfin la dernière scène, celle qui termine cette fertile en événements étranges, c'est la second enfance, l'oubli pur et simple: sans yeux, sans dents, sans goût, sans rien.

The original, for comparison:

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Translating the French back to English, just for fun, via Babel Fish:

The whole world is a stage and all the men and all the women are only the characters of the play. They make their entries, their exits and each man plays several parts there, because the play has seven acts which are the seven ages of the life. D'access the baby crying and dribbling in the arms of its nurse; then the schoolboy crying with his well washed morning figure, trailing himself unwillingly like a snail on the way to school; then he is the lover which sighs like a furnace by composing a bad ballad in honor of the eyebrows of his beloved; then the soldier full with swearwords strange, with a moustache like a leopard, jealous of his honor, prompt and bold with the quarrel, which is continuing the soap bubble of glory until in the mouth of the guns; and finally, he is the judge who advances in his beautiful quite round belly, stuffed of good capon, the severe eye, the flowered beard, overflowing of truths first and the breaking news of the day. The sixth age comes then and transforms him into a kind of puppet thin, in slippers, glasses on the nose, vast bajoues, aumônière at the side, lost in top-of-fits time of his youth, preserved well but too broad, alas! maintaining for his molten bulges. His large male voice is become again spindly like that of a child returns a sound of falsetto and chevrote. Finally the last scene, that which finishes this fertile in strange events, he is it the second childhood, pure and simple lapse of memory: without eyes, teeth, taste, anything.

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