Once Works Well was pure technology. Now it seeks merely to divert.
Pansy subjects - Verse! Opera! Domestic trivia! - are now commonplace.
The 300-word limit for posts is retained. The ego is enlarged

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Stick to Racine, lads

Received wisdom says poetry cannot be translated - not surprising since personal reactions to poems vary more widely than those to prose. But how far off the mark? Take Portia's celebrated lines from Livre de Poche:

La vertu du clémence est de n'etre forcée,
Elle descend comme la douce pluie du ciel
Sur ce bas monde; elle est double bénédiction
Elle bénit qui la donne et qui la recoit,
Elle est la plus forte chez les plus forts, et sied,
Mieux que la couronne au monarque sur son trone


I was surprised. My experience with "poetic" passages of Shakespeare in French is that subtleties disappear leaving more or less factual narrative. The above does a better job even though it occasionally clunks (forcée instead of strained is a bit - pun intended - forced). But then the lines are moderately straightforward in English anyway. "Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I" would be a harder row to hoe.

So I turned instead to the Queen Mab speech from Romeo and Juliet:

Alors je vois que la reine Mab vous a visité
C’est l’accoucheuse des fées et elle vient
Pas plus grosse qu’une pierre d’agate à l’index d’un échevin,
Trainé par un attelage de petits atomes,
Se poser sur le nez des hommes quand ils dorment.
Son char est une noisette vide,


This to me is far more a summary. Because French requires most adjectives to follow the noun the rendering of “fairies’ midwife” makes it sounds like a government post. The qualifiers ruin the conciseness of “Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep” and although I know char has other meanings to me it’s a tank (the Army sort). You know, I shouldn’t be trying this on.


Plutarch said...

These sorts of comparisons should be made more often. I am not sure that I am familiar enough with the sounds of French or to react for or against the translations. It's worth thinking about to what extent the sentiments are conveyed in translation regardless of their sound and the deeper and finer idiomatic implications of the French in relation to the English. Meanwhile what strikes me as interesting is the transition from the stressed English iambic pentameters to the 12 syllable, virtually unstressed Alexandrines. A different music.

Lucy said...

I really have no experience at all of Shakespeare in French, so this is an interesting taster. French prosody is also something I'm shockingly ignorant of, though I've promised myself I'll learn more, so Plutarch's comment is illuminating too.

Good subject and one that piques my curiosity!

Barrett Bonden said...

Plutarch: I was inclined to say I'd be out of my depth with this subject but was encouraged by the simplicity of the French. And it's ugliness (eg, all those pronouns and apostrophes to set the alderman in motion). In order to discover where my competence ends I intend to acquire Le Livre de Poche's Hamlet. As to Alexandrines they made no impact; outside the sonnet I'm sunk.

Lucy: But it isn't difficult, is it? What will be difficult given my marginal German is Goethe's translation of Shakespeare. But I've got to try. As you say it piques my curiosity.

Rouchswalwe said...

... and mine! My goodness, I didn't even know that Goethe translated Shakespeare. You've got me running off to the library ...

Barrett Bonden said...

RW (zS): Hold back, awhile. Apparently he wrote seminal essays on the subject - didn't do the translation. Sorry about that.

Plutarch said...

One of my prized but not often used possessions is the complete works of Shakespeare in German with the English and German texts side by side. The translation by Prof Dr L L Shücking, is said to be the one long established in Germany. Heidi assures me that Shakespeare is widely performed in Germany in German and is greatly valued. Could we say the same of Goethe in English? Hamlet is apparently considered so important a play in Russia that it is virtually regarded as being Russian - with apparent profound inights into the Russian character.

Lucy said...

Just getting round to checking back on this one. Plutarch's last reminded me of the Star Trek film we watched quite recently (an indulgence of Tom's which I find I enjoy rather despite myself), which dealt with the reluctant rapprochement with the Klingon empire, a very thinly veiled allegory for the end of the Cold War. Christopher Plummer was a Klingon obsessed with quoting Shakespeare, who at one point said 'Shakespeare is so much better in the original Klingon...'

Plenty of Shakespeare quotes, the kind that people are barely aware are quotes, seem to pepper the French language 'etre ou pas etre', 'tout est bien qui finit bien' etc. I don't think there are as many French origin phrases in English - 'I think therefore I am', perhaps 'cultivate your garden', 'hell is other people'...

Barrett Bonden said...

Lucy: I've never seen Star Trek, mainly through Northern stubbornness. At the time the pressure to see it was so immense, it fed my own sense of smugness to resist. I didn't realise there were modern analogies nor that the dialogue included the wit you indicate. The question is, given your scales-dropping-off revelation, will I watch it at the next opportunity? To which I can only answer On verra.

Thanks for your second bite of the cherry re. Shakespeare in French. In the interim, and at some considerable expense (mainly in postage), I have acquired a French Hamlet from which I intended to re-open the subject using a play most people are familiar with. However the rather anaemic response to this post was rather discouraging and I dithered. Your second bite has tipped the balance and I will go ahead even if I eventually speak into the void.

Lucy said...

This was a Star Trek film, they developed a bit of wit and irony by the time they'd made a few of those. But you had to know the TV series to appreciate it. Life may be too short to start watching Star Trek later in life, like above the age of ten.

Glad you're going to give the French Hamlet another try though.