Friday, January 30, 2015

Cyrano's Ballade

An interesting discussion grew up in the most recent introductory post for the Fortnightly Book, Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac. In one of the most famous episodes in the play, in Act I, Scene 4, Cyrano gets into a duel with the Viscount de Valvert, in which he composes a ballade on the spot. And I noted that the edition I was reading has an insert with Rostand's original French version of Cyrano's ballade and seven English translations ranging from 1897 to 1953. And so MrsDarwin and I started discussing how to translate it.

So how do you start a project like this? There are several choices to make; one of the points the insert made was that translators have generally tried to keep the ballade form in their translations. There are variations; Chaucer, whose ballades are probably the most important in the English language, uses several different kinds, some longer, some shorter, some given slightly different structure. But the traditional short ballade, of which Cyrano's is an example (and which in English is probably best represented by some of G. K. Chesterton's most popular poems), has several distinctive features:

(1) Three main stanzas and a shorter envoi.
(2) A strict rhyme scheme: ABABBCBC for the main stanzas and BCBC for the envoi.
(3) The envoi is properly to be addressed to the Prince, although sometimes the poet will substitute another addressee.
(4) Each line has eight syllables (although this tends to be less strictly followed than the others).

(There is no strict metric requirement for the ballade itself, because it is a form found in both French and English, which tend to use different meters.) A translator also has to consider sense, however, and translators of poetry are generally faced with the straightforward fact that poems are, of all things in any language, the most elusive to translate accurately. Ideally, you'd keep the form and the sense, but you're necessarily going to have to prioritize. Like most translators I was willing to nudge sense slightly to keep something of the form. But there are different ways of doing this. Translation, particularly of poetry, depends in part on what you treat as the primary unit of sense. You could choose the word; this tends to give the kind of translation we call 'wooden', but also is sometimes quite handy. In poetry one most often focuses on the line or the stanza. Choosing one or the other will yield very different results. Stanza-focused translation is easier to make flow, but it is also necessarily looser. It's pretty clear that, while they made some effort to keep lines intact, most English translations of Cyrano's ballade take the stanza as the primary unit of sense. There are many advantages to this, not least of which is giving more flexibility with respect to rhyme, but my own preference is generally for taking the line as the primary unit of sense. This doesn't mean of course, that one ignores the stanza, or avoids shifting things about when useful, but it means that one wants each line in particular to convey something in particular derived from a corresponding line in the original. And it particularly made sense to focus on the line, because the conversation had originally been started by MrsDarwin noting that none of the first lines I had given from the insert had the same structure as the original. That will happen, of course, particularly in trying to keep a rhyme scheme intact, but it meant that we were already focusing on what would fit the lines best.

Since I was primarily working line by line, and the short ballade form has twenty-eight lines consisting entirely of three rhymes, and I wanted to keep the rhyme scheme, I had to choose rhymes carefully; so I made it easy on myself by picking three sounds that in English are very common in final syllables: 'air', 'o', 'ie'/'y'. (I got the idea for the 'air' one from MrsDarwin, who had already proposed a first line that ended with 'care'.) And so it started, and we went on from there. (MrsDarwin's final result is now up at her blog; she also has the original French, for those who want to compare.) The final result on my end was as follows:

Ballade of a Duel in the Hotel Bourguignon
Between Monsieur de Bergerac and a Good-for-Nothing

I dash my hat with dashing air,
abandon I with motion slow
this mantle that I often wear,
and draw my ready sword to go:
like Celadon in graceful glow,
like Scaramouche, so swiftly spry
that, Myrmidon, I this foreknow:
at envoi's end, your pride will die!

As neutral you would better fare;
Where, turkey, should my lardoon go?....
In the side, beneath sleeve there?....
Your blue ribbon with your heart below?
Like bells the hand-guards clang each blow!
My rapier vaults: a fly!
And thus...the belly will take the blow
when, envoi's end, your pride will die!

I seem to lack a rhyme for 'air'...
You fall back, a starchy pallor show?
The word you give to me is: scared!
--I parry--Tac!--the stroke you throw
by which you hoped to lay me low,--
I carve the joint, the split I tie,
rough Laridon, I skewer slow:
at envoi's end, your pride will die.

Beg God, O Prince, His mercy show!
I turn, I skirmish, swordwork ply,
I strike, I feint, and ha! Thus so!
At envoi's end, your pride will...die!

There are the inevitable liberties throughout, in which I cheat a little, and some weak points that could probably be strengthened, but I think this ended up being a remarkably close rendering of the original -- much closer than most other translations. Some notes:

Stanza 1: Once I thought of the 'dash' and 'dashing' pair, I just had to use it. There are perfectly good stricter ways to translate the line, but it fits, and works well in English. And it gives the English reader exactly what the poem needs: we start with a bit of obvious wit that sets the tone for the whole poem. One of the immediate questions that comes up is what to do with Celadon, Scaramouche, Myrmidon, and (later in the poem) Laridon. You could carry them over, so that you end up having a lot of obscure names in your poem that very few Anglophones will recognize. And they are each three-syllable names taking up a lot of space in your line. You could, alternatively, substitute more recognizable names instead, sacrificing the original allusion for a different allusion that approximates it. And the other option is shift to description -- drop allusion entirely and simply try to convey some of the sense of it in context. Or you could drop it entirely, for something that would fit the line in other ways. Translators have taken the whole gamut of options:

Carry Allusion Over
Thomas & Guillemard, for Scaramouche
Kingsbury, for Celadon and Scaramouche
Wolfe, for Scaramouche
Bissell & Van Wyck, for Celadon, Scaramouche, and Myrmidon
Renauld, for Celadon and Scaramouche

Substitute Proxy Allusion
Thomas & Guillemard, for Celadon (substituting Phoebus)
Hooker, for Celadon (substituting Lancelot) and Scaramouche (substituting Spartacus)
Wolfe, for Celadon (substituting Alcibiades)

Shift to Proxy Description
Thomas & Guillemard, for Myrmidon (Sir Spark) and Laridon (Sir Scullion)
Hooker, for Myrmidon (dear jackal)
Wolfe, for Myrmidon (scum and lees) and Laridon (poor dastard)
Bissell & Van Wyck, for Laridon (scullion)
Renauld, for Myrmidon (pygmy) and Laridon (you dog)

Eliminate Allusion
Kingsbury, for Myrmidon (changing the address to the very different 'my friend') and Laridon
Hooker, for Laridon
Untermeyer, for Celadon, Scaramouche, Myrmidon, and Laridon

I decided to carry them all over: Cyrano is a learned man, and makes obscure allusions throughout the play. As long as the rhyme scheme is maintained, it quite literally harms nothing to keep them, and conveys Cyrano himself perfectly.

The single most important element of the poem, however, is the last line of each stanza: At the envoi's end, je touche. Je touche, of course, is a fencing term. Ideally, one would keep it in, or at least keep something like it in, because it is in a sense the whole point. As you see, I sacrificed it; this is the single least satisfactory thing about my translation. (Were the poem fully serious it might be impossible to keep; but since it is comic poetry, and thus has a much wider range of options, there are certainly ways one could go about keeping it. Look at MrsDarwin's versions for one way.)

Stanza 2: MrsDarwin pointed out what I would likely have otherwise missed, namely, that the second stanza involves Cyrano making a parallel between his sword and a larding needle; the 'dindon' is not a random insult, since turkey is one of the most common things anyone uses a larding needle with. And once one recognizes this allusion, one sees that much of the poem gets its overall tone from the combination of high-flown language, practical reference to the fencing match that is going on while the poem is being proclaimed, and comic references to the kitchen. (This is, in fact, an important element of the play; one of Cyrano's friends, for instance, is a poet who makes a living by running a bakery/kitchen.) So I thought I needed to keep the reference to larding; a 'lardoon' is a less common name for a larding needle.

Stanza 3: The third stanza is one of the most important for the rhyme scheme, since in it Cyrano flails (or pretends to flail) for another word that ends with "eutre", thus setting up his joke in the second and 0third lines that his own opponent has kindly helped him find the obvious rhyme he needed: "pleutre" (coward). (Pleutre is actually the second insult in the poem by which Cyrano has suggested that his opponent is spineless or cowardly; the first is with a different word in the title, which I have translated here a bit more generically as 'good-for-nothing'. Both words seem to be fairly generic insults, but could, and in this context certainly do, imply that a man lacks manly valor.) Of course, every translator has to substitute the rhyme they are actually using, or shift the sense of the first line and lose the joke in the third. I really didn't plan carefully on this point, but 'air' does give us a rhyme suggesting cowardice, 'scared', which maintains the link between the second and third lines; so that pairing was pretty much unavoidable. The fourth line makes use of a change suggested by MrsDarwin; the French begin with 'Tac!', and I had kept that, but she pointed out that moving it inward would improve the flow of the line.

Envoi: I was adamant about keeping the address to 'Prince', which is ironic here. The envoi, which ends in the actual touche, has a number of other fencing terms. I think the envoi in particular shows that my choice for the repeating line, while able to convey something of the sense, nonetheless does not work as well as it should; it really would be better if it were made clear what happened with the last word of the poem, which my translation does not really do.

Translating poetry works a lot like engineering: you have some essential goals, and a range of materials from which you can choose, which will usually have both weaknesses and strengths, and will, even if very appropriate, never actually work in an ideal way; you have to try to select your materials and organize them in a way that meets those goals well.

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