Sunday, January 18, 2015

Fortnightly Book, January 18

Descriptif : C'est un roc! C'est un pic! C'est un cap!
– Que dis-je, c'est un cap? C'est une péninsule!

Since I am likely to be unusually busy the next two weeks, I need something easier to get through -- shorter, perhaps, or a re-read. The fortnightly book is both: Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac.

Rostand, of course, was a playwright, and Cyrano is his most successful play. In the first performance on December 28, 1897, Cyrano was played by Constant Coquelin, France's most famous actor. The performance made theatrical history, one measure of which was that after it was done the audience stayed in the theater, calling for an encore, talking about the play, for two straight hours. Translations were rapidly made, the theaters of the world began to perform it. It has been an international favorite ever since. A little-known fact about the play is that it is the source of the English word 'panache' -- in French it means the plume in a hat or helmet, and the English meaning is based on Rostand's Cyrano.

Cyrano de Bergerac was a real person, although he is highly fictionalized in the play. He was a playwright in the seventeenth century. He fought in the siege at Arras (not to be confused with the more famous and somewhat later Battle of Arras) in the Thirty Years' War. He was a student of Pierre Gassendi. His most famous plays tend to be quite fantastical, almost science-fiction-y, involving trips to the sun or the moon; they were quite influential, with people like Jonathan Swift and Edgar Allan Poe taking ideas from them. He died in 1655, for reasons not entirely known, at the age of 36. He did indeed have a big nose, although not quite so peninsular as one would imagine.
Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac

I'll be reading the work in Louis Untermeyer's blank verse translation, first done for The Limited Editions Club and carried over into the Heritage Press edition. The covers of the book are comb-marbled cloth. The typeface is mixed, with the spoken lines being in fourteen-point Times Roman, the stage directions in eight-point Times Roman, and the names of speakers in six-point News Gothic. It has twenty-one pen-and-brush colored drawings. In addition, it has a lagniappe, a little pamphlet, "Cyrano Composes a Ballade", in which Cyrano's famous improvised ballad in Act I is given in Rostand's original and seven different English translations of it. I present the first lines of each here.

(1) Je jette avec grâce mon feutre (Rostand 1897)
(2) I gaily doff my beaver low (Thomas and Guillemard 1898)
(3) My hat I toss lightly away (Kingsbury 1898)
(4) Lightly I toss my hat away (Hooker 1923)
(5) I doff my beaver with an air (Wolfe 1935)
(6) With nonchalance, I doff my hat (LeClercq 1939)
(7) With grace I cast my felt aside (Bissell and Van Wyck 1947)
(8) My hat is flung swiftly away (Untermeyer 1953)


  1. MrsDarwin11:17 AM

    How fascinating to compare the various translations, and to note that not one of them follows the structure of the original: I cast with grace my beaver hat. One cannot be party to eight years of children's ballet classes without knowing that a grand jette is a great leap, arms and legs extended, so although jeter is simply to fling or throw away, there's a little bit of elegant motion implied.

    I cast my hat without a care.
    My hat with grace I doff.
    Gracefully I tip my hat.

    I really should read the rest of the ballad. Alas, the previous owners didn't leave Cyrano amongst their Heritage Press collection, so I'll have to find it elsewhere.

  2. branemrys11:48 AM

    Project Gutenberg has the Thomas & Guillemard translation and the original French. (The ballade is in Act I, Scene IV.)

    It also has a translation by Charles Renauld (1898) that is not listed; Renauld translates it as: My hat with grace I cast aside.

    I suspect an additional factor in the translation is that all of the translators are trying to match the rhyme scheme of the original.

  3. MrsDarwin9:00 PM

    I'd read the first act online, and then, while putting away my French dictionary from some other use, I discovered that I did have a copy of Cyrano, in French, in which the previous owner left notes with a lovely blue fountain pen. So I started again on the first act in French, since the English was fresh in my mind. However, I feel like I'm scanning for mere comprehension and missing most of the poetry -- quite literally, as it took me until Scene III to realize that the play is written in couplets. I'm up to the great Nose Description monologue, and although Thomas and Guillemard did work that one in rhyme, it seems so much funnier in French. When I reach the ballad I'll have to see how my first lines actually fit in.

    I would love to see a production of Cyrano in French.

  4. branemrys9:54 PM

    Given how much joking goes on per page here, even the mere ponderousness of English seems to rub away a lot of the humor, which seems to move very swiftly. And French alexandrines always seem lighter than English pentameters or hexameters.

    I think your first one, "I cast my hat without a care", has a lot of promise; particularly since -air/-are is a common enough family of rhymes in English that it should help to keep the ballade form without stretching.

    I don't know how closely it follows the play, and I don't know if I'll have the time, but if I have a chance, I want to watch the 1990 movie version with Gerard Depardieu; Depardieu seems like he would be perfect for the part.

  5. MrsDarwin11:16 AM

    I cast my hat without a care,
    Deliberately uncape me here,
    Unwrap this mantle which I wear,
    And I draw my rapier!
    Elegant as Celadon,
    Agile as Scaramouche, eh?
    I'm warning you, oh Mymidon,
    That at the envoi's end -- touché!

  6. branemrys2:30 PM

    I love that you kept the last line essentially intact!

    What I came up with was:

    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!

    But there are a lot of liberties -- I couldn't resist the dash/dashing link in the first line, and would use it anyway, but the Celadon line gave me trouble, and I still don't like it, and I cheated somewhat by using the etymological rather than proper meaning of prevenir. I spent some time thinking how I could get the je touche in, since keeping the last line is high-priority; but I couldn't find anything I liked. That you found a way to keep it is nice, very nice.

    I like the combined poetry + puzzle-solving of translating a poem; there's something very satisfying even about a partial solution.

  7. MrsDarwin5:57 PM

    Oh man, you've one-upped me! Yours is tres elegant, and has no such obscenity as the uncape me here/rapier rhyme. I like how you've explained Celadon and Scaramouche, who are pretty obscure for a modern audience. Here was my first draft:

    I cast my hat without a care,
    I deliberately discard
    the heavy mantle which I wear,
    and I draw my sword!

    But of course discard/sword is not a good rhyme, so I tried unpeel/steel, which was okay but not inspired and also didn't fit the l'abandon/espadon meter. Then Brendan said, "It's too bad there's no rhyme for rapier," and I went there.

    I liked "touche" over "I touch" because "touche still carries the connotation of dueling and scoring a point.

    Brendan grew up on the 1950 Jose Ferrer production; here's the nose speech and the ballad scene:

    Okay, a first draft of the first half of stanza two:

    Neutrality was your best bet;
    Now how to baste you, turkey mine?
    In the flank? Under your sleeve?
    In your heart, 'neath ribbon fine?

    "Lardon" refers to a cooking technique in which one inserts slivers of fat into the skin and muscle of the bird so that it roasts up all moist and delectable. The Joy of Cooking has a nice illustration of it on the page I always consult when wrestling with my Thanksgiving turkey; I never thought I'd ever have any use that knowledge.

  8. branemrys7:27 PM

    'Espadon' gave me trouble, too. I think you're exactly right about 'touche' -- it's the shortest way to guarantee that everyone reading in English catches the point entirely.

    I would not have thought to have connected 'larder' with larding, but it makes a huge amount of sense -- the sword is the larding needle. Your draft is exactly right that something like this needs to be conveyed -- Cyrano isn't just randomly calling Valvert a turkey, so it needs to be something sword-ish you'd do with a turkey. Thomas and Guillemard have 'skewer', which works well; Kingsbury and Untermeyer have 'carve'; Hooker has 'skewer' but decides to change the turkey to a peacock; Wolfe has 'stuff' and changes the turkey to a goose; LeClerq and Bissell & Van Wyck skip it entirely. Renauld decides to puncture a goose.

    The Jose Ferrer scene uses the Brian Hooker translation (number 4 in the list) -- according to the brief note, it is was specifically translated to be performed by Walter Hampden, the Broadway actor, so the movie must be cinematizing the Broadway version of the play.

    So here's my first draft of the first half, stealing your larding point and keeping to the rhyme scheme:

    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?...

    The next line is tough. Coquilles are handguards, and we have double onomatopoeia with 'tintent' and 'ding-don' for bell sounds.

  9. branemrys7:40 PM

    And I'm leaning towards:

    Like bells the hand-guards clang each blow!

  10. MrsDarwin10:17 PM

    The difference here is that mine sounds like doggerel and yours sounds like poetry. With that fair warning, here's my stanza two:

    Neutrality was your best bet;
    Now how to baste you, turkey mine?
    In the flank? Under your sleeve?
    In your heart, 'neath ribbon fine?

    Our blades they ring as strokes we launch,
    The points fly as I whoosh, eh?
    I've got it now -- it's in your paunch
    that at the envoi's end -- touche!

    This is definitely not the world's most elegant rhyming, but I did a few things here: rhymed "touche", obviously, since I'm married to that now; worked in the double meaning of "point" and used the "mouche" for the verb "fly"; traded the "ding-don" of the handguards for the the ring of blades, and figured out a way to go with "paunch" over "gut" in the seventh line.

    You're right about the delightfully puzzly aspect of translating poetry. I feel like maybe I'm writing more Odgen Nash than Shakespeare, but I like Ogden Nash, so that's okay.

  11. branemrys11:20 AM

    So what I have is:

    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, at envoi's end, your pride will die!

    I like your points line; that's some pretty good footwork to link up everything in the original line.

    I think you do yourself some injustice; you've built up some clever solutions so far, and I think it stands up to some of the professional ones in the list (Untermeyer at one point manages to get himself committed to 'eeze' rhymes, which leads to some odd choices.)

    So in the next stanza we see Cyrano struggling for rhymes, and I'm committed to an 'air' rhyme there. And we have Laridon, whom Renauld helpfully notes is from the fables of La Fontaine:

  12. MrsDarwin7:27 AM

    This is being really difficult for me. Yesterday I beat my head against it for a while but wasn't cracking the nut. However, I did work up a fairly accurate English translation, not in poetry, which helped me puzzle out some of the word play.

    I'm missing a rhyme en eutre,
    You yield ground to me, more white than starch,
    And that gives me the word coward!
    Tac! I parry the point which
    you expected me to give.
    I open the line -- I close it,
    See well the spit, Laridon!
    And the end of the envoi, I touch!

    It took me a while to figure out the starch white/coward connection, because the glossary in my French Cyrano gives pleutre as "contemptible villain", and my French dictionary doesn't even have it. In No Exit, the word for "coward" is "lache", which sounds completely unlike "pleutre". But finally Google Translate did the honors, and then the lines made sense. "Pleutre" must be an older form.

    Laridon is fun because it has the connotation of "lesser son of a greater father", yet because of the word "spit" you have to keep the kitchen connotations. I wonder if something like "knave" would work in English?

    Also, I'm scraping the bottom of the barrel for rhymes for "touche", and -- this shows you what kind of poetry reader I am -- it's only with this stanza that I've realized that the fifth and seventh lines are supposed to echo the first and third. The thing is, I love to hear rhyming poetry, but when I read silently, I seem to scan for sense instead of hearing the words in my head, and often the nuances of sound are lost on me. I can if something will be a clunky readaloud, and when I write, I can hear it, but not when I read.

  13. branemrys8:07 AM

    This stanza is definitely tough. (For all of the translations, it's the one that always diverges most from the French.) I'm still chewing on it. The draft I have so far is:

    I seem to lack a rhyme for 'air'...
    You fall back, a starchy pallor show?
    The word you give to me is: scared!
    --Tac! I parry the stroke you throw

    and then the next line is giving me fits. Since 'air' is its own English word and hasn't been used yet, it doesn't make all that much to complain he can't find an -air rhyme, but in poetry as elsewhere, as we make our bed, so must we lie in it. Since I used 'lardoon' previously, it makes sense for me to keep 'Laridon' intact as a kind of callback. I like the idea of 'knave', though; it at least keeps the right options open.

    Since in English the second syllable of touche is strong enough to stand on its own, perhaps you should be looking for 'ay' rhymes and allowing yourself more leeway on the penultimate?

    I wouldn't worry too much about the exact rhyme scheme; loosening the scheme is certainly one of the translator's options, and one thing that's clear in looking at all the attempts to stay strictly with the scheme is that it does force sharp deviation from the sense at several points. And I think overall it actually does make some sense, on the English side, to mark off the last line with a distinctive rhyme.

  14. MrsDarwin11:40 PM

    Okay, okay, okay. Still working on my own, though I think I might have solved the coward bit, but today I went to the library and found that they had Anthony Burgess's 1970 translation, done for the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minnesota. Burgess has an interesting forward explaining why he made the choices he did -- I'd love to discuss them, but they're probably best saved for your next post, though.

    Anyway, I wanted to share his version of the ballade:

    Ballade of a Fencing Bout
    Between de Bergerac and a Foppish Lout

    I bare my head from crown to nape
    And slowly, leisurely, reveal
    The fighting trim beneath my cape,
    Then finally I strip my steel.
    Thoroughbred from head to heel,
    Disdainful of the rein or bit,
    Tonight I draw a lyric wheel --
    But, when the poem ends, I hit.

    Come and be burst, you purple grape,
    Spurt out the juice beneath your peel.
    Gibber and show, you ribboned ape,
    The fat your folderols conceal.
    Let's ring your bells -- a pretty peal!
    Is that a fly? I'll see to it.
    Ah, soon you'll feel your blood congeal,
    For, when the poem ends, I hit.

    I need a rhyme to hold the shape --
    Gape, fish -- I'm going to wind the reel.
    My rod is lusting for its rape,
    The sharp tooth slavers for its meal.
    There, let it strike. Ah, did you feel
    The bite? Not yet. The vultures sit
    Until the closing of the deal.
    The poem ends, and *then* I hit.

    Prince, drop your weapon. Humbly kneel.
    Seek grace from God in requisite
    Repentance. Now -- I stamp the seal!
    The poem ended -- and I hit!

    Some cleverness here, but the rape rhyme is jarring enough to throw off the effect of the whole. It's loose enough that it doesn't give me any clarity on mine.

  15. MrsDarwin12:27 AM

    And mine:

    Insert cliche: blah croon, blah June,

    A flag all starchy-white you wave,

    And there's my rhyme, you pale poltroon!

    Aha! The point you thought I gave

    I parry with a graceful save!

    You're all ouvert -- you're all bouche --

    Observe my knife, you sorry knave,

    For at the envoi's end, touche!

  16. branemrys8:46 AM

    Lots good there; I like the starchy-white flag, and poltroon, and the save/knave rhyme. So I have:

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

    Certainly a few liberties. I was tempted to use 'scullion' rather than Laridon, but stayed with the latter for the reason I noted before. And so on to the envoi and the touche! A proper envoi needs an explicit address to the Prince (and it's an almost Chestertonian irony that Cyrano addresses his opponent as Prince and demands he ask God forgiveness).

    I find Burgess's version almost unrecognizable!

  17. MrsDarwin11:41 AM

    Ooh, very nice with the Laridon/kitchen allusions. A few changes to mine, after sleeping on it:

    Some cliche here: blah croon, blah June,
    A flag all starchy-white you wave,
    And there's my rhyme, you pale poltroon!
    Aha! The point you thought I gave
    I parry with a graceful save!
    I'm all ouvert -- I'm all bouche,
    Observe my knife, you larder knave,
    For at the envoi's end, touche!

    Croon and June are an allusion to some ditty from the Great American Songbook, probably by Cole Porter, that consisted solely of final cliched rhymes: da da da June, da da da moon, da da da croon.

    I'd addressed the sixth line to the Viscount in a mocking spirit, but I'm not sure that comes through, so I put it back in the first person as Cyrano had it.

    Now I'm wondering if I can revamp my other stanzas to fit the ballade scheme. Two more rhymes for rapier... I dothink I have my touche rhyme for the envoi, though.

    I think this would make a fascinating post, when we get it all put together!

  18. MrsDarwin1:35 PM

    BTW, feel free to ignore, because comparisons are odious and all, but here's my translation of your translation of line four: "I parry -- tac! -- the stroke you throw".

    This ballade is getting into my blood. I'm hearing the rhythms everywhere.

  19. branemrys7:15 PM

    I like the suggestion for placing 'tac'; it does fit the rhythm better.

    'Larder knave' ends up working nicely.

    So my first draft for the envoi:

    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!

    This whole endeavor is indeed postworthy.

  20. MrsDarwin10:48 PM

    Waitaminute: is the form that there are only three rhymed sounds in the whole ballade? ABABBCBC, and the envoi is BCBC? This is what I mean about not hearing a rhyme when I read it silently: I've read about five versions of this ballade now, and I've poured over the French for days, and I'm only just now realizing this.


  21. MrsDarwin11:37 PM

    No wonder he wanted a rhyme for "eutre"! Aaaah!

    Well, it's too late to go back and rework everything in proper style, so here's the envoi, first draft:

    O Prince, prepare to meet thy God!
    I skirmish, swish, I swoosh, eh?
    Cut, feint -- take that! -- so end ballade!
    For at the envoi's end -- touche!

    I suppose if I were matching the rhyme of the last stanza, I could go with

    O Prince, of God his pardon crave!
    I skirmish, swish, I swoosh, eh?
    Cut, feint -- and so! your last close shave!
    For at the envoi's end, touche!

    I kind of hate to lose "prepare to meet thy God", though.

    Second half, second stanza:

    The strokes ring loudly, strong and brave!
    The points fly as I whoosh, eh?
    I know -- my blow your gut will stave
    When at the envoi's end, touche!

    Second half, first stanza:

    I'm Celadon, love's noble slave!
    I'm sharp as Scaramouche, eh?
    Know this, you petty piddling brave,
    That at the envoi's end, touche!

  22. MrsDarwin11:41 PM

    Nope, try again:

    I'm Celadon, love's noble slave!
    I'm sharp as Scaramouche, eh?
    Know this, you petty piddling naïve,

    That at the envoi's end, touche!

  23. MrsDarwin12:45 AM


    I cast my hat without a care,
    Deliberately uncape me here,
    Unwrap this mantle which I wear,
    And I draw my rapier!
    I'm Celadon, love's noble slave,
    I'm sharp as Scaramouche, eh?
    You'll learn, you midget, to behave,
    When at the envoi's end -- touché!

    A neutral course you scorned to steer,
    To carve you, turkey, I'll engrave
    Your flank down there, or sleeve up here,
    Or heart 'neath path blue ribbons pave!
    The strokes ring loudly, strong and brave!
    The points fly as I whoosh, eh?
    I know -- my blow your gut will stave
    When at the envoi's end, touché!

    My verse is getting gapey here...
    A flag all starchy-white you wave,
    Now rhymes speed like you, white-tailed deer!
    Aha! The point you thought I gave
    I parry with a graceful save!
    I'm open now -- I'm closed, bouché!
    Observe my knife, you larder knave,
    For at the envoi's end, touché!

    O Prince, of God his pardon crave!
    I skirmish, swish, I swoosh, eh?
    Cut, feint -- and so! your last close shave!
    For at the envoi's end, touché!

  24. MrsDarwin1:26 AM

    No, the first stanza isn't right. I lost my rapier, sob...

    I toss, with manner cavalier
    My hat, and with a motion grave
    My mantle I'll abandon here
    To free my sword to freely rave!

    Unsatisfactory... I cannot believe I committed to the wrong rhyme scheme by working backward!

  25. branemrys3:26 AM

    Given that most of your translation was quite close (much closer than most of the versions I've seen), I rather took it that it was the one liberty you were allowing yourself. I did like your original envoi. The 'ave' rhymes in the new one work pretty well.

    I think you can keep 'rapier' by having something like "To free my rapier to rave", which avoids the awkward repetition, gains you an alliteration, and doesn't require changing the rhyme for the line.

    Ha, and I just caught what you were doing with 'cavalier'; quite good.

  26. MrsDarwin8:27 AM

    I like "To free my rapier to rave" much better than mine, but oh, for the simplicity of my other version! Since I translated backwards, on paper mostly, I didn't realize until I'd cut and pasted and posted everything that something wasn't right, and that I'd worked so hard for rapier rhymes without actually keeping the word, and then ah mon Dieu, je suis insensee, d'un passion mortelle! Quelle stupidite! C'est incroyable! C'est ridicule! And I didn't even want to rhyme "ave" all the way through! I could have been rhyming "air/are" like you did and had the entire dictionary at my disposal! Zut! Then I redid the first lines in a huff and went to bed because it was 2 am.

    The moral is: know your poetry styles before you set in to translate, or at least read the thing aloud.

    Yours is most elegant, though, and it's been a fun intellectual puzzle to translate with you.

  27. branemrys3:12 PM

    I did like the simplicity of the other version. And sometimes breaking from scheme slightly gets you better results. As I said, I think it let you stay very close to the French without sounding strained -- which is a translation win. You just tried out two different directions rather than one, is all.

    But I do know the frustrations of having something that would work awesomely -- except for that one thing that prevents it from working at all. It's occupational hazard when it comes to poetry.

    In terms of follow-up post, would you want to do a post on your versions, and I a post on my versions, or can I put up your versions in a post here -- or what work best?

  28. MrsDarwin5:37 PM

    Let's each do a post and link to each other and to this post as well. I can write mine tonight/tomorrow, I think. That way we each have plenty of room to talk about why we made the word choices we did. I wonder if I can work up a table and put my two versions next to the French?

  29. branemrys6:18 PM

    I can never remember the precise way to do tables in HTML, but it shouldn't be difficult at all. The following gives everything one needs to know in a brief way, in case you want a refresher on it:

  30. itinérante1:11 PM

    Oh! j'ai jamais lu cet ouvrage en anglais! Je l'aime bien pourtant! Je m'y lance! Merci Brandon pour cette opportunité!

  31. branemrys7:41 AM

    It's a play that carries over into English quite well; some of the jokes don't survive, but a surprising number do.


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