Let’s talk about translations.
If you’ve read Cyrano de Bergerac in English, or seen the filmed version with Gerard Depardieu that has yellow English subtitles, that’s one thing. It’s a tragic story about unrequited love, and assumptions, and carefully constructed perceptions of other people, and also two guys willfully deceiving a woman for a ridiculously long period of time. Neat. I kind of want to yell at everyone in that play, but for a lot of French literature that’s par for the course.
If you’ve read Cyrano de Bergerac in French, you very quickly realize that the entire play is written in rhyming couplets.
Now – speaking as someone who’s performed a bit of Shakespeare – if you act in a show that has rhyming verse, and you recite it to emphasize that rhyming verse, pretty soon everything sounds like a nursery rhyme and you want to bash your head against a wall, and so does the audience. It’s much easier, both for the audience and the actors, to pretend that the rhymes don’t exist until you decide to emphasize them for dramatic effect. Great! Spectacular.
The fact remains that Shakespeare, one of the greatest poets in the English language, didn’t write everything in rhymes. There’s a lot of blank verse in there, with some prose tossed in for the peasant characters to remind us that they’re the salt of the earth etc. etc. Shakespeare used rhymes pretty sparingly, specifically for dramatic effect.
Edmond Rostand, who wrote Cyrano de Bergerac – that guy wrote the entire play in rhymes, line for line.
Mind you, French can be a lot easier to rhyme than English, but it’s still impressive.
But it is impossible to translate the entire play from French and still keep all of those rhymes as well as the sense. At some point, you either sacrifice the literal meaning for the aesthetic of the rhyme scheme, or you sacrifice the rhyme scheme. Maybe sometimes they can coincide, but for an entire play that’s nearly 80,000 words long? Yikes. I can respect the man as a poet, that takes some serious chops, but I don’t think even the best translators would be able to preserve 80k worth of pristine rhymes.
Which is … I don’t know if it’s sad or not. In translation theory, there’s the ethnographic which includes connotation and historical context, as well as the literal and the aesthetic. There are some linguistic things that you can only truly get the sense of, by encountering them in their native languages. There are some things that are elegant in one language but that become clunky in another. There are some things that will always be lost in translation, because it’s impossible to convey every connotation of every word without a billion footnotes. And that’s – weird, really, because there are so many works of literature that we wouldn’t have if they hadn’t been translated. How much smaller, how much poorer would our culture be without shared literature from other cultures? Can you imagine a France without the influence of the American Declaration of Independence? Can you imagine a Europe without the influence of Voltaire, or Marx, or Martin Luther? I know I can’t.
Good excuse to push for a multilingual society, I guess. English as the lingua franca is convenient for those of us who learn it from the cradle, but it engenders a complacency that to me feels stagnant, if not toxic. That stereotype about French people gossiping about American tourists is absolutely true – and, look, we get mad when other people refuse to speak English, so why wouldn’t they be mad when we don’t even try to learn French, or Spanish, or any other language? I absolutely get that it’s hard for some people the way math is hard for me – but again, it’s a skill that can be practiced rather than solely a talent to be born with. It means that no matter where we go, we can find a way to communicate with the people around us.