Tuesday, 22 February 2005

Etre ou ne pas être

According to a new book called Shakespeare Goes to Paris by John Pemble, the French rejected Shakespeare for several hundred years because of his vulgarity. Even the Anglophile Voltaire believed that the plays offered “a few pearls in an enormous dungheap”. In the nineteenth century translators not only bowdlerised the texts but rewrote the plots: Malcolm took republican vows and Romeo and Juliet lived happily ever after.

It is hard to believe, but it seems that words like mouchoir and fraise were too coarse to be uttered in the Comédie Française, and it would be interesting to see how the translators dealt with Shakespeare’s really bawdy lines.
It is true that even perfectly respectable demotic utterances in English rarely translate well into French, but occasionally the attempt provides a felicitous result, though I’m not sure that I believe that a cowboy’s first line on entering the saloon – “Gimme a shot of red-eye” – appeared in the film’s subtitle as “Un Dubonnet, s’il vous plait”.

James Thurber, in a marvellous essay on sub-titled Westerns and French pulp thrillers of the twenties, gives several examples: in an old W S Hart movie which in Paris became Le Roi du Far-Ouest the hero, insulted by a drunken ruffian, turns on him and says, in a grim, laconic way, “Et puis, après?”

[Click picture for biography of W S Hart]
But one of the happiest moments occurs in a book about Billy the Kid: two strangers turn up in a small Western town and their actions arouse the suspicions of a group of respectable citizens, who call on the sheriff to complain about the newcomers; he listens gravely for a while, gets up, buckles on his gunbelt and says, “Alors, je vais demander leurs cartes d’identité!

Thurber said that few things, in any literature, ever gave him a greater thrill than coming across that line.


Chameleon said...

Very amusing, as usual!
I remember sitting in a cinema in Waffleland (where two sets of mandatory subtitles take up half the screen) watching Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (a rare lapse in taste) where when my eyes strayed downwards I did not feel the translator's rendition did the original justice. When Little John praised Robin by informing him "You have balls of solid rock", the text read "You are extremely brave", which impeccably conveys the meaning, but completely removes the flavour.

Tony said...

Quelle pudibonderie! But then francophones are like that, aren't they? English translators of Rabelais never have any difficulty in finding (or inventing) English words to match his enormous vocabulary of ribaldry or scatology. There is a good example at http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/rabela.htm.