Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Translating Cyrano's Ballade

Brandon has been reading Cyrano de Bergerac for his fortnightly book, and one of his reading resources was a pamphlet containing several translations of Cyrano's improvised ballade, delivered during a fencing duel. This lead to discussion of how the translations didn't seem to match the rhythm of the original, and I offered a few alternate versions of the first line. As I look back, this was rather a conceited thing to do without having read the rest of the ballade, but as a result Brandon and I started translating the Ballade ourselves, in the comments, stanza by stanza.

Now what you have to understand is that Brandon knows poetry and I don't. He understands the structure of the ballade form, and he made his initial rhyme choices based on keeping the integrity of the structure. I, on the other hand, not only knew nothing of the ballade form, but I scan for comprehension when I read and have a poor mental ear for poetry, especially in a foreign language, and so it was only gradually, after I'd translated most of the poem, that it dawned on me that 1) each stanza follows the ABABBCBC scheme; and then 2) the whole poem follows the ABABBCBC structure. There are only three different rhymes in the whole thing. Of course, at this point I'd already translated to the end, so I did a bit of late-night gnashing of teeth and reworked it on the fly, starting with the end, only to find out that I'd taken the wrong rhyme pattern and so lost my first four lines, with which I was particularly pleased. The Muse is a hard mistress.

Here are my two translations, with the French for comparison.

French Original Translation ABABBCBC
Je jette avec grâce mon feutre,
Je fais lentement l'abandon
Du grand manteau qui me calfeutre,
Et je tire mon espadon;
Élégant comme Céladon,
Agile comme Scaramouche,
Je vous préviens, cher Mirmydon,
Qu'à la fin de l'envoi je touche !
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 Myrmidon,
That at the envoi's end -- touché!
I cast, with manner cavalier
My hat, and with a motion grave
My mantle I'll abandon here
To free my rapier to rave!
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!
Vous auriez bien dû rester neutre;
Où vais-je vous larder, dindon ?. . .
Dans le flanc, sous votre maheutre ?. . .
Au cœur, sous votre bleu cordon ?. . .
—Les coquilles tintent, ding-don !
Ma pointe voltige: une mouche !
Décidément. . .c'est au bedon,
Qu'à la fin de l'envoi, je touche.
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 -- 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!
Il me manque une rime en eutre. . .
Vous rompez, plus blanc qu'amidon ?
C'est pour me fournir le mot pleutre !
—Tac ! je pare la pointe dont
Vous espériez me faire don;—
J'ouvre la ligne,—je la bouche. . .
Tiens bien ta broche, Laridon !
A la fin de l'envoi, je touche.
Some cliche here: blah croon, blah moon,
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 open now-- I'm closed, bouché,
Observe my knife, you larder knave,
For at the envoi's end, touché!
My verse is getting gapey here...
A flag all starchy-white you wave,
Now rhymes run 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!
Prince, demande à Dieu pardon!
Je quarte du pied, j'escarmouche,
Je coupe, je feinte. . . Hé ! là, donc !
A la fin de l'envoi, je touche !
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 -- 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!

Translating anything, but particularly a poem, is a game of tradeoffs and hard choices. Do you go for  lyricism at the expense of of accuracy? For clarity at the expense of meter? Brandon has a particularly good explanation of the form of the ballade and the different ways the allusions in this particular poem can be handled in translation, so I won't repeat it here, but I will say that one of my main goals was to translate as accurately as possible. I always like to have a sense of the original when I'm reading in translation, and I wanted to get across Cyrano's wit and spontaneity while sticking closely to the French.

Stanza 1: Perhaps my favorite unholy rhyme in the whole thing is uncape me here/rapier, and it broke my heart to lose it in the ABABBCBC version, when I realized that, due to working backward from the rhymes in the third stanza, I'd unwittingly bumped the "rapier" rhyme from B to A, thus losing those lines. (Thanks to Brandon for suggesting a better phrasing of the fourth line in the ABAB version, improving my quick late night line of "To free my sword to freely rave" -- rave was the only "ave" rhyme left in the dictionary at that point, and I didn't know what to do with it.)

The ABAB version has a better explanation of Cyrano's allusions to Celadon and Scaramouche, two figures that don't have much resonance now (Walter Hooker's translation changes them to Lancelot and Spartacus, two figures that have much more pull on the English imagination), but I didn't mind keeping them in. Cyrano likes his learned references, and anyway, "Scaramouche" helped propel me to a rhyme for "touché", which I felt was key, since touché still carries connotations in English of sparring and scoring points. "Scaramouche, eh?" is a scurrilous rhyme, but I hope that Cyrano would think it was amusing.

Stanza 2: I wanted to stay close to Cyrano's neutre, and I wanted to keep the ridiculous word turkey, designed to prick his foppish opponent's pride. Larder is a cooking technique which uses a larding needle to insert fat under a bird's skin for juicier results; Brandon found a graceful way to keep the allusion, but I went with basting as a recognizable thing, and in the ABAB version I needed to use "carving" to fit with the "engrave" rhyme. Coquilles are handguards: the guards are ringing as strokes land on them, but I couldn't quite make that work for me, and so ringing blades was the closest I could come to the sound of the bells, ding-don. What I really wanted to rhyme was paunch (bedon refers to skin stretched over a drum), so I had to work the fifth line back from "launch". And of course, the awful rhyme for "touché" had to be fit in, though "whoosh" isn't too far from voltige, quiver.

Stanza 3: this stanza had a few ciphers to unlock before it made sense to me. I could not find eutre in any dictionary, and the definitions of pleutre didn't shed much light until I consulted Google Translate and discovered that it was an obscure form of "coward". That suddenly made sense of Cyrano finding a rhyme after being inspired by the phrase "more white than starch." I took eutre as a nonsense word, which several other translations seemed to bear out, so "croon" and "moon" was my little nod to the Gershwin ditty Blah Blah Blah, which takes out all the words but the cliched rhymes. "Poltroon" seemed like a nice obsolete word for coward. It wasn't until I was working on the envoi and realized the overall scheme of the poem that I realized that every single A line ended in eutre.

Since I'd realized that each stanza followed an ABAB scheme, anyway, I used wave/save/gave/knave and managed, I think, to keep a fairly accurate translation. Laridon is a name of a kitchen scullion and also means something akin to "lesser son of a greater father", so "larder knave" seemed to fit the bill and be a bit of a throwback to the larder I didn't translate in stanza 2.

The ABAB version is a bit of a stretch in the first four lines. "Gapey here" is accurate enough, though pretty inelegant. The inspiration of his opponent's white face jump starts Cyrano's creativity and gives him his rhyme, so the running white-tailed deer was an attempt to match the white of the line above and indicate both coward and fleetness.

Envoi: I particularly liked my original envoi -- the envoi is a shorter stanza at the end, usually addressed to the Prince -- but once I realized that it fit the BCBC scheme ("Hey, these lines end in -on, just like the stanza above. I wonder why that was repeat--whatthehell? The whole poem?"), I tried an alternate version which lead to the rest of the ABAB translation. I'm not enamored of the ABAB version, but it does fit the form.

Do go over and read Brandon's post on his translation, far more lyric than mine. And if you enjoy watching a creative process unfold, read down the comment thread where we piece together our ballades over the course of several days.

You can see Jose Ferrer deliver Walter Hooker's translation of ballade in action here, as well as the famous Nose Description speech.

1 comment:

Anne Kennedy said...

And me just trying to read a little French every so often. This is so clever and wonderful.