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Cyrano composes a ballade

Cyrano de BergeracToday's blog entry was written almost 54 years in advance. It's a paper I wrote in my Senior year in high school, and it was originally handed in on November 24, 1958.

I've presented it below in the Courier font, to more or less reproduce the original typed document. Some words were typed in red, apparently for emphasis. Typewriters of the day were capable of shifting to red with the touch of a lever - they had ribbons which were half black and half red. But they were not able to type italic letters (the Selectric, with its interchangeable type balls was years in the future), and underlining was awkward. I hand wrote the accent marks over the French vowels, where needed, although I missed a few. A few years later, in college, I had my Olympus portable typewriter modified to allow it to type French accents.

Larry Krakauer
English XII*E, Per. 3
Nov 24, 1958

Cyrano Composes a Ballade - A Study In Translations

In this paper I am going to compare seven different English translations of "Cyrano composes a ballade" with the French original, by Edmond Rostand. I will compare them as to rhythm, literary allusion, use of language, and use of images, giving examples.

The eight poems do not vary much in their rhythm, which is fitting for good translations. All of them have eight syllables per line, and they seem to use two different schemes of accents. The original, the Kingsbury version, and the Untermeyer version have accents on about every third beat, like this:


The other versions use the following scheme:


The accent, however, does not set the entire feeling for the verses. The words themselves are an important contributing factor. The original words give a slightly slow, calm feeling; "Je jette avec grâce mon feutre,/Je fais lentement l'abandon." The Hooker version, the Kingsbury version, the LeClerck version, and the Bissell-Wyck version share this slowness. I don't mean that these poems are not lively, but that compared with the others, their language tends to keep them from being read too fast. This is done with such lines as "with nonchalance I doff my hat", "with grace I cast my felt aside," etc. On the other hand, the rest of the versions give a faster feeling; "I gaily doff my beaver low," "my hat is flung swiftly away," etc. All eight of the poems, of course, use the classic French ballade style. This is a style which is very difficult to translate, since it allows only three rhyming sounds. To keep to this style is hard enough, much less to try to translate the sense, the feeling, and the meaning. All of the translators did stay strictly within the style, however, and so it is to the sense, the feeling, and the meaning that we now turn.

Unfortunately for the translators, the original poem by Rostand uses three literary allusions, which further complicate the job of translating it. In adapting the poem the same allusions may be used, the allusions may be dropped entirely, or the translator may wish, for one reason or another, to use different allusions. The original refers to Celadon and Scaramouche in making a comparison: "elegant comme Celadon", and "agile comme Scaracouche." It also refers to Myrmidon. Celadon, in D'Urfe's romance "Astrée", was Astrée's lover; hence in French literature, Celadon is a stock name for a courtly lover. Scaramouche was a boastful buffoon of old Italian farce, who was constantly beaten by Harlequin. Myrmidon, a term used by Cyrano in the poem when he is speaking of his enemy, is a term used of devoted and unquestioning followers. It comes from the Myrmidons, a warlike race of ancient Thessaly led by Achilles in the Trojan war.

The version by Bissel and Wyck is the only version that keeps all three of the literary allusions. None of the others use Myrmidon, perhaps because they feel that most English-speaking people would not be familiar with this term. The first translation made, by Thomas and Guillemard in 1898, for some reason uses Phoebus instead of Celadon, but retains Scaramouche. Both would have fit into the poem, and I suspect that, since the version was done in London, that London audiences of the time were more familiar with Phoebus than with Celadon. Phoebus is "the Bright", the name given in Greek mythology to the Sun God, Apollo, and also, poetically, to the Sun.

The Kingsbury version, made in New York, retains both Celadon and Scaramouche. The Wolfe version, made in London, uses Alcibiades instead of Celadon. Alcibiades was a Greek leader. The LeClercq version, New York, uses two totally new allusions, Ganymede and Mercury. Perhaps LeClercq did this because he thought that American audiences would not be familiar with Celadon and Scaramouche. In Greek mythology, Ganymede was a beautiful youth carried off to be the cupbearer of Zeus, and Mercury was the God of speed. The Hooker version used Lancelot and Spartacus, probably for the same reason. Lancelot was the bravest and most famous of the Knights of the round table, and Spartacus was a Roman slave who led a slave result in 73 BC.

The Untermeyer version is unique in that it doesn't use any literary allusions at all. Perhaps Untermeyer thought that allusions would only slow the poem down for most Americans, who would not understand them anyway. In any event, Untermeyer is the only translator who solves the problem of allusions by ignoring them completely.

To translate a poem well, the translator must capture, in addition to the meaning, the feeling and mood of the poem. The mood is set by the use of language and by the use of images. I will go into the use of language first. Knowing French, I can compare the use of language in the original to each of the translations. The original, it seems to me, has a deliberate, playful air, but little aloof, and not overfunny or ridiculous. These moods are set by phrases such as "..je tire mon Espadon;/Elegant comme Celadon," (.. I draw my sword/elegant as Celadon), "Ou vais-je vous larder, dindon?" (Where shall I carve you, turkey), etc.

The Thomas-Guillemard version does not, I think, keep the same mood. It is faster, it is more lighthearted and less grave. This mood is set by such phrases as "I gaily doff my beaver low" and "You wriggle, starch white, my eel." The Wolfe version also has this fault, to a higher degree. It refers to a sword as a snickersnee, and uses such phrases as "Look! Here's a gnat; don't blink at it!", "Have you, perchance, a rhyme to spare?", And "You'll find the envoy scores a hit."

These, I think, are out of keeping with the mood of the original. The LeClercq version does the same, using such phrases as "hi-diddle-di", "sparks would fly", and "On the sad last line - presto! -- I thrust" The Untermeyer version also does the same thing; for example, "My hat is flung swiftly away", "if you please", and ".. as the blade makes a breeze." It is likely that these translators had a more lighthearted interpretation of the poem.

On the other hand, the Kingsbury version, the Bissell-Van Wyck version, and the Hooker version seem to be more in the mood of the poem. They keep its light humor, but don't overdo it. I think the Hooker version is one of the best in this respect. It is hard to pick any particular words or phrases which give these poems this quality.

The original poem has quite a few images to be translated. The literary allusions are images, of course, but I've already gone into that. Some of the other images in the poem are where Cyrano refers to his opponent as a dindon (turkey), ".. Les coquilles tintent, ding-don!" (The blades ring, ding-dong!), "Ma pointe voltage: une mouche!" (My point whips about; a fly), "plus blanc qu'amidon" (whiter than starch). How do the translations handle these? In the Thomas-Guillemard version, turkey is changed to cock, and the translations are, in order, "ho for the music of clashing steel", "what now, a hit? Not much!", And "starch white." It is interesting to note that "une mouche" (a fly) has been translated by the similar sounding "not much." Could this have been misinterpreted? In the Kingsbury version the translations are "fowl", "Ding dong! ring your bright trappings all", "my point flicks like a fly on the pane", and ".. you turn white as the wall." The Wolfe translations are "goose", "Hark! The hilt music on the breeze", "look! Here's a gnat; don't blink at it", and "White as cheese." LeClerq does not translate turkey, but continues "our blades ring, bell like, hi-diddle-hi", "Mark how my sword point hovers", and "white as lye." And so on. There are many reasons for changing an image. One is simply to make it fit the rhyme scheme, and another is to make it fit the context. These translations retain most of the images.

We see, then, that translating is no easy task. The translator must try to keep the meaning, the feeling and mood, the allusions, and the images. And because of all these things, it is a lot harder to translate poetry than to translate a simple paragraph, although that has problems too. Now, if I find a translation that I don't think is too accurate, I'll have a good idea what the translator was up against, and I will not be so harsh with him.

What do you think? Not bad for a 16-year-old. And I got an "A", a previously rare event for me in an English course (in prior years, I had usually gotten A only in science and math courses).

Click for the text of the Rostand poem, and its seven translations.

Click here to see a PDF of the original report, with the teacher's comments.
(To view this link, you must be have the Adobe Acrobat viewer installed.)

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© 2012 Lawrence J. Krakauer   Click here to send me e-mail.
Originally posted September 13, 2012

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