The Art of Translation

The play you’ll see in our theater is not merely the work of Edmond Rostand and the actors onstage. As with any dramatic production, there are scores of people who bring the story to life: the director, designers, stagehands and even the audience. This play, though, has an additional influence. Cyrano de Bergerac, originally written in French, must be translated, and thus the translator too becomes one more collaborator, another artist whose vision affects the audience.

The word “translation” has a funny way of conjuring images of high school foreign language classes, or Latin grammar schools for those old enough to remember them: of students sitting in aligned rows, staring at a chalkboard and repetitively reciting in the hopes of decoding “trois” as “three.” But those who’ve mastered another language know that translation is rarely a one-to-one interchange. Even with fluency in a single language, we know the role that nuance plays: “childlike” and “childish” can be defined identically but connotatively mean very different things. The French have two words to denote our single word for “actor,” differentiating between stage actors and those who play roles on a movie screen. Using the wrong word would communicate your point but demonstrate a certain lack of understanding.

“I’m just coming to see a play,” you’re thinking, “What does any of this have to do with Cyrano?” The translator’s presence in our encounter is inescapable; he becomes our guide, especially because of the artistry that the playwright Rostand employed. This was not a piece designed for the accessibility of the Internet or the audience-specific world of MTV. Rostand was a poet, a distiller of emotion and language. An authentic translation must be as detailed and intentional as the original. It’s the translator’s task to navigate nuance, to make allusions accessible, and to deliver a story’s premise while maintaining its structure and aesthetic. Enter Anthony Burgess.

In Cyrano,Rostand employs a classic French form: the alexandrine verse. Poetic meter operates differently in romance languages than in English, a Germanic language. When spoken, these languages have a more even tone and rhythm than does English. For poets working in French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, line length is more important than stresses. Whereas we measure stressed and unstressed syllables when studying English meter like Shakespeare’s, the number of syllables in a line is the primary concern in French. 

Rostand’s Cyrano is written largely in rhyming couplets, adding to the piece’s musicality and richness. Imagine a children’s rhyme that goes “Hey diddle diddle, the cat and piano, the cow jumped over the stars.” The content isn’t much different from the one we all know, but it lacks rhythm and rhyme, coming up woefully short. The romance languages’ masculine and feminine endings in “o” or “a” make it easier to rhyme than in neutered English. Refusing to sacrifice this auricular element, Burgess retains rhyme in extended, key speeches, conceding that it would be a rather tall order to keep it intact throughout.

Translation opens a new world of opportunity, letting us dive into a work, wrestle with it, and encounter deep textual meanings. What does this word mean in the given context? What’s the best way to describe concepts without using the words that typically denote them? How can we maintain the musicality and wordplay of a passage when using another language? These are all considerations that translators must address when taking on pieces as monumental as Cyrano. The payoff enables beloved stories to enter into new worlds.

Samuel Evola, a student at University of Notre Dame, researched and wrote this essay as an intern with CST’s Education Department.  



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