23 July 2009

Phèdre in Yorkshire

Today's audience, it seems, consumes Racine in a purely anthological way: in Phèdre, it is Phèdre the character they come to see; more than that they come to see the actress herself, to see how she will play the role. [...] The text itself is seen as an assortment of materials, from which to choose one's pleasure. Memorable lines and famous tirades stand out from a background of boredom and obscurity. It is for these lines, these tirades, this actress that one goes to the theatre. One puts up with the rest in the name of culture, in the name of the past, in the name of a poetic flavour patiently awaited because centuries of the myth of Racine have localised it. Performances of Racine are a mixture of boredom and celebration, this is to say essentially a fragmented spectacle.

That is the start of Roland Barthes' 1958 essay "Dire Racine", collected in the book Sur Racine. It's my translation. I could translate it further. The first two words really ought now to be “the audience of 1958”. Or, to make the underlying point clearer, I could recast it as Shakespeare, and substitute Hamlet or King Lear for Phèdre. I think that could work pretty well (once I had also swapped in soliloquies for tirades). The point is that familiarity, particularly a culturally shared and shaped familiarity, risks changing the way a text is received. (I'd also change the title from Reading Racine to Speaking Shakespeare. Equally stupid sounding, after all.)

In the rest of the essay Barthes looks at what actors can do to speak the text in those circumstances. Surprisingly, in an essay in French about plays written in French and performed in French for a French-speaking audience, it sparks some interesting ideas about translation, which I'll be considering in the light of Ted Hughes' translation of Phèdre which is currently on stage at the National Theatre.

Barthes argues that the actor in Racine typically interprets the text by indicating certain key words and phrases. He uses two culinary metaphors: first the actor “chews” (mâche) the the text; he also says the actor acts like a parent, cutting up the food for a child. The outcome of this process is to enable the anthological approach, which Barthes identifies as a wholly bourgeois approach to art. He compares this to the use of rubato in music, which is the imposition of the artist's view of the piece. J S Bach springs to my mind here: the best performances, for me, are those in which the player most scrupulously follows the written notation. If Bach wanted rubato he'd have written it. Bach's music, like Racine's text, has effects written in it, that are produced simply by playing it. On the other hand, it's foolish to assume that there can be any pure, uninterpreted reading of a text.

Barthes writes that the actor works on a false belief that the words translate the thought (“les mots traduisent la pensée”). I've quoted the original because “mots” much more closely refers to words as individual items, rather than as a stream. He talks about actors speaking the text as a didactic exercise, not aesthetic. Their purpose is to make key words stand out, and those key words are the ones that express a fairly literal meaning.

At the same time, actors seem to try to disguise the alexandrine structure; instead they use pacing and rhythm that try to approximate to normal spoken language. He says the alexandrine contains its own musicality; there is no need for the actor to sing, to add a “secret music”.

English audiences for Racine don't have the background anthology of Racine in their head. They're not looking out for the memorable lines. So actually that familiarity isn't a problem. English audiences come to a performance almost naively. The actors don't need to cut up the meat for them. Maybe the text can speak directly through its own resources.

In the programme for the National's production, Blake Morrison writes about the translation. He's impressed by the fact that it sounds like Yorkshire, but then he would be. He quotes three lines of Racine in the “standard blank verse translation” and Hughes's version, which I may as well requote:

Athens revealed to me my haughty foe.
As I beheld, I reddened, I turned pale
A tempest raged in my distracted mind.

Hughes offers:

Suddenly he was there
Standing in front of me,
He had simply appeared -
Staring at me,
The man created
To destroy me.
Before I could grasp what I'd seen
I felt my face flame crimson – then go numb.
My whole body scorched – then icy sweat.

The original is:

Athènes me montra mon superbe ennemi.
Je le vis, je rougis, je pâlis à sa vue ;
Un trouble s'éleva dans mon âme éperdue ;

Obviously, the original is best. The simplicity of that second line is unparalleled in either of the Englishings. The staccato impact works so well among the longer more formal words, and the stress pattern almost demands a syncopation. But what's so notable about Hughes's version is that it adds so much meaning, letting the words translate the effect of the music of the lines. The short anglo-saxon based words – grasp, scorched, sweat – don't shock because they live in a context of short punchy words. And there's no music left.

Morrison clearly sees Hughes's version as an improvement on the standard blank verse translation. But I think that's precisely because it adds something – something Yorkshire – to the meaning. As foreseen, Hughes's lexicon is much bigger – not just here but throughout. A lot of the power of Racine comes from that very sparseness of words – that sense that all the characters are debating what these concepts – gloire, coeur, honneur – mean. It's claustrophobic, matching the closedness of the setting.

So Hughes's version (as the programme scrupulously calls it) adds explicit meaning to the text, making it much more lisible, and completely changing the experience. Later (later in my life, I mean, not later here – I've nearly finished) I'll consider if a translation ought to preserve the experience.

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