23 November 2013

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (2)

... of course, the answer might simply be that all their fine words about artistic value are almost immediately undermined by their panicked reaction when there's any kind of threat to their gravy train.

But the purpose of this post is to note a contribution to the debate on vraisemblance. In Act 1 Scene 2, the Dancing Master proposes a musical sketch featuring shepherds and shepherdesses. Why is it always shepherds? Jourdan asks.

Lorsqu’on a des personnes à faire parler en musique, il faut bien que pour la vraisemblance on donne dans la bergerie. Le chant a été de tout temps affecté aux bergers ; et il n’est guère naturel en dialogue, que des princes, ou des bourgeois chantent leurs passions.

which is obviously a parody of  a certain theory of theatre. But it's basically true in recognising that what is accepted as realistic is very changeable.


Since writing the above, I've finished the play and what has struck me most is the slightness, the inconsequentiality of the plot. Jourdain's clumsy attempts to woo Dorimene come to nothing, as do his attempts to marry his daughter to Dorante. It all falls apart much too easily, with very little real peril. Jourdain is made to look a bit of a fool, but is materially pretty much unaffected. As with Amphitryon, it's as if the narrative itself gets bored and calls a halt. Perhaps that's why I found I had little memory of the story, but just recognised a few smart phrases. I don't even remember being upset by the lack of plot-complication: didn't we notice it?

If you were to compare this play with The Alchemist for example, you'd see exactly what I mean. Clearly a French 17th century comedy was a quite different thing to an English one. Perhaps it's just intended to be a series of amusing scenes, interspersed with music and dance, and we shouldn't expect anything else. So any coherent "plot" is a bonus, or even a distraction. Maybe, too, there's an influence of the orthodox 17th century French view that tragedy and comedy don't mix.

11 November 2013

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1)

Again, I'm reading this online, here.

And already I've got something to go on. The first scene is peculiar. The Music Master and the Dancing Master have an unnecessarily long discussion about their patron. Partly it's exposition: we're told that Jourdain
 ...est un homme à la vérité dont les lumières sont petites, qui parle à tort et à travers de toutes choses, et n’applaudit qu’à contre-sens

and that he is driven by his pretention to be quasi-noble.

But the two Masters also have a brief debate on where the real reward for their work is to be found. Both recognise that Jourdain pays them well, which is important, but they agree that informed, educated appreciation of their work is the highest reward. The Dancing Master puts it most clearly:
Pour moi, je vous l’avoue, je me repais un peu de gloire. Les applaudissements me touchent ; et je tiens que dans tous les beaux arts, c’est un supplice assez fâcheux, que de se produire à des sots ; que d’essuyer sur des compositions, la barbarie d’un stupide. Il y a plaisir, ne m’en parlez point, à travailler pour des personnes qui soient capables de sentir les délicatesses d’un art ; qui sachent faire un doux accueil aux beautés d’un ouvrage ; et par de chatouillantes approbations, vous régaler de votre travail. Oui, la récompense la plus agréable qu’on puisse recevoir des choses que l’on fait, c’est de les voir connues ; de les voir caressées d’un applaudissement qui vous honore. Il n’y a rien, à mon avis, qui nous paye mieux que cela de toutes nos fatigues ; et ce sont des douceurs exquises, que des louanges éclairées.

It doesn't take up long, this discussion, but I'd bet it gets cut out of a lot of productions. The question is, why is it there in the first place?


Clearly, there was something wrong with my education, in that it failed to spoil French literature for me. Despite studying Candide for A level, I can still read it for enjoyment, and now I've started reading Molière's Amphitryon, a play I've never read before. It's one of those random readings. Petroc Trelawney on Radio 3 played Lully's overture the other day, and pronounced it in a way that I thought couldn't be correct. So I looked it up, and he was wrong (he had put the stress on the penultimate syllable, and rhymed it with lie on, the fool!) So a link or two led me to an online text of the play.

And what's really sad is that I can laugh at an exchange like this, where Sosie has been out-argued by Mercury, disguised as him.

L’action ne vaut rien.
370 Tu triomphes de l’avantage,
Que te donne sur moi mon manque de courage,
Et ce n’est pas en user bien.
C’est pure fanfaronnerie,
De vouloir profiter de la poltronnerie

Sosie was apparently played by Molière himself; of course he gets the best lines.

In another act of disguise, Jupiter is pretending to be Amphitryon, driven by lust for Alcmene. He says to her:

590 Vous voyez un mari ; vous voyez un amant :
Mais l’amant seul me touche, à parler franchement ;
Et je sens près de vous, que le mari le gêne.
Cet amant, de vos vœux, jaloux au dernier point,
Souhaite qu’à lui seul votre cœur s’abandonne ;
595 Et sa passion ne veut point,
De ce que le mari lui donne.
Il veut, de pure source, obtenir vos ardeurs ;
Et ne veut rien tenir des nœuds de l’hyménée :
Rien d’un fâcheux devoir, qui fait agir les cœurs,
600 Et par qui, tous les jours, des plus chères faveurs,
La douceur est empoisonnée.
Dans le scrupule enfin, dont il est combattu,
Il veut, pour satisfaire à sa délicatesse,
Que vous le sépariez d’avec ce qui le blesse ;
605 Que le mari ne soit que pour votre vertu ;
Et que de votre cœur, de bonté revêtu,
L’amant ait tout l’amour, et toute la tendresse.

While this is clearly a transparently cynical lotharism, I can't help but wonder if there's a general meditation going on, about duality of people, possibly also about theatrical representation. And of course, Amphi...  Duplicity. More to follow ...

Act 2 scene 2

Si sa bouche dit vrai, nous avons même sort ;
Et de même que moi, Monsieur, vous êtes double.

In Act 2, both Amphitryon and Sosie find that the actions of their doubles have damaged their relationships with their wives (Alcmene and Cléanthis). Jupiter has been playing as the lover, not the spouse, while au contraire Mercury has been cold with Cléanthis. The word transports is used a lot. Amphitryon thinks Alcmene has been unfaithful - but who with?


So, having finished reading, what of it?

The play ends quite abruptly. Jupiter and Mercury both tire of the imposture. Jupiter tells Amphitryon that Alcmene will bear a heroic son, Hercules. The gods return to the heavens. That's it.

It seems more like an entertainment than a real play, because of this ending. The intrigue unravels too quickly and easily.

Can we still see it as mythologised psychology? Amphitryon needs to learn to express the amant within: the result will be Hercules. In an imaginary staging, I'd like to see the two doubled characters played by actors who have very little physical resemblance, to stress the fantasy of it, the feeling that a blinding power is being exerted, not necessarily by the presumed gods even.

But I'm finding hard to have a definite view. Let's read some more Molière, and why not start with Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, another school set text, which I'd expect to still enjoy.

16 October 2013

Bad typography

Famously, you can't judge a book by its cover.

 But if you could, I'd probably think this was a good un. I like reading about translation, and this promises to be a light, non-technical study, although I think calling it an "amazing adventure" is optimistic. And I also don't like the review quote  - "Please read David Bellos's brilliant book". It's just too needy, where I'd prefer nerdy.

I'm also not crazy about the design: the way the translated titles are crammed in, requiring one of them to be printed upside down. I can also tell you, dear reader, that the titles on the left aren't continued on the spine of the book.

In all, it's a decent idea that wasn't very well executed. But compared to what's inside, it's excellent.

Here's the table of contents.

What the hell is going on here? Random italicisation and size changes make it a very uncomfortable page to look at. And there doesn't seem to be any point to it. Charitably one could consider it illustrates the way in which the same meaning can be conveyed in different renderings, but that, presumably, is what the whole book is going to be about.

And here, finally, is the first two-page spread of Chapter 1. Again, the random variation between upright and italic, but also that horribly ugly initial capital D. The right hand page, however, shows that the book designer isn't unskilled: within fairly tight space limits, it's lovely. So why the nonsense?

You can't judge a book by its cover or by its typography, but you can feel ill-disposed towards it. I'll probably enjoy this book, but it'll take me some time to forgive the whimsical, annoying design.

Murakami 2

I wanted to do a post on typography, but I see I've left a Murakami discussion hanging in the air. So I did finish Norwegian Wood, and found it less wowful than I expected. It's not giving much away to say it's a story of adolescent love and suicide, and probably also more generally about modern Japanese society. I've very little idea where it fits in to modern Japanese literature; all the idea I have comes from the translator's note placed helpfully at the end of the text.

It seems that the book was Murakami's first big commercial success. Published in 1987 it seems to have caught the imagination of young Japanese like little else, and I suspect that's because it treated sexuality with a frankness that was new. Perhaps this was the first time young Japanese had seen themselves portrayed in a way that reflected the changes in society since the second world war, or since the unrest of the 60s.

My big problem was the main characters are defined by the other characters estimation of them. It's a cliche for fictional characters to take time, probably early in the book, to look at themselves in a mirror and think about what they see, so that we, the reader, get to know what they look like. Here we are told what each character is like by what the other characters say about them. They all keep telling Watanabe, the narrator, what an unusual person he is, for example, and even with Naoko, the central tragic character, we largely have to rely on Watanabe's evaluation of her. I kept feeling that he must be seeing things in her that we don't.

In the previous post I mentioned that there's a lack of foreignness in the translation and I suppose I also feel let down that the form of the book is unchallenging. I'm not sure what I'd expect. As I've said, I don't know anything about Japanese fiction, but in its form, Norwegian Wood could have been written at any time since Flaubert. And also, nearly all the cultural references in the book - music, literature - are western. It would be stupid and presumptuous to attack Murakami for not being Japanese enough, of course. Presumably this is a fairly accurate reflection of the concerns of young Japanese in the period.

I suppose what I'm saying is that when I read a foreign book, I expect some kind of difference. If there isn't any, there's no point in looking through the misty window of a translation. Norwegian Wood is not that dissimilar to many an equally competent modern Bildungsroman. But, oh yes, it is extremely competent. And I'd have to admit I'm probably much too old to be swept up in the emotions of it. And the butterflies never turned up.

Should I try another book by Murakami? If this blog had any readers, I'd ask them for advice, and if, by chance, you've stumbled aghast upon this blog after a Murakami search, and you're a fan of his, please let me know what to try next.

27 September 2013


As, apparently, always, Haruki Murakami is hotly tipped for the Nobel prize, but I've never read any. So I'm putting that right with, initially, Norwegian Wood and I was going to write about it. Specifically, with me on p 165 I'm wondering if the reference to Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain is too clever for its own good. Toru, the first person narrator has gone to visit his friend Naoko, who's currently living in a therapeutic community in the hills near Kyoto. He's studying German, and takes a copy of Mann's book with him. For those who've read the book, even distantly long ago, like me, it's impossible not to assume the parallel is deliberate. For those (most) who haven't, it just won't mean anything. Perhaps we'll see.

And I was also going to talk about the translation (by Jay Rubin). It's what reviewers would call "smooth", but for me that means it doesn't have any feeling of foreignness. Apart from the placenames there's very little feeling of place. Again, we may see later.

But I searched for an image of the cover, to illustrate this post, and was astonished at the variety there is. Here are some.

I suppose you could say that each different cover is a different interpretation of the book, and so, by Frank Kermode's definition, the book's a classic. Or, more mundanely, you could say that it appears butterflies are going to become significant before the book's over.

10 June 2013

Maupassant, bowdlerisation and translation

I've continued to read Maupassant short stories, frequently wondering at how there could have been such a divergence in acceptability on the two sides of the Channel. Maupassant's characters have sex, quite often, quite openly and, in Le Crime au Père Boniface, quite noisily. We must assume that Dickens' characters had sex now and then, if only to fuel the inheritance dilemmas, but surely they always did so in complete abashed silence.

What did Maupassant's contemporary translators make of this? I've just read the story called Le Père. The sexual climax is as follows.
Et, tout doucement, ils s'embrassèrent, puis s'étreignirent, étendus sur l'herbe, sans conscience de rien que de leur baiser. Elle avait fermé les yeux et le tenait à pleins bras, le serrant éperdument, sans une pensée, la raison perdue, engourdie de la tête aux pieds dans une attente passionnée. Et elle se donna tout entière sans savoir ce qu'elle faisait, sans comprendre même qu'elle s'était livrée à lui. (Maupassant, Guy de (2011-03-30). Contes du jour et de la nuit (French Edition) (p. 20). . Kindle Edition.)

The translation in the Gutenberg library goes as follows:
[A church clock struck in the distance,] and they embraced gently, then, without the knowledge of anything but that kiss, lay down on the grass. [But she soon came to herself with the feeling of a great misfortune, and began to cry and sob with grief, with her face buried in her hands.]

(The things in square brackets happen in French, but in adjacent paragraphs.) So, quite a lot missed out, but an astute reader, I suppose would have known what to read in. Even in the French, the text requires some interpolation. Louise is "engourdie de la tête aux pieds", when it's precisely not the tête or the pieds that are important. And she "doesn't know what she's doing". We do. Later she becomes his mistress.
Pendant trois mois, elle fut sa maîtresse. Il commençait à se lasser d'elle, quand elle lui apprit qu'elle était grosse. (Maupassant, Guy de (2011-03-30). Contes du jour et de la nuit (French Edition) (p. 21). . Kindle Edition.)

Hilariously, in English,this becomes:
for three months they were close friends. He was beginning to grow tired of her, when she whispered something to him [...]

Ten years later he encounters his son. It must have seemed a miraculous conception. Except that once again, I'd presume a reader of the original translation would have known how to fill in the gaps, and what whispered insinuates. We don't, these days, and we expect that if characters have sex, we should be told.

The translators of the stories on Gutenberg are listed as

MME. QUESADA and Others

Those B.A.s, I suppose, are a hint that the translations will be used in schools, perhaps not exclusively. So, as well as making the stories fit the bienséance of their time, the translations have to observe a specific bienséance of what was considered suitable for schoolchildren.

All this has led me to a conclusion that might be obvious, might be meaningless, or might be something profound: bowdlerisation is a form of translation. And like other acts of translation, it is affected by the social context. So we don't just need regular new translations, we need regular new bowdlerisations.

30 May 2013

Boule de suif

Occasionally something comes along that makes me very glad I'm not a translator, and Boule de Suif is one of those. What can you do if you can't even adequately translate the title, which is also the name of the main character? How can you even start?

By reaching for a big dictionary, perhaps. Suif means tallow or suet, while here's how the Oxford Hachette dictionary covers boule
And here's Maupassant's explanation of why his character has this name.
La femme, une de celles appelées galantes, était célèbre par son embonpoint précoce qui lui avait valu le surnom de Boule de Suif. Petite, ronde de partout, grasse à lard, avec des doigts bouffis, étranglés aux phalanges, pareils à des chapelets de courtes saucisses; avec une peau luisante et tendue, une gorge énorme qui saillait sous sa robe, elle restait cependant appétissante et courue, tant sa fraîcheur faisait plaisir à voir. Sa figure était une pomme rouge, un bouton de pivoine prêt à fleurir; et là-dedans s'ouvraient, en haut, deux yeux noirs magnifiques, ombragés de grands cils épais qui mettaient une ombre dedans; en bas, une bouche charmante, étroite, humide pour le baiser, meublée de quenottes luisantes et microscopiques.
(Maupassant, Guy de (2011-03-30). Boule de Suif (French Edition) (Kindle Locations 175-180).  . Kindle Edition.)

So, on the analogy of boule-de-neige, the simplest version would be tallowball, which seems misjudged. But it's what this translation from the Gutenberg project (which quite cannily decides to leave embonpoint as is) goes for:
The woman, who belonged to the courtesan class, was celebrated for an embonpoint unusual for her age, which had earned for her the sobriquet of "Boule de Suif" (Tallow Ball). Short and round, fat as a pig, with puffy fingers constricted at the joints, looking like rows of short sausages; with a shiny, tightly-stretched skin and an enormous bust filling out the bodice of her dress, she was yet attractive and much sought after, owing to her fresh and pleasing appearance. Her face was like a crimson apple, a peony-bud just bursting into bloom; she had two magnificent dark eyes, fringed with thick, heavy lashes, which cast a shadow into their depths; her mouth was small, ripe, kissable, and was furnished with the tiniest of white teeth.

I suppose the real problem with tallow ball is that it doesn't sound attractive, and partly that's because the plumpish figure doesn't these days have the same attraction that it used to. So I think any translation needs to put some extra attractiveness back in. The best I can do at that moment is to take the hint Maupassant gives, and go for apple dumpling. It sounds slightly dated, which is OK, but also suggests a guilty pleasure.

I don't know whether to criticise that translation for omitting Maupassant's assurance that her eyes are "en haut" while her mouth is "en bas" on her face. Any decent editor would have cut those phrases. But it's not a translator's job (these days) to improve a text. 

Anyway, I read Boule de Suif after The Guardian featured him in their history of the short story. It's cleverer than I first thought. After Apple-Dumpling's capitulation, the narrator points out too clearly, I thought, the hypocrisy of her fellow-passengers, and I wanted to say Yes, we get it. But what goes unsaid at this stage is the parallel between her and the invaded France. It takes a while for that to make its presence felt, but when it does, you realise why there's so much about the German occupation early in the story, where both sides - collaboration and resistance - are mentioned. It's as if the narration itself is too ashamed to point out that occupied France was also willing to be fucked over. As always, a connection that you spot for yourself is always more effective.

(... and reading Boule de Suif led me to reread Measure for Measure. Possibly more on that to come ...)

06 May 2013

The translation bunker

Returning to this blog after nearly a year, I pick up again with Dan Brown, annoyingly. But I couldn't let this story go past.

Brown's new book, Inferno, is to be published in about a week, and it will be instantly available in translation into several languages. This article, in El Pais, reveals the extraordinary lengths the publishers have gone to to keep the book's story a secret.

Since 18 February eleven translators have been working in a bunker somewhere in Milan. Every morning they are taken from their hotel to the bunker, where they work until 9pm. Every move they make is noted. Obviously, they are not allowed mobile phones or internet access. They've had to lie to their families about where they are spending these months

As the El Pais article says, this translation bunker could be the setting for a thriller itself. There aren't many thrilling novels about translators, and there probably should be more. The problem with the story, though, would be that any rogue translator, who tried to give away Brown's plot, would surely only be motivated by money, and that wouldn't be heroic. We'd have to imagine a translator who was so sickened by Brown's success that he wanted to sabotage it for artistic reasons. Frankly, from the little I've read of his writing that would be an over-reaction.

Obviously, I'm never going to buy or read Inferno, but that's precisely because with Angels and Demons I found myself desperately blasé about how the plot turned out. Spoilers would have come as a relief.

Anyway, perhaps I won't give up on The Translation Bunker. Actually, I think I'll go further, and here's the outline. A novelist, let's call him Brian Haines, has written a Dan Brown-style book, LXX, about the Septuagint, which severely challenges an understanding of the Septuagint that no-one actually holds. It dares to suggest that the seventy translators existed, but cheated. Its publishers are expecting a huge controversial success, so they set up a translation bunker, and there are all sorts of intrigues, betrayals and murders, which Brian Haines, who is by chance also a priest, has to investigate. Uncanny parallels with the legend of the Septuagint abound, and in a dramatic ending something dramatic happens. Naturally I'm not going to give that way here. You'll have to buy the book, in a language of your choice.