Wednesday, March 18, 2009

It's Pronounced Like "Omelette"

Tonight and tomorrow night, the Lycée Français in San Francisco is hosting a young French actor, Thomas Marceul, performing a one-man French-language adaptation of Hamlet. I recently became friends with a woman who teaches at the Lycée and, knowing that I love theater, she invited me to see the show with her.

I was very excited, because I've always wondered how Shakespeare sounds when translated into French. (When I met my French host parents and told them I was a drama major, they immediately started chattering about a production of Hamlet that they had just seen. I was very confused at first, because in French "Hamlet" sounds like "Omelette" and I didn't know why they were getting so worked up over glorified scrambled eggs.) When French people translate Shakespeare, do they use archaic or obscure French words to approximate the difficulty that Shakespeare's language holds for English speakers? Do they make any attempt to reproduce iambic pentameter? Will the richness of the language still come through? Will Shakespeare still be, you know, Shakespeare?

My French friend says that English is difficult for her not because of pronunciation or grammar, but because of the sheer size of the vocabulary. English words tend to have lots of synonyms, or almost-synonyms, and for a non-native speaker it is difficult to grasp all of the nuances. French is a much more compact language by comparison. Racine's total vocabulary in his eleven tragedies amounts to only about 3262 words, and his play Phedre uses only 1642 distinct words (source). Meanwhile, at a conservative estimate, Shakespeare's vocabulary contained around 17,700 words (source). Thus, almost by default, a French version of Shakespeare must be less rich than the original.

Yet Shakespeare can be terrifically compact when he needs to, using puns and plays on words that are difficult to reproduce in a foreign language. Think of Othello's "Put out the light, and then put out the light." I once saw a French translation of this line that went ""Eteignons cette lumière, pour ensuite éteindre celle de sa vie." Though both the English and the French lines are 10 words long, the French has more syllables and sounds wordier. Furthermore, it over-explains the metaphor that Shakespeare is using, robbing the line of its poetry. In French, Othello literally says "Let's extinguish this light, so as then to extinguish the light of her life"; in English that's subtextual.

The Hamlet adaptation tonight began with a translation of the "To be or not to be" speech ("Être ou ne pas être"), and I listened to it with a double conscience, hearing the French words but constantly comparing them to my memory of the English original. I quickly learned that tonight's translation did not use old-fashioned French words when Shakespeare uses old-fashioned English ones. It was elegant, but in a clean 20th-century French way rather than an ornate 17th-century English way. For instance, the translation of Hamlet's "'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished" was "C'est un dénouement qu'on voudrait avec ardeur"--"It's an ending that one would want ardently." French people don't talk like this in their day-to-day life; but it's still closer to the way they talk than Shakespeare is to the way that modern Americans and Britons talk.

The basic principle of this translation seemed to be to keep Shakespeare's most striking images and formulations, but pare down the language that surrounded them. The line " post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets!" became "de courir si vite aux draps incestueux"--"to run so quickly to incestuous sheets." The translator realized that the phrase "incestuous sheets" is fresh and specific and memorable--but because this sense of the verb "to post" has become archaic in English, it's fine to simplify things by using the common French verb "courir," etc.

There were some instances of punning meanings getting lost or becoming too literal, as in the Othello example: it's impossible to translate, "A little more than kin, and less than kind," so Hamlet said "A little more than a nephew, and less than a son." But just a few lines later, the French gave a new poetry to Claudius's speech about "You must know, your father lost a father." In French, "lost father" is "père perdu," which has a nice ring to it.

You'll notice that my examples are taken from the first part of the show--that's because I eventually settled down and just started enjoying the French as opposed to trying constantly to compare it to the English. I will say, though, that seeing Shakespeare spoken in a more updated and vigorous idiom made it easier for me to appreciate the structure of his work, and his skill as a play-wright as opposed to his skill as a dramatic poet. Not that I am advocating that Shakespeare productions in English start simplifying his language and saying "to run so quickly" instead of "to post with such dexterity," but I was certainly not offended by it in French.

This post is getting long and I still haven't discussed other aspects of the performance--its acting, directing, adaptation--I hope to blog about that later...

Photo: Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet--she's probably the most famous French person ever to have taken on the role.

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