Sunday, August 16, 2020

Cyrano de Bergerac in Translation

I first read Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand in August 2015, and absolutely fell in love with it. I had seen the José Ferrer film of it back around high school age or so, and had always wanted to read it. But I’m very skeptical of reading poetry in translation and I’d always put it off, for fear of disappointment. Then finally one day I did some investigation, heard good things about the Brian Hooker translation, and went for it. And I was sorry I had waited so long.

Having Cyrano be both a brilliant poet and a master swordsman could have been enough for a good story right there. But what truly makes it great is how he so completely accepts and owns everything that life brings him. Whether his own brilliance and skill, or his poverty or ugly appearance, or the fact that the way to make the woman he loved happy was to give his words and assistance to her chosen suitor—everything, up to and including facing his own death, he met with all his energy, creativity, and even humor. That is what transforms the plot from merely heartbreaking to upliftingly cathartic. He made everything his own choice before it could be forced on him, and so earned de Guiche’s comment towards the end: “I say, do not / Pity him overmuch. He lives his life, / His own life, his own way—thought, word, and deed / Free!”

Given that it’s such a short book and I wanted to reread it anyway, I started trying other translations, and started recording them in what has since become a rather ungainly GoodReads review. By now, I figure it’s time to promote this to something a bit more formal and organized.

The translations are listed first here, in approximate order of my personal recommendation of them. More will be added as I get around to reading them. You can skip down to the films section for my notes on the (sadly few) video adaptations available. If you know of others, please tell me! I have not yet had the privilege of seeing a live performance, but I hope to some day.

[Last updated: March 7, 2022]   


Brian Hooker (1923)
There’s a danger of a first-read bias here, but the more translations I read, the more I really do think this version stands alone. The poetry is elegant and unforced, only using rhyme where it works appropriately, without wrenching it out of a sense of obligation to the original French (which rhymes much more easily than English). If you manage to get an edition with Clayton Hamilton’s original preface, it describes Hooker’s approach—optimizing for the beautiful flow of words from voice to ear, and limiting alterations to the changing of various classical allusions to ones more recognizable to American audiences. My favorite lines and passages are all at their best in this version. Here’s a short one: 

I—I am going to be a storm—a flame—
I need to fight whole armies all alone;
I have ten hearts; I have a hundred arms; I feel
too strong to war with mortals—BRING ME GIANTS!
(Act 1, Scene 7, though scenes unnumbered in this edition)

Louis Untermeyer (1954)
Untermeyer’s translation is quite good, the first I’ve found to rival Brian Hooker’s. My favorite parts from Hooker are still unmatched, but Untermeyer picks up the slack admirably in other areas. The balcony scene, for instance, is much improved, I think. And this was also excellent:
Don’t scorn the point, my friend. When I must die
I hope to meet death ’neath some rosy sky,
With a good-ringing word for some good cause.
No bed of sickness, no slow failing flesh,
But a quick end—a worthy foeman’s steel—
A pointed laughing word upon my lips
And the sword’s pointed answer in my heart.
(Act 4, Scene 3, though scenes unnumbered in this edition)
The edition I found in the library also includes a few illustrations by Pierre Brissaud, which is a nice touch. 

Anthony Burgess (1985, new edition 1991)
The preface here indicates helpfully that Brian Hooker’s translation sticks very close to the French, so that it “can very nearly be used as a key to the original,” which is nice to know. But he then goes on to detail all the many changes he (Burgess) made, to adapt it for modern American stage productions, and I’m not at all keen on his editing or removing of certain scenes. In particular, I think it was a very poor choice to allow Christian to die without being reassured that Roxane loved him, but it would have been hard to fix it, having removed the entirety of the scene in which she visits the army camp. To be fair, of course, it does say on the cover that this is not only a translation but an adaptation. Sigh.

Burgess claims that Hooker “rarely raises a laugh,” and though I disagree with that, I do admit that Burgess’ rhyming worked to good effect in many of the comic lines. And there are even many finer details throughout the play that he brings forward into greater clarity, which I appreciated. However, all of my favorite speeches from Hooker’s version came out more clumsily and less clearly in Burgess’, so I have to say the balance was not in his favor.

I’ll leave it there, but if you want a second opinion that agrees with me, here’s a much longer rant about it. I’ve placed this translation so relatively high on the list mostly because it’s so commonly used for performances now. (Though the ones I’ve seen have replaced the missing scenes, thankfully. Maybe this is what happened in the revised 1991 edition—I’m not sure now which one it was that I read.)

Carol Clark (2005)
This edition from Penguin Classics has an interesting introduction at the beginning and “Historical Note” at the end that are worth reading. There were one or two good lines, but most of the best bits were underdone, and a various moments of foreshadowing felt heavy-handed. I gotta hand it to her for these lines, though:
Your hair was my sunlight, and after I looked away
There were patches of blonde light all over the world.
(Act 3, Scene 7)

John Murrell (1994)
This translation, created specifically for performance, is mostly prose, but more freely adapted and better than Hall’s version (see below). I felt it resulted in some fairly clever lines but no gorgeous ones. I also thought it odd that for no apparent reason he cropped the ending of Act 3, when Cyrano promises that Christian will write to Roxane every day. It was a great end to the scene, and it’s even referred to in Scene 4, so why cut it?

Props to him for managing the entire Cadets’ song as a 32-line monorhyme, though. And here’s a good line that I liked:
It is my pleasure to offer you distinction, or extinction.
(Act 4, scenes unnumbered) 

Howard Thayer Kingsbury (1898)
The Pocket Books “Enriched Classic” edition has a lot of supplementary materials, including historical and biographical notes, excerpts from different critics over the course of a century, and footnotes on various classical allusions. So some of that was interesting (I didn’t realize Cyrano was based on a historical figure until I read this version, for instance). But it never said anything about the translation it uses. Turns out (thank you, internet) that it was the first English translation, in 1898. It’s in unrhymed blank verse, similar to Hooker’s, but I found it considerably less clear, and the poems much weaker. There were only a few places where I noticed a turn of phrase that was particularly nicely done, but for the most part it doesn’t have much to recommend it. Here’s one bit that I liked, though:
The letter I have thought out to myself
A hundred times, so that it now is ready;
And if I put my soul beside the paper
I shall need only to recopy it.
(Act 2, Scene 3)
There is one thing in the “discussion notes” I have to emphatically disagree with (and this is more the fault of Pocket Books than Kingsbury): they assume that in wooing Roxane for Christian, Cyrano is actually attempting to win her for himself. No. Just… no. First of all, Cyrano would never stoop to such betrayal. Second, even if he did believe she could love his ugliness, I don’t think he would want to forcibly or deceitfully wrest her heart from where she’s freely bestowed it. In fact, this translation puts it rather more clearly than many of the others: 
Ah, for your joy I’d gladly give my own,
even if you should never know.
(Act 3, Scene 6)

Christopher Fry (1975)
I read this just after reading Bolt’s translation (see below) so my main reaction was that Fry does a better job of rhyming throughout, though that’s a rather low bar to clear. He gets points, though, for managing a solid ending to the entire play on the word “panache,” which I feel is important but which is rarely done since it’s difficult to rhyme with well. I appreciate having the additional meaning of “panache” available to the reading, beyond just the literal “white plume.”

Here’s one of his rhymes that I particularly liked:
But there’s one crumb of comfort I can savour:
She kisses on his mouth the words I gave her.
(Act 3, Scene 10, though scenes unnumbered in this edition)

Gladys Thomas and Mary F. Guillemard (1898)
This is another one of the earliest translations. It’s in archaic and awkward blank verse, with not much to recommend it. I thought it was particularly bad form to have a line in the duel ballade that basically said “what rhymes with ‘o’?” Especially since it came before the line it needed to rhyme with.

Gertrude Hall (1898)
These last two on the list are completely different from each other except in the dubious shared distinction of being the least recommendable. Hall doesn’t attempt even blank verse, but leaves everything (aside from the explicit poems) as chunks of prose, and not even good prose at that. I don’t know if she was trying to go for a literal, word-by-word translation from French, or if she was just rushing in an attempt to beat Kingsbury to the first English edition, but it’s clunky, unclear, archaic, and studded with footnotes that could have been avoided.

Ranjit Bolt (2007)
The ebook version I bought from Kobo contains no introduction or other potentially interesting information about this version, and it isn’t even formatted properly, so I don’t know what the deal is here. Google tells me Bolt has translated a number of plays into English, and has even written a book titled, The Art of Translation, which would seem to bode well. Unfortunately, I can’t say I care much for his take on Cyrano. I admit I’m impressed at how thoroughly he stuck to rhyming verse throughout. But it gets to be just too much after a while. And he often uses rather crude language, or modern-sounding slang, sometimes clearly just to get a rhyme to work (e.g. saying “yup” for “yes” just so it could rhyme with “up”). So I don’t like the feel of it overall, and nothing comes out particularly lovely. Most versions have at least a few exquisite lines, but not this one. He also significantly abridged the “man from the moon” scene, which is too bad. I’ll acknowledge that he does manage a very solid ending on “panache,” but I’m afraid it’s not enough to redeem the whole book. So overall, not recommended.

Film Adaptations

(These are ranked rather less precisely than the translations.)

José Ferrer (1950)
This is the first version I ever saw, and I’m very fond of it, though I wish it had stuck more precisely to the original text. The screenplay was based on Brian Hooker’s translation (definitely a point in its favor), but was extremely adapted by Carl Foreman. Some cuts I think were fairly reasonable (e.g. speeding up the opening), some were probably just for the sake of getting in more fight scenes, and some just disappointed me. There were also various small additions, some of which really just covered for something removed, but worked well enough. And I actually liked the added scene in which Roxane says that if she must be relegated to a woman’s role in society, she would be so on her own terms. A nice parallel there with Cyrano himself. I was a little annoyed with a number of the actors’ voices being much too American. (British at least would have been better if they couldn’t have French accents.) But José Ferrer will always be the quintessential image of Cyrano for me and I also liked Mala Powers as Roxanne.

Kevin Kline (2008)
This is a film of a stage production with a live audience, which I always think is decidedly more fun than just a movie. It mostly uses Anthony Burgess’ translation, though I was glad to see they fixed his two most egregious scene alterations (and I don’t know what text they used for that). I can see how well this version works on stage in front of a live audience, especially in how it highlights the humor, as Burgess was explicitly trying to do. But I felt it might actually have gone a bit too far in that direction. Some of the laughter (part of the fun of a having a live audience, of course) seemed to leak over into moments that I would have preferred to remain more romantic or tragic. I thought Kevin Kline was an excellent Cyrano, though I wanted to see a bit more of a difference in him for the final act. Daniel Sunjata would have been the weakest link as Christian, were it not for Jeniffer Garner who, as Roxanne, was just trying way too hard for it to be enjoyable. Everyone else did a perfectly serviceable job.

Derek Jacobi (1985)
I watched this in low resolution on YouTube, which didn’t show it off to its best effect, but it was still a good production. Jacobi was generally excellent, though he gets a bit incoherent when he gets too overwrought. I appreciated the music, particularly at the end of Act IV. The translation is Anthony Burgess’, which I’ve commented on before, though it does include the cut scene of Roxanne visiting the battlefield. The cinematography was an interesting blend of play-like staging and movie-like filming (forgive my awkwardness of the vocabulary, but hopefully that gets the idea across). And Scottish accents were used very effectively in place of Gascon. 

Gérard Depardieu (1990) (French)
I was actually hoping the English subtitles would be a relatively literal translation, without anyone trying to get poetic about it, so I could see what it’s “really” saying. But I think the subtitles are based on Anthony Burgess’ translation, so oh well. And I don’t have enough French (hardly any) to get much out of the actual soundtrack. I also have to say I don’t care for Depardieu so much as Cyrano. I think the first scene soured me on him for the rest of the movie. He seemed less in control of the situation and more carried away by his anger.

Peter Dinklage (2021)
I went into this one equal parts interested and terrified, and... I was right. I thought it was a pretty neat idea to cast Dinklage in the role, even if it did mean you had to change all the nose references. I liked having someone real, rather than a fake nose. He even has an interesting singing voice, and I think the music was well tailored to it. (He particularly sounded nice in the duets.) But... unfortunately nothing else was good. The script was painful, the music was uninspiring, I kept wondering whether I was supposed to laugh at the dancing or not, and the whole thing was confusingly anachronistic. There were a few lines that I think would have been funny had they not been said over incompatible music. They threw away the opportunity to have a fun song about falling from the moon, in favor of a boring villain song from de Guiche (and especially inexplicable, given that Roxanne specifically tells Cyrano to delay de Guiche and he simply doesn’t.) They even butchered the final scene, removing the murder (why did his wound just decide to take him down now, after three years?), making it way too kissy for the nature of their relationship at this point (not to mention the fact that, hey, he’s dying here), and completely robbing him of his final stand against all his old enemies, Pride, Cowardice, etc. So... sigh. All I can hope is that this rekindles enough interest in Cyrano to get us some more live performances, or a new movie of the real play. 

Steve Martin (1987)
Okay, so as long as I’m piling in everything I can get my hands on, I might as well include the movie, Roxanne. I remember seeing it ages ago, before I knew the book, but I didn’t remember much about it, so I was able to watch it fresh, but knowing the inspiration behind it now. And as horrible as it sounds to turn Cyrano into a modern-day Steve Martin comedy, I actually very much enjoyed it. The complete change to a happy ending for Cyrano is the biggest difference, obviously, and necessarily cuts out some of the most touching parts, but on the other hand, it’s kind of nice to visit an alternate reality where it works out that way. (And the whole movie is far enough removed from the original that I’m more comfortable letting it be its own thing.) Most of the other classic scenes were recognizably included (even the “fallen from outer space” scene), and I particularly liked the listing of insults, which was very well adapted. Oh, and I loved the line: “I was afraid of WORMS, Roxanne!” That can just keep me laughing for days.