Act III, Scenes iv-vii, the famous balcony scene, provides an excellent introduction to the difficulties of translating this play. The formula is familiar: as well as the obvious memories of Shakespeare, there are more closely similar scenes in Molière’s Dom Juan and Mozart’s opera based on it, Don Giovanni. But those are cruelly farcical scenes, in which the lady is being mocked by the two men. Here the scene modulates from fairly broad comedy at the beginning (the tongue-tied Christian, scene v), through witty linguistic play (scene vii), to an increasingly passionate declaration by Cyrano under the cover of darkness. Familiar, even aggressive language between Cyrano and Christian alternates with the high-flown, over-ingenious language of seventeenth-century love poetry. Cyrano can deploy this language with the best, but from line 246 onwards he becomes increasingly impatient with it and tries to address Roxane more directly, drawing upon immediate sense-impressions. His language then comes to resemble the Symbolist poetry of 1897 rather than the précieux poetry of 1640, until by l. 272 it has become almost incoherent with passion (though still voiced in correctly formed alexandrines). The register of the text is therefore extremely inconsistent, and any attempt at a faithful translation must be inconsistent in the same way.
Act III, scene xiii presents a particular challenge in that Cyrano is supposed to adopt a regional accent (the ‘switching’ that I have rendered by the sound ‘krk, krk’ is in Rostand’s original text as Cric! Cric!) But what accent? In French, presumably a Gascon one, though the only example of ‘Gascon’ that Rostand gives (jeung’ for jeun’ at l. 2073 of the original text) is in fact more characteristic of his native Marseille. The translator would favour using a Scottish accent at this point, for several reasons. For British readers or hearers, it is associated with bravery and stubbornness (the Scottish regiments are famous in the history and present service of the British army). Scots are traditionally underdogs, poor and proud, like Rostand’s Gascons: less admirably, they are seen as heavy drinkers, and Cyrano is pretending to be drunk at this point. The button-holing, confidential drunk is a traditional Scottish comic type, from Will Fyffe in the 1920s (‘I Belong to Glasgow’) to Billy Connolly today. Finally, it is my own original accent. But a director may well wish to use a different accent that his Cyrano is more familiar with (or none at all, though the plot requires it as part of Cyrano’s disguise). For an American audience a Southern accent might have some suitable associations, and the story of the journey to the moon would fit well into the Southern ‘tall tale’ tradition. My translation includes very small hints of Scottish vernacular in Cyrano’s first couple of speeches, leaving it to the discretion of the actor to continue (as Shaw does, much more broadly, with Eliza’s cockney in Pygmalion). A director curious to see a complete version of broad Scots should consult Edwin Morgan’s translation of the play (see Further Reading). Whatever accent is chosen could probably become less marked as the content of Cyrano’s speeches becomes more learned, and as De Guiche is successfully drawn in to the deception.
There is only one word in the play which is really untranslatable, and that is unfortunately the final and most important word – panache. Its primary meaning is a plume, particularly the plume on a helmet, and this is the only meaning given in Littré’s dictionary of 1868 (the French equivalent of the original OED). But by the early twentieth century it had acquired in French the secondary meaning of dash or swagger: ‘avoir du panache’ is rendered in the Robert dictionary of 1933 as ‘avoir fière allure’ (another almost untranslatable phrase, unfortunately). The first illustrative quotation suggests that in military circles it was by then a term of praise, since it says that the ‘exemple et contagion’ of an officer’s panache could inspire his troops to feats of daring (as Cyrano’s does at the end of Act IV of our play). The remaining illustrative quotations, however, taken from intellectuals like André Gide and Jean Dutourd, suggest that for them panache was a much more suspect value. It seems quite likely that Rostand was responsible for the establishment, or at any rate the popularising, of panache in its onyms éclat (literally, brilliance; eye-catching quality), brio and bravoure. The latter two, interestingly, are borrowings from Italian: bravoure can mean either bravery or bravura. Panache in the sense of a plume does exist in English, but is rare. For us the figurative meaning, borrowed from French, is the primary one.
Cyrano’s dying words – ‘mon panache’ – much refers to the actual plume on his hat, since he speaks of doffing it and sweeping the floor of heaven with it. But it also seems to refer metaphorically to some defining aspect of his character. And this quality must, I believe, be a Morally admirable one, or one at any rate that his hearers (whether of 1640 or 1897) would have recognised as Morally admirable: certainly something more than the definition we find in the Concise Oxford of 2004: ‘flamboyant confidence of style or manner.’ whatever the precise meaning of ‘panache,’ it is something that many French people still admire, and it is encapsulated for them by this play. The first illustrative phrase in the Petit Robert (the standard school dictionary) of 2004 is ‘le panache de Cyrano.’ Finding an English equivalent for this totemic object, and at the same time a concluding rhyme, was, I am afraid, beyond me.
I have followed Rostand’s own division of the acts into scenes. The French way of doing this, in published play texts, is to begin a new scene whenever a character enters or leaves the stage (though Rostand is rather lax in observing this rule and characters do leave the stage and sometimes return in the course of what is set out as a single scene). A change of scene does not, therefore, indicate a change of location, and should not even be marked by a pause in the dialogue unless one is specified in the text. In fact, Rostand often has a change of scene, in this sense, occurring in the middle of a line of verse, and it is important that the rhythm should be sustained across what is simply a visual break in the text.
A note on pronunciation. French words are lightly stressed on the last syllable, except where that is the so-called ‘mute e’. But when speaking English it can sound very artificial to stress the characters’ names in this way. I therefore suggest stressing them as follows:
Car’bon (because ‘Carbon sounds even worse)
‘Cyrano (not Cy’rano)
‘Montfleury (not Mont’fleury)