In translating The Triumph of Love, it seemed most essential to capture all of the exuberant shifts in diction, not only as Léonide spins in and out of each separate identity for every new entrance of a suitor, but also the fluctuations that constantly occur within the scenes, when each of the lovers (the Princess included) slip in or out of discursive attitudes when they feel uncomfortable with their dawning emotions. Far more than the situation or the characters, the tonal incongruities and collisions in the language – a character in its own right in Marivaux – provide the thrust for an actable English translation. Lady Léontine, for example, becomes quite grand, almost comically dainty, when Phocion tickles a vanity she thought she suppressed. Yet as soon as she imagines her actions are observed, a horrid self-consciousness helps her regain her initial hauteur. And the merest intimation of the physical aspect of love gives all of the hermits verbal fidgets. Hermocrate, for his part, tries to reason, deflect, bluster, insult, and finally whine his way out of loving Aspasie before his inevitable comic submission.
Translating Labiche presents a completely different challenge from translating the court playwrights. The gauntlet that Molière throws down is to be funny. Lesage sets his characters on one another and lets them flay one another with a lapidary wit that provokes ironic laughter from an audience of ostensible moral superiors. The tonal filigrees and psychological fits that Marivaux’s lovers endure elicit a gentler, knowing laughter of recognition, and an appreciation of a highly literate style. It is easy for a translator to wander afield from Marivaux’s and Lesage’s comic interests and betray them with too heavy or too obvious a hand. Labiche uses comic methods closer to our own. Criqueville’s opening suicide monologue is meant to be performed like stand-up comedy. Working without formal or thematic constraints, Labiche uses punch lines, running gags, absurd non sequiturs, and one-liners designed to demolish an audience with the business, indeed the science, laughter. Chuckles do not obtain in Labiche’s theatre, so betraying him in translation and production means not going for the big laughs.
If euphony and flourish are the guiding principle to translating Marivaux’s rhetorical inventions, and if tooling lines to character is the best strategy with which to animate Lesage’s mordant portrait gallery, it is essential, when translating Labiche, to concentrate on rhythm. His characters, all charming surface, don’t speechify and don’t psychologise. They aren’t even particularly good listeners; they top one another, undercut one another in focus-stealing asides. This is a comedy of rim-shot salvos; their lines are meant to build and detonate with an economy that is easy to recognise but difficult to duplicate. Not only should they sound funny when taken singly, they have to sound right in sequences of two and three. Ideally, an audience will be laughing at the sound of the rhythm even before the sense of the joke lands, so the translator has to rebuild a French machine to English expectations and expostulations.