About ten years ago, the theatre troupe to which I belonged called upon me to direct The Doctor in Spite of Himself, and I immediately set about reading translations. However, in my opinion, none that I read succeeded in conveying the full ironic and comic impact of Molière’s line and so, being a teacher of French, I decided to do my own.
I had hardly completed the first page when I began to develop an appreciation of the difficulty of my task. The major problem stemmed from the basic structural differences between English and French.
The closing lines of Act II provides a good case in point. Sganarelle, the doctor, has just agreed to cure a gentleman’s sweetheart so that the gentleman might marry her. Sganarelle closes the act with the following reassurance:
J’y perdrai tout ma médecine, ou la maladie crèvera ou bien elle sera à vous.
If you don’t know French, be assured that the delivery of this line convulses a French audience. If, however, we were to transliterate, we would have: “I shall use all my medicine for this, either the patient will die or she will be yours.”
(End your acts like that and you had better serve very strong coffee during intermission!)
Sparing you a discourse on comparative linguistics, let me state simply that in French the punch or phrase usually falls somewhat near the middle of the sentence, whereas in English, we prefer to place it at the end where it seems to have more impact, and where it provides great allowance for audience reaction; so that if we take that same listless sentence and move the punch phrase to the end, we wind up with a much more appropriate English curtain line: “Benefiting from my entire knowledge of medicine, our patient will most assuredly be yours … unless, of course, she dies first.”