Thursday, July 6, 2017

Wilbur, Richard. Tartuffe: A Comedy in Five Acts (Bilingual Edition). FL: Orlando, Harcourt Brace & Co. 1997. pp. v, x-xii.

  Glancing from page to page, the reader of this edition will soon see what kind of faithfulness my translation aspired to. It did not attempt a word-for-word rendition, because that approach simply doesn’t work, making as it does for a hybrid, unnatural language. Nor did I always render the original in a tidy line-by-line fashion – though, as it happens, the English version has the same number of lines as the French. What the translation did aim at was accuracy of tone, equivalence of form, and – as one reviewer put it in 1963 – a “thought for thought fidelity.” Though my translation never strays far from Molière’s literal meaning, there are a few moments at which it asserts the priority of thought over word. In the twelfth line of the play, for example, Madame Pernelle says that her daughter-in-law’s household is “tout justement la court du roi Pétaut.” It would have taken a footnote, or a couple of additional lines, to explain to the modern English reader that the “roi Pétaut” presided over the guild of beggars, whose assemblies had a riotous character. It seemed far better – especially for purposes of the stage – to render the line as “It’s like a madhouse with the keeper gone,” thus plainly conveying, in Madame Pernelle’s vigorous and proverbial manner, the ideas of unruliness and noise.

  In translating Tartuffe I have tried, as with The Misanthrope some years ago, to reproduce with all possible fidelity both Molière’s words and his poetic form. The necessity of keeping verse and rhyme, in such plays as these, was argued at some length in an introduction to the earlier translation, and I shall not repeat all those arguments here. It is true that Tartuffe presents an upper-bourgeois rather than a courtly milieu; there is less deliberate wit and elegance than in the dialogue of The Misanthrope, and consequently there is less call for the couplet as a conveyor of epigrammatic effects. Yet there are such effects in Tartuffe, and rhyme and verse are required here for other good reasons: to pay out the long speeches with clarifying emphasis, and at an assimilable rate; to couple farcical sequences to passages of greater weight and resonance; and to give a purely formal pleasure, as when balancing verse-patterns support the “ballet” movement of the close of Act II. My convictions being what they are, I am happy to report what a number of productions of The Misanthrope translations have shown: that contemporary audiences are quite willing to put up with rhymed verse on the stage.

  There are one or two things I should like to say to those who will be using this edition of Tartuffe as a script. This translation has had the good luck to be performed, a number of times, in New York, regional, and university theatres, and also on the radio. The best of the stage productions have repeatedly proved what the fact of radio production would suggest: the verbal sufficiency of Molière’s serious comedy. What such a play as Tartuffe is about, what the characters think, feel, and do, is clearly and amply presented in the dialogue, so that a mere reading aloud of the lines, without any effort at performance, can provide a complete, if austere, experience of the work.
  I do not mean to say that there are no open questions in the play. To what extent does Cléante, in his reasonable yet ineffectual speeches, express the playwright’s view of things? Is it possible that Tartuffe possesses, in his real and underlying nature, a kind of balked religious yearning? And what on earth does Elmire see in Orgon? These are questions that director and actor may, and indeed must, decide; but it will be found that Molière’s comedy, because it is so thoroughly “written,” resists the overextension of any thesis. The actor or director who insists on a stimulatingly freakish interpretation will find himself engaged in deliberate misreading and willful distortion, and the audience will not be deceived.
  In short, trust the words. Trust the words to convey the point and persons of the comedy, and trust them also to be sufficiently entertaining. A fussy anxiety on the part of the director, whereby the dialogue is hurried, cut, or swamped in farcical action, is the commonest cause of failure in productions of Molière. To such want of confidence in the text we owe the occasional disastrous transformation of Tartuffe’s two interviews with Elmire into a couple of wrestling bouts. A real quality of Tartuffe’s – his lustfulness – is emphasised by such treatment, but also at the cost of making his great speeches seem redundant and pointlessly nuanced. The cost is too great, and the audience, though it may consent to laugh, will not be satisfied.
  The introduction to the original edition still says what I think, and I shall let it stand. Were I to revise it, I would explicitly and greatefully refer to the criticism of Jacques Guicharnaud, and would also somewhat qualify my claim to accuracy. In translating Tartuffe, I did not always capture Madame Pernelle’s way of slipping into old-fashioned and inelegant speech, or Mariane’s of parroting the rhetoric of artificial romances. My excuse for these deficiencies is that, while echoes of an unchanging scripture or liturgy are readily duplicated, as in the speeches of Tartuffe, a translation that seeks to avoid a “period” diction cannot easily find equivalents for such quirks and fads of language as I have mentioned.

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