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Translations Of "Cyrano"

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I have on my computer an excerpt from Cyrano de Bergerac. I don't know which edition it comes from, or who translated it. It's one of my all-time favorite passages from literature:

After all, what is a kiss?

A vow made at closer range

A more precise promise

A confession that contains its own proof

A seal placed on a pact that has already been signed

It's a secret told to the mouth rather than to the ear

A fleeting moment filled with the hush of eternity

A communion that has the fragrance of a flower

A way of living by the beat of another heart

And tasting another soul on one's lips!

I recently wanted to find the context of the quote in the play, so I consulted my copy of the Brian Hooker translation. After quite a bit of searching, I found this (PB p. 113):

And what is a kiss, when all is done?

A promise given under a seal — a vow

Taken before the shrine of memory

A signature acknowledged — a rosy dot

Over the i of Loving — a secret whispered

To listening lips apart — a moment made

Immortal, with a rush of wings unseen —

A sacrament of blossoms, a new song

Sung by two hearts to an old simple tune —

The ring of one horizon around two souls

Together, all alone!

Quite a difference. Perhaps my version was some kind of weird modification of Rostand's words — like those reproductions of the Last Supper or the Mona Lisa with certain details inexplicably changed. So I went to the Project Gutenberg web site and downloaded a different translation. Here's the passage from that edition:

A kiss, when all is said — what is it?

An oath that's ratified — a sealed promise,

A heart's avowal claiming confirmation

A rose-dot on the 'i' of 'adoration'

A secret that to mouth, not ear, is whispered 

Brush of a bee's wing, that makes time eternal

Communion perfumed like the spring's wild flowers

The heart's relieving in the heart's outbreathing

When to the lips the soul's flood rises, brimming!

"Brush of a bee's wing?" "The heart's relieving in the heart's outbreathing?" Where are they getting this stuff?

I found yet another version of the passage at an online study guide site. (The site doesn't specify which edition it's from, but elsewhere it refers to a 1995 translation by one John Murrell.)

And what is a kiss, specifically?

A pledge properly sealed,

A promise seasoned to taste,

A vow stamped with the immediacy of a lip,

A rosy circle drawn around the verb 'to love.'

A kiss is a message too intimate for the ear,

Infinity captured in the bee's brief visit to a flower,

Secular communication with an aftertaste of heaven,

The pulse rising from the heart to utter its name on a lover's lip: "Forever."

I've since been comparing other parts of the Hooker translation with the one at Project Gutenberg. Not too much, though — it's too depressing. It's like two different plays. Entire sentences appear in one edition, with nothing even remotely similar in the other. It really makes you wonder what exactly constitutes a "translation."

I have always been less than enthusiastic about translated works. I always have the nagging sense that I'm not "really" reading the work — that at best what I'm reading is a kind of collaboration between two people; the original author and the translator.

In AR's fiction writing lectures, she gives an excerpt from one of Hugo's novels which she translated herself. She said she was shocked when she compared the same passage in some of the published English editions with the original French. "If you have read only the English translations," she said, "you have not really read Hugo."

(I thank God on my knees that AR learned, and wrote in, English!)

I located the original French text of Cyrano (again from Project Gutenberg). I'm functionally illiterate in French, but here it is:

Un baiser, mais à tout prendre, qu'est-ce?

Un serment fait d'un peu plus près, une promesse

Plus précise, un aveu qui veut se confirmer,

Un point rose qu'on met sur l'i du verbe aimer;

C'est un secret qui prend la bouche pour oreille,

Un instant d'infini qui fait un bruit d'abeille,

Une communion ayant un goût de fleur,

Une façon d'un peu se respirer le coeur,

Et d'un peu se goûter, au bord des lèvres, l'âme!

I plugged the passage into Google's awkward but often useful translation machine, and got this:

A kiss, but with all to take, which is?

An oath makes a little more closely, a precise promise

Plus, a consent which wants to be confirmed,

A pink point which one puts on the I of the verb to like;

It is a secrecy which takes the mouth for ear,

One moment of infinite which makes a noise of bee,

A communion having a taste of flower,

A way of breathing the heart a little,

And to a little taste, at the edge of the lips, the heart!

So the bee is in the original after all . . . or so it seems. I'd love to hear from someone who understands French. Particularly, I want to know how the Hooker version — which is considered definitive — stacks up against Rostand's words, especially Hooker's line "a new song sung by two hearts to an old simple tune." What in the French could possibly correspond to that?

Actually, more than anything, I'd love to have a truly objective translation of that passage. Or at least as "objective" as a translation of a work of art can be.

[Note: Some of the above passages were re-formatted by me for consistency and ease of reading.]

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I am capable of getting a dictionary and translating the Rostand original for a literal meaning. However, it would take me atleast an hour. However, the google translation appears quite literal. So the solution is to answer the question: which poetical modification is closest to the literal translation? Knowing french would help, though.

Peikoff is familiar with french, though.

Also I certainly prefer the Hooker translation to the Signet Classic translation; although, I have never compared the particular passage you sighted.

I would, however, like to thank-you for reminding me of this passage, for the sentiment is quite beautiful in every translation that you provided for us.

Americo.

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AmericoNorman: . . . the sentiment is quite beautiful in every translation . . .

Thank you, Americo. That needed to be said.

Taken on their own, I like all of the versions.

One of my favorite lines is the one from Google translation: "a secrecy which takes the mouth for ear." That makes me smile every time I read it.

"Secular communication with an aftertaste of heaven," from the study guide version, is brilliant — though it seems to bear no relation to anything Rostand wrote.

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Here are two other versions, the first by Henderson Daingerfield Norman, the second by Louis Untermeyer:

A kiss, what is it, after all?

Promise more perfect, vows that closer fall.

A troth deep plighted seeking form to prove;--

A rosy o writ in the verb to love;

Whispers for lips, not ears; infinity

Set to the harping of a honey bee.

A chalice like the dew-drop in a flower.

Hearts learn to breathe; Love gives them this new power.

And rising to the lips, the soul can drink.

A kiss, when all is said, is---what?

A compact sealed, a promise carried out.

An oath accomplished and a vow confirmed.

The rosy dot upon the "i" in "loving."

A secret for no ear, but for the lips.

The velvet humming of an amorous bee:

The heart's communion cup that tastes of flowers.

The breathing in a little of the soul

When the pure spirit rises to the lips.

I don't know which is more accurate, but I prefer the first translation.

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I’m the translator of “La vallee mysterieuse” (“The Mysterious Valley,”) the French adventure story that was the young Ayn Rand’s inspiration. Betsy Speicher referred me to your discussion, and asked if I could help.

The key thing to remember is that translating poetry is not the same as translating prose (where total fidelity to the original should always be the norm). Brian Hooker’s translation is justly regarded as a classic, even though it strays from the French text—sometimes less, sometimes more (as in the passage you selected). Here’s what I had to say on the subject, in The Atlantean Press Review:

“I believe a different, somewhat looser standard of faithfulness must apply in the case of poetry, since, almost paradoxically, a not-so-exact rendering of the words can actually capture the effect of a line far better than a literal translation does! Of course, that is no excuse for free-wheeling sloppiness. Translating poetry requires great talent, even genius, combined with an enormous respect for the original work of art. Consider, for instance, Brian Hooker’s famous translation of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac—widely regarded as one of the greatest translations ever made. Most of the time Hooker deftly manages to stay close to the original’s meaning, even while transforming the idiom—turning “Il me faut des géants!” (literally, “I need giants”) into “Bring me giants!” and “c’est moralement que j’ai mes élégances” (“My elegances are moral ones”) to “I carry my adornments on my soul.” But when it comes to the play’s incidental lyrics, Hooker exercises a freer hand. Cyrano’s Act I ballade, composed while fighting a duel, begins, first in the original French and then in literal translation:

Je jette avec grâce mon feutre,

Je fais lentement l’abandon

Du grand manteau qui me calfeutre,

Et je tire mon espadon ...

I toss away with grace my felt hat,

I slowly get rid of

The great mantle that covers me,

And I draw my sword ...

“This literal translation gives not the faintest idea of the rich sound effects of the original. You would never guess, reading the literal translation, that at the premiere of "Cyrano" in 1897 Frenchmen were galvanized into a ten-minute standing ovation after every act, or that news of the play travelled around the world almost overnight. The flashiest line in French, the second, with its exquisite vowel sounds, happens to be the dullest in English. But Mr. Hooker’s rendering gives us these verbal pyrotechnics:

Lightly I toss my hat away,

Languidly over my arm let fall

The cloak that covers my bright array—

Then out swords, and to work withal!

“It is in no way an excursion into subjectivism to say that Hooker gives us close to what Rostand probably would have written, had he been a native writer of English. His writing is truly on a level with Rostand’s. The effect—the sheer brilliance of effect—is breathtakingly close!

“... I would argue that, while “exact information” is a precondition of objectivity in translating, that information consists not merely of what is said but how it is said. A pedestrian rendering of a soaring line falsifies the impression just as much as an inexact word. It is a translator’s job to preserve the literary merit of the original, as far as possible, providing a version that doesn’t leave you wondering, “Why does anyone bother to read this stuff?”, one that is not “devoid of pride, of poetry, of soul, of picturesqueness, of contour, of character ...” as Hooker would say!”

I haven’t made a close study of Henderson Daingerfield Norman’s translation, but it’s probably one of the very best. The 2 volume set of Rostand’s plays translated by him (MacMillan, 1921) is very much worth searching for, especially for its magnificent translation of “L’Aiglon” (“The Eaglet”), Rostand’s second-greatest play (which was horribly mutilated in a 1900 “adaptation” by Louis N. Parker).

The Humbert Wolfe translation (Peter Pauper Press) is also noteworthy. It’s in rhyming verse, and though much freer than Hooker’s, sometimes comes closer to the witty spirit of the original.

Hope that helps,

Bill Bucko

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I’m the translator of “La vallee mysterieuse” (“The Mysterious Valley,”) the French adventure story that was the young Ayn Rand’s inspiration.  Betsy Speicher referred me to your discussion, and asked if I could help.

Well, I'd just like to say thank you. I have your Mysterious Valley translation and I love it.

Brian Hooker’s translation is justly regarded as a classic, even though it strays from the French text—sometimes less, sometimes more (as in the passage you selected).
I completely agree that Hooker's translation is outstanding, the best of any I've seen---as far as a person with no French, such as myself, can say. I have the Heritage Press edition of Cyrano, translated by Louis Untermeyer, and it came with an insert flyer containing a comparison of seven different translations of the passage you quoted. Here are the first four lines of each (they actually give 28 lines of each):

(The first version in England, by Gladys Thomas and Mary Guillemard: London 1898)

I gaily doff my beaver low,

And, freeing hand and heel,

My heavy mantle off I throw,

And I draw my polished steel;

(The first version in America, by Howard Thayer Kingsbury, 1898)

My hat I toss lightly away;

From my shoulders I slowly let fall

The cloak which conceals my array,

And my sword from my scabbard I call,

(Third was the Hooker translation, 1923.)

Lightly I toss my hat away,

Languidly over my arm let fall

The cloak that covers my bright array—

Then out swords, and to work withal!

(Fourth, a translation by Humbert Wolfe, 1935)

I doff my beaver with an air,

and then unfasten at my ease

the military cloak I wear!

Then out, you best of snickersnees!

(Fifth, a translation by Jacques LeClercq, 1939)

With nonchalance, I doff my hat;

Gravely, I lay my mantle by;

Dame Sword whirrs out from her habitat,

I salute . . . I go into guard . . . I vie

(Sixth, a translation by Clifford Bissell and William Van Wyck, 1947)

With grace I cast my felt aside,

And cloak that steals both air and sun,

A thing that I cannot abide!

I draw my sword, a worthy one.

(Seventh, the Louis Untermeyer translation, 1953)

My hat is flung swiftly away;

My cloak is thrown off, if you please;

And my sword, always eager to play,

Flies out of the scabbard I seize.

(And here is an eighth, the Henderson Daingerfield Norman, 1921)

My plumed hat aside I throw;

Swiftly my mantle is undone;

Lightly I cast it from me, so;

And I unsheath my espadon.

I haven’t made a close study of Henderson Daingerfield Norman’s translation, but it’s probably one of the very best. The 2 volume set of  Rostand’s plays translated by him (MacMillan, 1921) is very much worth searching for, especially for its magnificent translation of “L’Aiglon” (“The Eaglet”), Rostand’s second-greatest play (which was horribly mutilated in a 1900 “adaptation” by Louis N. Parker).

No wonder! I have the Norman two volume translation of Rostand's plays, and I also have the Parker adaptation of L'Aiglon. The only reason I bought the Parker version was that this particular copy was originally from the estate of Ginger Rogers, which gave it special value. But that's the version of L'Aiglon I tried to read, and it was so uninspiring I couldn't get through it. I'll have to try the Norman translation.

But you don't think Chantecler was as good as L'Aiglon?

The Humbert Wolfe translation (Peter Pauper Press) is also noteworthy. It’s in rhyming verse, and though much freer than Hooker’s, sometimes comes closer to the witty spirit of the original.

According to the flyer from my Heritage Press edition of Cyrano, the Wolfe translation was intended for a movie version starring Charles Laughton---which was never made.

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Thanks for your comments on "The Mysterious Valley." Over the past several years I've hunted down quite a few other books by Maurice Champagne: "Sounders of the Abyss," "Hermit Island," "The Planter's Son," etc. Unfortunately, after skimming through them I have to conclude that none of them have a great hero or as good a story as "The Mysterious Valley."

Thanks, I enjoyed the different versions you posted, of Cyrano's ballade.

I do strongly recommend you read the Norman translation of "L'Aiglon"! It is magnificent. I've recommended to Fred Weiss of The Paper Tiger that he reprint it.

I've never felt much enthusiasm for "Chantecleer," although I've heard it was one of Miss Rand's favorites.

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