When Richard Wilbur’s translation of The Misanthrope appeared in 1955, a reviewer wrote: “For the first time in 300 years, a play by Moliere has the English translation it deserves.” The odd thing is that this was not only praise but plain fact. Though Moliere’s plays have been, from the time he wrote them, repeatedly “adapted” or turned more or less literally into English prose or blank verse, they have never before been faithfully translated into rhymed English verse by a poet who knew how to write for the theater.
The obstacle to getting Moliere into English has always been rhymed verse. His verse plays are written in couplet rhymes and cannot be translated into English with anything like their true life except in couplet rhymes. The catch is that, historically, the heroic couplet never became the standard English medium for the stage, whereas the alexandrine couplet has dominated the history of the French theater. So, to translate a French classical play into rhymed English verse is to risk turning something more or less contemporary into something rather eighteeneth century. Not until our time have translators been willing to accept this handicap and make the most of it.
The first Moliere in English came straight from the Palais Royal theater while Moliere was still in full production there. Early in his great Paris period (1658-73). often had English exiles in his audience, including Charles II himself and several English playwrights—D’Avenant, Etherege Wycherley. When the London theaters opened again after 1660, these men brought Moliere’s plays home in their baggage and put him on the London stage. But not in translation. They simply used him—borrowing his ideas, his scenes, and his tricks, adapting his themes to English life, giving his characters English names, making his wit bawdy to suit the taste of the London audiences of the time. Sir William D’Avenant seems to have begun it with The Playhouse To Be Let (1663), using Moliere’s Sganarelle. But Dryden started a rage a few years later with Sir Martin Mar-All (1667), an adapton of L’Etourdi’s Etherege drew from Les Précieuses Ridicules for The Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Slutter (1676). And what would Wycherley’s art have been without Moliere? The Country Wife (1675) was his L’Ecole des Femmes; The Plain Dealer (1676) his version of Le Misanthrope. The rage lasted for twenty years. In its way, it was Moliere’s great period in English.
Voltaire in England fifty years later remarked that “The English have taken over, disguised, and spoiled most of Moliere’s plays.”
But this burst of adaptations which accounted for so much of Restoration comedy produced only one play that can be called a translation: Tartuffe, or the French Puritan (1670), an altered version in bad blank verse by an actor named Matthew Medbourne. In the eighteenth century the adaptions continued (Colley Cibber, Henry Fielding), while for the first time the whole of Moliere—verse plays and all—was turned into straight prose. Translation of this sort has been the practice ever since. I am told that in the nineteenth century Sir Brooke Boothby (1819) and Thomas Constable (1898) attempted rhymed verse translations of Moliere, but I have not seen them. I do know that three twentieth century ones were done before 1950: William F. Giese’s The Misanthrope (1928) in professorial archares (“zounds”—“wounds”); Arthur Guiterman’s The School for Husbands (1933), Broadway fun with rhymes; and the Earl of Longford’s The School for Wives (1948) in stagey couplets done for the Dublin Gate Theatre.
Enfin Wilbur vint, Mr. Wilbur has now translated two of Moliere’s greatest comedies. His second translation, Tartuffe, had its first performance on August 6th at the University of Denver’s Little Theater, in co-production with the Institute for Advanced Study in Theater Arts. What he has done is to reproduce as closely and clearly as possible the whole form of these plays as Moliere wrote them, bringing the greater part of their inner “play” into performance by means of elegant natural speech in rhymed verse.
If Heaven is all that holds you back, don’t worry.
I can remove that hindance in a hurry.
Nothing of that sort need obstruct our path.
Must one not be afraid of Heaven’s wrath?
Madam, forget such fears, and be my pupil,
And I shall teach you how to conquer scruple.
Some joys, it’s true, are wrong in Heav- en’s eyes;
Yet Heaven is not averse to compromise;
There is a science, lately formulated,
Whereby one’s conscience may be liber- ated,
And any wrongful act you care to men- tion
May be redeemed by purity of intention.
I’ll teach you, Madame, the secrets of that science;
Meanwhile, just place on me your full reliance.
Assuage my keen desires, and feel no dread;
The sin, if any, shall be on my head.
It is clear that such translation begins with what Stark Young called “seeing the point” of the original: that is, of the play as a whole, of each scene, of each line1 . Having done this, the translator is free to convert “the point” of each line or couplet into a line or couplet of his own. I do not mean, of course, that this describes Mr. Wilbur’s work habits, about which I know nothing. But I believe he will agree that it does describe the complete act that makes for the fullest and most faithful kind of translation, whether for the stage or not.
The issue in this case, as I have said earlier, is the use of rhymed verse. Our habit, or rather—since we have no such habit—our way of listening to rhymed verse from the stage, is diametrically different from the French way, or rather the French habit, since they do have the habit. Generally we are annoyed by rhyme; the French are stimulated by it. We try to shut it out (“just read it as if the rhymes were not there,” we say, making believe that verse isn’t verse but “real speech”). At best, we put up with it; the French listen to it. Or perhaps they are only aware of its effects: the clarity it brings, the emphasis it allows, the point it makes.
The question can be put this way. What would be the effect of the passage above if it were not rhymed? By uncommon good luck, we have the means of making an indirect reply, or at least of isolating the question so that it can be better understood if not answered. What we have is an excellent contemporary translation of Tartuffe in blank verse, done by Professor Morris Bishop around 1957. Here is his version of the same passage:
If it is only heaven that stands in the way,
It’s easy for me to remove such obstacles,
And that need not restrain your heart’s desire.
And yet they frighten us so with heaven’s decrees!
I can soon banish such ridiculous fear,
Madame; there is an art of removing scruples.
It’s true that heaven forbids some satis- factions,
But there are possible ways to under- standings.
To suit our various needs, there is a science
Of loosening the bonds of human con- science,
And rectifying the evil of an action
By means of the purity of our intention.
Madame, I shall instruct you in these secrets,
If you will put your confidence in me.
Content—longings, do not be afraid;
All the responsibility is mine…
A look at the original of the first three of these lines:
Si ce n’est que le Ciel qu’à mes voeux on oppose,
Lever un tel obstacle est à moi peu de chose,
Et cela ne doit pas retenir votre coeur.
tells us that Bishop is here closer than Wilbur to the literal meaning of the French text. And he is generally so throughout. But Wilbur, here and throughout in general and in detail, is closer to the full meaning of the play.
The telling point is that Bishop’s language is less natural than Wilbur’s, even though his blank verse medium is more natural to our ear. One line will show what I mean:
Moliere: Le Ciel défend, de vral, certains contentements.
Bishop: It’s true that heaven forbids some satisfactions.
Wilbur: Some joys, it’s true, are wrong in Heaven’s eyes.
Except for a single shift in word order, Bishop follows the French exactly. But listen to his line: the phrase “some satisfactions” fails to deliver the main burden of its message because the line is not rhythmically arranged to emphasize “some,” and there is no rhyme to point to “satisfactions.” The result is a limp and more or less meaningless pentameter. Wilbur, on the other hand, strikes hard at the start, reversing the word order completely: “Some joys,” followed by a long rest, with the next strong emphasis falling on “wrong,” as it should. This sort of small difference makes an enormous difference in the end.
The superiority of Mr. Wilbur’s version does not come, of course, solely from the presence of rhyme. It comes from his superior sense and use of language as a whole. It comes from his being the better poet.
Mr. Wilbur has characteristics of his own, naturally, which are not Moliere’s. His lines are generally more relaxed, less crowded with life, than the original. Several times, it seems to me, he misses Dorine’s toughness, her bite, her rifled retorts. In attempting to match the original’s vigor, his lines become on occasion too pointed and spare, losing Moliere’s depth and allusiveness—the undertow of sensuality, for instance, in Tartuffe’s first pious words with Elmire.
Yet in the end, there is no doubt that Mr. Wilbur has given us, with great fidelity and charm, the nearest thing to Moliere that we have. And with the flourishing interest in poetry at present, it may be that the upwards of thirty productions so far of his Misanthrope have already begun to answer the question whether contemporary audiences, or at least certain contemporary audiences, are willing to listen to rhymed verse on the stage.
September 26, 1963
For Stark Young’s phrase “seeing the point,” I am indebted to Mr. William Becker, whose article in Hudson Review, Summer 1956, is the most intelligent discussion I know of the whole question of translating for the theater. ↩