Paris: A Translator’s-Eye View

The moment I arrived at Charles de Gaulle yesterday afternoon, I heard a Frenchman’s iPhone ringing with the sound effect of a vintage American telephone—something no French landline ever sounded like. Shortly afterward, my Algerian cab driver was explaining to me why Arabic was superior as a language to French or English: It contains six consonants that are spoken in the throat rather than the mouth (he performed each of them for me, pointing to his beard), and one that even involves the solar plexus. Arabic, said he, is a language you speak with your entire body; and so using these other languages—he also has some German and Italian—always makes him feel he isn’t truly speaking. I like that way of looking at language, tracing its path through the body, the shape it makes. This morning I visited the Théâtre La Bruyère to hear the staged reading of a play by Canadian dramatist Morris Panych that my friend Blandine Pélissier had translated into French. This reading of La fille dans le bocal à poisson rouge—featuring five excellent French actors including Blandine herself—turned out to be a sort of audition. The play’s would-be director, Jean Bouchaud, had arranged this reading at the theater in the hope of convincing La Bruyère’s management to engage the show for a run. This was the sixth staged reading of this play at La Bruyère, a case of apparently quite exceptional indecisiveness. This particular play has been falling through the cracks between the large, publicly subsidized Parisian theaters like the Comédie-Française and the smaller independent ones. The former, Blandine explained, favor overtly intellectual fare (like the comedy by Nikolai Gogol I saw at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier this evening), while the smaller theaters depend on audience-luring comedies more guffaw-inducing than Panych’s play—though the small audience at the staged reading was giggling throughout. In short, French theater translators like Blandine find themselves doing large amounts of work on spec, translating plays in the hope of finding theaters willing to put them on (and retroactively pay for the translations). This isn’t easy, given the resources that must be invested to make a theatrical production possible, even for a translator of Blandine’s standing—she just did a new translation of Romeo and Juliet for the Théâtre Jean-Arp. Translating Panych’s play itself was not without its difficulties, particularly with regards to the slang Panych puts in his characters’ mouths. The term “fish,” for example, is apparently used in Canada for a freshly incarcerated convict, and so when the term came up in the play, Blandine had the character explain instead “je suis plongé,” since “to dive for something” in French is a way to speak of serving time. Apropos: why do the French think that goldfish are red? Well, I guess they’re almost as red as most American redheads or my red mackerel tabby. By the way, both the posters and the program for Gogol’s Le mariage prominently feature the name of the translator, André Markowitz, which I was very glad to see. The production was directed by Lilo Baur, who collaborates with Peter Brook as well as being a founding member of the excellent company Théâtre de Complicité—based, of all places, in London. I found the vehement realism of the stage sets a bit too much, but the farcical acting and choreography were superb, particularly in a long slow-motion rebuffing-of-the-suitors sequence that reminded me of a motif from Théâtre de Complicité’s masterwork Mnemonic.

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