Translation is a complex task at the best of times. The act of translation carries a whole series of conundrums: how important, for starters, is fidelity to the original text? To what extent – if at all – can a translated text reproduce the unique voice of the original author? And how can the distinct rhythms and modulations of a particular language possibly be reproduced in another language? Since each and every language bears its own unique character, history, and cultural baggage, the translator’s job will certainly never be an easy one.
Yet translating theatre brings a whole extra set of thorny issues to the table. For on top of the unending panoply of difficulties faced by translators of all kinds – from translators of the literary greats, to those faced with the apparently simple task of translating IKEA furniture instructions or restaurant menus – the theatre translator has an extra factor to worry about: performability. A theatrical script does not only need to flow. It needs to quite literally breathe with performability. To quote the Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello, ‘in order for the characters to jump alive and moving off the written page, the playwright must find that word that is spoken action, the living word that moves, the immediate expression, natural to the action, the unique expression that cannot be but that one.’
The language of theatre is designed to be spoken, not studied. And a script that is rigorously faithful to the original – however commendable such an effort might be – is therefore unlikely to do the job.
And it is in this respect that Julia Hartley’s new translation of Alfred de Musset’s Il ne faut jurer de rien (1836) truly shines: It is hugely, unquestionably performable.
Never Say Never follows the story of young playboy Valentin who – convinced that all married women are unfaithful to their husbands – sets out to do everything in his power to avoid any such a fate. Yet when his uncle entreats him to consider marrying the charming young Mademoiselle de Mante, Valentin proposes a wager that is intended to trick the Mademoiselle and prove his conviction right. But Cécile looks set to have the upper hand…
So, why Musset? And why this play? Asked about the reasoning behind her choice, Hartley explains that, of all Musset’s works, this is ‘by far his snappiest work’. And if we are able to enjoy this snappiness in full in Never Say Never (and we certainly are), this is thanks not only to the merits of the original but to Hartley’s methods of adaptation and translation. The original has undergone considerable shavings and additions before reaching its final form. Hartley explains that ‘by translating the play myself I have taken advantage of the process to cut the jokes that sound too long, and emphasise the traits which I have found more suited to a modern audience.’ Take her translation of the title, for example, which is far snappier than the relatively weak ‘You Can’t Be Sure of Anything’ plumped for by previous translators of the play. Punchy and to the point, Never Say Never captures the full spirit of the original in a way that ‘You Can’t Be Sure of Anything’ just doesn’t quite manage.
But how about the humour? Can the wordplay, playful innuendos, and caricatures that characterise 19th century French theatre really get a modern-day English audience going? The answer is a resounding yes. And this is thanks to three key achievements: a successful translation, innovative adaptation choices, and masterful acting on the part of the cast.
Humour is absolutely fundamental to the success of this play, and it is perhaps here that Hartley’s translation deserves greatest praise. For comedy often sits ill at ease outside its own native territory. And matched perhaps only by the challenge of translating puns and linguistic nuances, it represents one of the greatest trials for the translator. Hartley explains that in this reproduction, while ‘there are some classic moments where the comedy comes from the situation which will always work’, most of the humour derives from the direction: ‘It’s to do with the timing, the physicality, the tone of the delivery. A funny script, if it’s done in a dull way, loses all its potential’. Yet equally important to the successful deliverance of humour is Hartley’s appreciation of the importance of succinctness in English. For if Romance languages are characterised by their long, meandering phrases and elaborate phraseology, English is a language of concision. Hartley recalls herself ‘laughing out loud when reading a Wodehouse dialogue which consisted mainly of “No.” No, no, no.” “Rather.” “Yes.”’ Favouring succinctness over long-windedness, Never Say Never captures the spirit of the original’s humour while delivering a powerful punch designed to please an English audience.
The decision to transpose a 19th century French play to a 1920s Wodehousian setting is certainly a brave one. Yet in cleverly refashioning the style and language of the original into a distinctly modern form which is faithful to the spirit if not the letter of the original, Hartley manages to get the balance between fidelity and modernity just right. A refreshing take on a little-known 19th century classic that is not to be missed!