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Sunday, 25 September 2011

Translating Grand Guignol

You'll need one of these.

By a happy coincidence, the world’s greatest ever theatre of horror worked in the language which I studied at university, so when Theatre of the Damned stage a new Grand Guignol show, most of the work of translation falls to me (though Sam and Alice are both strong French speakers too, and have contributed some brilliant work of their own).

So far, I’ve produced versions of Crime dans une Maison de Fous/Les Infernales (Crime in a Madhouse/The Damned, sometimes called The Old Women in English), La Dernière Torture (The Final Torture) and La Veuve (The Widow/The Guillotine – I know of no way to render this pun in English), and collaborated with Alice on La Baiser dans la Nuit (The Kiss Goodnight) and Sam on Le Laboratoire des Hallucinations (Laboratory of Hallucinations).

The considerations involved in this translation work are rather unusual. For one thing, I am translating for performance, not for publication, and certainly not for academic study. Theatre of the Damned is a horror theatre company, not a Grand Guignol re-enactment society, and our priority is to stage the most affecting possible show for an audience. At the same time, there is a reason we are using this material – a lot of it (especially the work of André de Lorde) is bloody good, and it’s been tried and tested in front of hundreds of audiences. It works, or at the very least it worked 80-odd years ago. And we’d like other companies to be able to use our scripts for their future productions – they’ll probably want De Lorde’s Crime in a Madhouse, not a radical Theatre of the Damned adaptation.

We also have to consider the nature of horror. The work we do is intended to function largely on a visceral level. Grand Guignol is not primarily a theatre of ideas, but of feelings – fear, revulsion, pity, shock, arousal, nausea. To function as it should it requires good old-fashioned suspension of disbelief, and that means that nothing in the text can afford to jar the audience out of the play world. The characterisation has to be immaculate, the intention has to be clear in the actor’s mind, and the dialogue has to feel natural.

All this adds up to a powerful argument in favour of taking what is sometimes called a naturalising approach to the translation of Grand Guignol plays, rather than a foreignising one. In other words, the Grand Guignol translator’s goal should be to render the semantic content of the characters’ utterances in a form which would come naturally to a native speaker of the target language (English, in this case). The specific construction of the original author’s words is unimportant, and should be actively avoided wherever it might smack of Gallicism. So for example:

                “Passe pour les deux autres femmes, elles ne sont pas infirmes...”


                “The other two . . . perhaps. They can walk, at least.”

The meaning of what the Doctor is saying – and his motivation for saying it – have not changed significantly. The part of the world he is talking about is the same, the aspects of it he sees as relevant are the same, his goals in telling Louise about it are unchanged. But the imperative verb-phrase “passe pour” has been replaced by an adverb, “perhaps”, and moved from the start of the clause to the end, while the negative attribute-statement in the second clause of the French becomes a qualified positive capability statement in English. Why? Because it feels more natural.

So far so commonplace. This is more than likely the approach taken by the translator of your average Penguin World Classic or similar general-readership publication. However, we return once more to the fact of actors having to perform these lines on stage. These actors will be speaking English, with British accents of one stripe or another, and, inevitably, British characterisations. Their notion of a stern nun, or an early 20th Century clinical psychiatrist, or a domestic servant will be a British one. But these plays are set in France, and every time a character refers to Paris, or Saint-Léger, or the Battle of Gravelotte a jarring little dissonance is created in the audience. Classical Rome or Athens would be a different matter: we all know that Julius Caesar spoke the Queen’s English. Dealing with a living culture, however, it simply feels odd.

I therefore took the decision very early in the process to relocate the plays to British settings (or in the case of plays such as La Dernière Torture and Le Jardin des Supplices which involve French characters overseas, to make the French characters British while leaving the  setting unchanged). The one exception to this rule is La Veuve, which for reasons particular to itself is not amenable to this treatment – at least without far more extensive adaptation. Of all my translations it is by far the one I am least satisfied with. I doubt Theatre of the Damned will ever perform it (Stewart and I directed it as students in 2006) but I am intrigued to see what our friends in Nouveau Guignol make of it when they stage it at the Festival.

The most obvious consequence of this decision is the necessity to substitute British character names and place names for French. In doing this, I aim for a kind of rough-and-ready cultural equivalence. Crime dans une Maison de Fous is set at the Saint-Léger asylum in Normandy. A rustic coastal region with mild weather and a taste for apple-based beverages naturally suggested the West Country, and Cornwall is a land of saints in a way which other nearby counties are not. I chose a Dark Age Cornish saint – St. Perran – to take the place of the dark age Norman Saint Léger, and imagined the asylum as perhaps lying somewhere near Perranporth, where Stew and I once worked on the scripts for a truly terrible spoof musical about Scientology and a marginally less terrible Disney rip-off panto (warning, noisy video, do not watch at work).

Character names take a little research. It would be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that because a French character’s name is also an English name it is automatically the right move to simply retain it. Consider Sonia in Laboratoire des Hallucinations. Sonia is now a popular name in France (in 1974 it was the most common name for newborn girls), but at the time the play was written, in 1931, it would have been extremely unusual, to the point where it is not clear that any girl born in France around 1905 (assuming we take the character to be in her mid-20s) would have been given it. De Lorde chose to give his character an exotic, highly unusual name evocative of Persia and India. As a result of Sonia’s massive expansion in popularity on both sides of the Channel in the 80 years since the play was written, the name would have very different connotations for a modern English audience. We needed an unusual name of approximately Hindi/Sanskrit derivation with a similarly lilting feel, but which had not gone mainstream in the same way. I settled on Rohanna.

Crime dans une Maison de Fous provides another interesting challenge: the old women are given appellations which straddle the border between name and description – La Borgnesse (the One-Eyed Woman), La Normand (the Norman) and La Bossu (the Twisted). These last two are not simply adjectives with an implied “femme” – if they were, they would have feminine agreement, in the form of a terminal “e”. Quite frankly, I have been unable to fathom exactly what De Lorde was getting at here, but regardless, it’s plain that direct rendition into English is going to lead to some rather incongruous-sounding dialogue. We don’t like leaving adjectives hanging in that way, we don’t have a  single word for “one-eyed”, let alone one so richly textured as “borgne”, and constantly talking about the X, Y and Z women is horrendously messy.

I decided to give them honorifics (Mrs.) and surnames which carried the connotation of the original description but were nevertheless recognizably names. Mrs. Cornish was straightforward enough. For Bossu, I chose Cruickshank – derived from a Scottish insult meaning bandy-legged and carrying from the still-used but pleasingly old-fashioned-feeling “crooked” and “shank” a continuing resonance for a modern audience. Other translators have tended to opt for “One-Eye” for La Borgnesse, and when Louise speaks of her this seems fair enough – it’s childish and rude in a plausible way. My issue is with the Doctor’s line:

                “Mais celle que tu appelles la Borgnesse, elle est paralyse des deux jambs depuis six ans . . .”

Literally, of course, we get

                “But the one you call One-Eye has been paralysed in both legs for six years . . .”

Now, the repetition of “one” is infelicitous, but hardly the end of the world. The trouble, for me at least, is that she is plainly a long-term fixture in the lives of all those present, and they would know her name, and the Doctor would use it. “Improving” the work of an author is normally considered a cardinal sin in translation, but as this version is intended primarily for a specific production in which we intend to make some significant cuts (tedious exposition-recipient extraordinaire Madame Robin, for starters) and introduce a possible interpretation which was plainly not De Lorde’s intention (Louise being a figment of La Borgnesse’s imagination/a memory of her younger self, a way of internally rationalising what happened to her) I didn’t see much harm in tweaking a few lines in more inconsequential ways as well. So:

                “But Mrs. Hablin – you really oughtn’t to call her One-Eye, you know – has been paralysed in both legs since she was your age . . .”

The “you call her One-Eye, I don’t” concept of the original gets unpacked, complete with a little extra characterisation for the Doctor. Why Hablin? Well, it is, or at any rate was, a (very uncommon) real name, and it sounds like it belongs in the world of the play, but it’s also a contraction of “half blind”, thus meshing with the naming concept applied to her lackeys. The change of timeframe was motivated by the aforementioned Hablin-Louise identity concept.

So much for proper nouns. The next issue is dialect: plainly many of the characters in Grand Guignol plays are of a social status where we should expect them to employ (period) received pronunciation, but many others are not. That means regionalising not just the actors’ accents but the vocabulary and sentence construction, a practice which owes rather more to art than science. Sometimes no change is needed, sometimes one is unavoidable, and every now and again one meets a point in the text where although nothing special is absolutely required, their seems a ghost of an invitation to play.

           “LA BORGNESSE – Ne crie pas... On veut rien te faire à toi... mais à ces deux yeux-là...

LOUSE – Mes yeux!...

LA BORGNESSE – Ce sont pas tes yeux...

            LA NORMAND – Elle croit que ce sont ses yeux...”

Now, there is really nothing to stop us saying

MRS HABLIN – Don’t scream... We don’t want to do anything to you... Just to those two eyes there

LOUISE – My eyes!...

MRS HABLIN – Those aren’t your eyes...

            MRS CORNISH – She thinks they’re her eyes...”

But why does De Lorde omit “ne”s which grammatically ought to be in La Borgnesse’s lines, and use both “te” and “à toi” as indirect objects of “faire”? He seems to have chosen this point to give us a little bit of linguistic characterisation, to reinforce the unsettling coincidence in these women of childish fun and sickening violence. We can do that, and thicken up the faintly comic yokel broth just a touch while we’re at it.

           “MRS HABLIN – No screaming. We’re not doing anything to you, just to them two eyes there.

LOUISE – My eyes!

MRS HABLIN – They bain’t your eyes.

CORNISH – She thinks they’m her eyes!”


There are no hard-and-fast rules for this stuff, and I absolutely make it up as I go along. Part of the joy of translating for performance is the freedom to do whatever you think works. That said, I do have some . . . guidelines I generally try to follow.

1.       Make sure you understand the French. If in doubt, ask some native speakers at the Word Reference forums. You can’t make informed decisions about what to keep and what to change unless you understand what’s there in the first place.
2.       Focus on quality, not fidelity. You’re trying to put the best show you can in front of an audience, not help students with their essays. Don’t change things for no reason, but if you have a reason, make the change.
3.       Detail matters. An audience may not be able to spot many (if any) of the individual details your research brings up, but they will definitely be able to tell the overall difference between a script that’s properly detailed and one that isn’t.
4.       Get rid of... all those... bloody ellipses. I don’t know if it was De Lorde, Pierron or some sub-editor at Bouquins who liked them so much, but if you leave them there your cast will end up talking like William Shatner.
5.       It doesn’t mean “Big Puppet”.

If you’d like to read my translation of Crime in a Madhouse, you can download it here. It's not actually the final performance version - I really must get round to replacing it with an up-to-date redraft - but it's good enough for government work. In the not-too-distant future, we’d like to have quite a few more there to go with it, including our original material as well as more translations. In fact, we may start to publish separate versions of each script - a straight translation and a Theatre of the Damned theatrical cut. Enjoy.

- Tom Richards

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating, Tom! I did French to A level and it always frustrated me when it came to translating dialogue passages as the examining board wanted literal accuracy, yet as the communicator I wanted it to sound like actual realistic speech, which meant bending it slightly to be more colloquial. I'm really glad you've focused on making dialogue accessible as speech for the actor/character. It shows...:O)