The French discovered Shakespeare much later than many of their European contemporaries. His drama was introduced to the French educated elite via the tool of translation: as a result of his enthusiasm for Shakespeare’s plays during his first visit to London in 1726, playwright and philosopher Voltaire adapted Julius Caesar in 1731 and translated Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy in 1734. Voltaire was ambivalent towards Shakespeare, seeing in his work, ‘sublime features worthy of the greatest of genius’, but also censuring his plays as ‘monstrous’ farces written for barbaric people (Voltaire 502). The translation of Shakespeare in France was consequently shaped according to a (foreign) genius/ bad taste opposition until the twentieth century, as shown in the impressive collection of translations held at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French society considered itself to be governed by order and rationality. Shakespeare introduced chaos and anarchy into this order. Translators were aware that they wrote for a public and publishers raised on classical drama based on rules descending from Antiquity. These rules followed the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action. They demanded rhyming alexandrine verse, which is structured in syllables and contains meaning within each verse, thus differing significantly from Shakespeare’s pentameters. The rules of aristocratic taste and propriety forbade the mingling of both tragic and comic or high and low elements within the same play. Invocations of the supernatural and violence on stage further contradicted these edicts.
The first translation in French of Shakespeare’s complete works was published in France by Pierre-Antoine de la Place (1745-48). It is available at the SBT and is in beautiful condition. Aiming to introduce ‘English drama’ in France, La Place devoted the first four volumes of his translation to Shakespeare who, he claimed, ‘must be considered as the inventor of English drama’ (La Place iv). In his preface he attempts to diffuse criticisms of Shakespeare by highlighting the importance of cultural differences and conflicting tastes (cix). His translation seeks to resolve these conflicts through a blend of prose and alexandrine verse. His exclusive focus on the scenes and situations which he saw as lending themselves to a ‘tolerable’ translation (cxi) resulted in significant cuts to the plays with numerous scenes being summarised instead of being translated.
Pierre Le Tourneur’s translations in 1776 significantly improved on La Place’s work by showing greater fidelity to Shakespeare’s work and translating it in to prose. Allusions to low register and lewdness were suppressed. For the first time however, Shakespeare was saluted a ‘god of theatre’: an example of what can be achieved when genius is unfettered by strict rules and conventions of taste. François Guizot’s ‘revised and corrected’ version of Le Tourneur’s translation (1821, 1876 and 1881) is available at the SBT. Whilst continuing to dilute Shakespeare’s drama, Guizot re-translated where Le Tourneur paraphrased and toned down metaphors. François-Victor Hugo’s ambitious illustrated translation (1865) has remained the longest in print, and is probably the closest French equivalent to Germany’s Schlegel and Tieck translation. Hugo’s undertaking in prose was courageous: he ignored taste and propriety in favour of fidelity to Shakespeare’s puns, metaphors, and coarseness. He also provided the first French translation of the Sonnets.
This continuous process of revising and rewriting is in fact, unsurprising. Contemporary theory posits translation as a process of rewriting whereby literary works can be manipulated for both ideological and artistic purposes. As part of this process, the translation acquires a different status which is sometimes seen as subversive (Lefevere). Thus, more recent rewritings that can be consulted at the SBT – including illustrious translations by Georges Duval (1908), Georges Neveux (1943), Henri Fluchère (1959), Jean-Louis Curtis (1972), Jean-Michel Déprats (1998), André Markowicz (2005) are all ‘new’ translations and designed to suit very specific purposes.
Importantly, ideological and artistic rewriting has especially affected the translation of Shakespeare’s plays for the stage. Jean-François Ducis was the first to translate Shakespeare for the stage (three of his translations are available at SBT). His translation of Hamlet was the first and only version of the play to be performed in eighteenth-century France, and it played at the Comédie Française from 1769 to 1852. The play was translated in alexandrine verse, suppressed the ghost as well as the gravediggers, and considerably reduced the number of violent deaths. The characters were transformed into sensitive heroes torn between love and duty, reminiscent of Corneille’s tragedies. The play was also suffused with pathos, causing Hamlet to shed many tears and threaten suicide. Hamlet did not die at the end of the play as popular taste could not suffer the death of the hero. Likewise, Ducis’ Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth watered down Shakespeare’s plays as the plots and situations in the plays were believed to be too extreme for French sensibilities. And yet, Ducis’ translations are not to be dismissed as they made Shakespeare’s drama worthy of being staged in France, instead of restricting knowledge of his plays to a small, elite readership.
A translation for the stage of particular note is Coriolanus translated by René-Louis Piachaud and performed at the Comédie Française in December 1933. It was published in 1934 in the magazine L’Illustration, a Paris-based publication with a wide readership in France and French-speaking countries at the time. Piachaud described his work in the publication as being a ‘loose’ translation adapted to contemporary tastes, possibly as a way of justifying the reactions to which the play gave rise. In 1933-34 France was gripped with financial and political scandals, and further tensions were developing with the rise of Fascism and Nazism in Europe. The audience interpreted the play as a criticism of the corruption of the leaders of the time, showing fierce approval of Coriolanus’ tirades against the tribunes whose negative features were emphasised by Piachaud’s translation. Riots and demonstrations against political leaders ensued, leading to twelve people dead and hundreds more wounded. Newspapers contrasted sleazy politicians with the virtuous Roman hero. Likening Coriolanus to Hitler, right-wing newspaper Le Figaro (1) argued that Fascism might provide a way forward to rescuing France’s ailing democracy.
Importantly, in France Coriolanus remained so strongly associated with Fascist ideology that it was not performed again until the late 1950s, when, paradoxically, Piachaud’s translation was revisited from Marxist perspectives. This example of the ideological exploitation of a play demonstrates the immense impact a translation can have in shaping understanding, as well as the strong cultural and political influence that can be exercised by translators. This seems to be more relevant than ever today.
La Place, Antoine de, Le Théâtre anglois, 1746, Volume 1.
Lefevere, André, Translation, Rewriting, and the Manipulation of Literary Fame, London: Routledge, 1992
Le Figaro, 1 janvier 1934.
Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet, Oeuvres complètes de Voltaire. Paris 1877-85.