David Ball discusses the hazards and delights of translating Alfred Jarry’s notorious play Ubu roi:

Flatten the language into ordinary English and the play simply disappears. For just as the plot and characters of Ubu seem to be taken from Shakespeare—but Shakespeare all ground up and turned into sausage-meat—so the language itself is taken from French, but a French so chopped up and transformed that it becomes Jarry’s (or Ubu’s) own special, meaty idiolect. This, in the land of Corneille and Racine! The assault on art is, first, an assault on language; to the extent that Jarry helped to create a new form of theatre , he created a new language in this play. My class needed a new translation, and by my green candlestick I was going to give it to them. I translated Act One, and finished the job when my colleague John Hellweg wanted to direct the play in the Mendenhall Theater at Smith College. He accepted my version but made a few revisions for performance, as he inserted some contemporary references; since then, I have revised it back to the original, and beyond.

The first word of Ubu roi is, famously, Merdre. Not merde, for which there is really only one translation, but merd-re. It has been translated variously as “Shee-yit,” “Shite”…and it instantly unleashed pandemonium at the first public performance of the play. (After all, can anything be said in the theatre? You better believe it! says Jarry’s play, and today’s translator had better believe it, too.)…

What I have been arguing presupposes a theory, or at least a certain view of translation. It is, I think, what most translators practice, and what most readers expect from a good literary translation, although it is not what all translators say about their work, nor by any means what all translation theorists theorize. It begins with the notion of equivalency, and goes on to consider lexical accuracy and poetic “imitation,” in something close to the Renaissance sense of the word. A translation should strive to produce, for the audience or reader in the target language, the equivalent of the effect produced by the text upon the audience or reader in the source language… Now “effect,” in my view, is not limited to vague emotional response: it also depends on meaning, denotation as well as connotation. Thus it is not quite right to say, as translators sometimes do, “I wrote freely, the way X. would write if she were writing a play in English.” If a French audience hears a character say something that means “I’m going to buy some plain brown soap because I can’t take the perfumed stuff” the translator should not render it as “I’m going to buy some soap from Marseilles” because she neither knows nor cares that savon de Marseille is plain brown soap. Of course all translators know that rendering cultural equivalents can be trickier than this: should “having a glass of wine in a café”—an ordinary act, uninflected by class, unlike those words in the U.S.—be rendered as “having a beer in a bar”? I’d say: rarely.

The essay is followed by his translation of the first act of the play, which is lively and convincing (and has a great equivalent of Merdre)—I’d love to see it staged. (Via wood s lot.)


  1. Since my conversion to Frankophile confession I’ve been looking at French writers of the earthy, sardonic, realistic, extravagent, fanciful sort. Right now it’s Rabelais. Jarry seems to be Rabelais’ heir in several ways, including the bending of French. It’s a bit unfortunate that he gets stuck in the avant-gardist bag, with all that that entails.
    To date, I haven’t liked the English translations, and the French has been too difficult for me. As I said not too long ago, there are difficult poets (Rilke, Gongora) who are probably not more difficult for foreigners than for native speakers; and there are poets who can only be appreciated by native speakers or very fluent foreigners — some of them for their simplicity (Machado, Heine) and some because of their deliberate wrongness.
    Michaux is my only other candidate as a XXc heir of Rabelais.

  2. Is “merdre” an infinitive or an infinitive-like construction?

  3. “Michaux is my only other candidate as a XXc heir of Rabelais”
    Have you ever tried Raymond Queneau?

  4. I’ll put Queneau on my list. I am by no means an expert on contemporary Frankish literature.

  5. Queneau is excellent. You’ll like him. And no, merdre isn’t a verb, just a deformation. “Shitsky” works well for me.

  6. I should probably add Celine too.

  7. And Jean Malaquais (aka Jan Malacki), author of Les Javanais, only known to my generation through an enthusiastic review by Trotstky until its reprint in the Nineties.

  8. (Should be Trotsky; I’m obsessed with t-time.)

  9. I should have remembered sooner about the Trotsky Archive on line: here is the review I was talking about (and here is the more famous review of Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit). Both have been collected in Literature and Revolution.

  10. I once saw a wordless, though not soundless, animation of Ubu Roi, (Ubu, directed by Geoff Dunbar.) Being a literary and linguistic idiot, I don’t know if it was accurate. It certainly was good, and emotionally effective.

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