Lyndon Hood - shameless plugger, Lower Hutt

Friday, October 15, 2004

My life ain’t nothing but britches and hose

I’m rehearsing for a play. I say this not to excuse my behaviour but by way of introducing a story.

When I found out that the amateur dramatists in my ‘hood were putting on Moliere’s Tartuffe I thought I’d audition. Turns out the folk at Hutt Repertory are lovely people. Plus we get to dress up like badass 17th century French people of the landed classes. Though I’m only in a couple of scenes I consider the first to be one of the funniest lovers’ tiffs out.

In fact, I’ve liked the play for a long time. It uses what’s basically a brilliantly funny old-fashioned farce to deal with issues of moral and religious hypocrisy. As an exercise, you might like to compile a list of way that these ideas are topical. It’s written in rhyming couplets; in French the rhythm approximately resembles that used in the Hairy Maclary books.

A few years ago I decided to translate it. This despite the fact that I only know just enough French to speak properly awful French, which just shows how much I like the play. And brings me to my story.

Feeling the need for more guidance than a pocket dictionary, I fed the entire French text through the babelfish translation engine.

It was utterly unfair to expect some famously amusing software to understand the colloquial, old-fashioned language of the play, yet the result was strangely helpful. Admittedly, the first lines came out like this:

MRS PERNELLE: Let us go, Flipote, go, that them I am delivered.
ELMIRE:You walk of such a step that one to hardly follow you.
MRS PERNELLE: Leave, my daughter-in-law, leave, do not come further:
They all are ways which I do not need.
ELMIRE: The EC what one owes you towards you one discharges,
But does my mother, from which come that you leave so quickly?
MRS PERNELLE: It is that I then to see all this household,
And to take pleasure one does not take no concern.
Yes, I leave on your premise strong evil built:
In all my lessons I am opposed there,
One respects nothing there, each one speaks there high,
And it is precisely all the court of king Petaut.
...but combined with the original text and and other people’s translations it’s actually comprehensible.

That said, there were a few particularly noteworthy glitches, of which giving the EC for de ce, as above, is probably the least hilarious.

It didn’t help that the title character’s name has in France become synonymous with sanctimonious hypocrisy. Thus many lines akin to...

What do you say of Sanctimonious hypocrite, our host?
The ambiguity of the French faire une petite souris(give a little smile) resulted in this stage direction:
Mariane turns the eye towards Valere and makes small mouse.
Similarly, religieuse describes both nuns and chocolate eclairs. The babelfish output suggested an easy rhyming couplet:
Girls always want to become chocolate eclairs
When their father thwarts their love affairs.
Often in the play Moliere refers to weddings and so on with a word some might recognise from classical myth as the name of the god of marriage. Babelfish clearly didn’t know it, and left it untranslated. Thus we have a young man asking his uncle to talk to his father “of the hymen of my sister” and this at the play’s triumphant conclusion:
ORGON: Yes, it is quite known as? let us go to its feet with joy
of renting Us kindness which its heart deploys us.
Then, discharged a little this first duty,
With the right care of another it will be necessary for us to provide,
And by a soft hymen to crown in Valere
the flame of a generous and sincere lover.
My own translation got as far as a draft of the first act . Then I obviously decided that there were more efficient ways to use my time. I’m tempted to get back to it. It can’t be worse than the one the machine did.

Hutt Rep’s Tartuffe runs on a rather complicated schedule from the 27th to November 6th. Your chance to not only to check out my calves but also prove conclusively that I am not Matt Nippert.