Friday, February 10, 2012

Is Rabelais Funny?

Is Rabelais funny? The professor asked.  Yes, he is original, energetic, forceful and scatological.  But if you want funny scat, the intertubes will offer plausible candidates in a heartbeat.  Consider:

Et voyent les dolens pères & mères hors leurs maisons enlever +* tirer par un incongneu, barbare, mastin tout pourry, chancreux, cadavereux, paouvre, malheureux, leurs tant belles, delicates, riches, + saines filles, les quelles tant cherement avoient nourriez en tout exercice vertueux, avoient disciplinées en toute honnesteté esperans en temps oportun les colloquer par mariage avecques les enfans de leurs voisins + antiques amis: nourriz + instituez de mesmes soing, pour parvenir à ceste felicité de mariage, que d'eulx ilz veissent naistre lignaige raportant + haereditant non moins aux meurs de leurs pères + mères, que à leurs biens meubles + heritaiges. Quel spectacle pensez vous que ce leurs soit. Ne croyez, que plus enorme feust la desolation du peuple Romain +; ses confoederez entendens  le decès de Germanicus Drufus. Ne croyez que plus pitoyable feust le desconfort des Lacedemoniens, quand de leurs pays veirent par l'adultère Troian furtivement enlevée Helène Grecque. ...Et restent en leurs maisons privez de leurs filles tant aimées, le père mauldissant le iour +  heure de ses nopces: la mère regrettant que n'estoit avortée en tel tant triste + malheureux enfantement: +  en pleurs +  lamentations finent leurs vie, laquelle estoit de raison finir en ioye +  bon tractement de icelles.

Okay, it's all but totally inaccessible to anyone not a native speaker, and perhaps even to some of them: the briefest scan will satisfy you that it's not the French you learned in school, perhaps not even in France.  Now compare:

May not these fathers and mothers, think you, be sorrowful and heavy-hearted when they see an unknown fellow, a vagabond stranger, a barbarous lout, a rude cur, rotten, fleshless, putrified, scraggy, boily, botchy, poor, a forlorn caitiff and miserable sneak, by an open rapt snatch away before their own eyes their so fair, delicate, neat, well-behavioured, richly-provided-for and healthful daughters, on whose breeding and education they had spared no cost nor charges, by bringing them up in an honest discipline to all the honourable and virtuous employments becoming one of their sex descended of a noble parentage, hoping by those commendable and industrious means in an opportune and convenient time to bestow them on the worthy sons of their well-deserving neighbours and ancient friends, who had nourished, entertained, taught, instructed, and schooled their children with the same care and solicitude, to make them matches fit to attain to the felicity of a so happy marriage, that from them might issue an offspring and progeny no less heirs to the laudable endowments and exquisite qualifications of their parents, whom they every way resemble, than to their personal and real estates, movables, and inheritances? How doleful, trist, and plangorous would such a sight and pageantry prove unto them? You shall not need to think that the collachrymation of the Romans and their confederates at the decease of Germanicus Drusus was comparable to this lamentation of theirs? Neither would I have you to believe that the discomfort and anxiety of the Lacedaemonians, when the Greek Helen, by the perfidiousness of the adulterous Trojan, Paris, was privily stolen away out of their country, was greater or more pitiful than this ruthful and deplorable collugency of theirs?...   They wretchedly stay at their own miserable homes, destitute of their well-beloved daughters, the fathers cursing the days and the hours wherein they were married, and the mothers howling and crying that it was not their fortune to have brought forth abortive issues when they happened to be delivered of such unfortunate girls, and in this pitiful plight spend at best the remainder of their time with tears and weeping for those their children, of and from whom they expected, (and, with good reason, should have obtained and reaped,) in these latter days of theirs, joy and comfort.
 So Sir Thomas Urquhart, who may lay claim to honors as the greatest of all English translators, for seeking to scale such a monument--and for recognizing that the only way to do honor to his subject was to let his "translation" veer perilously off in the direction of homage.    A quick appraisal rooted in no more than high school French will satisfy the reader that Urquhart, while he may have stood in awe of his great subject, still did not feel constrained to honor the ltetter of the text.

It was a great age (if you extend the boundaries far enough) of earthy, energetic vernacular: of Machiavelli and Luther, of Shakespeare and Cervantes.    It was coming on to a great age of translation, few or none quite as distinctive as Urquhart's Rabelais.  Voltaire deemed it unnecessary that there be two Rabelais in a nation, but that it is necessary there be one.  Perhaps the same can be said for Urquhart.

[The selection here follows The Limits of Art (1948)  the great anthology  collected and edited by Huntington Cairnes.]   

*Wonk Stuff: Rabelais uses the ampersand. Blogger won't allow the ampersand so I have replaced it with the plus sign.

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