I Luvz Me Some Cyrano de Bergerac: “No, Thank You”

Edmund Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac is one of my all time favorite plays, a rollicking / poetic / bittersweet / comedy / romance / adventure.  I've seen several different adaptations & stagings, but my favorite is Jose Ferrer's Oscar winning performance.[1]

There's nuthin' not to like here, but for a lot of writers (& poets & dramatists), our favorite speech is in Act Two, Scene VIII.

I'll set the stage:  Cyrano has just rejected the offer of patronage from a well connected nobleman.  Cyrano's friend (and commanding officer) suggests maybe life would be easier for him if he were willing to play the literary game.

To whit Cyrano replies (translation by Brian Hooker):

What would you have me do?

Seek for the patronage of some great man, and like a creeping vine on a tall tree crawl upward, where I cannot stand alone?

No, thank you!

Dedicate, as others do, poems to pawnbrokers?

Be a buffoon in the vile hope of teasing out a smile on some cold face?

No, thank you!

Eat a toad for breakfast every morning?

Make my knees callous, and cultivate a supple spine, wear out my belly groveling in the dust?

No, thank you!

Scratch the back of any swine that roots up gold for me?

Tickle the horns of Mammon with my left hand, while my right too proud to know his partners business, takes in the fee?

No, thank you!

Use the fire God gave me to burn incense all day long?

No, thank you!

Publish verses at my own expense?

No, thank you!

Be the patron saint of a small group of literary souls who dine together every Tuesday?

No, I thank you!

Shall I labor night and day to build a reputation on one song, and never write another?

Shall I find true genius only among Geniuses, palpitate over little paragraphs, and struggle to insinuate my name in the columns of the Mercury?

No, thank you!

Calculate, scheme, be afraid, love more to make a visit than a poem, seek introductions, favors, influences?

No, thank you! No, I thank you! And again I thank you!

But to sing, to laugh, to dream, to walk in my own way, and be alone, free, with an eye to see things as they are, a voice that means manhood, to cock my hat where I choose, at a word, at a Yes, a No, to fight or write.

To travel any road under the sun, under the stars, nor doubt if fame or fortune lie beyond the bourne  never to make a line I have not heard in my own heart; yet, with all modesty to say:  My soul, be satisfied with flowers, with fruit, with weeds even; but gather them in the one garden you may call your own.

So, when I win some triumph, by some chance, render no share to Caesar.

In a word, I am too proud to be a parasite, and if my nature wants the germ that grows towering to heaven like the mountain pine, or, like the oak, sheltering multitudes, I stand, not high it may be --

But, I stand alone!

Pretty stirrin' stuff, huh?  But although this is one of the most popular translations of the play from the original French, it's far from the only one.  Let's try another on for size (translation by Howard Thayer Kingsbury):

Oh, yes?  But what would I have to do for it?

Seek a patron to support me and protect me?  Be like the wretched ivy that clings around a big tree and creeps upward not by its own strength but by trickery?

No, thank you!

Dedicate poems to bankers, like other poets have done?  Act like a cringing fool just for the hope of seeing a condescending smile on a patron's lips?

Thank you, but no!

Learn to swallow insults every day?  Scrape my knees raw from kneeling and bend my back till it breaks from bowing?

No, thank you!

Or be two-faced and sly, running with the hare while at the same time hunting with the hounds?  Learn the cheap art of flattering people so that they may praise me?  Step on people to make my way ahead?  Navigate the sea of life with madrigals for sails, blown gently windward by old ladies’ sighs?

Thank you, but no!

Bribe kindly editors to print my poetry?  Aspire to be elected pope of tavern councils held by drunken idiots?  Work my whole life to bank my reputation on one famous sonnet instead of writing hundreds?  Be terrorized by all the papers, thinking such things as, “Oh, if only the Mercury would give me a kind review!”  Grow pale and fearful and scheming?  Prefer to make visits instead of poems?  Seek introductions to the right people, sign the right petitions?

No!  No!  And no again!

But sing?  And dream and laugh?


Go freely, wherever I please, with eyes that look straight forward and with a fearless voice!  To wear my hat just the way I choose!  To decide for myself in any situation whether to fight a duel or to recite a poem!  To work without one thought of fortune or fame, and to realize that journey to the moon!  Never to write a line that has not sprung straight from my heart.  To be modest.  To be content with every flower, fruit or even leaf—but pluck them from my own garden and no one else's!  And then, if glory ever does by chance come my way, I'll pay no tribute to Caesar, because the merit will be my own.

In short, I will never be like that wretched ivy.  Whether I rise very high or not, I am content because I climb alone!

Here's another (translation by Gladys Thomas and Mary F. Guillemard):

Ay, and then?. . . Seek a protector, choose a patron out, And like the crawling ivy round a tree That licks the bark to gain the trunk's support, Climb high by creeping ruse instead of force? No, grammercy![2] What! I, like all the rest Dedicate verse to bankers?--play buffoon In cringing hope to see, at last, a smile Not disapproving, on a patron's lips? Grammercy, no! What! learn to swallow toads? --With frame aweary climbing stairs?--a skin Grown grimed and horny,--here, about the knees? And, acrobat-like, teach my back to bend?-- No, grammercy! Or,--double-faced and sly-- Run with the hare, while hunting with the hounds; And, oily-tongued, to win the oil of praise, Flatter the great man to his very nose? No, grammercy! Steal soft from lap to lap, --A little great man in a circle small, Or navigate, with madrigals for sails, Blown gently windward by old ladies' sighs? No, grammercy! Bribe kindly editors To spread abroad my verses? Grammercy! Or try to be elected as the pope Of tavern-councils held by imbeciles? No, grammercy! Toil to gain reputation By one small sonnet, 'stead of making many? No, grammercy! Or flatter sorry bunglers? Be terrorized by every prating paper? Say ceaselessly, 'Oh, had I but the chance Of a fair notice in the "Mercury"!' Grammercy, no! Grow pale, fear, calculate? Prefer to make a visit to a rhyme? Seek introductions, draw petitions up? No, grammercy! and no! and no again! But--sing? Dream, laugh, go lightly, solitary, free, With eyes that look straight forward--fearless voice! To cock your beaver just the way you choose,-- For 'yes' or 'no' show fight, or turn a rhyme! --To work without one thought of gain or fame, To realize that journey to the moon! Never to pen a line that has not sprung Straight from the heart within. Embracing then Modesty, say to oneself, 'Good my friend, Be thou content with flowers,--fruit,--nay, leaves, But pluck them from no garden but thine own!' And then, if glory come by chance your way, To pay no tribute unto Caesar, none, But keep the merit all your own! In short, Disdaining tendrils of the parasite, To be content, if neither oak nor elm-- Not to mount high, perchance, but mount alone!

...and just so no one can say we overlooked the obvious, let's have Babelfish take a swing at the original French:

Et que faudrait-il faire ? Chercher un protecteur puissant, prendre un patron, Et comme un lierre obscur qui circonvient un tronc Et s’en fait un tuteur en lui léchant l’écorce, Grimper par ruse au lieu de s’élever par force ? Non, merci. Dédier, comme tous ils le font, Des vers aux financiers ? se changer en bouffon Dans l’espoir vil de voir, aux lèvres d’un ministre, Naître un sourire, enfin, qui ne soit pas sinistre ? Non, merci.

And what would be necessary to make? To seek a powerful guard, to take an owner, And as an obscure ivy which thwarts a trunk And makes a tutor of it by licking the bark to him, Grimper by trick instead of rising by force? Not, thank you. To dedicate, as all they do do it, Of the worms to the financial ones? to change into a buffoon In the cheap hope to see, with the lips of a minister, To be born a smile, finally, which isn't sinister? Not, thank you.

Déjeuner, chaque jour, d’un crapaud ? Avoir un ventre usé par la marche ? une peau Qui plus vite, à l’endroit des genoux, devient sale ? Exécuter des tours de souplesse dorsale ?… Non, merci. D’une main flatter la chèvre au cou Cependant que, de l’autre, on arrose le chou, Et, donneur de séné par désir de rhubarbe, Avoir son encensoir, toujours, dans quelque barbe ? Non, merci !

To lunch, each day, of a clamping plate? To have a belly used by walk? a skin Which more quickly, at the place of the knees, becomes dirty? To carry out turns of dorsal flexibility? … Not, thank you. Of a hand to flatter the goat with the neck However that, other, one does sprinkle cabbage, And, donor of senna by rhubarb desire, To have its censer, always, in some barb? Not, thank you!

Se pousser de giron en giron, Devenir un petit grand homme dans un rond, Et naviguer, avec des madrigaux pour rames, Et dans ses voiles des soupirs de vieilles dames ? Non, merci ! Chez le bon éditeur de Sercy Faire éditer ses vers en payant ? Non, merci ! S’aller faire nommer pape par les conciles Que dans des cabarets tiennent des imbéciles ? Non, merci ! Travailler à se construire un nom Sur un sonnet, au lieu d’en faire d’autres ? Non, Merci !

To push bosom in bosom, To become a small great man in a round, And to sail, with the madrigaux ones for oars, And in its veils of the sighs of old women? Not, thank you! In the good editor Sercy To make publish his worms while paying? Not, thank you! To go itself to make name pope by the councils That in cabarets hold of the imbeciles? Not, thank you! To work to build a name On a sonnet, instead of doing others of them? Not, Thank you!

Ne découvrir du talent qu’aux mazettes ? Être terrorisé par de vagues gazettes, Et se dire sans cesse : « Oh, pourvu que je sois Dans les petits papiers du Mercure François ? »… Non, merci ! Calculer, avoir peur, être blême, Aimer mieux faire une visite qu’un poème, Rédiger des placets, se faire présenter ? Non, merci ! non, merci ! non, merci !

To discover talent only with the mazettes? To be terrorized by vague gazettes, And to say themselves unceasingly: “Oh, provided that I would be In small papers of François Mercury? ”… Not, thank you! To calculate, to be afraid, be pale, Aimer better to make a visit that a poem, To write claims, to be made present? Not, thank you! not, thank you! not, thank you!

Mais… chanter, Rêver, rire, passer, être seul, être libre, Avoir l’œil qui regarde bien, la voix qui vibre, Mettre, quand il vous plaît, son feutre de travers, Pour un oui, pour un non, se battre, – ou faire un vers ! Travailler sans souci de gloire ou de fortune, À tel voyage, auquel on pense, dans la lune ! N’écrire jamais rien qui de soi ne sortît, Et modeste d’ailleurs, se dire : mon petit, Sois satisfait des fleurs, des fruits, même des feuilles, Si c’est dans ton jardin à toi que tu les cueilles !

But… to sing, Dream, laugh, pass, be only, be free, To have the eye which looks at well, the voice which vibrates, Mettre, when you like it, its felt of through, For one yes, for not, to fight, - or to make worms! To work without preoccupation of glory or a fortune, With such voyage, of which one thinks, in the moon! Besides not to write never anything which oneself did not leave, And modest, to say themselves: my small, Would be satisfied with the flowers, the fruits, even of the sheets, If it is in your garden with you that you them pickings!

Puis, s’il advient d’un peu triompher, par hasard, Ne pas être obligé d’en rien rendre à César, Vis-à-vis de soi-même en garder le mérite, Bref, dédaignant d’être le lierre parasite, Lors même qu’on n’est pas le chêne ou le tilleul, Ne pas monter bien haut, peut-être, mais tout seul !

Then, if it occurs to a little triumph, by chance, not to be obliged of nothing to return in César, With respect to oneself to keep the merit of it, Bref, scorning to be parasitic ivy, At the time same as one is the oak or the lime, not to go up well high, perhaps, but all alone!

Now to me, what is fascinating is how each of these translations changes the flavor of the speech somewhat but nonetheless all are (literally) on the same page regarding the content.

There is no mistaking Cyrano's pride, his sense of honor, his sense of dignity.

But each translation takes a slightly different take on it, some a bit more literal, some a bit more poetic.

Translation is an art, not a science.  It is never a simple, literal word-for-word exchange.[3]

A good translator needs to know the two languages very well, and not merely the languages, but the cultures as well.  A good translator is able to see past what the writer is saying to what the writer is really saying, to find the truth of the author's original intent under all the verbiage & put that on the final page.

Ultimately, each of the above translations arrive at the same place, but the final determination of which is "best" really boils down to reader preference.

(special tip o' the plumed hat to Roger Freedman for help w/this post)




[1]  A film viewable today only in a muddy, washed out dupe of a dupe of a dupe of a truncated 16mm TV print.  Ferrar's version of Cyrano flopped at the box office in 1950, and so no effort was made to preserve the original film elements & the movie itself soon lapsed into public domain.  Any time I head some studio suit talking about the importance of maintaining copyright for all eternity, I wanna b-slap their smarmy faces remind them that they've done a piss pretty poor job of maintaining their libraries when there wasn't any immediate $$$ in it for them...

[2]  "Grammercy" is an archaic French spelling of "gramercy" which in eventually came to be an expression of surprise or astonishment (as in "Great heavens!") but originally, literally meant "great thanks" (which implies some bigger than than normal expression of gratitude as opposed to "merci beaucoup" which means "a great many thanks").  Interestingly enough, it captures the spirit of Cyrano even if it is far from a literal translation of the lines.

[3]  Then it's a code, not a language.

Conversation #11,127

Conversation #11,125