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UBU-ing a Theatre-Translation: Defense and Illustration

The contemporary American poet Ron Padgett, who has given us wonderful translations of Blaise Cendrars and Guillaume Apollinaire, once said that his motive in translating was feeling "I want to tell my friends about this!" when he encountered a new poet in a language his friends did not read. My translation of Ubu roi comes from a similar source: the wish to show my students what Alfred Jarry did in creating his one masterpiece: Ubu roi.

I was teaching a course in Modernism in the Comparative Literature Program at Smith College. I wanted my class to see how this strange, hilarious play prefigured (in 1896!) the assault against propriety, "naturalist" or "Aristotelian" theatre , and art in general that would be taken up by futurism, dada and a few other Modernist movements in the first quarter of the twentieth century. (Twenty-five years before Brecht, Jarry urged that his play be presented with an array of "Brechtian" devices, as we might say today: printed signs instead of realistic sets, elimination of local color, and so forth. (Jarry, 412-13.) ) I wanted them to feel its wildness. I thought the existing translations did not convey the savage weirdness of Jarry's play, still less its untamed linguistic invention. "After us, the savage god," said W.B. Yeats, talking about what being pro-Ubu meant at its riotous opening night in Paris; he was there, and he was right.

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.) The word-ending -re runs through the play from one end to the other, sometimes on real words, sometimes as a suffix appended by Jarry. It is such a consistent feature of the play's language that for this and other reasons perhaps "an invented dialect" would be more appropriate than "an idiolect" to describe the language of Ubu roi. Contemporary slang is mixed with fake archaisms; highfalutin literary vocabulary and diction—most often wildly incorrect—brusquely alternate with vulgar language and the linguistic and physical gestures of slapstick farce. Ubu's consistent use of invented oaths (like the "candlestick" above) and a whole vocabulary of recurrent neologisms all contribute to the construction of Ubuese, or Ubuench. So does the constant false referentiality, as Ubu talks of an invented figure as if it referred to something already known: "Bring me my phynancial horse."

Jarry himself suggested the "adoption of an 'accent' or better still a special 'voice' for the main character." (Jarry, 413.) The American translator must not be afraid to construct an equivalently odd and consistent dialect in American English.

Paradoxically, the translator also needs to overcome a fear of seeming inconsistent and, for reasons connected to this inconsistency, downright childish. Fat Papa Ubu changes registers, and moods, not like a developing theatrical character, but like a very small child. When Ubu was first put on, people were offended by the unrestrained juvenility of it all: the language is not so much obscene as childishly scatological. And we know that the play was originally a schoolboy farce, a puppet-play that Jarry and his pals had worked up to make fun of an unpopular teacher in their school. Just as a child may imitate a grownup's gravitas one moment, and speak baby-talk the next, so Ubu moves from the language of historical tragedy to that of childish farce (or childish reality, as in "Ooooh!," "Booo!," "Hey!"), and then again to language of its own invention—often in the same sentence. Childishness and consistent inconsistency of tone should be part of the translation.

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. (For a different view, see Venuti. For an approach closer to mine, see Lefevere, particularly in Translating Poetry.) 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.

This is an ethical as much as an esthetic position: the author has the right to have her words translated as accurately as possible. But what if, as so often happens, the poetic effect, or the connotation, or the phonetic pattern of the source text would be lost if lexical accuracy were maintained? (After all, my dissatisfaction with previous Ubu translations was not based on their lexical inaccuracy.) Let me dodge the question by saying that sometimes hard choices have to be made, and translation is often the art of compromise. Sometimes imitation rather than literalness really is the best choice. A more complete answer to the question is to be found in the translated text presented below.

How did I move from this view of translation to that text? The first step was to find an English equivalent for the suffix -re which ends so many of Jarry's words in Ubu roi , beginning with merdre. And before readers turn to the translation, I would ask them to consider what Jarry announced at the very end of the little speech he gave to present his play in the theatre on opening night: "As for the action, which is about to begin, it takes place in Poland—that is, Nowhere." Quant à l'action, qui va commencer, elle se passe en Pologne, c'est-à-dire Nulle Part. (Jarry, 342.)

When I found an equivalent that satisfied me (in fact, to be honest, it positively tickled me), I translated the first word of the play with lexical and, I hoped, poetic accuracy, went on from there, and enjoyed myself. In fact it seemed to me that I was writing the play as Jarry would, if English were his language—an illusion, no doubt, and in any case exactly the position I have just rejected. But translation is an art of compromise, and in this case, while lexical accuracy is still important, it seemed to me that to "get" Ubu, the basic stance of the translator should be one that Douglas Robinson calls for in The Translator’s Turn: the translator as entertainer. I hope the reader will be entertained by what follows.

Works Cited

Jarry, Alfred. Ubu: Ubu roi, Ubu cocu, Ubu enchaîné, Ubu sur la Butte. Edited by Noël Arnaud and Henri Bordillon. Paris: Gallimard/Folio, 1978.

Lefevere, André. Translating poetry : Seven Strategies and a Blueprint. Assen: Van Goroum, 1975.

---. Translating literature: Practice and Theory in a Comparative Literature Context. New York : Modern Language Association of America, 1992.

Robinson, Douglas. The Translator's Turn. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1991.

Venuti, Lawrence. The Scandals of Translation: Towards an Ethics of Difference. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.

Alfred Jarry

translated from the French by David Ball



Papa Ubu Michael Fedorovitch
Mama Ubu Nobles
Captain Barbage Magistrates
King Wenceslas, Queen Rosemonde and their sons:
Boleslas Ladislas
Lackeys of Phynance Phynanciers
Peasants Councilors
General Laski The Whole Russian Army
Stanislas Leczinsky The Whole Polish Army
Johannes Sobiesky Mama Ubu's Guards
Nicholas Rensky A Captain
Emperor Alexei A Bear
Tail The Phynancial Horse
Heads Knighties
The Disembraining Machine Conspirators and Soldiers
The Ship's Captain, The Crew Crowds

PAPA UBU: Shitsky!
MAMA UBU: Oh! such language! Papa Ubu, thou art a big bad boy.
PAPA UBU: What stoppeth me from slaying thee, Mama Ubu?
MAMA UBU: It is not I, Papa Ubu, it is someone else who should be assassinated.
PAPA UBU: By my green candlestick, I understand not.
MAMA UBU: What, Papa Ubu, are you happy with your lot?
PAPA UBU: By my green candlestick, shitsky! my dear, verily, verily, I am happy. A man could be happy with less: captain of the Dragoons, an officer who has the confidence of King Wenceslas, decorated with the Order of the Red Eagle of Poland, and former King of Aragon, what more could you want?
MAMA UBU: What! You, who were once King of Aragon, you now think it's good enough to march in a parade at the head of forty attendants armed with cabbage-cutters?when after the crown of Aragon you could place the crown of Poland on your noggin?
PAPA UBU: Ah, Mama Ubu, I can't understand a word you say.
MAMA UBU: You're so dumb!
PAPA UBU: By my green candlestick, King Wenceslas is still very much alive; and even assuming he dies, does he not have swarms of children?
MAMA UBU: What's stopping you from massacrating the whole family
and taking their place?
PAPA UBU: Ah, Mama Ubu, you are insulting me and you will soon get dumped into the lobster-pot.
MAMA UBU: Ah! miserable wretch, if I got dumped into the lobster pot, who then would mend the seat of your pants?
PAPA UBU: Hey, come on! Don't I have an ass like everybody else?
MAMA UBU: If I were you, it's that very ass I'd want to put on a throne. You could get infinitely rich, eat stuffed sausage all the time, and drive through the streets in a horse and carriage.
PAPA UBU: If I were King, I'd have a big cape made like the one I had in Aragon that those rascally Spaniards impudently stole from me.
MAMA UBU: You could also get an umbrella and a big pea-jacket that goes all the way down to your heels.
PAPA UBU: Oh, I'll give in to the temptation. For shitsky's sakesky, for sakesky's shitsky, if I ever meet him somewhere in the woods, he'll have a hard time of it.
MAMA UBU: Oh good! Papa Ubu, now you have become a real man.
PAPA UBU: Oh no! a Captain of the Dragoons massacrating the King of Poland! Never! I'd die first!
MAMA UBU: (aside) Oh, shitsky! (to Ubu:) So, you will remain poor as a church-rat, Papa Ubu.
PAPA UBU: Oddsbellyzooks, by my green candleskick, I'd rather be poor as a good thin rat than rich as a wicked fat cat.
MAMA UBU: What about the cape? and the umbrella? and the great big pea-jacket?
PAPA UBU: Well, what about them, Mama Ubu? Who needs them? (He exits, slamming the door.)
MAMA UBU: Crapsky, shitsky, he was an old meanie, but crapsky, shitsky, I do think I have shaken him. Thank God!—and myself. In a week I may be Queen of Poland.

The stage represents a room in Papa Ubu's house where a splendid table is laid.
MAMA UBU: Ooh, our guests are really late.
PAPA UBU: Yes, by my green candlestick. I'm dying of hunger. Mama Ubu, you are quite ugly today. Is it because we're having guests for dinner?
MAMA UBU (shrugging): Shitsky.
PAPA UBU (grabbing a roast chicken ):Hey, I'm hungry. I am going to bite into this bird. It is a chicken, I believe. Hey, this isn't bad at all!
MAMA UBU: What are you doing, you wretch? What will our guests eat?
PAPA UBU: There will be quite enough for them. I won't touch another thing. Mama Ubu, go to the window and see if our guests are coming.
MAMA UBU (going there): I don't see anything. (Meanwhile Papa Ubu filches a slice of veal.)
MAMA UBU: Ah, here are Captain Barbage and his followers. What are you eating, Papa Ubu?
PAPA UBU: Nothing?a little veal.
MAMA UBU: Ooooh, the veal! the veal! veal! He ate the veal! Help!
PAPA UBU: By my green candlestick, I'm going to scratch out thine eyes! (The door opens.)

(PAPA UBU, MAMA UBU, CAPTAIN BARBAGE and his followers.)
MAMA UBU: Good evening, gentlemen. We have been waiting for you impatiently. Do be seated.
CAPTAIN BARBAGE: Good evening, Madam. But where is Papa Ubu?
PAPA UBU: Here I am, here I am! Gadzookspot, by my green candlestick, I'm fat enough to be easily visible.
CAPTAIN BARBAGE: Good day, Papa Ubu. Be seated, men. (They all sit.)
PAPA UBU: Whew! I almost went right through my chair.
CAPTAIN BARBAGE: Hey, Ubu! what've you got that's good today?
MAMA UBU: Here's the menu.
PAPA UBU: Ah, this is interesting.
MAMA UBU: Polish soup, ratsky cutlets, veal, chicken, paté of dog, turkey rumps, charlotte russe.
PAPA UBU: Hey! that's quite enough, it seems to me. Is there anything else?
MAMA UBU (continuing): Ice-pudding, salad, fruit, dessert, oatmeal, Jerusalem artichokes, cauliflower à la shitsky.
PAPA UBU: Hey! who do you think I am, the Emperor of the East, to spend that much?
MAMA UBU: Don't listen to him, he's a half-wit.
PAPA UBU: Ooh! I'm going to sharpen my teeth against your calves.
MAMA UBU: Have dinner instead, Papa Ubu. Here's some of the Polish.
PAPA UBU: Oddzooksky! it's terrible!
CAPTAIN BARBAGE: Indeed, it is not good.
MAMA UBU: You barbarians, what more do you want?
PAPA UBU (striking his forehead ): Ah! I have an idea. I'll be back in a minute. (He exits.)
MAMA UBU: Gentlemen, we are going to sample the veal.
CAPTAIN BARBAGE: It's very good, I'm done.
MAMA UBU: Not the rumps.
CAPTAIN BARBAGE: Exquisite, exquisite! Long live Mama Ubu!
ALL: Long live Mama Ubu.
PAPA UBU (coming back on stage ): And soon you'll shout long live Papa Ubu! (He is holding an incredibly disgusting toilet brush which he throws into the midst of the banquet.)
MAMA UBU: Wretch, what have you done?
PAPA UBU: Just taste that! (several taste it and fall, poisoned.)
PAPA UBU: Mama Ubu, pass me the ratsky cutlets so that I can serve them.
MAMA UBU: Here they are.
PAPA UBU: Everybody, out! Captain Barbage, I'd like to have a few words with you.
THE OTHERS: Hey, we haven't had dinner!
PAPA UBU: What do you mean, you haven't had dinner! Everybody out! Stay, Barbage. (Nobody moves.)
PAPA UBU: You haven't left? By my green candlestick, I'm going to knock you out with ratsky cutlets. (He begins to throw some at them.)
ALL: Oh! Help! Defend us! alas, I am dead!
PAPA UBU: Shitsky, shitsky, shitsky. Out! I'm really making a hit.
ALL: Every man for himself! Wretched Papa Ubu! the traitor, the beggarly ruffian!
PAPA UBU: Ah, they're gone. I can breathe again, but I have dined most execrably. Come, Barbage.
(They exit with MAMA UBU.)

PAPA UBU: Well, Captain, have you dined well?
CAPTAIN BARBAGE: Quite well, sir, except for the shitsky.
PAPA UBU: Hey, the shitsky wasn't bad.
MAMA UBU: To each his own.
PAPA UBU: Captain Barbage, I have decided to make you Duke of Lithuania.
CAPTAIN BARBAGE: What? I thought you were poor as a beggar, Papa Ubu.
PAPA UBU: In a few days, if you wish, I shall reign over Poland.
CAPTAIN BARBAGE: You're going to kill Wenceslas?
PAPA UBU: He's no dumbbell, the little bugger, he's guessed it.
CAPTAIN BARBAGE: If it's a matter of killing Wenceslas, count me in. I am his mortal enemy, and I'll answer for my men.
PAPA UBU (throwing himself on him to embrace him): Oh, oh! I love you dearly, Barbage!
CAPTAIN BARBAGE: Hey, you stink, Papa Ubu. Don't you ever wash?
PAPA UBU: Rarely.
MAMA UBU: Never!
PAPA UBU: I'm going to stamp on thy toes!
MAMA UBU: You big shitsky!
PAPA UBU: All right, Barbage, I have finished talking to you. But by my green candlestick, I swear on Mama Ubu here I'll make you Duke of Lithuania.
MAMA UBU: But. . .
PAPA UBU: Be still, my child.
(They exit.)

PAPA UBU: Sirrah, what would you? Beat it, scram! You're getting on my nerves.
MESSENGER: Sir, you are summoned by the King. (He exits.)
PAPA UBU: Oooooh! shitsky, oddsbellyzooksy, by my green candlestick, I am discovered, I am going to be beheaded! Alas, alas!
MAMA UBU: What a milksop! and time presses.
PAPA UBU: Oh! I have an idea! I'll say it was Mama Ubu and Barbage.
MAMA UBU: Ah, Big Ubu, if you do that. . .
PAPA UBU: Hey! I'm going there right away. (He exits.)
MAMA UBU: Oh, Poppa Ubu, Poppa Ubu, I'll give you stuffed sausage. . . (She exits.)
PAPA UBU (from the wings) : Oh! shitsky! you're a fine stuffed sausage yourself!

The king's palace.
(KING WENCESLAS, surrounded by his officers; BARBAGE; the king's sons: BOLESLAS, LADISLAS and BUGGERLAS. Then, PAPA UBU.)
PAPA UBU (entering): Oh! you know, I didn't do it, it was Mama Ubu and Barbage.
THE KING: What's the matter, Papa Ubu?
BARBAGE: He has had too much to drink.
THE KING: So did I this morning.
PAPA UBU: Yes, I'm drunk; it's because I drank too much French wine.
THE KING: Papa Ubu, I wish to reward you for your many services as Captain of the Dragoons, and I hereby name you Count of Sandomir.
PAPA UBU: Oh Mr. Wenceslas, I hardly know how to thank you.
THE KING: Do not thank me, Papa Ubu; and appear in our grand review tomorrow morning.
PAPA UBU: I'll be there, but do accept, I beg of you, this little party noisemaker. (He presents a coiled-up noisemaker to the king.)
THE KING: At my age, what do you expect me to do with a noisemaker? I'll give it to Buggerlas.
YOUNG BUGGERLAS: Boy, is Papa Ubu dumb!
PAPA UBU: And now, I'm gonna split . (As he turns around, he falls down.) Oh! ow! help! By my green candlestick, I've broken my intestine and split my bagpipe!
THE KING (helping him up) : Papa Ubu, art thou hurt?
PAPA UBU: Yea, verily, and I'm sure I'm going to drop dead. Oh what will become of Mama Ubu?
THE KING: We shall provide for her.
PAPA UBU: You are kind indeed. (He exits.) Yes, but, King Wenceslas, you shall be massacrated nonetheless.

Papa Ubu's house.
PAPA UBU: Hey! my dear friends, it is high time we drew up the plan for our conspiracy. Let each man give his opinion. First I'll give mine, if you permit..
PAPA UBU: Well, friends, my opinion is we just poison the King by stuffing some arsenic into his lunch. When he begins to graze on it he'll drop dead and so I'll be king.
EVERYBODY: Fie on you, you big ape! Fie, fie!
PAPA UBU: So, you don't like that? Then let Barbage give his opinion.
CAPTAIN BARBAGE: My opinion is, to take a big sword and slit him from his guggle to his zatch.
EVERYBODY: Yes! That is noble and valiant.
PAPA UBU: And what if he kicks you? Now I remember that for his reviews, he puts on iron shoes that really hurt. If I thought that's what you were going to do I'd run and turn you in, to get out of this dirty business, and I think he'd also give me some change.
MAMA UBU: Oh! the traitor, the coward, the villainous downright miser.
EVERYBODY: Booo, Papa Ubu!
PAPA UBU: Now, gentlemen, be still, if you don't want to pay a visit to my pockets. All right, I agree to put myself in danger for you. So, Barbage, you'll take care of slitting the King from one end to the other.
CAPTAIN BARBAGE: And wouldn't it be better if we all jumped on him at the same time, yelling and screaming? That way we have a chance of getting his troops to go along with us.
PAPA UBU: O.K., here goes. I'll try to step on his toes, he'll jump, then I'll say to him: SHITSKY! and at that signal you all jump him.
MAMA UBU: Yes, and as soon as he's dead you'll take his scepter and his crown.
CAPTAIN BARBAGE: And I'll run after the royal family with my men.
PAPA UBU: Yes, and I especially recommend young Buggerlas to your attention. (They exit.)
PAPA UBU (running after them and making them come back): Gentlemen, we have forgotten an indispensable ceremony, we must vow to fight valiantly.
CAPTAIN BARBAGE: How can we do that? We don't have a priest.
PAPA UBU: Mama Ubu will fill in for one.
EVERYBODY: So be it.
PAPA UBU: So, you swear to really kill the king?
EVERYBODY: Yes we do. Long live Papa Ubu!