Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Reading Waiting for Godot in Translation

Michael Sedano

We founded La Bloga to share our enjoyment of Chicana Chicano Literature and arts. It’s been a rewarding experience. It was most cool to receive Tu Ciudad Magazine’s “Best Blog” award. And recently I learned La Bloga was listed as among the top 10 literary blogs by “Best of Blogs” website.

Such recognition is its own reward and it feels great! But our raison d’etre remains our love of writing and writing about literature. Please note the lack of adjectives there, writing, literature.

Being Chicanos--and one Chicana--our interests reflect the diversity of our culture. Thus La Bloga's reviews and views will always include talk of Mexican and other Spanish-language writers. Just as appropriately, La Bloga's writers explore other Unitedstates and world literatures that pique a reviewer's interest. As a result, La Bloga's visitors have enjoyed reviews of Margaret Atwood, Walter Mosley, David Mamet, Khaled Hosseini, Paco Taibo, Jose Latour, Charles Bukowski. The point being, Chicano critics are not different from any gente. We enjoy quality whatever its origins.

Another theme motivating the founding of La Bloga is the persistent question “What is ‘chicano’?” I admit, I weary of the question. In part, because the question is irrelevant. We are who we are. In part, because the question doesn’t have a satisfying, nor satisfactory response. Here, for example, is a graf attacking the question written by a superb chicano poet, Rigoberto Gonzales, who observes,

Which leads me to my next point: the need to keep that word, Chicano, viable and relevant. When a poet identifies as Latino it is a choice, but it is a choice of convenience, of not turning the label into a lesson in history or politics or specific ethnic identity. It is a safe choice. I make it all the time in order to establish an alliance with other Latino poets and writers. But usually I’m addressing a white audience. It saves me time from explaining to the college educated what they should know about their own country’s history: What is a Chicano? What is Chicano literature? But when I do want to demonstrate my commitment to activism, I announce that I am a Chicano because I don’t want others to forget that I have not forgotten my legacy and my pledge to a movement: to be an activist with ink. Those who claim that I am limiting myself are demonstrating their ignorance of Chicano literature.

All this, I suppose, to account for my topic today. What in the world is a chicano critic doing writing about Samuel Beckett?

Two responses. I like Samuel Beckett. Samuel Beckett is coming to town.

I like Beckett’s work a lot. Back in 1967, my college Senior Year, I had the pleasure of a seminar in the prose fiction. Whoa! Didn’t that open my eyes. I, as most students of literature, enjoyed a familiarity with Godot—I suspect Life magazine, or maybe it was Playhouse 90, or maybe it was Walter Cronkite—had lionized Zero Mostel’s Broadway version. Dang, that is ancient history. I wonder how many readers have recently read anything by Beckett? Or attended a performance?

Later this month, UCLA hosts an Irish teatro company doing oral interpretations from several of the novels, and a staging of Godot. I have tickets. Hence, after Imix Books of Eagle Rock delivered my copy of Grove Press’ centenary edition of Beckett’s prose work, and its bilingual edition of En Attendant Godot / Waiting for Godot, I started re-reading that stuff from my long-ago youth.

And what a surprise. I’d never read Godot in French, and even if I had, I doubt I would have done a cross-cultural reading. What a perplexing bit of fun I’m having. So much, I recommend you do likewise. (Sidebar: I speak and read French as a result of the University of California's absurd rule that Spanish was not an academic language in 1963, so the language of Cervantes, my grandparents, and my parents, was forbidden for graduation credit. Chingao!)

Beckett’s been accused of membership in something called a “theatre of the absurd.” Don’t know that I ever agreed with that. Watt, Molloy, Malone Dies are interesting, complicated novels. Not at all “absurd,” but the term offers a convenient shorthand for critics who prefer not to deal directly with the text at hand. Ditto Godot--it's too good to be forced into a stereotype. What makes Waiting for Godot all the more fun is Beckett’s translation of his own French into his own English. It is not identical; things said in French aren't repeated in English, and vice versa. This isn't absurdity, it's perplexity.

As I started the read, the initial variances struck me as, perhaps, economies by the publisher to provide stage direction in one or the other language, but not both, as a way of economizing on paper. Not an entirely satisfactory analysis, but it fit the bill. Then, as I read on, it becomes evident the the author is doing something quite curious with the text. For example, in English, Lucky is called a pig far more frequently on the right hand page (English) than the left. Check this out, Act 1: (several diacritics absent, apologies; dommage).

Pozzo [a Lucky] – Tu entends?
Estragon – Il ne refuse jamais?
Pozzo – Je vous expliquerai ça tout a l’heure. [a Lucky.] Danse, pouacre!
[Lucky depose valise et panier, avance un peu vers la rampe se tourne vers Pozzo. Estragon se leve pour mieux voir. Lucky danse. Il s’arrete.

Pozzo – Do you hear hog?
Estragon – He never refuses?
Pozzo – He refused once. [Silence.] Dance, misery!
[Lucky puts down bag and basket advances towards front, turns to Pozzo. Lucky dances. He stops.]

On the left, Pozzo asks Lucky, simply, if Lucky understands; in English, Lucky gets called hog. Then the stage direction on the left side has some business for Estragon that is absent on the right, that he tippy-toes for a better view.

Minor stuff, one might think. Join me in Act 2, page 286 / 287:

Left hand side
Estragon – Il est la?
Vladimir – Mais regarde. [Geste.] Pour le moment il est inerte. Mais il peut se déchainer d’un instant a l’autre.
Estragon – Si on lui donnait une bonne correction tous le deux?
Vladimir – Tu veux dire, si on lui tombait dessus pendent qu’il dort?
Estragon – Oui.
Vladimir – C’est une bonne idée. Mais en sommes-nous capables? Dort-il vraiment? [Un temps.] Non, le mieux serait de profiter de ce que Pozzo appelle au secours pour le secourir, en tablant sur sa reconnaissance.
Estragon – Mais il ne…

Right hand side, the Anglophone audience gets four extra speeches:
Estragon – Is he there?
Vladimir – As large as life. [Gestures towards Lucky.] For the moment he is inert. But he might run amuck any minute.
Pozzo – Help!
Estragon – And suppose we gave him a good beating the two of us.
Vladimir – You mean if we fell on him in his sleep?
Estragon – Yes.
Vladimir – That seems a good idea all right. But could we do it? Is he really asleep? [Pause.] No, the best would be to take advantage of Pozzo’s calling for help—
Pozzo – Help!
Vladimir – To help him—
Estragon – We help him?
Vladimir – In anticipation of some tangible return.
Estragon – And suppose he—

Wow. And there's a lot more of this. Is it absurd? Quien sabe, but sabes que, it’s going to be puro fun attending the performance. So I’ve looked at both sides now, I see there’s no illusion to recall (thanks, Joni) and I’ll just have to sit there in Freud Playhouse and take it all in.

Maybe I'll see you there?

La Bloga invites guest columnists to share something close to your heart. We are a Chicana Chicano Literature site, indeed, but so what? If you're a purist, then here's a tip: Beckett is a chicano.

So, that is Tuesday, November 7, 2006, a day like any other day, except you are here, and it is election day all over the United States. Vote, raza! Vote, readers!


Anonymous said...

Interesting stuff you did here about the translation, Sedano.

Waiting was always one of my favorites, but my French was only high school caliber.

Anonymous said...

Beckett is a Chicano! Loved your post.

"I use the words you taught me.
If they don't mean anything anymore,
teach me others. Or let me be silent."


Take care,
Manuel L.

Anonymous said...

The very first time (of a few) I saw a live performance of Waiting for Godot was in Madrid, Spain---in Spanish, of course, and loved it. Come to think of it, the very first time I saw a live performance (though I'd read it of course) of Hamlet was in Madrid, Spain---in Spanish, of course, and loved that. Thank god for translators.