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The Translation of Intention


When asked, during an interview earlier this year, about the chord that is struck throughout Martin Crimp’s version of Rostand’s Cyrano de Beregac (originally published in French in 1897), between ‘staying true to the original’ and yet feeling ‘contemporary and relevant’, James McAvoy – who portrays the eponymous – proceeds to explain the importance of what he terms the ‘translation of intention.’

Beginning by saying, ‘well, it’s a translation, and it’s an adaptation’, he poses the question: ‘why translate something […] and pretend to be from a time gone by; how do you know what people really spoke like back then?’

He proposes that the ‘translation of intention’ is by no means ‘playing down’ or ‘dumbing down’ the original version of something, but is rather ‘being true to what translation actually means’; it is not merely the translation of language, but also that of intention and meaning, ‘and that changes with time.’

My curiosity was immediately piqued, not least by the poetic twang of this ‘translation of intention’, but also because it made me consider the concept of translation in a way that I had not properly done so before.

At university, for example, translation was all about accuracy and, in as much as idiomatic fluency was encouraged, there was nevertheless a fine line between thinking outside the box and straying too far from it; everything in moderation, including moderation – though, alas, the vast majority of translation tutorials were distinctly lacking in Wilde’s wit.

Translation was all about accuracy, specifically linguistic accuracy. We were taught to look at the words and the phrases, to think about what they meant, and to replace them with appropriate words and phrases from the second language. As McAvoy astutely observes, however, ‘it’s not just the translation of language.’

Indeed, his placing of ‘translation’ and ‘adaptation’ alongside each other in the same breath is significant. In particular, it is significant when considered, in turn, alongside the words of Anthony Burgess, who, incidentally, himself published a translation Cyrano in 1991, and who suggests that ‘translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.’

When considering, last week, the Italian philosophy of dolce far niente, I referred to it in English as ‘the sweetness of doing nothing’; this is the most broadly accepted ‘translation’ of the Italian proverb and it works very well, making perfect sense, both grammatically and semantically.

I also alluded, however, to a proverb of our own that exists within the English language: the idea of it being ‘the small things in life’. I remember being puzzled by this: it’s the small things that do what? But I suppose that’s the point: they don’t really do anything, and yet, somehow, they are sufficient, satisfying, sweet: as such, it is enough to say that it is, quite simply, ‘the small things in life.’


Thus, it occurred to me that, insofar as the ‘translation of intention’ is concerned, ‘it’s the small things in life’ is an even more effective and true translation of dolce far niente than ‘the sweetness of doing nothing’; though not carrying the same linguistic parallels, it encompasses much more of the cultural significance that Burgess identifies as tantamount. It also encompasses the same sentiment – and, by extension, meaning – that McAvoy deems conceptually intrinsic to translation itself.

To return to the idea of adaptation, McAvoy observes how, naturally, things like meaning and the way people talk change with and over time. Cyrano retains a timelessness that makes it ‘accessible to all people’; ‘there are young people here now, too, who’ve never seen theatre before in their lives and they’re watching it, they’re applauding, they’re cheering.’

Of course, this is, in part, due to the sentiments explored throughout the play – ‘as much as this is all stripped back, it is still the quintessential story of Cyrano, Roxanne, and Christian’ – but it is also due to Crimp’s capacity to act as ‘an ambassador for the youth of London’ –giving the people what they want, as it were, but, crucially, in their own words and on their own terms.

In this sense, it is, ultimately, the ‘translation of intention’ that facilitates such timelessness; the story remains the same, but, in order for it to remain universally accessible – and, moreover, appealing – it must be adapted, sympathetically and insightfully.

The same goes for book adaptations, a source of enduring consternation in their own right: it is a case of interpretation, rather than imitation. Naturally, it would be impossible to convey the exact same meaning in the exact same way in a book as it would be in a film; thus, we can but allow for an interpretation to be realised within an alternative art form, in order that the original intention might at least stay the same.

As McAvoy also points out, their version is ‘not trying to teach’; the intricacies of human nature, about which Rostand originally wrote, are within us all, innately. It is, therefore, instead a question of presenting the message of the original version – its intention – in a way that is fitting and appropriate to the time in which it is being presented, in order that this intention remains wholly engaging and recognisable.

Arguably, then, it is only through this process of adaptation that original intention is immortalised; if we were to always insist upon direct re-enactments that bore comparatively little relevance to future realities, the original intention would be rendered less pertinent. One might even say, ironically, that something had been lost in translation.

Indeed, the saying ‘lost in translation’ is effective when discussing the ‘translation of intention’ because it, too, refers to translation in its broadest sense – almost metaphorically. When something is lost in translation, this something invariably refers to the original meaning; it might be due to a mistranslated word, but, ultimately, these words are vessels for what has really been lost: their intention.

McAvoy mentions how, in their production of Cyrano – in all its ‘stripped-back’ glory – it is the words that must do ‘the heavy lifting’. It strikes me that this much is true within life generally; it is words that give life to meaning, that gives light to intention, that makes the evolution of its translation both possible and necessary in the first place.

Certainly, the mark of a good translation is to never appear as such. Demonstrably, too, ‘translation is not a matter of words only’, though they certainly lie at the heart of it all; taking away meaning as quickly as they give it. McAvoy refers to them as ‘superpowers’, a sentiment that both epitomises Rostand’s original intention and requires, for now, I fancy, no further translation.


- Cleo O’Callaghan Yeoman


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