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Tartuffe

Tartuffe

by Molière

Analysis: Writing Style

Well, you see…

Translations are like snowflakes: no two are exactly alike. Molière wrote Tartuffe in French in verse. Each line is twelve syllables long. It's what we academic, poetical types call an alexandrine; don't worry about the specifics. The lines themselves are arranged in rhyming couplets. Here's a sample from the original French. Don't worry if you don't understand it:

C'est véritablement la tour de Babylone,
Car chacun y babille, et tout du long de l'aune
.

Each line has twelve syllables, and the final word of each line rhymes. In this case, the rhythm of the words within the line is not as important as in, say, Shakespeare where most everything is written in unrhymed iambic pentameter (a.k.a. blank verse) and has pretty steady rhythm.

Now, when translating Molière, everyone has his or her own style. All our quotes happen to be taken from Richard Wilbur's translation of Tartuffe. Wilbur decided to mix things up a bit. His version is still in verse, complete with rhyming couplets, but he's chosen to get rid of the alexandrines. He's replaced them with those ten-syllable long lines that Shakespeare liked so much. So now we get:

Parties are towers of Babylon, because
The guests all babble on with never a pause.
(1.1.34)

The rhythm of the line isn't perfect – you really have to treat "towers" and "never" as one-syllable words to fit it into the form. Still the translation reproduces the feeling of the original French pretty well.

Some translators choose to forego the verse altogether. In her recent prose translation, Prudence L. Steiner puts it this way:

Honest folks' heads are spinning with confusion; no wonder that the other day a wise man called it a second tower of Babylon. Everyone babbles on and on and on.

You still get the same message. The Babylon/babble on pun is still in there, but there's no rhyming and there's no enforced rhythm.

Which one is better? Well, we can't really say. Some people think all that rhyming is cheesy, but it is in the original French version. In the end, it's really just about choice, and what feels right. You'll probably just have to deal with whatever translation you're given if you're reading this for school, but if this is just for a bit of fun, well, check things out before you pick a version. There are many different ways to say the same thing, and sometimes they're all great. If you want that witty, quick feel, maybe you want to stick with verse. If you want things a little heavier – and Tartuffe can get pretty heavy – maybe go with the prose. The choice is yours.

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