Afterword to Cyrano de Bergerac’s The Other World
by Don Webb
The “Afterword” takes the form of a conversation with the translator. You may use this index to jump to various questions, if you like.
Why did you translate The Other World? Hasn’t it already been done?
Yes, other translations exist in print, but there’s been none on the Internet that I know of — until now. And I can’t imagine a print translation being made available on the Net. You can find lots of references to L’Autre Monde as “one of the first great classics of science fiction.” But who’s read it? It was like what Mark Twain said about the weather: everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. I decided to do something about it.
There are good precedents. Voltaire’s philosophical tale “Micromégas” is also considered a “classic of early science fiction.” It’s very well known and easily accessible, and it’s easy to read in the original. But in comparison to Cyrano’s novel, it is tame.
Did you use other translations?
No. Why repeat what others have already done? And I didn’t feel I needed them; I have my own style: respect the ideas and figures of speech, and use modern English syntax. Believe me, anyone trying to match Cyrano sentence for sentence is just plain doomed.
So who has read it?
Specialists in 17th-century French literature; historians of philosophy and science; a few graduate students. There’s a lot of scholarly literature about Cyrano...
Don’t undergraduate French majors read it?
Maybe an excerpt or two. But they typically don’t have a clue what the whole novel is like. Cyrano writes in early modern French; even native French speakers of today would find it takes a while to get used to.
Why would anyone want to read it now? As you say, it’s 350 years old...
Star Trek is set in an equally distant future. But we think — we can think — of the future only as a modified form of the present. For example, the Deep Space 9 episode “Far Beyond the Stars” makes a point of that. It depicts characters in the 20th century dreaming of the 24th-century space station. I’ve tried to show Cyrano as doing somewhat the same thing, only we are the ones living in his future.
Who is your audience, then? And how did you try to reach them?
Scholars and specialists ought to read the original. I wanted to reach a more general audience: science fiction writers and fans, undergraduate humanities majors, even intellectually curious high-school students. And that created a couple of problems...
The first was relatively simple: there are no chapters in the novel, and nobody is going to read it straight through without taking a breath. I began by translating the first “episode.” It’s like a scene in a long dramatic script. As the work went on, episodes turned out to be a very practical arrangement, both for me and, I think, for readers, as well.
Wait... Do you mean you hadn’t read the whole novel before you started translating it? Didn’t that cause problems?
No, it’s a myth that a translator must read an entire work before translating it. I would read the whole thing first only if it were very short. The translator’s working rule is quite practical: just plunge right in and do it. I often didn’t know where or how an episode would end. I sometimes didn’t know how a sentence would end. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s how escort interpreters work. And that’s how we read — how we have to read — anything, anyway; at least for the first time.
Why do you use the term “episode” rather than “chapter”?
A chapter can contain more than one episode. A division into chapters is more subjective. If you want chapters, you might arrange them this way:
Or you may choose another arrangement. Give the chapters any titles you like. That’s what I did with the episodes.
You mentioned a second problem in reaching your intended audience.
It ties in with what we were talking about a moment ago. I wanted to share the experience of a reader coming to the novel for the first time. I could look at the novel from the point of view of the general reader rather than as a translator — let alone as a specialist, which I am not, by the way. Many things that were common knowledge in Cyrano’s time are obscure today, and my approach was a big help in gauging when to add notes and comments. I’m pleased with the result, and I’ve made only cosmetic revisions.
When revising, did you find anything that needed a note and that you’d overlooked?
One thing in particular comes to mind. I hadn’t realized how persistent and deeply ingrained the notion was that the world was flat. The great navigators of the 15th and 16th centuries — and some others — knew better, but what about everybody else? I was clued in to the problem by a peculiar passage in episode 7:
The animals that came to drink — they were more capable of reason than those of our world — seemed surprised to see that it was broad daylight on the horizon while they saw the sun at the antipodes, and they almost dared not lean over the edge for fear of falling into the firmament.
Why does Cyrano mention the antipodes? I think he’s making an elaborate, sarcastic joke. The animals see the sun’s reflection in the water. They’re smarter than Earth animals and have a kind of “flat-Moon” cosmology; they’re afraid of falling off into space. And that means that Earthlings who think the world is flat are merely animals, perhaps like the dogs in episode 39.
Well okay, but why make the joke at all unless the belief were still common that the world was flat? That led me back to episode 5 and St. Augustine’s image of the stove lid and orange. And that led me to discover that Church doctrine actually held that no one could possibly live at the antipodes, on the underside of the world. The notion had come from some far-fetched interpretations of the Bible. People thought it confirmed their view that the world was flat, a bit like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Of course, that useless doctrine went west for good when Magellan’s voyage was completed in 1521.
Did you have any particular problems in translation other than the elaborate sentences? How did you come to choose “Moon-beings”? Why not “Lunarians”?
I’d noticed that Erica Harth, a distinguished scholar, uses the term “Lunarians.” I didn’t like it because it seemed too remote and separate from the Earth, and that struck me as the opposite of what Cyrano is telling us. We discover in episode 35 that the Moon-beings look very much like Cyrano himself.
Cyrano uses the word lunarien only once and only because he has no choice. And it’s used as an adjective, not as a noun. He always calls the Moon-beings hommes, “men.” But I felt the reader might be confused, especially because Cyrano meets men — Elijah and Enoch — on the Moon. I needed a compromise. It was a short step from “human being” to “Moon-being” and “Sun-being.”
I see it as a supreme irony of history. At the end of episode 13 we realize that space aliens are either “men” or “monsters.” A century later, Montesquieu would sum up the problem in his Persian Letters, in his immortal one-liner: “How can anyone be a Persian?” By calling his space aliens “men,” Cyrano makes a point of emphasizing that we can learn from them. Today’s science fiction takes it for granted that we can learn from space aliens, no matter what they look like. That’s why I think they can safely be called “Moon-beings.” On the whole, I think Cyrano would be quite pleased.
“Sun-being” was formed the same way, then?
Yes, “Solarian” seems too remote and artificial to me. I also call the Sun-being a “familiar spirit” rather than a “demon” although Cyrano regularly uses démon. He and his readers were more familiar with ancient Greek terminology than we are. “Demon” has only the connotation “bad” in today’s English. I felt I couldn’t just wish it away, and “familiar spirit” is a good equivalent. However, sacrificing the word “demon” falls short of the lesson the Sun-being gives us in episode 15, and I’m a little sorry about that.
Some of the commentaries are, shall we say, amusing. Have you ever had second thoughts about the tone?
No. I’m past having to write formal academic prose to impress promotion and tenure committees. I can call it as I see it any way I want. And I see the novel as being great fun as well as instructive. That’s what I want to communicate: a sense of excitement and enjoyment. And that’s how the French authors of the 17th century felt about literature; they followed the principle plaire et instruire, which they’d gotten from the Roman poet Horace. Cyrano himself is quite irreverent; I like to think I’m in good company.
What picture of Cyrano’s personality can we get from the novel?
He is above all the quintessential Parisian. He appreciates good food and loves a good conversation, which in France always and necessarily includes philosophy. He exemplifies the rationalist point of view that had already been a French tradition for five hundred years. His sense of humor ranges from slapstick comedy to the most urbane sophistication. In fact, he sometimes makes Voltaire’s wit look ham-handed.
We know from his friends that he was also a man of action — a fiercely brave soldier — and, no doubt, quite an athlete. I suspect that the playwright Edmond Rostand accurately portrays his ability as a swordsman; Cyrano was something of a legend in his own time. However, judging by impressions especially from episodes 2, 13, 24, 34 and 39, I’d say he was a pacifist at heart.
And yet in episode 26, especially, we see how much he resented his father. Their estrangement may have been due to irreconcilable differences over what we might euphemistically and perhaps inaccurately call “lifestyle” today. However, if his falling-out with “Elijah” in episode 13 is any indication, Cyrano’s grudge may have been more than personal: he may have come to see his father as representing everything that was antiquated, backward and authoritarian about his society.
What about Cyrano’s politics? How would we classify him today?
The people of today have a hard enough time classifying themselves; I don’t see how we’d gain anything by trying to fit Cyrano in somewhere. But he would obviously have been very much at home with certain members of the well-educated, enlightened nobility and middle class of the 18th century, the ones who lent vital support to the American Revolution.
Personally, Cyrano is politically astute and circumspect, the way writers become in a totalitarian society. A century later, some of the philosophes will be professing atheism and materialism quite openly. Cyrano can’t get away with that. Like his friend Molière, you can’t pin him down enough to have him sent to the Bastille.
How does politics affect the novel?
After the first seven episodes, Cyrano’s ideas and opinions are expressed obliquely by “Elijah” and mainly by the Sun-being and the young Moon-being. Cyrano can use his characters as political cover. In a way, his covert expression of ideas gives him a great esthetic advantage: it maintains the novel as a work of fiction; it’s not merely a tract.
If you really want an idea of Cyrano’s working conditions, read the Fables of La Fontaine. Today, they’re rightly memorized by schoolchildren, because they’re simply the best lyric poetry of the 17th century. And the Fables are also passed off as moral tales. But read them closely and you’ll be horrified: the morality is appalling. The fables are object lessons in surviving in a political and religious dictatorship. And then remember that France was considered the most advanced country in the world at the time.
His byline is given at the beginning as “Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac.” Isn’t that one de too many? What was his name? And did he come from the town of Bergerac?
Cyrano is his family name. At one point he tried out a lot of different names but was called “Savinien” by his close friends. There is no indication that he ever visited the town of Bergerac, in southwestern France. An ancestor of his led the troops that liberated that town from the English in a battle of the Hundred Years War, in the 14th century. His ancestor was rewarded with an estate outside of Paris, near present-day Yvelines, and he named the property “Bergerac” after the town and battle. That makes Cyrano a member of the noblesse d’épée — the “sword nobility” — which commanded very high social prestige.
What about Roxanne?!
Judging by the progression in episodes 8, 9 and 24, Cyrano depicts a very favorable evolution in the status of women. But was there really a Roxanne? No, sorry, she is an invention of Edmond Rostand’s. But I can’t help making an allegorical interpretation. For 200 years after Cyrano died, he was largely forgotten. Then, in the 19th century, the Romantics rediscovered and recovered a lot of early French history and culture. For example, we owe to them our appreciation of medieval literature and Gothic architecture. Charles Nodier revived interest in Cyrano, and that led directly to Edmond Rostand’s famous play.
Now, in that play, Roxanne falls in love with Cyrano’s words, which are communicated to her by a galant of lesser talent. Only in Cyrano’s last moments does she realize the truth. Or, perhaps we should say, part of it, because Cyrano was gay. Edmond Rostand didn’t know that, and in hindsight his play becomes highly ironic. And a lot of episodes in The Other World can be seen as being written in a code that is transparent to today’s readers.
But in terms of literary history, the figure of Roxanne unknowingly foreshadows the rediscovery of Cyrano’s manuscripts. Making this translation available on the Internet acknowledges, in its own small way, history’s debt to Cyrano. In an odd sort of way, then, we are Roxanne.
Cyrano died awfully young, didn’t he? How did that happen?
At age 36, yes, that’s far too young from our perspective. But considering the medicine and sanitation of the times, it’s a wonder anyone lived as long as they did. And he had led a strenuous life. A story goes that he was hit by a falling ceiling beam in a house and probably suffered a concussion. The accident — if it actually happened and if it was one — didn’t kill him, but it can’t have helped any. He died about a year later, apparently from an infection.
Speculation was rife that he’d been assassinated by Jesuits. We hardly need episode 4 to tell us that they would consider Cyrano a threat. The story gained a certain credibility because the Church knew it was engaged in a centuries-long struggle for power, one we know it was doomed to lose. Religious hard-liners were more than willing to execute dissenters.
Recent scholarship has uncovered evidence that Cyrano was wounded while riding in a carriage in Paris. The attempt on his life was almost a replay of the assassination of King Henri IV, and it was undertaken for similar reasons: to further the cause of religious oppression.
There was worse. Cyrano’s enemies almost succeeded in completely “vaporizing” Cyrano’s literary works — it seems appropriate to borrow George Orwell’s term from 1984. The literary assassination constitutes a crime against history.
And that sheds new light on Henri Le Bret. Cyrano’s friend must have taken his own life in his hands by trying — as much as he dared — to preserve Cyrano’s memory.
What is the “other world”?
I think the title is ironic. Literally speaking, there is no “other world.” Even when human beings go to other planets such as the Moon, they must carry with them a memory of Earth in an encapsulated environment. And yet the “other world” is very real: it is a state of mind.
And what is that?
It’s summed up in the Moon-beings’ customary parting salutation, with which I’ll leave you now. Songez à librement vivre — Think of life and freedom.
Copyright © 2003, 2010 by Donald Webb