Suzanne Jones's The First English Translations of Molière: Drama in Flux 1663-1732 is published in Legenda's Transcript series. Barbara Burns has this interview.
BB. This book originates from your PhD thesis on the earliest English translations of the French playwright Molière. How did you become interested in the topic?
SJ. My interest in Molière dates back to when I was studying for my A-Levels at a state sixth-form college in North West England. Tartuffe was the set text in French and I was just amazed when I first opened a copy to see that it was written entirely in rhymed verse. I was also studying early modern French history and was intrigued by the way that art and literature were intertwined with the politics of Louis XIV’s court. Having read French and English as an undergraduate at Oxford, I wanted to return to my early interest in Molière with a cross-channel historical perspective. Michael Hawcroft, my undergraduate tutor and later doctoral supervisor, is a specialist in seventeenth-century French drama and inspired me to explore its reception.
BB. In your book you mention the influx of new French words into English in the late seventeenth century, which were used in a different social context and had a slightly different meaning in English. Can you give us an example of this?
SJ. Ironically enough, one term which was absorbed into English and distorted in the process was double entendre. It’s a corruption of the French adverbial phrase à double entente, meaning ‘with a double meaning’, though it’s now obsolete in French. Yet in English the term double entendre often specifically refers to a double meaning with suggestive innuendo. It’s not a coincidence that the Frenchness of the term was kept in English since around the same time it was first used the concept of gallantry (from galanterie) was being represented as a dubious ‘French’ behaviour in English versions of Molière’s works. Galanterie/gallantry is a term which can have contradictory meanings – the positive sense is the art of conducting oneself in a cultivated manner in high society, but the flipside meaning relates to the Old French verb galer, ‘to play’ or ‘to trick’, so gallantry could also imply duplicitous amorous intrigue and seduction. When the term was absorbed into English it not only carried the double sense, but also a suspicious Gallic identity which is explored and put to satirical effect in the early translations of Molière’s comedies.
BB. So, language relating to gallantry was often conveyed in newly borrowed French terms, but sometimes with a twist?
SJ. Yes. For example, in Molière’s Le Cocu imaginaire, a wife supposedly needing to spice up her marriage with ‘le ragoût d’un galant’ becomes a wife alleged to be in search of the ‘haut gout of a Gallant’ in its first English translation. Why the switch in French phrase when ragoût was used in English? Because in the English context haut gout (also spelled hogough, hogoo, meaning strong seasoning) also had the coarser sense of venereal disease. Thomas Killigrew labours the point in The Parson’s Wedding: ‘Take heed of a hogough [...]for your French seasoning spoils many a woman’. For more on the cross-Channel migration of vocabulary, I can recommend Richard Scholar’s The Emigrés: French Words That Turned English.
BB. Was it in a way daunting to work on one of the most famous literary names, not only in French literature, but in the world?
SJ. Molière’s elevated position in the French literary canon is such that he is understandably treated with a tremendous amount of veneration and respect – the French language itself is often referred to as ‘la langue de Molière’. But the first English translators of Molière did not handle his works with anywhere near as much reverence. So I had some trepidation in giving so much ‘airtime’ to translations of varying accomplishment. But I came to argue that Molière’s popularity with translators and adaptors, some of whom were contemporaries, demonstrates that his drama was fertile ground for insightful engagement across national borders and a range of literary figures. Thinking about the legacy of translations his work prompted allows the drama to exist beyond a fixed corpus of national literature.
BB. How does your study enhance our understanding of the influence of French language and culture in the English-speaking world?
SJ. By charting different approaches to the translation of Molière over several decades, my study shows that English dramatists kept reassessing the role of France as a cultural reference point, even as Anglo-French political relations were strained. While free adaptations of Molière for the stage continued apace, by the eighteenth century there were finely published collected works of Molière in French and English, marketed as tools for the learning or improvement of French. One even included specially commissioned engravings by Hogarth as well as copies of works by the French artist Charles-Antoine Coypel. However much French terms and social practices might have been subjected to comic scrutiny and even criticism through translation, the allure of French language and literature remained strong.
BB. Has this material lent itself to public engagement activities? I imagine that people might be interested in the resonances between Molière’s work and modern-day satirical comedy which draws on witty approaches to similar controversial themes such as marriage, religion, social status, hypocrisy etc.
SJ. Yes, this year is the 400th anniversary of Molière’s birth, so there are lots of related events in France, the UK, and beyond. I took part in a BBC Radio 3 programme called ‘Free Thinking: Adapting Molière’, which is available as a podcast via the BBC website.
BB. Do you cover anything related to this topic in your teaching and, if so, how have students responded?
SJ. I’ve taught early modern translation to undergraduate students, and I am currently teaching an Advanced French Translation course for finalists. Even though translation studies only emerged as an academic interdiscipline in the 20th century, it can be informed by looking back at earlier forms of translation theory. Such theory often emerged in direct response to translation practice – prefaces or dedications to early modern translated texts included justifications or critiques of the translators’ approach to their source texts. I think students are often struck by how prominent a translator’s role was in early modern translated texts.
BB. What does the incoming year hold for you on the research front?
SJ. Since 2022 is the Molière quatercentenary I have found myself looking further into topics that didn’t make the cut for this volume! A recent special issue of Littératures classiques addresses the early reception of Molière in Europe, to which I have contributed an article on Molière translations in various forms of print media in early eighteenth-century England. I am also starting a new project on seventeenth-century tragedy in early modern translation, exploring the ways in which the work of writers such as Corneille and Racine traversed not only geographical, but also generic and social boundaries.
BB. Finally, what do you do to switch off from the world of academic research and teaching?
SJ. I’m trying hard to keep reading beyond research texts and purely for recreation! I’m slowly rereading Proust, but I’m also keen to learn more about contemporary French literature – I’ve been drawn into the novels of Leïla Slimani. For a completely non-work-related read, I like Camilleri’s Montalbano mysteries. Besides that, I enjoy almost any kind of dancing – I’d love to look more into the role of dance in seventeenth-century French theatre.