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The First English Translations of Molière: Drama in Flux 1663-1732 by Suzanne Jones

Reviewed by Sarah Fengler, University of Oxford

The First English Translations of Molière: Drama in Flux 1663–1732, Suzanne Jones. Cambridge: Legenda, 2020. £75. ISBN 9781781888391.


Molière is considered one of the most canonical playwrights of seventeenth-century France. Numerous translations attest to the widespread recognition of his oeuvre. But his plays had already crossed national borders during his lifetime. The first English translations of comedies such as Sganarelle, ou le Cocu imaginaire, Le Tartuffe, or Dom Juan, published from the second half of the seventeenth century onwards, are of great value to research into the early reception of Molière beyond France. In addition, they give insights into early modern theories of translation and cultural transfers between France and England. A study of these translations should therefore compare specific lexical choices in both the original plays and their different translations, and place these choices in the underlying cultural contexts of France and England.

            In this book, Suzanne Jones explores the first English translations of Molière’s plays from 1663 to 1732, a time span that extends from the last years of Molière’s life up to more than half a century later. Divided into two parts, the first part of the book provides the theoretical background to the study and contains three chapters on early modern and contemporary theories of drama and translation. The second part is dedicated to specific terms and concepts in Molière’s plays, such as cocouage, zèle, or bourgeois, and the different ways they were translated into English. Jones concludes that late seventeenth-century translators adapted Molière’s plays primarily for satirical purposes and accommodated them for the English society, whereas early eighteenth-century translators started to develop an interest in the originality of Molière’s authorship and more often chose to keep certain lexical idiosyncrasies.

            In Chapter One, ‘Dramatic Theory and Plotting’, Jones discusses the conceptions of dramatic plot in seventeenth-century treatises by Pierre Corneille, John Dryden, and others. A common thread in these treatises, which often engaged with Aristotle’s Poetics, was the intention to maintain the unity of action. The early translations of Molière, however, approached the problem of the unity of action in varying ways. William D’Avenant’s The Playhouse to be Let (1663), for instance, the very first English play that contained parts of a play by Molière, framed the one-act comedy Sganarelle, ou le Cocu imaginaire with other plots. Jones describes this method as plot hybridization. Another recurring feature in the early English translations was the adjustment of existing characters and the addition of new ones, as in Matthew Medbourne’s translation of Molière’s Tartuffe as Tartuffe; or, the French Puritan (1670). A main impetus behind such plot changes was to adapt Molière’s plays to the taste and everyday reality of the English society.

            In the second chapter, ‘Translation Theory and Paratext’, Jones turns from theories of plot to theories of translation. As in the first chapter, she examines French and English treatises on translation from the seventeenth century, as well as paratexts to some early translations of Molière, and identifies the concepts of fidelity and infidelity as a key issue of early modern translation theory. Drawing also on modern definitions, for example by the translation historian Lawrence Venuti, she distinguishes between practices of domestication and foreignization: the former intends to accommodate a literary text to the horizon of the new audience, whereas the latter keeps the foreign features to the benefit of originality. In the late seventeenth century, Molière’s plays were often translated loosely, in compliance with the modern notion of domestication. Early eighteenth-century translators rather committed to verbatim translations, in accordance with the concept of literary fidelity or foreignization.

            Chapter Three, ‘Rhythm, Rhyme, and Song’, focuses on different approaches to translating metre and prosody. Jones demonstrates that the first English translations often replaced Molière’s alexandrines and rhymes with blank verse or prose. One reason for that, as Jones suggests, could be the fact that blank verse and prose were generally more characteristic of English comedies at the time. Some translators, however, were creative in their attempts to preserve the prosody of Molière’s plays: D’Avenant’s translation of Molière’s Sganarelle, ou le Cocu imaginaire was intended for French actors, who should speak English with a French accent. Some translators chose to add English or French songs, such as John Dryden: his translation of Molière’s L’Étourdi as Sir Martin Mar-all; or, The Feign’d Innocence (1667) contains a French song written by Vincent Voiture, which was not part of the original.

            In the fourth chapter, ‘Cuckoldry and Gallantry’, Jones moves to the second part of the book and to specific translation problems. First, she examines the depiction of marriage in Moliére’s plays, with an emphasis on the terms cocouage and galanterie. In seventeenth-century France, cocu or cocue referred to someone who has been cheated on by their partner. By the example of Sganarelle, ou le Cocu imaginaire, Jones shows that most of the early translations attempted to preserve the term: Molière’s Sganarelle, who regards himself as a cocu, describes himself as ‘Monsieur Corneillius’, a Latin wordplay that refers to the word ‘horn’ and evokes the image of cuckoldry. English translations of Sganarelle’s self-description include, for instance, ‘mi lore Cuckol’ and ‘Mr. Cuckold’. Most translators thus relied on imagery from the Romance languages. The situation is different with galanterie, a term and concept featuring in Molière’s last four plays: while the French adjective galant was usually translated with ‘honourable’, the translations of the identical noun varied and were more context-dependent, ranging from ‘gallant’ to ‘spark’.

            In Chapter Five, ‘Zealotry and Hypocrisy’, Jones looks at religion and the terms zèle and hypocrite. In the second half of the seventeenth century, Catholicism was the prevalent religion in France. In England, however, the Protestant Church had to find its new place after the English Civil War and the Restoration. Against this background, Jones first compares different translations of terms related to the concept of religious zeal. In Tartuffe, Molière introduces the titular character as a Catholic, whereas Medbourne’s translation portrays Tartuffe as a Puritan, presumably for satirical purposes. In early eighteenth-century translations, Tartuffe’s denomination is rarely defined. By the example of Dom Juan, Jones also examines translations of hypocrite and concludes that these, in contrast to those of zèle, always remained close to the original.

            The sixth chapter, ‘Malady and Quackery’, deals with the English translations of Molière’s medical satires. In this chapter, Jones focuses on the terms médecin and malade, especially in the translations of L’Amour médecin, Le Médecin malgré lui, and Le Malade imaginaire. The word médecin was often translated as ‘quack’ or ‘physician’: at the time, the former term also referred to gambling, while the latter carried strong sexual connotations. Jones therefore argues that many translators sought to develop Molière’s medical satires further, for example by evoking the notion of a doctor who gambles with the life of others, or by implying that the malade, the patient, would need a sexual treatment to recover.

            In Chapter Seven, ‘Bourgeoisie and Urbanity’, Jones examines the depiction of social status and the terms bourgeois and urbanité in Molière’s plays, for instance in Monsieur de Pourceaugnac. As the term bourgeois was not incorporated into the English language until the end of the eighteenth century, it was usually translated as ‘citizen’. In addition, late seventeenth-century translations often moved the plot to England, with the aim of conveying to the English audience the social differences between urban and rural areas. But early translations of the eighteenth century tended to preserve the French setting of Molière’s plays, which is another proof of the growing interest in Molière’s originality at the turn of the century.

            Jones’s study of the early English translations of Molière’s plays impresses with both comprehensive and in-depth analyses of lexical fields in French and English. Moreover, the book takes into account the historical background of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century and always situates certain translation choices within the cultural contexts of France and England. Based on modern and early modern translation theories, Jones constantly reflects on the relationship between Molière’s plays and their English counterparts, illustrating how conceptual distinctions between original and translation have evolved over time. The book thus makes a substantial contribution to the early modern reception of Molière in England as well as to translation theory in general. But Jones’s findings also raise the question of whether the first translations of Molière are representative of how foreign-language translators, in practice, approached French plays around 1700. Further research should therefore also examine translations of the work of other French playwrights, and expand the focus on translations in other languages than English as well.