10 January 2009

En attendant Godot

Called by Wikipedia as "the most significant English language play of the 20th century," Waiting for Godot (1954) is only a translation, albeit by the playwright himself, of the French play En attendant Godot (1952). That a translation can be called more significant than all other plays originally written in a language is a sign that there might be a lot more to second-language literature than meets the casual critical eye. Of course, this question is speculative: Could Samuel Beckett have written it originally in English? A critic will ordinarily compare the two versions and see what the English or French offers that the text in the other language does not. My take is as a playwright: I think Beckett had to write it in French because the French language did not impose on him the same compulsion to make sense that English does. I don't mean this as a slur on the French language, but I mean, in fact, the opposite, though I admit I laugh every time I hear the words of Professor Doolittle ("The French never care what they do, actually, as long as they pronounce it properly"). It is no accident that the classic works of existentialism, the Theater of the Absurd, and deconstruction are in French and not in English. When we say in English, "Language makes no sense" or "Words are all there are," we have to go into explanations of what we mean, which contradicts what we want to say. My impression is that the French language hosts such thoughts quite naturally. For a playwright to have to struggle with a language struggling against what he wants to say is too much; Beckett chose to focus not on the words but on the silences. I think that is why he had to write it originally in French.

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