Every month, I meet prominent English or American people living in Paris...
Michael Edwards, 75, is certainly one of the Frenchiest Englishmen in Paris; in 2013 he was the first British person to enter the holy of holies, the Académie française, where the finest and most respected writers are elected for life to look after our beautiful French language. Married to a French lady, Danielle, the poet and writer, who is equally at home in French and English and lectures at the Collège de France, has also been made a Knight Bachelor by the English Queen… After being a visiting professor, he has been living in Paris since 2002.
Q: I have heard you are a French citizen, how come?
ME: When I was finishing my Cambridge doctorate in Paris, I kidnapped my French wife Danielle and took her with me to England. If my wife had taken British nationality, she would have had to give up her French nationality – that is the rule in France, whereas if I took French nationality, I did not have to renounce my British nationality; that is how I became French.
Q: It is rather shocking that one can lose one’s nationality. France is far more protectionist than England, don’t you think?
ME: France is certainly more conservative than England. With the stability of the Monarchy, you can afford to reform and to be creative. I can’t remember now which politician said “I became a Conservative because I wanted to change things.” It may sound paradoxical but it is not.
The French Revolution of 1789 was a seismic change that set people against each other, dividing the nation into two halves, where in 1649, the English having chopped off the head of Charles the 1st, the army took control; that made a huge difference. After Cromwell’s Commonwealth the English turned against revolution and against the interference of the army in politics. When the danger of James II attempting to introduce Absolute Monarchy into England and to restore Roman Catholicism became a sensitive issue, Parliament forced the king to abdicate and their “Glorious Revolution” of 1688-1689, bloodless, invented Constitutional Monarchy.
Q: This French protectionism versus English conservatism is also visible at the level of language itself. French legal vocabulary was imported by William the Conqueror in 1066. But there are a lot of idioms relating to seduction and love that come from the French: “cherchez la femme”, “femme fatale”, “coup de foudre”, for English kings married French queens for three centuries, from 1152 till 1455… But the French seem to keep on fighting against the invasion of English terms. For instance, we created the word “baladeur” instead of “walkman”, “courriel” instead of “mail”. English is a far more tolerant language, isn’t it?
ME: The English language is the result of successive invasions. It is composed of old English words (Anglo-Saxon), Latin words and Norman words. For example, “to climb” comes from old English, “to ascend” from the Latin (ascendere) and “to mount” from the French (monter).
There was a brief attempt by Ralph Lever (The Art of Reason, rightly termed Witcraft of 1573) to purify the English language from gallicisms, that is to say, get rid of all the franco-latin words and replace them by English words. A professor of Greek in Cambridge, Sir John Cheke, even translated the Gospel of Matthew into “pure” English, inventing new terms. A “centurion” became a “hundreder”, resurrection became “gainrising”, parables became “bywords”, but this attempt, which was interesting and in a way moving, was basically futile.
The English gave up the idea quite rapidly but were very inventive in developing Latin words. For instance “importare” gave “importer”, “importance”, “important” in French, but in English there is an additional creation with “unimportant” which is not exactly “not important” or “hardly important”… The English language plays with words and grammatical possibilities.
Q: It sounds like the invasion of French words and French syntax is considered as a wealth. As a poet, specialist of Racine and Shakespeare on whom you wrote in Racine et Shakespeare, how do you feel the difference of the two languages?
ME: In French, syntax seems to precede content. In English, syntax and content are advancing at the same time. Here is the example I usually give: “He swims back to the coast” that one translates by: “Il regagne la côte à la nage”. In French, we get the action, which is idea, first and then the how, which is concrete. By the way, I love this adverbial form “à la nage” which hovers between idea and the real, when in English one has a different contact with reality. English syntax obliges us to follow the movement of people through time.
Q: Is English more down-to-earth?
ME: Only at first sight. When I write poetry in English I feel close to the concrete world and alive in the imagination; the real is present and at the same time modified by the mind and by language. The French who say that the English are “empirical” become aware that this empiricism goes hand-in-hand with poetry, with powerful imagination. Fancy is the imagination that loses contact with reality. True imagination, because it doesn’t lose contact, can change the perception of the world and the world itself.
Q: When you write poetry in French and in English, do you feel you are a different person?
ME: When I write in French, the words oblige me to see things slightly differently. When I write “la neige”, the article “la” makes it more cerebral, like “Justice, Love, Freedom” – though no less real. “Snow” is an old English word, I feel it immediately closer to reality as if it fills the mouth when you pronounce it.
But even when I write a very serious poem in French, there is always an amount of self irony, the famous English humour. I cannot resist playing on words, as words are continually in play with reality. And I like to write French poems with something of the multiple perspectives of English poetry.
Q: What is for you the essence of English writing?
ME: In English writing cosmic and comic are never far apart. In Shakespeare reality is serious, mainly dealing with salvation or damnation. But in the most tragic situation, there is always comedy, since that also is true. In Romeo and Juliet, comedy is there in the Nurse but it doesn’t destroy tragedy, any more than tragedy annuls comedy. In Lear, Gloucester is blinded, Lear dies and Cordelia dies. What is profound in Shakespeare is that there is no worst, we cannot plumb the depths of evil, just as in comedy we can never exhaust the reaches of joy and wonder.
Q: What about the specificity of the French language?
ME: French reaches for a melody and harmony of sounds, where in English, which is equally beautiful, you can find phrases like Keats’s “moss’d cottage trees”, which is horrendous for a French-speaking person. French tends to change sounds to make them more French: “Julius Caesar” becomes “Jules César”. Again the French tend to appropriate the words when the English are happy with variety.
Q: The English are more “live and let live”?
ME: In a way, yes. Most English people are naturally bilingual because of the hybrid nature of English, part Germanic, part Franco-Latin; they are moving between two worlds – between quite different ways of relating our mental and our bodily hold on the real. It is a wonderful trip!
Q: You are a broker of languages, how do you travel from French to English?
ME: When you read in Racine’s Phèdre: “Moi-même, il m’enferma dans des cavernes sombres, etc.” the lines are resonant and full of suggestion. Translated into English, they sound flat, they seem vague, and translators feel the need to make them live by introducing concrete details.
On the other hand, if you want to translate Shakespeare you have the opposite problem: his language is always rich with four or five meanings, which are not simply ideas but ways of relating to people and to the world. French translations are necessarily less than Shakespeare, because they cannot transcribe that wholeness. But the joy of translation is that it can add something to the original. Baudelaire writes of Delacroix “translating” Hamlet, making visual images from texts, and translations into another language bring to the original the resources of that language and the sensibility of the translator. It’s the same with theatrical productions. In the recent Hamlet at the Comédie-Française with Denis Podalydès superb in the title role, Dan Jemmett’s direction, even if it missed entirely the tragic dimension of the play, at least discovered a kind of vaudeville potential in Claudius’s court and the playing of the courtiers. Nevertheless, translation begins, like poetry, when you realize that the original, or the real, are resisting you.
Quelques ouvrages de Michael Edwards: Rivage mobile (poèmes en anglais et en français), Arfuyen, 2003 ; À la racine du feu (choix de poèmes en anglais avec traductions françaises d’Anne Mounic), Caractères, 2009 ; Paris aubaine (poèmes), Éditions de Corlevour, 2012 ; Un monde même et autre, Desclée de Brouwer, 2002 ; Shakespeare et la comédie de l’émerveillement, Desclée de Brouwer , 2003; Racine et Shakespeare, PUF, 2004 ; De l’émerveillement, Fayard, 2008 ; Shakespeare :le poète au théâtre, Fayard, 2009 ; Le Bonheur d’être ici, Fayard, 2011 ; Le Rire de Molière, Éditions de Fallois, 2012.