What’s in a Name?: Translating Claude Gauvreau’s Le Vampire et la nymphomane
I’ve been translating Claude Gauvreau for almost fifty years, reflecting from time to time (some might say « whining ») about the difficulties presented by a poet who insisted on expanding the boundaries of what is normally seen as intelligible language.1 My most recent Gauvreau project is producing an English version of the libretto of an opera, Le vampire et la nymphomane, originally written in 1949 but not produced until 1996 when the Pauline Vaillancourt’s Montreal operatic group, Chants Libres, did a production set to music by Serge Provost, directed by Lorraine Pintal of the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde. When I saw that astonishing event, only recently made available on YouTube, I was convinced the libretto should be available to an English-language audience, and I was committed to making a translation. Fifteen years have gone by, and I have only just produced a draft with many questions still unanswered. But before getting into details, let me give a brief account of the poet and his text.
Born in Montreal in 1925, Claude Gauvreau became an active member and polemicist for the avant-garde group of multi-disciplinary artists dubbed the automatistes, whose 1948 manifesto, Refus global, aroused considerable uproar at the time and has since been recognized as a major document in Quebec’s quiet revolution. Starting in his teens, Gauvreau had been writing a series of extraordinary short plays eventually grouped under the title Entrailles, three of which were published in the Automatist manifesto. Shortly before Refus global appeared, Gauvreau and his friends did a production of one of those plays, Bien-être, to a shocked audience, most of whom left before the play ended.2 A few months later, Claude Gauvreau was asked by the musician and composer, Pierre Mercure, to write a libretto for an opera that Mercure intended to compose. Mercure collaborated over the years with the Automatist group, writing music for the choreography and dance of Françoise Sullivan, Jeanne Renaud, and Françoise Riopelle. He would become a major figure in the contemporary music world of Montreal and in the emerging field of televised concerts. But his collaboration with Claude Gauvreau never happened because a newspaper reporter got wind of the event and published a mocking article about Gauvreau’s poetry, causing Mercure to have second thoughts. All of this was reported rather sensationally in the Montreal newspapers, the only positive result being that it caught the eye of a student, Jean-Claude Dussault, who contacted Gauvreau and provoked a correspondence that eventually became a major source of information about the poet’s ideas. In the years that followed, Gauvreau continued to cause controversy with his work, up to and after his death in 1971, and following the publication that same year of his 1500-page Œuvres créatrices complètes by Éditions Parti pris. His reputation as a poète maudit has grown constantly in his native province, if not in the rest of Canada, and there have been several major productions of his longer theatrical works.
Le vampire et la nymphomane follows the pattern set in Entrailles, presenting unconventional characters (including, besides the vampire and the nymphomaniac, The Man With Two Club Feet, The Woman With Two Club Feet, two police dogs, and three « demoiselles » quite reminiscent of nuns), all doing unconventional things (the vampire is born, matures, and commits his first vampiric attack in the early minutes of the opera; he later rescues the nymphomaniac from an insane asylum where she has been imprisoned by The Husband and The Psychiatrist, eventually dying in her arms) in a language that has a life of its own and seems often independent of the action. Lorraine Pintal wrote in a note for the 1996 production, « … l’œuvre de Gauvreau possède le souffle des grande tragédies qui exige chez ceux et celles qui l’abordent un engagement total et une démesure shakespearienne. » Later, in a publication shared with Serge Provost, she added, « L’opacité du texte étourdit autant qu’elle fascine. La logorrhée furieuse des personnages donne le vertige. »3 Here is what she is talking about, and what the audience heard early in the opera:
LA MÈRE DU VAMPIRE: Guerramoutaille moutaille.
Cycloutobe ellefeurguinne sitanna oulla satan.
Mère de balafre, citerne de rutbaga.
Le don du priape, l’échelle des candociles,
Érré la boule de michenab.
Grêlé le félon.
L’acide de mantrocyte surgèle et désimpute un champ marron où les abeilles et les codnés assagissent et tronc de misère et de rigole, un taupin
de fraulin qui richecolte et déguste l’après-tonneau.
Graves déglindes, apostrophe pétrolique, charmille dégoulinante.
O Tonnerre fécal, merde aux ciseaux d’argile, maçon, crupette, vélozon,
catishe berbère, panorama anthropoïde et noiseté.
Dormir de canot d’écorce.
This is what I have come to accept as recognizably Gauvreau: a few conventional phrases mixed with unexpected images, portmanteau words, conventional metaphors and some examples of what he called his « langage explorien, » in which the elements constituting a word or phrase cannot be discerned even with a complicated analysis. Sometimes I can guess where he is going and I can try finding my own, similar, direction; sometimes I feel free to look for English equivalents for his sound clusters; sometimes I simply retain a phonetic unit as it is, maybe giving it a slight twist for an English voice. There are very few clues available. The structure of a sentence may be « normal » but there is not necessarily any logic to the combination and juxtaposition of words, so I can’t say to myself, « Given the linguistic context, what is the most likely sense (and consequently possible translation of) this word? » One might argue that Gauvreau gives me the freedom to do what I please – to take the same liberties in English as he does in French – but there is always the nagging doubt that I have missed something: the « real » meaning behind it all; a familiar word or phrase that I should be hearing through a « nonsense » cluster; simple phonetic wordplay that a native audience would not miss. And there is still a given structure, a composition, a source object that all translators try to respect in our own way. For example, I take care to retain Gauvreau’s punctuation and rhythm of sentences, his placement of lines on the page, because I see those as clues to how the text should be read. Here is my attempt at the passage just quoted:
THE VAMPIRE’S MOTHER: Guerramoutaille moutaille
Cyclotube ellefeurgine sitane oulla satàn
Mother of gash, cistern of rutabaga
Gift of priapus, ladder of docilducks.
Gone astray the bowl of michenab.
Pockmarked the traitor.
The mantrocyte acid freezes and disimputes a chestnut field where bees and codnees
instruct the trunk of misery and of ditch, a fraulein sapper who rishcutts and sips the after-keg.
Serious declinings, petroholic apostrophe, disgushing bower.
O fecal thunder, crap of clay scissors, mason, crupette, velozone, berber catiche,
anthropoid and red-brown panorama.
Sleep the rind canoe.
My techniques are all too clear in this example, I fear. I leave the first three lines as they are because I regard them as essentially phonetic; and there are other, individual words such as « michenab, » « crupette » or « catiche » that I leave untouched for the same reason. With some, such as « candociles, » I think I see hints at recognizable words, and so I translate accordingly. But I have already written too much about such tactics in the articles mentioned earlier, and in others such as the « Translator’s Note » to my rendering of La charge de l’orignal épormyable.4 In this instance, I would like to concentrate on one word, one name in the libretto that has been giving me considerable trouble.
L’Adorable Verrotière who, Gauvreau tells us, is the mother of the nymphomaniac, does not appear on stage until the second of three « Phases, » but she is named in the very first words of the opera: « L’adorable verrotière sicolait sur les mitres de porcelaine. » This is obviously a character and a name to be reckoned with. But what does the name signify? At first it seemed obvious to me that it had to do with glass. We are told at one point that L’Adorable Verrotière has a glass parasol. Even though I could not find the actual word verrotière in the context of glass and its manufacture, there is the word verroterie that has to do, so my dictionaries told me, with small glass ware, glass trinkets, glass beads, glass jewelry. Would a verrotière be someone associated with, perhaps a maker of, such jewelry? That is what I assumed, as did (I have since learned) Lorraine Pintal and Doug McNaughton (who sang the part of the Vampire in 1996). With that in mind, the best English equivalent I had found to date was admittedly awkward: The Adorable Glassbeader. But very recently my friend and fellow Gauvreauphile, Thierry Bissonnette, informed me that he had found on the internet the actual word verrotière as it was used in France in the nineteenth century. It had to do not with glass but with worms, not le verre but les vers. A verrotière (so my dictionaries did NOT tell me) is one of the « dames de ver » in the region of Crotoy, on the west coast of France, who used to, and maybe still do, dig in the sand for worms to sell to fishermen for bait. And indeed, there are references to the sea, to sand and mud, even to worms, near the end of Gauvreau’s libretto. It may be that he never heard this obscure French word, and that his adorable heroine must be seen as crystal clear. But it is also absolutely conceivable that such an obsessive word-smith knew the French term and took his usual delight in playing on the ambiguities and contradictions available to him.
So now where am I? It’s bad enough to come up with a translation for the name of a woman who makes glass jewellery, but if there is a wormy pun intended as well (and I’ll have to go back to rereading the source text carefully for clues) how do I handle that? One solution would be to keep the name unchanged, with a note to explain the possible meanings of verrotière. The Adorable (accent on the second syllable) Verrotière is certainly no harder to say in English than The Adorable Glassbeader. I usually don’t like explanatory notes beside a text, but Gauvreau’s original text included notes on some characters and on his intentions, and since I will include those notes in my translation, it may not be out of keeping to add a note of my own. At this writing, all such questions remain unresolved.
Toronto, October 31, 2020.
1 For Gauvreau’s theories on language see The Lucid Clusters: Poetics of Claude Gauvreau, Calgary, No Press, 2011.
2 For a more detailed account of the production and its context, see « Introduction and Translator’s Note, » Claude Gauvreau, trans. Ray Ellenwood, Entrails, Toronto: Exile Editions, 1991.
3 Serge Provost and Lorraine Pintal, La création de l’inimitable: composition et mise en scène de l’opéra Le Vampire et la nymphomane sur un livret de Claude Gauvreau, Montréal: Chants Libres, 1996.
4 See « Translator’s Note » in The Charge of the Expormidable Moose, Toronto: Exile Editions, 1996, p. 154-158.