Translating Henry VI

On 8 June, a conference on Shakespeare in French, organised by Dominic Glynn (School of Advanced Studies) and Senate House Library, took place in the Dr Seng T. Lee Centre for Manuscript and Book Studies.

The conference ended with a Round Table on translating Shakespeare, during which Line Cottegnies discussed some of the problems she encountered when translating the Henry VI trilogy for the Pléiade-Gallimard edition of Shakespeare's Complete Works1. The conference ended with a bilingual reading of her translation.

Translating Henry VI

Line Cottegnies

Translating Shakespeare into French today means necessarily facing up to the challenge of re-translating Shakespeare. It is less the case perhaps for the Henry VI trilogy than for other, better-known plays by Shakespeare, as it has been less popular with translators and stage directors over time. This may be because only a small part of the history retold intersects with French history, and because it is less easily performable in a two- to three-hour format2.

To this day there is no separate edition of the Henry VI trilogy in French, while most of the other plays by Shakespeare are widely available in often competing paperbacks3. The still ongoing Gallimard Pléiade Œuvres complètes, which is a bilingual parallel-text edition, is meant to supersede the previous Pléiade edition, edited back in the 1950s by André Gide, which included updated versions of François-Victor Hugo's translations. This new Pléiade's volume, dedicated to the history plays, was published in 2007. The main constraint it imposed on the translators is that the French text on the right-hand page had to mirror whenever possible the English text on the left-hand page, although it was also necessary at all times to keep in mind the performative nature of the text.

This is one of the reasons why we decided to use free verse to translate passages in iambic pentameters (whereas François-Victor Hugo had made no distinction between prose and verse). For this difficult exercise I systematically used the method of the "gueuloir" recommended by Flaubert for his own writing, but working with actors at a later stage of the project was illuminating and helped me think through many of the problems I was faced with. It was extraordinary to see just how both precise and instinctive the actors' responses to the text were. It led me to smooth out some difficult passages, but also helped me think more clearly about how vital rhythm was, and not simply in poetic or prosodic terms.

The tension between the beginning of any given thought and its outcome had to be kept going, as intensely as possible, and this meant thinking about each of these moments as a unique, vibrant unit of meaning, complete with the physical and verbal dynamics that produced it. The parallel-text constraint meant that an educated reader would be able to follow the translation as she or he read on. Yet this made any move towards complete transposition delicate, especially in the comic scenes, which are often most difficult to translate in Shakespeare because of the host of multi-layered puns and topical references. Translating thus became a balancing act, which meant constantly re-evaluating priorities as the text unfolded.

Although absent from bookshops, the Henry VI plays have seen a form of revival on the French stage in recent years, in more or less condensed forms. This shows, I think, the relevance of the epic for our modern times, as well as the appeal of classic plays, not only less familiar with the public, but also based on sequential episodes: the recent popularity of TV series’ has also, paradoxically, drawn to the theatre younger sections of the public now more attuned to watching history in serial forms.

For a young company like Thomas Jolly's Piccola Familia, which recently performed the plays in my translation, there was added appeal in the fact that they included a succession of egalitarian roles rather than one main lead role, and of course that they covered a whole gamut of genres and modes — the plays have often been described as Shakespeare's experimenting at an early stage of his career.

Jolly's recent production culminated with the marathon performance of the three plays in three 18-hour performances at the Avignon festival in July 2014. The production subsequently toured all over France and met with popular success, winning a Molière Award for Best Show in a National Theatre in 2015. Spectators kept commenting on how surprised they were to discover how accessible Shakespearean history was and how alternately funny and moving the production was.

Working with Thomas Jolly is very exciting for a translator: his great respect for the works combined with his talent and ingenuity meant that he took nothing for granted, but constantly found new ways of interpreting the text. He created a coherent scenography for the three plays envisaged as a whole, and we gradually moved away from the warm, bright colour schemes of the first part, to an increasingly alienating, harsh and metallic atmosphere and lights - which culminated in the war of the machines in the last battle scene of the third part.

This scenography also informs his current production of Richard III, to a certain extent, which was created last year in Rennes. But collaborating with the director and the actors also required making some changes to the text: some parts were merged (an inevitable move in a saga with so many different characters), the order of some of the scenes was altered, and apart from a few cuts, we occasionally worked on adjustments to the text. Jolly also interspersed the text of the plays with additional comic interludes by a "Rhapsode", written and performed by Manon Thorel, who immediately won the audience over4.

The text of the performance, which is slightly different from the Pléiade version, was published in L'Avant-Scène théâtre (n°1365-1366, July 2014).


1. Henry VI, Parts 1 to 3, ed. and trans. Line Cottegnies, William Shakespeare, Histoires, vol. 5, Œuvres complètes, ed. Jean-Michel Déprats and Gisèle Venet (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 2007).

2. Before the Pléiade edition, the three parts of Henry VI had been translated in the various versions of the complete works of Shakespeare in the XIXth century, by François-Victor Hugo among others, and more recently by: G. Garampon, H. Thomas and A. Guibert for the Club français du Livre edition en 1971, and V. Bourgy for the Hachette Œuvres complètes in1986.

3. Denis Llorca directed a significantly abridged version of the three plays in 1978 (in 10 hours) at the Festival of Anjou, then at the Maison des Arts in Créteil, and so did Stuart Seide in 1993 at the Théâtre de la Métaphore (Lille), then at the Avignon Festical in 1994 (in 8 hours). For condensed versions in one evening, there was: Jean-Louis Barrault's version created at the Odéon Theatre in 1966, Patrice Chéreau, in 1998 at the Paris Festival d’automne, then the Manufacture des Œillets (Ivry-sur-Seine), and more recently, Nicolas Oton at the Cratère Theatre (Alès) in 2007, already in my translation.

4. She won the Molière Award for Best Supporting Actress in 2015.

Blog post details

  • 29 Jun 2016

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