Humor and Translation

The Naughty French
By Mark Herman

It’s a a general rule,
though your zeal it may quench,
if the family fool
tells a joke that’s too French,
half a crown is stopped out of his wages!
(Gilbert and Sullivan, The Yeoman of the Guard, 1888)

Traditionally, the English have considered the French to be more ribald and open about sex and bodily functions than themselves. Venereal disease was for a long time called “the French Pox” (though in France it was called “the English Pox”) and pornographic pictures were often called “French postcards.” And, now, in the first two books of a projected series, The Farce of the Fart1 and Holy Deadlock,2 Jody Enders shows that the English are absolutely correct.

Each book includes 12 medieval (mostly 15th-century) French farces translated by Enders into contemporary English. They are coarse, scatological, misogynistic, and violent. According to Enders, during the Middle Ages and even into the Renaissance, audiences “flocked to public squares to see” farces because they:

answered, with hilarious stories…the most controversial questions of the day about law, politics, religion, economics, social stratification, and the battle of the sexes…. [Their role goes beyond that of being the] poor stepchild of their more illustrious dramatic relations like the Passion play or morality play. (Farce, 2)

Since professional or semi-professional acting troupes did not arise until the middle of the 16th century, ordinary people, especially tradesmen such as cobblers, often played caricatures of themselves. (Holy Deadlock, 106)

As mentioned, the farces were anti-feminine. They “delight in staging women as both abusers and abused, all the while casting both proclivities as female shortcomings.” (Holy Deadlock, 278)

But Enders seeks to subvert the misogyny:

[The translator] may elect to determine that the politically incorrect itself becomes correctable for the modern world. She may deem it feasible, desirable, and ethical to commit welcome acts of translational appropriation. And, ultimately, she may opt not only to convey faithfully an offensive medieval moral of a farcical story but to betray it in such a way that we can understand and appreciate its wit today. (Holy Deadlock, 22)

However, since Enders’ notes are not specific on this point, it’s unclear whether her feminist appropriations occur for individual words and phrases or just set the general tone of her translations. In any event, the beatings the men receive, though fewer than those meted out to women, are just as savage as those meted out to women. As for the violence itself: “some of the fun and games are reminiscent of the cruel mockery and brutal games to which the body of Christ is subjected to in the Passion plays.” (Holy Deadlock, 107)

Speaking of religious matters, the farces show that scandals involving sexually predatory clergy are nothing new (e.g., Farce, Play #9, Monk-ey Business), and that the use of Latin, real or pseudo, has long been a sign of false intellectuality and a way to confuse others (e.g., Farce, Play #12, Birdbrain). But in these plays, mockery of the church goes way beyond a lecherous priest or Latin babbling. For example, in the title farce of the second book, Play #7, Le Pèlerinage de mariage / Holy Deadlock, or, The Pilgrimage of Marriage:

nothing compares to the escalating sacrilege of the liturgical parodies, mostly delivered in a bilingual mess of Latin and French which, by analogy to Franglais, I have elsewhere called Flatin…. These carnivalesque moments are designed for participation by the spectators…participation as profanation. Nothing is spared and nothing is sacred: not prayers (Libera nos, domine and Te rogamus, audi nos), not litanies, not responsories, not processionals, not even the words of Christ on the cross. I mean, seriously: Domine (God, our Father”) rhymes with uriner (“to urinate”)…. [F]or Holy Deadlock to succeed, the medieval liturgy cannot be unrecognizable [in the translation]. On the other hand, its churchiness cannot be unfunny. This is farce: unfunny [translation] is not an option.

What to do, what to do? All I can say is: thank heavens for the Lord’s Prayer, which most Americans have at least heard. And thank heavens for something like Monty Python’s Life of Brian, which captures better than most anything the play’s sheer gutsiness as it mocks the hell out of the Church. (Holy Deadlock, 190-91)

But are these plays actually funny? That remains to be seen, literally. As in commedia dell’arte, much of the humor of these farces is physical, so there is a vast difference between the page and the stage. Text that is not very funny when read can be hilarious when performed. Indeed, performance is everything: “space, mime, gesture, and costume.” (Farce, 3) The production numbers in these plays are numerous, and Enders states that some of the farces may be considered full-fledged musicals. Enders supplies many extra stage directions and notes indicating where physical business can occur. Unfortunately, the notes, even notes essential to performance, do not accompany the text of the plays, but are placed at the backs of the books, making reference to them difficult.

As for the text, its language can be non-standard in the extreme. Again using Holy Deadlock as an example:

the Middle French of Holy Deadlock…is…linguistically off, and not just off-color…. [T]here are all manner of improprieties: aberrant spellings or verb conjugations (notably for that pesky imperfect subjunctive), inconsistent versification, weird rhymes and assonance…This all turns out to be a blessing in disguise. Inasmuch as the entire play is aggressively unconventional, its innumerable difficulties and idiosyncrasies enable—nay, encourage—some liberties in translation. And when I say “liberties,” I really do mean liberties. And appropriations. Having encountered few medieval texts—save maybe the fabliaux—that are quite as audacious as Holy Deadlock, I have taken its audacity as a cue to spotlight the production numbers in the most audacious possible ways. (Holy Deadlock, 189-90)

And, presumably, as indicated above, to give the proceedings a feminist slant.

Some of the “liberties” Enders takes change the nature of the farces considerably, particularly with regard to production numbers. For example, though the originals are all in rhymed verse, Enders translates mainly into prose. This changes the feel of the originals and does not allow much of the text to be sung. While Enders does occasionally give English verse to be sung (presumably to newly composed music) or recited, the “production numbers” she calls for are mostly performances of entire interpolated contemporary American songs. Enders justifies the change from verse to prose on the grounds that “the American ear has no habit comparable to the medieval French attunement to verse drama.” (Farce, 46)

That may have been true prior to the English translations of Molière’s plays into rhymed verse by Richard Wilbur and blank heroic verse by Christopher Hampton, but Wilbur’s and Hampton’s translations most assuredly did establish such a “habit” for many audiences. I wish Enders had included a non-updated translation of at least one play in each volume, one that retains as much of the original medieval French sensibility as possible, is in verse, and includes lyrics singable to French medieval music (at least some of which has survived). Considering the many beatings that occur in these plays, it would be interesting to see how much more sexist a more “faithful” translation would be.

Overall, Enders’ edition is not quite a performing edition, since, as mentioned, many important notes are inconveniently located at the back. Nor, despite the copious introductions and notes, is it a scholarly edition. Very little of the original Middle French text is included; some of the French lines are given in the notes for each play, but they are mostly those few lines Enders has translated into rhymed verse.

The French text includes many examples of puns, homonyms, obscenities, and variations in diction level. Examples of Middle French homonyms leading to puns are mary [husband] and marye [sorry] (Holy Deadlock, 345), and even somewhat different-sounding words like sale [dirty], saler [to salt], and salir [to sully] (Holy Deadlock, 403). As is typical in a literary translation, wordplay is rarely translatable exactly or locally (at the same point in the target text as in the source text). Sometimes Enders simply gives up and just spells out the wordplay in the notes, but sometimes she meets the challenges head on.

For example, to reproduce French puns non-locally, and also to get the full effect of the French obscenities, Enders suggests adding ribald English puns where possible—for example by turning “guilty party” into “guilty potty” or “accessory after the fart” (Farce, 84, note on 417). Middle French homonyms are turned into phrases with both meanings: the single word pet [fart], which also sounds like paix [peace, silence, shut up], is translated into “stop talking out of your ass” (Farce, 78, note on 417). And when the usual colloquial everyday Middle French is interrupted by the correct use of the highfalutin’ imperfect subjunctive, Enders has the character say, “I shan’t!” (Farce, 94, note on 418) When the French is especially ambiguous, Enders sometimes provides multiple endings to a play, all of which are “justified by the text.” (Holy Deadlock, 277).

Enders is professor of French and theater at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and, given the nature of these plays, most performances will likely be at colleges and universities. Enders obviously knows, though she does not state explicitly, that universities are among the most frequent violators of copyright law, or at least they were until access to the internet vastly increased the possibilities for copyright infringement beyond academia. Perhaps to overcome the association of university productions with copyright infringement, she obsessively repeats “requisite permissions must be cleared” over and over and over again in the The Farce of the Fart and, not quite as obsessively in Holy Deadlock. She also tags every previously written line and song mentioned in her translations or in the notes with a ©. She even claims that some works obviously in the public domain, such as those by Gilbert and Sullivan (Farce, 198, 229) and Mozart (Holy Deadlock, 71), are still protected by copyright. Perhaps the most ridiculous item in her list of “Copyrighted Materials” is “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” though she does give the author as “Anonymous.” (Holy Deadlock, 286)

Turning again to the specific farce Holy Deadlock, here is Enders’ plot summary:

A woman past her prime and three young ladies of diverse character wish to land a husband. They meet two men…from whom they seek advice. An Old Lover and a Young Lover offer differing perspectives…. The best man wins and, not surprisingly, it’s the younger more impetuous one. Naturally, he prefers the low road [of the two paths to marriage] and, at the end of the play, the Company sets off with him…

[W]hat starts out as an almost spiritual meditation quickly devolves into an invitation to the bawdiest of pilgrimages, this one, to the titular state of holy wedlock. It’s all quite the amazing journey and a misogynistic one at that. (There is a strong implication, for instance, that women whore themselves out along the way.) It’s also searingly satirical and potentially anticlerical….

With multiple song-and-dance routines, the quest for the holy married state is one helluva pilgrimage. (Holy Deadlock, 186-87)

Enders suggests a radical updating as a possibility:

Given the ubiquitous glee with which the play dispenses with popular pieties and chases rainbows…it wouldn’t be the least bit out of line to cross-cast the whole journey as an allegory of gay marriage. (Holy Deadlock, 187)

And then there are the lists:

[P]rodigious lists bring the play to a close. A first list serves up foodstuffs and housewares…A second list is devoted to imaginary female saints…. And a third one catalogs threads… It’s a lengthy, madcap inventory of the sewing notions that might have been for sale at any marketplace in Lyon or Rouen. (Holy Deadlock, 191)

Here is part of Enders’ long translation, in rhymed verse, of the long thread list:

Thread from the Jura, and thread from Paree,
Thread that’s black, green thread, and gray thread! Look! See?
. . . . . . . . . .

The collars and the gloves you newbies know,
The surplice and the cope from fabliaux….
. . . . . . . . . .

The Bishop’s miter, yes; the amice, nope!
The pallium and fanon: that’s the Pope.
. . . . . . . . . .

The alba—that is, alb—around the waist,
Albae vestes are white ’cause that means chaste. (Holy Deadlock, 222-24)

There is nothing chaste about Holy Deadlock, or any of the other farces Enders has translated.


  1. The Farce of the Fart and Other Ribaldries: Twelve Medieval French Plays in Modern English. Edited and translated by Jody Enders (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).
  2. Holy Deadlock and Further Ribaldries: Another Dozen Medieval French Plays in Modern English. Edited and translated by Jody Enders (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).


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