Playing With Verse: Ranjit Bolt's Delightful New Translation of Tartuffe

“Ranjit Bolt is the deftest, most dexterous of wordsmiths, able to make Alexandrine dance and anapests do handstands,” says British actor Simon Callow, regarding the witty poet and translator Ranjit Bolt. Bolt’s translation of Tartuffe premiered at the National Theatre in London in 2002 and later by the prestigious Oregon Shakespeare Festival for their 2007 revival, and will be the version performed at the Huntington.

When Huntington Artistic Director Peter DuBois considered which translation to use for his staging of Molière’s classic 17th century French comedy Tartuffe, or the Imposter, he chose the Bolt translation because he thought it was the version that captured the energy he wanted: free and loose while still clever and sophisticated. “I knew I wanted a translation that sang in the mouths of actors — that had rhythm and speed,” DuBois says. “Bolt’s translation reads well, but it sounds even better. He captures everything that is joyful and fun about rhyming verse across languages, never becoming rigid or stuffy.”

The challenge of being a translator is being able to capture both the intent and spirit of the original text. While the original French text is written in rhyming couplets, many modern English translations discard the rhyme, because so many fewer words rhyme in English than French. Bolt, however, can thread the intricate challenges of rhyming verse. A great translation can feel almost athletic in its sense of wonder. Suddenly, an unexpected rhyme appears, leaving audience members to wonder, “How did he do that?”

Bolt succeeds in translating the challenging text by being an impeccable textual scholar; his translation is considered relatively faithful in spirit to Molière’s text by classical scholars, but works onstage because Bolt is not afraid to depart from the original in phrasing if he can create new linguistic delights. “If you try to be too accurate, you actually don’t do the text any service because you end up with something stilted and dull,” Bolt says. “The point about Molière is that he’s a very good dramatist but line for line he’s not what you call a funny writer.”

In one couplet of dialogue, Elmire — the lady of the house and one of the few to see through Tartuffe’s charade — tells Tartuffe:

Et l’on ne peut aller jusqu’à vous satisfaire,

Qu’aux dernières faveurs on ne pousse


Bolt says a literal translation of that into English would be “Can one not satisfy you except by going to the limit of (i.e. sexual) favors?” But Bolt translates it to English as “And now you’re rushing to the sweet / before we’ve had the soup and meat,” a poetic exploration of the same intended meaning. Bolt says, “What you try and do is combine Molière’s brilliance in making clear, moral points in a very funny way, with the English language’s propensity for producing rhyming couplets.”

Bolt has translated other classic French writers — Racine, Corneille, Feydeau, and Anoiulh — in addition to other world dramatists such as Bertolt Brecht and Seneca. Bolt has also created original poetry, writing novels in verse and also applying his wit to the form of the limerick. He began experimenting with limericks after accumulating personal debt from a gambling addiction. “I needed extra money, so had the idea of making homemade booklets of the poems, purchasing a pedlar’s license, and selling them on the streets of my home town of Cambridge at £1.99 a go,” Bolt says. “The poems were entirely innocent in content, as I had no wish to be arrested! I noticed that parents were going away already reading the poems out loud to their children, and chuckling.”

A publisher saw a copy, and created a collection of the charming verses. The title poem, A Lion was Learning to Ski, combines Bolt’s inventive use of verse with his delight in surprising the reader:

A lion was learning to ski

In the Alps just outside Chamonix.

But he ruined his hopes

Of mastering the slopes

When he had his instructor for tea.

For Bolt, verse provides a vehicle for examining the ridiculous; his imaginative use of language contrasts with the formal structure of the verse to create a unique artistic experience. Audiences can use verse to “escape through anarchy into a surreal world,” Bolt says. “The joy of the verse is the contrast between the discipline of the form and the ludicrous nature of what’s being described.”


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