- Gargantua and Pantagruel
All translation poses problems, and Rabelais must surely be one of the most difficult authors for a translator to tackle. He wrote at a time when the French language was in a state of flux; he was a learned humanist who loved to mix Latin, Greek, and occasionally Hebrew with [End Page 102] his French; and he wrote for readers as erudite as himself who could grasp his esoteric verbal joking. Even native French speakers now find him very hard going, since he is constantly playing with the language, and including explicit or implicit allusions to political, religious, and intellectual matters long forgotten by the general public.
M. A. Screech is undoubtedly the best qualified of all Rabelais translators to date. It was he who, some fifty years ago (in L'Evangélisme de Rabelais), demonstrated conclusively that Rabelais, surface obscenity and joking notwithstanding, was a dedicated Erasmian evangelical (in the Renaissance sense) humanist, and that his chronicles contain serious reflections on religion, kingship, education, and good government. We might well hope that Screech can supersede his more or less illustrious predecessors: Sir Thomas Urquhart (1653), completed by Motteux (1694), whose gusto overwhelms any seriousness; Samuel Putnam (1929); J. M. Cohen (Penguin, 1976), whose version is conscientious but a little boring; Burton Raffel (1990); and the well-known Montaigne specialist Donald Frame, whose 1991 translation is currently considered standard.
Screech's enormous volume contains, as well as much explanatory material, the five giant chronicles, sensibly starting with the first published, Pantagruel (Book II in all other collective editions), in the text of the first edition (1531/2) with variants from 1542. There follow Gargantua (usually Book I), the Third Book (1546), Fourth Book (1552), and Fifth Book (1564 text, with variants from the 1562 Isle Sonante and from the undated manuscript). This is already a huge amount of material, and it is supplemented by: the Pantagrueline Prognostication of 1535, the prefaces to Almanacs of 1533 and 1535, the text of the 1536 Almanac, and three appendices to the Fifth Book. Each item is preceded by an Introduction, and each chapter of the chronicles by explanation of the most important points at issue in it; here Screech does a fine job of condensing his formidable erudition into digestible summaries. Where he implicitly or explicitly disagrees with other critics, for instance with Mireille Huchon about the Fifth Book, I usually find myself on his side.
The translation as a whole is faithful, lively, and readable. While Screech occasionally leaves words in French ('gaudebillaux', 'coiraux', and 'prés guimaux' in Gargantua Ch. 4, because Rabelais has to explain their meanings in his own text), or, in Pantagruel 7, even introduces Latin words (for 'Les Potingues des Evesques potatifz' he has 'The Remedies of Bishops in potationibus infidelium', clarifying the pun) , he normally puts everything into English. This means that the most linguistically dense of the chapters are not going to mean much to [End Page 103] monolingual readers; for instance, in the notoriously difficult list of books (most of them making fun of scholastic theology) in the Saint Victor Library (Pantagruel Ch. 7), what will such a reader make of Discussion of Messers and Vexers: Anti, Peri, Kata, Meta, Ana, Para, Moo and Amphi? The original is Antipericatametanaparbeugedamphicribrationes merdicantium, a string of Greek and possibly Hebrew prepositions followed by the Latin cribrationes, 'siftings', 'of the shitters', with a play on Mendicantium, 'of the Mendicant friars'. There is of course no way to translate this adequately.
Screech may be more successful in another very difficult episode, that of Bridoye in the Third Book (Chs 39–42), which is literally unreadable in the original, being littered with legal references like et no. gl. in c. fin. de sortil, et l. sed cum ambo. ff. de jud., Ubi doct. Screech is an expert on all this legal gobbledygook, and he helpfully expands these gnomic references, so that the one just quoted reads: 'and noted in the gloss on the final...