Michel Tremblay: Plays in Scots (Two Vols.)

Translated by Martin Bowman and Bill Findlay
Edited by Martin Bowman
314pp. and 292pp. Association for Scottish Literature

Reviewed by Mark Fisher*

It was not a phrase I dwelt over. Certainly, I did not expect it to have staying power. But when I wrote that Michel Tremblay was “the best playwright Scotland never had” in a 1992 review of The House Among the Stars, it struck a chord.

Within a few days, my comment about the Quebecois dramatist had found its way into a headline in Toronto’s Globe and Mail. That was the entry point into countless citations in Canadian academic journals and books. Now, here it is again, slightly misquoted (“the best” has become “the greatest”), on the jackets of these two anthologies of Tremblay’s plays as rendered into Scots by the transatlantic team of Martin Bowman and the late Bill Findlay, who died in 2005.

So what did I mean? Tremblay, of course, is every bit the Montreal playwright. Born in 1942, he made his name giving poetic voice to the working-class French speakers he grew up with, not least with his 1968 debut Les Belles-soeurs, about a woman who throws a party to help her process the million trading stamps she has won in a lottery.

Among that play’s distinctive qualities was its use of the variant of French known, sometimes patronisingly, as joual – a corruption of the word “cheval” (horse). This was a feature generally lost when Tremblay’s plays were translated into English. It is one thing to capture the line-by-line meaning of a play, and another to convey a sense of the social milieu and a language’s cultural status. Matching the linguistic vigour is harder still.

Bowman and Findlay thought they could crack these problems. Instead of setting Tremblay’s plays in a generalised standard English or its North American equivalent, they would call on a variety of registers and dialects of Scotland, capitalising on the country’s linguistic richness and reflecting the characters’ class, education and age. There were parallels too between the position of Quebecois French, marginalised by anglophone monoglots, and Scots, historically dismissed as an inferior form in a United Kingdom where one country, England, is the dominant partner.

The eight plays in these two volumes, first staged in translation between 1989 and 2003, form a substantial body of work, as formally inventive as they are poetic. Critical and popular successes in Scotland – sometimes being better received than the originals – they had an impact as great as any homegrown dramatist in the same period; hence, “the best playwright Scotland never had”.

There is no clearer example of what Bowman and Findlay achieved than The Guid Sisters, their version of Les Belles-souers which had previously been translated as The Sisters-in-Law (even the title throws up cross-cultural ambiguities: the women are tightly knit but not necessarily related). Their first collaboration, it was staged at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre in 1989 by the late Michael Boyd who went on to run the Royal Shakespeare Company. They kept the Montreal setting and the French names, but they rendered the play in a west-coast urban idiom that suggested the all-female cast of 15 could have been the product of working-class Glasgow. There was none of the controversy that beset Tremblay in 1968 when it seemed revolutionary to put joual on the stage (not to mention women talking frankly about abortion and libido) but, as it had been in Quebec, The Guid Sisters was a popular hit.

So much so that it was revived the following year and invited to play at the 1990 du Maurier World Stage Festival in Toronto. As a journalist, I followed the company on that trip and canvased audience members in the interval. Some had difficulty with the unfamiliar language, but there was a general feeling Boyd’s production, which received a standing ovation and was later invited to the Centaur Theatre in Montreal, had succeed where previous English-language versions had not. Somehow hearing the play in Scots gave Anglophone audiences an insight into Tremblay that had hitherto eluded them. Writing in the Montreal Gazette, Pat Donnelly pointed out that “Ah drag masel’ up fur tae make the breakfast,” was a lot closer to the texture of the original than the prosaic, “I get up to fix breakfast.” In its journey back and forth across the Atlantic, the play had acquired a context that brought it into focus.

Bowman and Findlay were not the first to spot the potential of Scots as a literary resource. Their translations can be seen as part of a tradition dating to 1948 when Robert Kemp translated Moliere’s L’École des femmes as Let Wives Tak Tent in the Edinburgh International Festival. Playwrights including Hector MacMillan, Rikki Fulton and Liz Lochhead followed in his footsteps, more often than not finding a gutsiness – and humour – in the vibrant Scots tongue, where more polite English-accented translations would fall flat. The impact was significant enough for Nöel Peacock to write a whole book, Molière in Scotland, itemising post-war productions of the French playwright’s work.

There was a similar story with Dario Fo who enjoyed popular success in Scotland in the translations of Joseph Farrell for director Morag Fullarton of Borderline Theatre Company in the 1980s and 1990s. When in 1985, the Italian farceur attended the company’s production of Trumpets and Raspberries he yelled his approval in one word: “Carnivale!” Although he could not speak the language, Fo said he could recognise a vocal freedom in the Scottish actors that contrasted to the clipped and restrained tones of actors using received pronunciation. Some combination of language and performance style seemed to do justice to the originals.

It was important to Tremblay’s translators, however, not only to find an appropriate register for each play, whether that be the rough-edged familiarity of The Guid Sisters or the elegiac comedy of If Only… (Encore une fois, si vous permettez), but also to retain their setting in Quebec. Bowman and Findlay wanted to demonstrate the Scots language was as worthy as any other: nobody doubts that Chekhov’s Three Sisters is set in Russia even when the characters speak in standard English, so why pretend Tremblay was not writing about the Plateau Mont-Royal district in Montreal whatever form their translated speech took?

More than this, the geographical and historical variations of Scots gave the Fife-born Findlay, working from the literal translations of the Montreal-born Bowman, a wide vocabulary to draw on. You see it demonstrated particularly well in The House Among the Stars (La Maison suspendue) in which three generations inhabit a log house in rural Duhamel, Quebec. The theatrically playful Tremblay creates seamless transitions between 1910, 1950 and 1990, but as Bowman and Findlay have it, there are clear demarcations in the way each generation speaks.

You do not need to be Scottish to understand 1990s professor Jean-Marc saying, “when I climbed that wee path up from the road, I felt as if I was walking back into my childhood again”. You might need to concentrate more to understand the cross-dressing Edouard’s opening line in 1950: “Anither half-hoor an ma erse wid’ve been fit fur nothin!” (“Another half hour and my arse would’ve been fit for nothing!”). And you would need more concentration again to tune into Victoire in 1910 entering with: “Thon’s a richt boanny tune ye’re playin, Josaphat.” (“That’s a very pretty tune you’re playing, Josephat.”)

When The House Among the Stars went into production at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre in 1992, Bowman and Findlay had established such a relationship with Tremblay that it was only two years after its French-language premiere at the Compagnie Jean-Duceppe de la Place des Arts, Montreal. As Ian Brown points out in his introduction to the second volume, Findlay reckoned “no contemporary foreign play had been translated into Scots before the 1980s”; for a Scots translation to appear roughly contemporaneously with the original was an innovation that has not been fully appreciated.

These two anthologies are important attempts to set the record straight. As well as the plays already mentioned, they include The Real Wurld? (Le Vrai Monde?), Hosanna (Hosanna), Forever Yours Marie-Lou (À toi, pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou), Albertine in Five Times (Albertine, en cinq temps) and Solemn Mass for a Full Moon in Summer (Messe solennelle pour une pleine lune d’été). In addition to an excellent scene-setting introduction by Michael Boyd, who died in 2023, each playscript comes complete with an essay by Bowman describing the challenges of translation and production and reflecting on the critical reception. Because of the long-distance nature of his collaboration with Findlay, he is able to draw on extensive correspondence, helping inform an unusually thorough account of the creative process. In the world of theatre where memory is fleeting, Bowman’s work is a valuable reminder of a fertile partnership that paid dividends on both sides of the Atlantic. And you can quote me on that.


Bibliography

Donnelly, Pat. “Belles Soeurs in Scottish? It works.” The Gazette, 14 June 1990.

Fisher, Mark. The House Among the Stars. The Guardian, 29 October 1992.

Peacock, Nöel. Molière in Scotland 1945-1990. University of Glasgow French and German Publications, 1993. 


*Mark Fisher is a freelance theatre critic and feature writer based in Edinburgh and has written about theatre since the late-1980s. He is a theatre critic for The Guardian and a former editor of The List magazine. He is the co-editor of the play anthology Made in Scotland (1995), and the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide (2012) and How to Write About Theatre (2015) – all Bloomsbury Methuen Drama. 

Copyright © 2024 Mark Fisher
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN:2409-7411

Creative Commons Attribution International License

This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email