In the spirit of fairness and balance, after my ode to an American magazine, I would like now to mention my admiration for one of the great achievements of the French publishing world: La Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. This is one of the collections edited by Gallimard, maybe the greatest French publishing house, which is dedicated to producing definitive editions of the best of the world’s literature. There is a strong emphasis on French-language writers, of course (including thirteen volumes of Voltaire’s correspondance), but by no means an exclusivity (as can be seen in the catalogue: note Spanish-language writers, such as Borgès, Russian masters like Dostoievski, Boulgakov or Tolstoy, Italian writers like Machiavelli, and of course many English-speaking ones, such as Faulkner, Melville or the Brontë family). This is one of the great differences with the natural reference point in the American world, the Library of America. The other main difference is that, besides the text itself, the Pléiade aims to provide extensive (sometimes exhaustive) editorial information on the author and the work, with notes, introductions and discussions, bibliographies, sometimes early versions or other relevant sources, etc. The books themselves (like those of the Library of America) are beautifully produced, on the thinnest paper (papier bible), so each volume is routinely longer than 1000 pages without being much bigger or heavier than a (fairly fat) paperback. The font is the elegant Garamond, with its intricate ligatures.
Being in Paris earlier this week, I visited one of the many bookstores, and noticed that the second part of the new complete Pléiade edition of Shakespeare’s works, the Histories, had just appeared; I therefore snatched the two volumes without more ado, to add to the Tragedies which were published a few years ago.
Now, it might seem slightly ridiculous to spend a lot of money on a French edition of Shakespeare (however beautiful the italic font in the scenic indications), and this was a valid criticism of the earlier edition (dating to the 1950’s), but the new one is in fact bilingual. And I will venture the opinion that reading Shakespeare in a bilingual version makes very good sense: one can try to read the “original” version as much as possible, but in case the syntax or grammar becomes decidedly perplexing on the page, the translation gives a backup. If the translation is written from the point of view of actual theatrical experience, then the solutions which are offered to the many ambiguities in the texts (which can most often not be fully translated) are likely to make more sense and to flow more smoothly than isolated glosses or paraphrases in footnotes, even if they can not convey all the possible meanings. In the new Pléiade edition, the main translator is Jean-Michel Déprats, and most of the translations were indeed used for actual representations in France before they appeared; so even if one can not always be sure of reading Shakespeare’s intended meaning, at least one gets something which may be the next best thing: some well-defined meaning, coming from a writer with enormous theatrical experience. And I’m sure that anyone who has seen a few plays of Shakespeare on the stage knows how different the experience may be from reading them. (My personal favorite memory is a magical version of The Tempest in the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, in Paris, directed by Peter Brook in 1990, in a translation of J-C. Carrière).
Now, lest any scholar of the Elizabethan theatre jump on my word “original” in the previous paragraphs, I emphasize the quotation marks: just as in any modern English edition, there has, very often, been a real choice of which text to use (Good Quarto, Bad Quarto, First Folio, and what you will). The whole history behind those various versions can be quite fascinating, and the very detailed notes explain which was used, what principles were applied in terms of localized corrections, etc: again, very solid scholarship comparable to those detailed editions one can find in English. There is also a separate genealogical tree of the relevant Kings, Queens, Princes, Princesses, Dukes, and other divers Noblemen and Noblewomen, included in the first volume of the Histories, which is certainly quite useful…
Here’s a picture of the two-volume Histories:
and here’s one of the text of Richard III:
and the genealogical tree: