Literary Vandals

H.L Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/January 25, 1911

The ways of literary vandals are beyond the understanding of the merely human mind. Consider, for example, the almost universal custom of changing the names of characters in translated plays. Time was, no doubt, when that custom had its roots in prudence, for translators and adapters were then frank thieves and it behooved them to conceal all traces of their thievery, but nowadays there are international copyright treaties, and authors must be consulted, and so nine-tenths of all translations are “by permission.” Why, then, continue the use of the old disguises, the old trappings of chicanery?

A case in point is before us. “The Chocolate Soldier,” which is playing at a local theatre this week, has for its libretto a reduced version of George Bernard Shaw’s famous comedy, “Arms and the Man.” Rudolph Bernauer and Leopold Jacobson, who adapted the piece for music, worked with Shaw’s permission, and it was known to everyone interested that they were using his play. And yet they thought it necessary to change the name of that play and, what is worse, to change the names of practically all its characters.

In “Arms and the Man” the fugitive Swiss who bobs up out of the night is called Captain Bluntschli, and as Captain Bluntschli the late Richard Mansfield played him. But in “The Chocolate Soldier” he becomes Lieutenant Bumerli. “Bumerli,” in Vienna, may pass for a wheeze, for a German word of similar sound means an easy going, lazy fellow—just such a man, in brief, as Bluntschli—but why the reduction in rank? Is a lieutenant more comical than a captain? Can he sing better? Is he more interesting or amusing in any other way?

Behold, now, the changes that take place in Shaw’s other personages. Raina Petkoff, whom Bluntschli scares and conquers, becomes Nadina Popoff; her cousin, the self-worshiping Sergius Saranoff, becomes Alexius Spiridoff; her father, originally Col. Paul Petkoff, become Col. Kasimir Popoff, and her mamma, baptized Catherine by Shaw, is rebaptized Aurelia. Even Nicola, the thieving servant, is given the new name of Stephen. Only ambitious Louka (who becomes a mere lay figure, by the way, in the opera) retains her proper appellation.

An Absurd Custom

Why all this stupid changing of names? What is accomplished by it? Does it improve the libretto in any manner, directly or indirectly? Doesn’t it, on the contrary, confuse those persons who are familiar with Shaw’s play? Bluntschli is one of the most memorable characters in the modern drama. He is almost as well known as Oswald Alving, Lucy Dane, Jack Tanner, Magda Schwartz or Lord Quex. Why then, hide him beneath a new and absurd name?

Old Ibsen, who was translated incessantly into all the tongues of Christendom, suffered greatly from this name-changing custom. The immortal T. Weber, who was the first to put “A Doll’s House” into English—and what rich and racy English it was!—changed the name of the play to “Nora” and made Helene, Helen, and Anne-Marie, Ann-Mary. Henrietta Lord, who followed him, grew bolder. In her ridiculous suffragette version of the play Mrs. Linde became Mrs. Linden, Helene became Ellen and Anne-Marie blossomed forth as Mary Ann. William Archer retained the “n” thus attached to Mrs. Linde’s name, but reduced Mary Ann to plain Anna.

In the Modjeska version of the play, made in 1883, Nora was rebaptized Thora, and her husband, the excellent and sap-headed Torvald, became Oswald. The play itself was called “Thora.” This translation was made by Count Charles Bozenta Chlapowski, Mme. Modjeska’s husband, with the aid of Louise Everson, her secretary. The Count was a Pole and Miss Everson a Dane. The English dialogue which came from their joint labors was so bad that Maurice Barrymore, then Modjeska’s leading man, undertook to revise it. But Nora remained Thora and Torvald, Oswald. This translation, by the way, had its first and only performance at Louisville, Ky., on December 8, 1883. It was the first time that an Ibsen drama had ever been done publicly in English.

The Crime Of  H. A. Jones

Ibsen’s French translator, Count Provor, was always careful to retain the names that the author himself had bestowed upon the characters, but Wilhelm Lange, who put the plays into German, was not bound down by any such rule. In his version of “A Doll’s House” Torvald became Robert, Mrs. Linde became Mrs. Linden, Krogstad became Guenther, Anne-Marie became Marianne, and little Ivar became Erwin. Lange, following Weber and Miss Lord, changed the name of the play to “Nora”—a childish absurdity.

But it is when plays are turned into opera librettos that the worst crimes are done. Consider, for example, the case of Dumas’ “La Dame aux Camelias.” In Verdi’s “La Traviata,” which has a libretto based upon the play, Marguerite Gautier becomes Violette and Armand Duval becomes Alfred Germont. Worse still, the time of the action is put back just 150 years. Dumas laid his scene in the Paris of the Empire. Plave’s libretto deals with the Paris of Louis XIV.

“Rigoletto” affords another example. The libretto of this opera was fashioned by the same conscienceless Plave, from the mutilated carcass of Victor Hugo’s “Le Roi s’Amuse.” Plave changed the scene, the title and the names of all the characters. This arch-ripper is now dead. History does not record the malady which took him off. Let us hope that it was something tedious and painful—by preference, Mark Twain’s famous combination of lumbago and St. Vitus’ dance.

(Source: University of North Texas Microfilm Collection)

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