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TartuffeFrontispiece, 1682 edition
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

Also known as
Tartuffe, or The Imposter; Tartuffe, or The Hypocrite

First performance

Literature form


Writing language

Author's country

Five acts, approx. 22,000 words

Hard to translate the humour into English

Two things about Molière's plays make them hard to translate decently into English.

In the first place, most of them are in poetry, and in a distinctively French form of poetry: the alexandrine. Alexandrines are lines of twelve syllables, six beats, arranged in rhyming couplets. English does not fall easily into such long lines and is much more difficult to rhyme.

In the second place, Molière is very funny. It is difficult enough to translate humour into another language, without also having to fit it to poetic strictures.

Scores of Tartuffe translations over the past three centuries have tried to get around this problem by dropping the rhyme, or dropping the long lines, or dropping the poetry all together. Only a very few, like Maya Slater's recent translation Moliere: The Misanthrope, Tartuffe, and Other Plays (2001) for Oxford World's Classics are faithful to the original French verse form. Pretty hard slogging to read through it for most of us though.

Some translators have gone the exact opposite route and opted for pure prose. John Wood's translations of Molière's works, including Tartuffe, into prose in the 1950s have been revised by David Coward in The Misanthrope and other Plays: A New Selection (2000). This Penguin edition is the one you are most likely to find in a book store these days. It's well regarded and enjoyable. But it's surprisingly flat. While it is easy for modern English readers to follow the plot and characters in prose, some of Molière's wit goes missing without the rhythm and rhymes.

Six translations of passages compared ▽ Six translations of passages compared △


DORINE. Will she? She'll turn him into a cuckold, that's what she'll do, take it from me.
ORGON.  Hush! That's no way to talk.
DORINE. I tell you, he looks the type. It's in his stars sir, and all your daughter's virtue won't prevent it.

TARTUFFE. The love which binds us to beauty eternal does not drive from human hearts a love of the beauties of the world.... On you depend my torment or my bliss. For by your decree alone shall I at last be happy, if such is your wish, or wretched, if it so pleases you.

ORGON. There goes—I admit it—an abominable scoundrel! I can't get over it! It's all too much for me!


DORINE. With him? Do naught but give him
horns, I'll warrant.
ORGON. Out on thee, wench!
DORINE. I tell you he's cut out for't;
However great your daughter's virtue, sir,
His destiny is sure to prove the stronger.

TARTUFFE. Love for the beauty of eternal
Cannot destroy our love for earthly beauty...
You are my hope, my stay, my peace of
On you depends my torment or my bliss;
And by your doom of judgment, I shall be Blest, if you will; or damned, by your decree.

ORGON. That is, I own, a man... abominable!
I can't get over it; the whole thing floors me.


DORINE. All that she'll make of him is a horned monster.
ORGON. What talk is this?
DORINE. I say he has the build for it.
The stars have doomed him, and his natural fate
Will be more powerful than your daughter's virtue.

TARTUFFE. The love which draws us to
eternal beauty
Does not exclude the love of temporal
In you is all my hope, my good, my peace;
On you depends my punishment or my bliss;
By your decree alone may I be happy,
If you are willing; unhappy if that's your will.

ORGON. Oh, what a bad, abominable man!
I am astounded! I just can't understand it.


DORINE. And she'll make him a cuckold, just wait and see.
ORGON.  What language!
DORINE. Oh, he's a man of destiny;
He's made for horns, and what the stars demand
Your daughter's virtue surely can't withstand.

TARTUFFE. A love of heavenly beauty does
not preclude
A proper love for earthly pulchritude...
Youare my peace, my solace, my salvation;
On you depends my bliss—or desolation....

ORGON. That man's a perfect monster, I
must admit!
I'm simply stunned. I can't get over it.


DORINE.  She'll make a fool of him; just wait and see.
ORGON. What talk!
DORINE.  He's built for it, believe you me.
Against the power of his horoscope Your daughter's virtue, sir, has little hope.

TARTUFFE. To love eternal beauties far above
Is not to be immune to other love....
On you depends my hope and quietude,
My wretchedness or my beatitude;
You must decide what lies ahead of me:
Celestial bliss or utter misery.

ORGON. Yes, he's an evil man, I do admit!
I'm really stunned; I can't get over it.


DORINE.  He'll suit a pair of horns, alright—
She'll cuckold him!
ORGON. Will you be quiet!
DORINE.  It's written on him, can't you see?
'Somebody's going to cuckold me!'
In great big letters. It's his fate!
He won't escape it, sir—you wait,
No matter if the girl is chaste,
It's just a fact that must be faced.

My heart's not made of stone you know—
There are two kinds of love—one springs
From contact with eternal things.
But that can easily comport
With passions of a temporal sort....
My hope, my happiness, my peace
Begin with you, without you cease;
How is my pilgrimage to end?
Upon your fiat I depend
To be the happiest of men
Or wretchedest—pronounce it, then!

A popular compromise is to render Molière into that ever-favourite English style of poetry: blank verse. The poetry is retained but in reduced lines of iambic pentameter (ten syllables, five beats to the line) and without rhymed endings. 

You can find old and free examples of this approach on the Internet, especially the work of Curtis Hidden Page (yes, that's really his name). Page's version of Tartuffe (1908) is considered seminal for modern translators—intelligent, learned, but somewhat pedestrian.

But many others have followed in his footsteps with livelier editions of Tartuffe in blank verse. Two of the best have been by Morris Bishop (1957) and Christopher Hampton (1983). Bishop's work is funny and bawdy, and doesn't always stick closely to Molière. One departure is that he erases the scene divisions. In the original work, new scenes are signified whenever characters enter or exit, even when the locale stays the same, a division retained by most Molière translators. This tends to breaks up the natural flow when you're reading it. Bishop's skipping of all scene changes within acts makes for smoother reading but also makes it more difficult to find particular passages.

Hampton, who is a noted playwright and screenwriter in his own right, produces verse with a natural, conversational feel to it.

The work that has set the modern standard, however, is Richard Wilbur's 1963 translation into heroic couplets—rhyming iambic pentameter. A prominent poet himself (Things of This World, 1956), Wilbur manages to produce elegant verse with the wit intact, the result being the closest approximation we have to the effect we imagine Molière's dramatic verse achieved with French audiences of his time.

The 1967 translation by Donald M. Frame follows Wilbur's closely, but some of his lines are superior in my opinion. (See the examples to get an idea for yourself.)

And then there's Ranjit Bolt's controversial translation of Tartuffe into rhyming couplets in 1991 and revised for a British stage production in 2002. It's looser, randier, more colloquial and funnier than any other version available. The verse is in the more modern, shorter comic form of four beats per line, though Bolt takes as many lines as are required to get the point across with good effect, not worrying about how many lines Molière used in French. In some places (at least in the 2002 translation) he has reduced Cleante's speeches—no great loss, although they are given in full in the appendix.

Some critics have damned Bolt's translation for "dumbing down" Molière, while others have hailed it for giving new life to the old guy's irreverent satire. From what I've read (not having seen it performed), I'd say I'm not sure it's as much Molière's Tartuffe as it is Bolt's Tartuffe. But I like Bolt's Tartuffe. I really like it.

— Eric


CritiqueQuotes • Translations