French may be the language of love, but it can also be the language of infidelity, romantic deception, and high jinks.
The French playwright Marc Camoletti wrote “Happy Birthday” in the 1970s as a madcap a farce involving two married couples cheating on one another, with one another. There are a lot of cover-ups, mistaken identities, and door slamming.
“Most farce derives its comedy out of desperation,” said Trey Lyford, director of the current staging of “Happy Birthday” by 1812 Productions. “The more desperate and screwed the person is, the more idiocy comes through.”
“Happy Birthday” is one of Camoletti’s lesser-known plays, translated into English in 1980. Lyford attempted to find an original French version of the script, in order to cross-reference the English version, but came up short.
In its attempt to expand the yuks to a Spanish-speaking audience, 1812 Productions will accompany a Wednesday night performance with Spanish supertitles with a screen on the side of the stage translating the lines.
Fernando Mendez, editor of the Spanish language newspaper El Sol, was hired to do the translation. Because no copy of the French version of the script could be found (Mendez also speaks French), he had to translate the English translation.
Moving from French to English to Spanish, they discovered something got lost in translation.
Much of the comedy in “Happy Birthday” is physical, but its desperate characters often try to talk their way out of trouble. In this excerpt, a husband (Bernard) is trying to explain to his wife (Jacqueline) that the woman in the house is not his mistress (which, in fact, she is) but a maid his wife had hired for the day.
Bernard: She’s just been explaining that unfortunately she’s — to cut a long story short, she’s missed the bus.
Jacqueline: But the agency assured me …
Bernard: The agency?
Jacqueline: Yes, the employment agency. Domestic staff and all that.
Bernard: Now, darling, let’s not make much of a hullabaloo. The young lady is certainly late, but there’s no need to work yourself into a passion about it.
That bit of dialogue provides many challenges to Mendez, including like the word “bus,” as in “she missed the bus.”
“In Spanish it’s a bus. In Puerto Rico they use another term – guagua. In Chile, guagua is a baby. In Mexico a bus is el camión. So I use ‘autobus’ because that’s standard Spanish,” said Mendez. “Then they use ‘hullabaloo. Try to figure that one out in Spanish.”
When translating comedy, it’s not enough to relay what was said, but what was funny about what was said. And that’s usually the first thing to go. The word “autobus” may be the most formal way to describe a bus in Spanish, but — depending on where you come from — it may not be the funniest term for “bus.”
Mendez, who said he tries to retain the humor as much as possible, said he defers to clarity over comedy if there is ambiguity.
“Sometimes translations just have to give a meaning,” said Mendez. “It may not be as funny, because you want to convey the meaning of what was said. Otherwise, it will make no sense of what follows.
That conundrum might be true in the original translation, from French to English. Director Lyford noticed certain moments in the play didn’t make sense. He suspects the English translator in 1980 may have been reaching for the joke at the expense of continuity.