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Bilingualism in EndGame

Bilingualism in EndGame

Bilingualism is at the core of Beckett’s work and has been at the heart of much critical research from Perloff to Friedman. The Irish playwright began his career in English before abruptly turning to French for a decade. In doing so, his language was stripped back; giving way to the stark minimalism which Beckett is now renowned for. During this period Beckett wrote two of his most notable pieces: Fin de Partie (or Endgame) and En Attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot). Although, I will only focus on the former, it goes without saying that both of these plays were crafted through Beckett’s extraordinary method of using French as a vehicle for his signature bluntness of expression. Indeed, Beckett wrote Fin de Partie in French before translating it into English later to give the dialogue an intentional lack of style.

Although rarely performed in conjunction, Endgame and Fin de Partie can only be read as one. Whilst there has been much critical debate about the relationship between the French and English versions of the play, for me, Beckett’s self-translation is so engrained within his methodology that both must be analyzed side by side to be understood as a whole. Fitch also argued that the two versions should be thought of as “interdependent” in his extensive work on the matter: Beckett and Babel an investigation in the status of the bilingual work.

The de-construction of language

Language is an undeniable problem in this play, which is only rendered more complex by the issue of translation. The failure and the limitations of language is one of the central pre-occupations within Endgame. Beckett sought to de-construct language and to reveal it as a failed system of communication. Hamm and Clove are suspended in a limbo in which words can only be restrictive. They flutter between interrogation and apathy without much progression. Their conversations are circular to the point of absurdity and characterised by a resolute sense of stagnation. The play is punctuated by the tireless repetition of “Is it time for my pain-killers?”. Indeed, Hamm acknowledges his own incapacity to be articulate, instead he “babbles, words like a solitary child”. Significantly, Hamm’s blindness causes him to rely on words to see and imagine, but without effective language he is left to mutter inconsequently in the dark. Within a play, the struggle with language leads to the inability to propel the plot forward; the entire narrative is handicapped. Therefore, the limitations of language are intrinsically linked to the play’s post-apocalyptic stasis. The characters are unable to accelerate the conversation so the script falters, standing still within endless time.

Translating Endgame

Although the English version of the play is characterised by bleakness and dark humour, the French original is even more consciously ‘lacking’. Beckett purposefully sought the discomfort of a foreign language. He wanted the opportunity to write without any stylistic bias. He thus set out to convey a layer of bareness which he could not achieve through his native English. Having taught at Ecole Normale Supériere de Paris in the late 20s, Beckett’s French is scholarly and controlled; it lacks the natural literary nuances of his English. As Nabokov rightly remarked, Beckett wrote “a schoolmaster’s French, a preserved French, but in [his] English you feel the moisture of verbal association and of the spreading live roots of his prose.” The macabre Endgame was set after a moment of total destruction and marks a moment in time in which poetry (or lyrical language) is no longer possible. As famously written by Adorno “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”, although this phrase should not be taken literally, it refers to a post-traumatic moment in history where language has become deeply problematic. Beckett seeks to stage Endgame at this point in time and it is through the French version of the text, that Beckett truly achieves an utter sense of barrenness.

Indeed, despite his best efforts, Beckett’s English is filled with dry witticisms which give the dialogue an unintentional lyrical tinge. Although Beckett specifies that the lines must be delivered “tonelessly” with an empty “fixed gaze”, there is something undeniably poetic about a phase like “I see my light dying”. By contrast, Beckett’s French is pedantic, stilted and deliberately devoid of passion.

The phrase “J’emploie les mots que tu m’as apprise. S’ils ne veulent plus rien dire apprends m’en d’autres. Ou laisse-moi me taire » encapsulâtes the play’s stance on langage perfectly. Clov is limited by the words he has inherited and inhabits a sterile space where the creation of a new vocabulary is hopeless. The deliberate childishness of “apprend m’en d’autres” further emphasizes the failures of speech. His only refuge is in silence.

Even though the English conveys the same meaning it is far more elegantly phrased. Indeed in English: “I use the words you taught me. If they don’t mean anything anymore, teach me others. Or let me be silent” has a lyrical poignancy which Beckett’s clumsy French deliberately lacks. Moreover, as suggested by Taylor, Clov’s tirade echo’s Caliban speech in The Tempest: “You taught me language; and my profit is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you/For learning me your language!”. Similarly, Cohn remarked that the neutral French “finis la rigolade” is translated “by Beckett with the The Tempest line “Our revels are now ended””. Thus while the English holds authority and inserts itself within a theatrical tradition set by a master; the French justly conveys stunted speech without a valid heritage.

The Title

One of the most notable distinctions between the English and the French translations is the subtle differences within the title. Fin de Partie could easily have been turned into the blunt “End of game”. Instead, Endgame alludes more resolutely than the French to a game of chess. This reference introduces a level of strategy, skill and calculation into the text which contradicts the meaningless drift of the narrative as a whole. Fin de Partie is stark, whilst Endgame refers to a particular moment at the end of a chess game when there are very few chess pieces left on the board and the outcome is fixed. This implies that within this play, the game is predetermined, and the characters cannot save themselves by making the correct move. Instead, the losers can only prolong their fated end.

The title itself thus proves the strength of Beckett’s bilingual method. Even within a few words both languages reveal their stark nuances. Any reading of this text is thereby immediately enriched by contrasting both. Beckett’s mastery of two languages truly adds another dimension to his craft as a playwright. Although an audience may not be able to experience both versions, there is no doubt that Beckett’s native grasp of English implicitly influenced the writing of the French version whilst the French consciously influenced the English translation: the two are thus intrinsically linked. Unsurprisingly Beckett’s 10 year period of experimentation with language is often thought of as the peak of his theatrical career and it is difficult not to agree wholeheartedly with this judgement.