Cyrano de Bergerac, The Other World
reviewed by Michael E. Lloyd
Cyrano de BergeracTitle : The Other World
Publisher: Bewildering Stories
Print copy: none yet
Length: 39 episodes
Link: The Other World
The literary translator’s job, like many tasks demanding great precision, deep insight and a high level of responsibility, is usually a thankless one.
When the job’s done neatly and well, nobody should notice it, and the author (rightly) takes most or all of the credit for the original work. When it’s done badly, the translator simply deserves a slow death, and the author — whether or not already in his or her own grave — will probably insist on being first in the line of executioners.
But Don Webb’s masterful translation of Cyrano de Bergerac’s The Other World: The Societies and Governments of the Moon matches neither of these profiles. Don has gone, in both message and medium, far beyond mere — though sensitive — translation, and has also done his job to near-perfection. He deserves to share, equally with Cyrano, all credit for the fine new œuvre that is the result.
You want Plot? Cyrano, in the cloak of a dilettante scientist/philosopher/earthling in his own mid-17th century France (“Roll on the 19th!” that anti-hero seems to keep declaring, sotto voce), contrives to transport himself into the rather different civilisation then prevalent on the Moon (and, by reliable report, on the Sun as well), where he proceeds to discover and discuss the nature of most everything ... and returns miraculously and unharmed to tell the tale.
You want Topics and Themes? How about — and this is over 350 years ago, remember! — hot-air balloons, the rotation of a round earth, the nature of life, matter and infinity, moon rockets, mass and gravity? And that’s just in the first six short episodes!
You want more? A topsy-turvy Garden of Eden, more ingenious space vehicles, biblical characters inventing parachutes, a female who’s also a heroine(!), human anatomy, ignorance and knowledge. And there are all manner of moon-natives (many of them influential and with much to say) and an important visitor from the Sun; there’s plenty of drinking and eating (often just by smelling, actually), discussions of cultural progress, extrasensory perception, alternate forms of communication (via pure music, and full-body language), and payment by poems rather than cash.
Then there’s particle physics and vacuums, ecology, the nature of war, intolerance, women’s lib, systems of justice, the generation gap, sexuality, God and his plan, microcosm and macrocosm. And mobile-town planning, multifunction iPods, death and body disposal, religious doctrine under challenge, immortality via the food chain, the nature of the soul — well, the list is endless: I’ve barely scraped the surface here ...
You want Structure? Aha: enter Dr Webb. You see, 17th century French prose writers placed Ideas at the top of their priority list, and gave little attention to actual readability. Don fixes that nicely for the modern reader, with an easy-to-digest breakdown of the original long single text into 39 web-page-friendly episodes, adding useful extra paragraphing as he goes. Bravo!
But he has added far more than this invaluable structuring. In his own short Introduction, and the opening notes to Episode 1, he gives us a concise story of the novel’s writing and its subsequent effective “loss from view”, summarises just a few of the big issues which it will address, and already begins posing questions about “what might have been if ...”.
There’s more: at the start and end of each episode, Don supplies short but invaluable (and highly entertaining) commentaries on the events of that particular tableau. These are often accompanied by his own little sustained, parallel “gameplay”: an ongoing challenge to you, the modern reader, to ponder how you would handle being transported back to 17th century France to discuss each newly-presented topic, with Cyrano as your intellectual go-between. Wicked stuff, this ... for just one example, consider this from the end of Episode 29: Don now has Cyrano accepting your return invitation to trip forward into the 21st century, observing a modern microscope in action on his own skin cells, and then simply declaring to you: “Moi, I am fascinated but not surprised.” Now that’s cool chic — from both of them.
Finally, Don offers a substantial Afterword on many related aspects of the overall work, and a little Q&A, both of them rounding things off nicely but also leaving plenty of questions hanging in the air for his readers to chew over at their leisure ...
I wonder if Bill Bryson has read “The Other World”? I doubt it, but only by dint of circumstantial improbability. Now there’s someone else who’d be smiling broadly with every turn of Don’s virtual pages. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll write and recommend it to him ...
When Don’s labour of love finally appears in print — as it surely must — there will only be one small but significant loss. There is true delight, even for this jaded computer techie, in clicking on one of Don’s countless hypertext hot links and being presented at once with a friendly little pop-up which briefly explains background, clarifies linguistic intent, makes subtle socio-political-religious-literary connections, or simply shares the aftertones of Cyrano’s sly humour.
I’m sure that, in a hardcopy format, carefully edited footnotes or in-line annotations will preserve all of the messages themselves — but Don’s original, web-published version represents a simply great exploitation of a fine modern medium. Cyrano would have loved it ... in fact he’d have downloaded it onto his own Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy before departure!
So, to Don I say: Maestro, you have created something very special for all who care to embrace it. In Cyrano’s own keystone words, you persuade us to continually “Give thought to life and liberty.” For all of this — thank you.
And in my view, at least, any future title page of this near-earliest of sci-fi novels should not read, as a sort of minor, small-print afterthought, “ ... translated by Don Webb”. No: it should truly and roundly proclaim: The Other World: The Societies and Governments of the Moon by Cyrano de Bergerac and Dr Donald Webb.
Copyright © 2006 by Michael E. Lloyd