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'Cyrano,' Gaining in the Translation

True genius only among Geniuses,

Palpitate over little paragraphs,

And struggle to insinuate my name


Jose Ferrer's stirring speeches in the 1950 film came from Brian Hooker's translation of "Cyrano de Bergerac." (File Photo)

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In the columns of the Mercury?

No thank you! Calculate, scheme, be afraid,

Love more to make a visit than a poem,

Seek introductions, favors, influences? --

No thank you! No, I thank you! And again

I thank you!

Is there, anywhere in any language, a more devastating repudiation of toadying and apple-polishing than that? In this city, where those practices have been raised to something approximating high art, every word of that speech should be posted on every office wall on K Street and Capitol Hill, not to mention the White House. With eloquence that almost literally takes the breath away, Rostand/Hooker constructs a great avalanche of words, each one of them exactly right, each target hit dead center.

Cyrano the man and "Cyrano" the play are romantic to the core: romantic in the grand manner rather than in the simpering Hollywood style. Romance on such a scale has long been out of literary fashion, with the result that many self-appointed arbiters of literary and cultural fashion look down their own (very short) noses at "Cyrano." The last word belongs to Clayton Hamilton:

"This gallant play is still as thrillingly alive as it was in 1898. Rostand was like Shakespeare in one respect at least; for he wrote 'not of an age but for all time.' It is only the realists, who write about contemporary manners and contemporary morals, who grow speedily old-fashioned: the romantics, who escape from their own period, remain forever young and forever new."

Brian Hooker's translation of Edmond Rostand's "Cyrano de Bergerac" is available in a Bantam Classics paperback ($4.95).

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.


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