Waiting for Godot - A cultural approach

Bachelor Thesis, 2006

38 Pages, Grade: A


A man speaking English beautifully chooses to speak in French, which he speaks with greater difficulty, so that he is obliged to choose his words carefully, forced to give up fluency and to find the hard words that come with that difficulty, and then after all that finding he puts it all back into English, a new English containing all the difficulty of the French, of the coining of thought in a second language, a new English with the power to change English for ever [...].[1]

The quotation above was taken from an article published in the broadly acknowledged British newspaper The Independent, on 24th February 2006, the same day a national German newspaper Die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung chose to print it in its German translation. The article focuses entirely on the author’s own experiences with a bi- or, to an extent even trilingual playwright and his works. The playwright in question is the Irish writer Samuel Beckett, whose diverse versions of his play Waiting for Godot (1949) caught my attention. Several editions of the piece have been constructed, in numerous different languages. These may commonly be referred to as translations, but when engaging in a closer reading of these versions in comparison to one another, one realises that in actual fact an adaptation, and a recreation of the same play have been constructed. Diversities become particularly evident, and immensely relevant, when the English version, of which the act of translation was performed by Beckett himself, is placed in comparison to its German counterpart[2], constructed in cooperation between Beckett himself and his personal translator, Elmar Tophoven.

It is often suggested that Samuel Beckett made the choice of writing in a language he himself had to master, in order to keep a distance to his own work. As already established in Rushdie’s statement above, a possible result of this decision may be the unconscious establishment of a more compound process of creation. To the ‘standard’ process of the mental construction of a sentence, another phase is added. This phase may be referred to as that of internal, possibly subconscious, translation. In some cases this may turn out to be an intricate challenge, as the individual may not find himself to be in, what I would like to label as, complete control over this system of speech. Even if a person is considered fluent in this particular language, it does not necessarily mean that the individual is, or even can be, word perfect. Expression, in this case, is, therefore, a matter of internal transformation of thoughts and words, which is then followed by some form of external realisation of the latter. This external realisation may transpire in a type of language, for instance speech or gesture.

Alongside these concerns with translation, significant techniques of expression and repetition, as well as the apparent absence of historical and cultural aspects, and the consequences of the latter, will be discussed.

The article, from which the section above was taken, was written by Salman Rushdie, an Indian intellectual, recognised, and often condemned, for his intriguing, and questioned, views on Muslim faith, in addition to his opinions on world politics in general. As a result of his writings, he was forced to live in hiding. As an Indian living in Britain, he was compelled to abide by laws and morals of another culture and obliged to communicate in a language with which he was comparatively unfamiliar. Beckett on the other hand lived in exile through choice. He was a man of Irish origin, who chose to leave his home country in order to lead a profoundly different life in France, experiencing a diverse culture while internalising it, and making it his own.

Waiting for Godot was Beckett’s first play to be performed on stage, no less than four years after Beckett had finished writing it in January 1949. Its world premier took place in a small Parisian theatre with the biblical name Théâtre de Babylône, in January 1953, and was performed in the language of the original text: French. Its German counterpart was to be turned into a stage production just a few months later. Like its French model, this production provoked a variety of impulsive reactions, positive, as well as negative. The performance took place in the Schloßparktheater in Berlin, in September 1953, which was later to become the host to further German premiers of Beckett’s pieces.

It was not until 1955 that Beckett finished translating, and partly recreating Waiting for Godot into his mother tongue, English. A new English[3], as Rushdie denotes it. But what is it that makes this new English different from the ‘old’? And what made Beckett choose to write in a speech comparatively alien to him, and thus overcomplicating the process of communicating his own creativity? Can Rushdie’s remark quoted above, which seems to be placing the significance of the complexity of this translation process within the act of creation itself, be utilised as a justification for a partial recreation of a piece through alterations made during the act of its translation? When examining these queries, Beckett appears to have participated in constructing several culturated oeuvres, analogous in content, altered in terms of language and cultural understanding. Rather than crafting one relatively universal opus, to be translated by an outsider to his methods of artistic construction, however, an insider, with the apt familiarity in regards to the language of his translation and its acquirable audience. In this case, the translator may have incorporated minor changes, but the broad text would have been the same. Elmar Tophoven, on the other hand, as Beckett’s co-worker, and personal translator, had insight knowledge of these techniques, and took into consideration concerns beyond the words printed on paper, reading into Beckett’s subtext, rather than solely getting in touch with the visible. In several passages of Waiting for Godot equivalents were created in that other language, rather than literal translations, in order to achieve the closest possible communication of content. But even if this careful consideration of subconscious concerns had not taken place, with every letter that is altered in it, a piece changes. Therefore, the question arises, whether a play can be exactly the same in its translated version, as it is in the original. Furthermore, does it strive to achieve the same aims as the original, or does it lose or even gain new possibilities of perception and interpretation in the process? In order to answer this question, the role of each participating agent incorporated in the process of creation and translation, needs to be considered individually, as well as in relation to one another.

A translator, for instance, is generally trained to remain as true to the original as possible, with the purpose of transferring the words accommodated in their intended context, instead of producing an interpretation of it.

Does the author, on the other hand, possess the right of altering his own piece while proposing to transfer it into a different system of speech?

Waiting for Godot bears many examples of this freedom being exploited, indicating a recreation of the play, rather than a translation, especially in its English version. Raymond Federman, a writer and translator himself depicts the predicament a writer, and therefore creator, may find himself in, when self-translating his own works, searching for appropriate terms to communicate the entirety of each passage, sentence, or word. He additionally points out the concerns to be taken into consideration when translating literally, as the contents of the expressions might sound analogous, however, their meanings may differ. As E.-M. Cioran describes it in his and Beckett’s cooperative, yet unsuccessful, search for a French noun possessing a comparable potency as the English expression lessness: we had to resign ourselves to the metaphysical poverty of a preposition.[4] This statement illustrating the literary defeat of translator and creator alike outlines the difficulties the act of translation brings with it in terms of their responsibility in regard to selection and connotational equivalence. The conflict, therefore, does not subsist with the communicational system of language as a whole, but the meaning expressed through particular words within that idiom. The line between sameness and otherness, in relation to the power of expression, appears to be very fine. These differences, however, are not created by language itself, but the group of individuals employing the latter in formal and informal variations. Meaning, therefore, could be said to be constructed through the semiotics of signifier and signified appointed by a nation, or culture.

As a result, the translation needs to be made accessible for the culture for which it is constructed. Thus, the translator has to be aware of diversities between the two ethnically influenced texts, as well as the writer’s anticipated meaning within the context of his culture.

This is what it means to be a writer as self-translator. It means a total displacement of language from one culture to another. And yet, at the same time, especially in the case of Beckett, it means never stepping outside language. In other words, Beckett, in his bilingual work, allows us to listen to the dialogue which he entertains with himself in two languages.[5]

As outlined above, this statement made by Federman in his essay ‘The writer as self-translator’, unfolds for his reader the complex and juxtaposing position, Samuel Beckett may have found himself in, regarding not only his work, but his cultural affiliation as such. By this I mean the sameness and otherness France as a country, due to its diverse culture, had to offer this Irish citizen, resulting in clashes and correspondence, consequently affecting the feasibility of a connection between the two. Federman appears to outline the diversities recognisable in Beckett’s recreation of his piece. Rather than judging the author’s freedom he possesses in regard to alterations within his play, he seems to explain these differences in terms of Beckett’s split affiliations towards and relationships with dissimilar cultures and languages. When reviewing Federman’s remark in a literal sense, these languages, as already established in a cultural context, appear to clash and collaborate with one another, resulting in varying aspects of expressions in relation to one and the same topic.

In contrast to Rushdie’s observation concerning the internal act of translation in the process of creation, Federman reconsiders this process in reverse, while assessing it within the context of an internal dialogue. This internal conversation thus appears to establish two diverse personalities within the individual that seem to be accompanying one another, in Beckett’s case hesitant of which is the stronger of the two. An external dialogue is typically created by two or more participants communicating with one another through questions and answers, or otherwise agreements and disagreements. Through the progress within the act of communication, a certain tension is created between the contributors. This tension does not necessarily have to be of a negative nature, but might simply have been formed through the excitement of this agreement, or disagreement. Due to the internal nature of Beckett’s dialogue, this tension is obscured, until conveyed through words or physical expression. It seems to be evident when contrasting the original French version of Waiting for Godot to its English recreation. Beckett appears to have adapted the piece according to his personal experiences regarding diversities in cultural interests, the type of humour recognisable within the culture, and linguistic characteristics, evident in formal, as well as informal types of expression. Alterations made in regard to humoristic improvement within each version, seem particularly complex to analyse and consequently justify, as for this task, extensive, practically internal knowledge of that particular culture is a necessity. Beckett’s familiarity with the British, as well as the French, and the German culture are clearly portrayed and knowledgably employed throughout Waiting for Godot. However, alterations are predominantly executed in order to resolve diversities in culture or language and make the text more accessible to the proposed nation, changes in terms of character personality became manifested within the play.

Pozzo (to Estragon): Quel âge peut-il bien avoir? / What age would you say he was? / Wie alt mag er sein?

Estragon: Demandez-lui. (Ask him.) / Eleven. / Fragen Sie Ihn doch. (Ask him.)[6]

As made visible in the example above, which was taken from the first Act of the play, sentences and expressions are altered in the English translation of the piece, providing it with an entirely different scene. The French, as well as the German version of the play reply to Pozzo’s enquiry, regarding his servant Lucky, What age would you say he was?, with a simple Ask him. What entitles the English Estragon to a sudden alteration of this response? What made Beckett decide that this response was the more appropriate one for this particular character in this particular instant? The reply given in the two similar versions seems more straightforward, emphasising the relationship between characters, which often appears harsh and filled with orders, leaving the conversation incomplete, as well as obliquely opening up the dialogue to the other characters. The English adaptation, on the other hand, leaves the audience in no doubt that Estragon does not seem concerned about the issue in any way, striving to end this part of the exchange. Lucky’s age, or age in general, is evident as a recurring theme throughout the piece, emphasizing the issue of time. But Estragon’s response Eleven provides the reader with a supposedly untrue, but specific statement in regards to age. Pozzo appears to be the only character bothered about specificity in regards to the passing of time in Act I, as he feels it important to, first of all establish the amount of time passed since the beginning of his journey, as well as the age difference between him and his servant Lucky. In Act II, on the other hand, he rejects any consideration of time in its entirety.

This determined rejection of specificity generates a conscious tension between the characters in regards to themes.

The tension in relation to cultural and lingual differences outlined above, appears to already attain a climax in Act I, when Beckett incorporates a juxtaposition between culture and language. These types of juxtapositions are evident in several places throughout the play, emerging, however, in various shapes and forms.

An example of the amalgamation between knowledge of foreign cultural and linguistic themes and phrases, and the expertise of one’s own nation in relation to the foreign other bears the passage below. It is the result of Pozzo’s performance in search of verification of his talent, in which he chose to enlighten his fellow travellers with a speech explicating the events during the fall of night. The fall of night is an event the vast majority of people witness on a daily basis, secluded from the location they find themselves in. Thus it is an event universal in terms of content, the text is solely culturated through the way in which it is expressed, the speaker’s language, background, and opinion, which are in this case unknown.

Vladimir […]: Oh très bien, tout à fait bien. (Oh very good, absolutely good.)/Oh very good, very very good.

Oh, sehr gut, sehr, sehr, sehr gut. (Oh very good, very very very good.)

Estragon (accent anglais / English accent): Oh très bon, très très très bon. / Oh tray bong, tray tray tray bong. / Oh, sehr gut, sehr sehr sehr gut.[7]

These rather simple statements appear to outline the pairs’ diverse educational backgrounds, or possibly even diverse cultural surroundings, or descent. In addition to this issue of content, the friction between the two nations, regarding the inability of language-pronunciation, and Beckett’s indecisiveness concerning his own understanding of and affiliation towards that other culture. Whereas the scene above might possibly comment on the entirety of the English speaking world, exclusive remarks on the English nation can also be found in numerous dialogues in the piece. Beckett elaborates upon a stereotypical ‘Englishness’ at several points, primarily engaging in his role as an Irishman making remarks on the English culture, and therefore, as an outsider, commenting on a foreign nation. In contrast to his extensive knowledge of and first hand inclusive experiences with the British culture, the evaluation of his encounter with the German nation, revealed a relatively short period of time, and consequently limited understanding of the latter. His interests in, and so far extensive, but limited knowledge of the German culture, the country’s politics, its history, as well as its language, may have been part of the reason why Waiting for Godot was first of all translated into German, but I would not like to expand my speculation on this issue any further. The exploitation of this German culture within the play is, again, visible in a juxtaposition between culture and language. In contrast to the previous example utilising a nation’s characteristic in pronunciation of another language, on this occasion, Beckett selected a renowned German nursery rhyme for his character. At the beginning of Act II, Vladimir endeavours to remember and resonate the song about the dog that stole a crust of bread.[8] In addition to the repetitious nature of the rhyme, as well as Vladimir’s non-remembrance of its entirety accompanying and underlining the themes of the play as a whole, the song perfectly illustrates the modification of text and creation of an equivalent, rather than a literal translation, due to the necessary keeping and fortification of a rhythm.[9] However, as the intention was to construct an equivalent of the original German nursery rhyme, attempts to maintain the substantial rhythm and emphasize the significance of repetitions were made, in addition to a recreation of a comparable story for the English and the French versions. Nonetheless, due to grammatical diversities, consequently resulting in dissimilar numbers of syllables within a sentence, as well as differences in pronunciation between these three languages, rhythmic imperfections are noticeable.[10] The rhythm as well as the melody, appear to exert themselves not with, but against the distinctive cadence and tune of the French language. In addition to that, the rhyme itself appears misplaced, and peculiar in the context of its culturally and linguistically alienated French adaptation. This example visibly outlines the difficulties of a total displacement of language from one culture to another[11] as Federman refers to this process of linguistic and cultural transformation of a sentence from one tongue to another. In this particular case, it seems as if an attempt had been made to additionally displace a part of the culture within the act of transportation of that language.


[1] Rushdie, Salman (2006), The Independent, 24th February 2006

[2] At this point, I would like to point out, that I am aware of the numerous editions of Waiting for Godot, that have been published, especially in response to the Schiller Theater’s production of the piece in Munich in March 1975. Due to my rather restricting word count, however, I would like to limit myself to an analysis of the following (trilingual) edition: Beckett, Samuel (1952), Waiting for Godot, Suhrkamp Verlag (first published in 1971, revised edition constructed for the S. Fischer Verlag in 1993, first published with the Suhrkamp Verlag in 2003), Frankfurt, Germany. In addition to that, I would like to inform my reader that I intended to translate the French and the German versions into English as literally as possible, rather than creating an equivalent, which would be falsifying the argument of this analysis.

[3] Rushdie, Salman (2006), The Independent, 24th February 2006

[4] Federman, Raymond, ‘The writer as self-translator’, published as Chapter 1 in Beckett Translating / Translating Beckett, edited by Alan Warren Friedman, Charles Rossman and Diana Sherzer, The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park and London, 1987, p. 11

[5] Federman, Raymond, ‘The writer as self-translator’, .16, as cited in: Beer, Ann, Beckett’s Bilingualism, p. 217

[6] Beckett, Samuel (1952), Waiting for Godot, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, Germany, p.74/75

[7] Beckett, Samuel (1952), Waiting for Godot, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, Germany, p. 100-101

[8] Beckett, Samuel (1952), Waiting for Godot, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, Germany, p. 142-145

[9] Beckett, Samuel (1952), Waiting for Godot, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, Germany, p. 142-145

[10] e.g. (p. 142/143, Vladimir’s song): And beat him till he was dead. Vs. Und schlug den Hund zu Brei.

[11] Federman, Raymond, ‘The writer as self-translator’, .16, as cited in: Beer, Ann, Beckett’s Bilingualism, p. 217

Excerpt out of 38 pages


Waiting for Godot - A cultural approach
Roehampton University London
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Preis für die beste Bachelor Arbeit des Drama Departments der School of Arts an der University of Surrey Roehampton, Mai 2006
Waiting, Godot, Theatre Studies, Language, Culture, Beckett, Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
Quote paper
Victoria Friederike Joy Feitsch (Author), 2006, Waiting for Godot - A cultural approach, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/89224


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