Lost in Translation?

28 February 2013

Jack Pulman-Slater argues that the delightful challenges of directing translated theatre far outweigh its perils…

Apart from the Greek tragedies, the Scandinavian playwrights, the Moomins and, for the channel Four watchers amongst us, ‘Borgen’ and ‘The Killing’, we do not like foreign media in this country. Except of course if it’s from America. We don’t really like bothering with subtitles – surely if it was worth watching they’d have done it in English? But, if we restrict ourselves to Anglo-American theatre, books and telly, we’ll lose out on some real cultural treats.

Last week I directed the English language stage premier of Saunders Lewis’ Welsh play The King of England’s Daughter in Girton College’s Chapel with the Girton Amateur Dramatic Society (GADS). The names proved tongue-twisters for the non-Welsh speaking cast, the Celtic history long and complicated, and, quite frankly, some bits of the translation didn’t make sense. Saunders Lewis’ purpose in the world of Welsh theatre was to create a national language of theatre, and his style of writing in Welsh is strikingly poetic and beautiful.

However, this is an aspect of the play that our audiences would not grasp. “Am I a bunch of grapes?” the main character brusquely asks her lover, which hardly sounds like the passionate plea for love it is in Welsh. One tragic translation error reveals that the protagonist’s grandmother was actually a man, who committed incest whilst “paying himself visits”. But, after consulting the original texts, we were able to iron out these linguistic creases, changing words here and there and trying to get to the play’s original linguistic heart. Language is slippery, and a play with such a close relationship with its original language will obviously lose some of its cultural weight and significance in translation. However, ultimately it didn’t matter at all, because in putting on the production we could give the play a new life in a new linguistic environment.

When performing a Chekhov, it might be of benefit to find an original copy of the text and borrow a Russian for a few hours. There are things that you can get from the original text that you just won’t be able to get from the translation. Translating basic meaning is mostly possible but the culture of a language, which is tied to every word a speaker utters, is almost impossible to express in a different language. Translation is a skill: being able to speak two languages does not necessitate an ability to translate well between them

As well as this, every translation will be different. David Harrower’s 2002 National Theatre version of Chekhov’s Ivanov is a classic example. “I’m so bored,” said one character, “I want to take a run at a wall.” But the Guardian’s Brian Logan pointed out the following year that the Penguin Classics version had the character say “It’s so frightfully boring that I’d simply like to run off and bang my head on a wall. And Lord have mercy on us all!” David Hare’s Almeida translation chose an entirely different avenue of translation: “I’d eat the carpet, I’d eat the paintings on the wall.”

Fred Ward, President of GADS, who has directed English translations of Les Justes by Albert Camus and If You Please by Breton and Soupault, acknowledges that “translations can damage a play’s lyricism or tempo.” He says that he would be wary of directing a play translated play in a language which he was unfamiliar with, as his knowledge of the texts in the original French allowed him to “alter things to my ear which did not sound quite right.” Despite this he stresses that “most plays have been written in cultural contexts that are different from our own and this is a challenge that all theatre faces. It is up to directors and actors to transform what mattered in one cultural context into something that is relevant in our own context.”

Working with translated theatre is difficult, especially if you’re directing your own translation. But it’s worth the effort. The world of theatre is so much bigger than the Anglophone world. Cambridge has had a go at a few pieces but I think we could do more and our theatre scene could be all the richer for it.