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The two things that have to happen when you translate drama

ART TIMES December, 2004

I’ve done translations or adaptations of plays from six different languages. Mind you, in most of those languages, I couldn’t order a cup of coffee in that language if my life depended on it. That doesn’t matter: translation is a very specific skill, and translation for the stage is an even more specific skill, and here’s how it works.

First of all, the translator must be able to read the source text very slowly, very carefully, very sensitively. If I get through 100 lines of the original text in a full day’s work, I’m happy. If I get through 200 lines, I’m very pleased with myself. If I get through 300 lines in a day, I feel like I’m breaking NASCAR world speed records. I work through the text literally line by line and word by word, constantly checking words against dictionaries, phrases against lexical and usage sources, and my understanding of the characters and action against the responses and insights of native speakers. This very slow, very careful reading process is completely different from any normal use of regular reading, writing, speaking and listening skills as used by people who are using the source language in real life.

At a certain point I can say that I have gained a solid understanding of the source text—and by that I mean one utterance of one character, or perhaps one stage direction, possibly as little as one or two sentences in a longer speech by one character. At that point, I have just two things to think about.

The first is this: given the makeup of this person, and the circumstances in which this person finds him or herself, and the pressures—physical, social, intellectual, emotional, spiritual and so forth—acting on them, what is the essence of that person’s response?

The second is this: given the essence of that person’s response, what natural, idiomatic, emotionally resonant utterance in American English will communicate that response to an audience drawn from an American English-speaking background?

The actual words of the source text are, of course, very important, but not in the literal sense. You do not do this kind of translation word-by-word or with literal accuracy as the top priority. You take the source words as the playwright’s expression, in his own cultural context, of how the playwright imagined the character’s response to the pressures in play at the moment. The translator must then re-imagine that response in such a way that it can be communicated in a different cultural context.

A simple illustration: The first three words of Strindberg’s The Stronger are simply, “God dag Amelie, lilla!” Literally, this is “Good day Amelie, little one!” Strindberg imagines Mrs. X as given Miss Y an affectionate greeting, including the word “lilla” which literally is the adjective “small” and is used as an endearment in Swedish. How would that happen in American English? Mrs. X is rather upper class, or at least affects being so. The East Coast American upper-class mannerism would be, “Hello, Amelie dear!” Finally, I would change the character’s name to Emily, which is much easier to say and to hear, particularly since Strindberg himself uses mostly non-Swedish names for his characters in this play: Amelie, Bob, Lisa, Mauritz, Frederique.

Another illustration, from Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba: “¡No llegará la sangre al río!” This Spanish idiomatic expression literally means, “The blood wouldn’t run to the river.” In context, Bernarda threatens to tear Poncia limb from limb if Adela has in fact escaped their control and lain with Pepe, and Poncia’s response is cold-blooded contempt: “Go ahead; you won’t get enough blood out of me to make it worth your while.” In simple, direct language: “It would be a waste of time.” Poncia’s feelings toward Bernarda are a complex mixture of admiration, respect, love and hate, but fear is definitely not a part of them. Threats from Bernarda leave her cold.

That’s how it’s done, and that’s the standard any translation meant to be performed on stage has to meet. Unfortunately, we don’t get nearly enough translations that apply this standard or something like it. Richard Wilbur’s translations of Moliere fit the bill. Many other translators either produce translations that are not natural and idiomatic for an American audience, as do many British translators, or dishonest about what they’ve done to the original, as happens far too often. We need more and better translations of great plays from other cultures to make our own theatrical culture richer and deeper. It requires linguistic sensitivity, theatrical understanding, and a great deal of patience. All of those qualities exist out there in the population; what we need is the means to encourage the work and the provision of models for it as I’ve sketched out here.

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