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Parallel Imagination

ART TIMES Jan/Feb, 2005

Why is translation for the stage a creative activity? Isn’t it just a mechanical projection of the original author’s words?

P. Lal, the translator of the Sanskrit plays of India, refers to his work not as translation but as “transcreation.” I think any work in English that tries to bring the experience of a play originally written in a foreign language to an English-speaking audience must be that. Mechanical translation, rote rendering of words and phrases, will not do; if all you do is that, you might as well just feed the printout straight into a shredder for all the good your work will do in the theater.

I’ve written before of the process in which the translator must engage with the characters and events in the source text in such a way that the pressures which cause them to react in a way that is meaningful to the source culture can be expressed in a way that will be meaningful to the target culture. It’s more than just denotative meaning that’s involved. The audience in the target culture must have an equivalent experience, an equivalent response must be evoked, they must go home feeling for the characters something very like what the source culture’s audience feels. To do that requires more than a mere act of interpretation; it requires a creative involvement, a production of something new — the new text for the new culture, the new version of the original work. It requires, in short, an act of parallel imagination.

You have to get back beyond the author’s text itself. You have to get back to the level of the material as it originally manifested itself in the author’s mind. Before the author wrote, or as the author wrote, characters, situations, interactions and relationships came to the author’s mind. His text is fashioned out of that material and in response to that material. You must engage yourself with that material as the author did, listening to the characters, feeling their responses, living through their relationships and interactions. Only then can you create in parallel with the author, writing a text that has constant, unmistakable, indeed absolutely necessary resonances with the author’s work, yet is capable of evoking authentic responses in a different social, cultural, intellectual and artistic environment.

Just as the author’s work could not have succeeded unless it were an authentic response to the material capable of evoking authentic response in the audience, your translation cannot succeed unless it, too is an authentic response to the underlying material in the author’s work, capable as well of evoking an equally authentic response in the translator’s audience. It is not only a creative activity, it is a creative activity carried out under a far more difficult set of constraints than was the author’s original creation. The original author was free to do as the spirit moved, to follow the material wherever it led. The translator must do that as well, but must also constantly maintain the intimate relationship to the author’s work expected of a translation.

This act of parallel imagination inevitably changes things. It’s not just the linguistic discontinuity, in which words and phrases in one language relate imperfectly to words and phrases in another. It’s the cultural discontinuity, in which actions and relationships in one culture relate imperfectly to similar, yet different actions in another culture. In Strindberg’s Miss Julie, for example, Jean paints a picture for Julie of what will happen if other people see them drinking together, alone at night, the lady of the house and her father’s valet. In a 21st century American English-speaking context, that situation results in an immediate and uncharitable assumption by the onlooker of an improper relationship, a relationship made all the more probable by its impropriety — Miss Julie’s going slumming, and why not, especially on Midsummer Eve? In Strindberg’s late 19th century Swedish context, it results in an incredulous realization that an improper relationship might actually be developing, in spite of the inherent improbability of any such thing happening, given the nearly unbridgeable gulf between classes, no matter what holiday it may be.

The translator has to bridge that gap, to find the way to make it possible for Jean to practice the emotional blackmail that gets Julie into his bedroom. The connections between the two versions will be constant, resonant and unmistakable, if the translator does a good job, but the two versions by necessity will always be different.

Failure to engage the text at this level is what produces mechanical, literalistic translation. Unwilling to engage at this level, the translator chooses to engage only at the level of the actual text, and seeks only to reprocess that text into a mechanically equivalent translation. This cannot succeed on the stage. Mechanical translation may be good enough for the study and the classroom — though why we should settle for it is beyond me. It will never be good enough for the stage because it cannot provide an audience with an experience parallel to the experience intended for, and, one hopes, provided to the original audience.

Fully engaged translation is the kind of translation we need for the stage. The target should be the act of parallel creation that can bring the riches of the theater and drama of the world to our doorstep. What happens after that is anybody’s guess — but it should be exciting!

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