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Finding the Right Dialect

ART TIMES Mar, 2004

Over the past two years, I’ve done three translations and one adaptation for the stage. The translations are from French, Italian, and Spanish, the adaptation from Swedish. I’m currently working on a fourth translation, this one from German.

In each case, one over-arching problem has been to find the right sound, or, to be more linguistically accurate, the right dialect of English. The goal of all this work has been to produce texts that work well on stage when played to an audience that doesn’t know the original work or the original language. In order for a text to do that, it has to be very clear; the audience in the theater only gets one crack at understanding each thing that’s said. It has to be direct; the audience will not be viscerally responsive to a dialect that is distant, difficult or foreign. It also cannot be anachronistic except for occasional comic effect; it really doesn’t work to have, say 18th century characters using the latest 21st century expressions.

In the process, you run into all sorts of interesting problems. For example, throughout the plays of the 18th century, playwrights freely used what I call "male insult nouns," words that translate into English as "scoundrel," "rogue," "villain," "rascal" and the like. It’s odd when you come to think of it, but male insult nouns are a lost art in English. When was the last time, in ordinary conversation, you heard somebody say something like "What a scoundrel he is!" If you heard something like that, you would immediately think, "Hmm, been spending a little too much time in the library, have we?" Yet there it is; in the 18th century, this was normal, colloquial, visceral speech. Modern insult terms run to denigration of parentage or imputations of personal uncleanliness, like "bastard," "son-of-a-bitch," "scumbag," "slimeball" and so forth. They aren’t genuinely equivalent. The better tactic seems to be to turn to disparaging adjectival or verb expressions. If the original says, "What a rascal he is!" the rendition might be, "How crude can you get!"

There are even whole modes of action that don’t have readily available equivalents. In Minna von Barnhelm, by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, which is the German play I’m working with at the moment, Minna and her fiancè Major von Tellheim find themselves together unexpectedly after a prolonged separation. Lessing puts the entire scene in the formal; every time they address each other, they use the pronouns and verb forms appropriate to discourse with strangers or those of higher rank than themselves. This creates a linguistic tension between the emotion of the scene and the language in which they communicate that is remarkably effective. Capturing this requires finding ways to use the much subtler English usages that apply to such a situation – longer, more Latinate words, phrasings just a bit more elaborate than really necessary, use of honorific forms of address such as "sir" or "madam." However, the basic rules still apply – it has to sound natural, be directly emotionally effective, and clearly understandable on one pass.

In the end, the language has to get out of the way. In a perfect translation, at each moment in the play, each character would express themselves in a fully natural, directly evocative way to the pressures of the situation and the nature of the person. The audience would not be listening to the language as such; the audience would be experiencing the response of the character, and the language would be merely a fully transparent means to that end.

Why do so many translations fail to pay attention to the qualities of the original? Why do translators produce stuffy, literary, turgid versions of limpidly clear, beautifully flowing, highly colloquial originals? For some reason, it’s very easy to get caught up in irrelevancies. Which is more important – to capture the details of Molière’s Alexandrine meter, or to capture his lightness, quickness, and the plain fact that he’s very funny? The original met a simple test – it could be played to an audience effectively. Why shouldn’t that same test be applied to the translation? Why shouldn’t that be the overall goal of the translation? Shouldn’t the translation be just as effective as the original?

If we could get more translations of plays from the huge body of drama not originally in English – a body of drama that greatly exceeds the English drama in both quantity and quality – and if those translations were of the genuinely stageable kind outlined above, what a wonderful enrichment of our theater we would have!

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