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To Translate is To Betray?

August, 2002

There is an old Italian saying: "Traduttore, traditore." It’s a cynical remark; it assumes that the task of translation is hopeless, that you can’t ever properly transmit a work from one culture to another. It may, in the end, be true; but if there must be treason, it does not have to be committed in the first degree, with malice aforethought.

I first became aware of these issues when I studied French and heard Jacques Brel’s own recordings of the songs used in "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well And Living In Paris." That’s when I learned that the people who produced that musical revue took several of his great songs and substituted their own lyrics that had absolutely nothing to do with what Brel wrote.

Recently, I’ve been working my way through five translations of a classic Italian comedy by Carlo Goldoni, "La Locandiera" — better known in English as "The Mistress of the Inn" or "Mirandolina." One translator, Ranjit Bolt, commits out-and-out murder. There is hardly a single phrase in his English text that can be directly related to what Goldoni wrote. Another, Lady Gregory, bless her sainted soul, was one of the guiding spirits behind the founding of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, one of the world’s great theatrical treasures. But when it came time to translate Goldoni, for some reason she turned butcher. The whole thought pattern of every scene is hers, not Goldoni’s. She cheerfully removed all the asides, consigns two important characters to oblivion, and runs the lines through a blender. Trying to trace the relationship of her text to Goldoni’s is like trying to follow the noodles in a plate of spaghetti.

What’s worse, these crimes against the work are committed silently. The reader who doesn’t or can’t compare the text to the Italian has no clue to the butchered nature of the text they’re reading.

I won’t bore you further with a litany of translator’s sins. The real question is, does this matter? And can it be avoided?

Yes, it most certainly does matter. We tend to forget, we proud possessors of the English language, that much of the world’s finest drama was not written in our mother tongue. The masterpieces of the Greek theater were written in Greek by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripedes, not in English by Grene and Lattimore. Plautus, Terence and Seneca wrote in Latin. Playwrights of the modern European heritage such as Moliere, Marivaux, Schiller, Goethe, Lope de Vega, Calderon, Racine, Goldoni, Gozzi, Lorca, Brecht — the list goes on — can only be brought to English-speaking audience in translation. The entire body of the dramatic literature of Asia comes with the same requirement.

Why are these plays so rarely done? One prime reason is lack of good translations. The number of productions of Moliere shot up after the publication of Richard Wilbur’s wonderful renderings. Why is Goldoni so rarely done? Lack of usable English text has got to be a major reason. We need good translations — lively, interesting, vivid, playable translations — if the wide body of the world’s drama is to break into our provincial theater.

What, you say? Provincial? Our theater provincial? Isn’t that like calling New York City provincial? Why, yes it is, and deservedly so. The essence of being provincial is to be uninterested in anything except what’s in your own back yard. The essence of being cosmopolitan — look up the etymology of the word — is in being aware of the widest range of what’s going on everywhere, not just where you are. Without good translations, a cosmopolitan theatre is impossible.

The effect of good translations can be profound. The German drama of the time of Goethe was profoundly influenced by the excellent translations of Shakespeare into German that became available at that time. Wouldn’t it be nice of some of that drama could come full circle and influence us in turn? All it needs is some good translations.

So how do we get good translations? It really requires only two elements: command of the language and suppression of the ego. As a translator, I must grasp the play in the source language and render it in natural, playable, understandable fashion in the target language. I must check my ego at the door of the studio and avoid placing myself above the author. Does the author offer a poetic image? I must find a way to render that very image, or as close an equivalent as I can find. Does the author crack a joke? I must find a way to render the author’s joke, not cop out by substituting my own. Does it seem to me there is a weakness in the author’s play? Suck it up and translate it, buddy; this is not your play. Ask yourself this: the play has been around for what — a hundred, two hundred years? Two hundred years from now, whose text will still be around? Yours or the playwright's?

If this is too hard, if a writer can’t suppress ego to this extent, then leave the field to those who can. If you really think you can write better than the playwright, then go write! Do your own play or adaptation! But don’t defraud the audience by passing off your writing as the playwright’s writing. Plagiarism is when I pass off his work as mine; what is the name of the literary crime of passing off my work as his? Forgery comes to mind — at least that’s what they call it in painting. Fraud covers all cases.

Theaters should also take responsibility. No theater should stage a translation without having it vetted by a native speaker working with a dramaturg. We owe it to the public to serve up unadulterated plays just as surely as the grocery store owes it to the public to serve up unadulterated food.

There is no FDA-approved theatrical translation, and heaven forbid there should be. However, caveat emptor still applies, and the translator’s honesty is what’s required. We can have good texts; we just have to stop taking excuses from ourselves.

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