On Translating for the Stage

Click here for Joanne Pottlitzer’s introduction to her essay. This piece was delivered last month at an event at the Americas Society in NYC.

It is my pleasure to share a few words with you on translating for the stage and on the journey of translating José Triana’s Palabras comunes.

One of the ongoing debates about transferring a work from one language to another is whether it should translated or adapted. There are as many definitions of those two terms as there are arguments favoring one or the other. The translation of Palabras comunes is germane to that debate. When the Royal Shakespeare Company began rehearsing its production of the play in 1986, Triana was aghast when he attended an early rehearsal to see that the RSC’s dramaturg not only had “adapted” the play to take place in England, but had deleted some characters, added others, added scenes, etc. Triana flatly refused to have that version put on stage and threatened to call off the project. The actors, among them Janet McTeer in the role of Victoria, sided with the author and decided to use a literal translation, which they reworked into playable language as they rehearsed. That version was never recorded. Triana asked me to translate the play in the early 90s. We had met in Cuba in 1968 at the Casa de las Américas, and since his move to Paris in 1980, had kept in close touch.

I was attracted to this play for its complexity, the depth of each and every one of the characters, the layers of meaning behind and in between the lines, and the beauty of the language. I liked its free, fragmented form and the issues it addresses, which though set in Cuba a century ago, are still relevant in today’s world and to an American audience.

But although Triana’s work is known and admired worldwide, it is not yet well known to U.S. audiences, essentially for lack of playable English translations.

Translation is a delicate art form. The German art critic Walter Benjamin, in his 1923 essay on “The Task of the Translator,” defines the hallmark of a bad translation as one that intends to perform a transmitting function, transmitting information. “We generally regard as the essential substance of a literary work what it contains in addition to information – as even a poor translator will admit – the unfathomable, the mysterious, the ‘poetic,’ something that a translator can reproduce only if he/she is also a poet.”

Benjamin describes the masterful and influential translations of Sophocles’ plays by the lyric poet Friedrich Hölderlin, “In Hölderlin’s translations of Sophocles’ two tragedies the harmony of the languages is so profound that sense is touched by language only the way an Aeolian harp is touched by the wind.”

Translating for the modern stage can be equally challenging. It, too, requires someone who can transpose hidden language, distinguish between a common phrase and a poetic turn of phrase, someone who can key into the soul of the playwright.

A translator of plays should be trained in theatre, should know theatre. By that I mean knowing how to visualize a script on the stage, knowing the function of the director and the actors during the rehearsal period, knowing that a good playwright intentionally leaves spaces in the dialogue for multiple interpretations, knowing that the action of a play and the nature of its characters are communicated only through dialogue without the assistance of expository or descriptive prose, and that clarification of thoughts and ideas is the responsibility of the production’s creative team.

A major challenge for the translator of theatre is to give each character in the play an individual voice. Another is to create the rhythm of dialogue in the translated language that best expresses the rhythm of the original language, and be able to recognize colloquial references. For this the translator needs to sense the nuances of his/her own language and know the culture in which the play takes place. If one person does not fill those criteria, a team can be created to work on a translation of a play.

Most world plays are translated or adapted into English by playwrights. Latin American plays, primarily because there is less interest among our professional theatre community in that area of the world, tend to be translated by non-theatre people, usually academics or literary people, whose work seldom plays well on the stage.

Translations that do not reflect the beauty of the playwright’s language or the theatricality of the piece shrink the possibilities of professional productions of the work. If an artistic director, a literary manager or a producer reads an inferior translation of a play, he/she will assume that the playwright is not a good writer.

Tonight’s reading is an integral part of the translation process. It will let me listen to the language, evaluate it, and receive feedback from the actors and invited guests. I believe that in theatre a translation is never finished until you hear it coming out of the mouths of the actors. However well it sounds to a translator on paper, if an actor cannot get his tongue around a word or phrase, it’s not workable on stage. And I thank tonight’s cast of wonderful actors for breathing life into the words and contributing to the process.

The reading will also introduce the play to wider audiences. We would like to see this play produced in the United States. Superb playwrights of the world should be given more opportunity to be seen on U.S. stages along with the “world classic” writers such as Ibsen or Chekhov or Strindberg.

I have always believed in theatre’s ability to span international cultural bridges and so was heartened to read a recent article in The Guardian by Scottish author and translator Jennie Erdal. “Cervantes compared translation to looking at the Flanders tapestries from the wrong side: ‘you can see the basic shapes but they are so filled with threads that you cannot fathom their original luster.’ Cervantes may be right,” she concedes, “but he has not given us a reason not to translate. For even the wrong side of the tapestry, with all its dangling threads, is worth seeing. Translators let us see another way of life, other possibilities, other matters, other manners, increasing the understanding between nations far better than politicians.”

— Joanna Pottlitzer, April 2011

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