TRANSLATION FOR THE, Anglistyka - Filologia angielska - English Studies, Translatoryka - Translation Studies

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David Attrill
University of Western Sydney, Nepean
If Hamlet had been asked ‘What do you perform, my lord?’ instead of ‘What do you
read...’ he would not have replied ‘Words, words, words’ but ‘Actions, actions, actions’.
Yet verbal text is often the basis of a translated play. Translation, especially for the theatre,
is not merely a question of substituting words. The injudicious use of a thesaurus can, for
example transform the simple everyday phrase ‘Good morning everybody’ into the pseudo-
religious ‘Pious dawning catholicity’ or the pseudo-scientiic ‘Palatable premier crepuscule
all aggregated’ or the ghoulish pun ‘Proper morning each corpse’. This is obviously non-
translation—but who is a ‘non-translator’?There is probably no such being: from infancy
one is structuring one’s own language and mental processes by accommodation and assimi-
lation, redeining and translating external stimuli, expressing the sense of something in, or
into, one’s own language and making inferences from or interpreting signs, etc. All of this
is essentially a structuring process based on aspects of translation, a structuring that will
also have national, religious and patriarchal (or matriarchal) overtones.
Even a monoglot like myself is capable of translating jargon and disparate linguistic
strands in my one language or of translating American or Australian into my native
English. As an actor or director I can also convey or introduce an idea or principle from
one art to another (another aspect of translation). However, for the purposes of the 1993
Performance Studies project on
Merchant of Venice
I was unable to understand the
target languages of spoken French and German. While, with the help of critical apparatus
such as footnotes, I can follow written French and a few words of written German, in
this project I was essentially an observer of a vaguely familiar scene with no ability
to understand what was actually being said since spoken language and theatre when
performed live are transitory—unlike written language, tape, ilm or video that can be
accessed a multiplicity of times. I was thus part of an audience and yet not part of the
translations’ target audience/s.
How valid are the thoughts of a mono-lingual person regarding translation for the
theatre? These are my basic premises for the purposes of this paper.
(1) The basis of theatre is action.
(2) In the past play translations have been regarded as literature.
About Performance 1: Translation and Performance
(3) In the past a particular translation could be accepted into that culture’s hierarchy as an
original, but this is no longer the case for modern translations.
(4) Translation for theatre is very different from literary translation.
(5) It covers all three types of translation: translation proper, transmutation and rewording (I
have never rehearsed a translated play without some rewording).
(6) Canonisation in the source culture has meant that often a reasonable translation has been
subverted by direction (i.e. methods of playing Pirandello, Chekhov etc.).
(7) Each playtext has inbuilt paralinguistic aspects—sometimes inaccessible in another
language (Bassnett 1980, p. 132).
(8) Each playtext has inbuilt undertexts. Bassnett terms this ‘gestural text’ (Bassnett 1980,
p. 132).
(9) A translated text only becomes theatre when performed.
(10) The idea of an author’s intention in theatre is dead.
(11) It is impossible to produce a deinitive translation.
(12) Translation has only recently been accepted by British audiences (Polish ITI
Centre 1985, session 2), who were regarded as insuficiently interested in other cultures—
(although this might now be affected by EEC membership) and who gave their translators
scant regard.
(13) Whether this is also the case in Australia is more debatable but translation is still
in its infancy when compared to middle European countries.
It is evident that it is impossible to produce a completely satisfactory translation but
there are also three differing opinions, apparently all valid, as to what a theatre translation
should produce. Pavis cites all three: Vitez says that a great translation contains its
mise en scène
as the ‘ of selection among the hierarchy of signs’ (Vitez 1982,
cited Pavis 1992, p. 32); Sallenave disagrees, saying that the text should ‘...maintain its
mystery...yet to hear speaking voices, to anticipate acting bodies’ (Sallenave 1982, cited
Pavis 1992, p. 32); Deprats (whose 1987 French translation was used in the project)
suggests a mid point ‘...animated by a speciic rhythm without imposing it’ (Deprats
1985, cited Pavis 1992, p. 32).
Multiple translations provide the director with textual choices not available to a
director in the source language—but all directors are at liberty to do whatever they like
with the texts to make them ‘playable’. The irst part of the
Merchant of Venice
was concerned with research. As an actor I know the apparent paradox that when dealing
with a text one often feels one needs to research a role—but when the crunch comes in
performance one cannot play historical research. Consequently, although the breadth
of this initial research was fascinating for me, the performances could only be judged
by the
mise en scène,
not the maze behind the scene. As Pavis intimates, ‘...translation
reaches the audience by means of the actors’ bodies’. Translation will ‘...confront and
communicate heterogenous cultures and situations of enunciation that are separated in
space and time’ (1992, p. 25).
Further, it was evident from comments from the movement-orientated French-
speaking rehearsal process (and I use that term advisedly, as they hated being called
French) that any preconceived ideas based upon written text were a hindrance rather
than an advantage. Nevertheless the basic stimulus for each of their three performances
did appear to stem from differences that could only be attributed to differences in the
written texts. For example, although both groups felt the need for costume and props and
Translation and the Non-Translator
these were not physically changed in their three translated performances, they were used
differently as a result of slight differences in the text.
My recent thoughts have been concerned with texts translated into English, American
and Australian and whether they contain national characteristics based upon the three quite
different ‘target audiences’. There is evidence that rewrites have been deemed necessary
when taking British Plays like Churchill’s
Cloud Nine
to America (Moritz 1985), or, at
a less sublime level, in bringing
from America to Australia. Susan Bassnett
reminds us of the following obvious points—irstly, that no two cultures or languages are
exactly the same (Bassnett-McGuire 1981, p. 39). I would maintain that in performance
this should be extended to no two directors, actors or audience members are the same
and that every live performance is different. Thus the translated written text cannot be
the same as the original. Moreover, and this is where the subjectivity of Translation
Studies begins, some translations are easier and more luent to read than others, some are
‘actable’ and others, though supposedly produced for the stage, are wooden and unusable
(Bassnett-McGuire 1981, p. 39). One culture’s hero becomes another country’s drudge.
Pirandello was assessed in Britain by Barker as ‘tediously slow and arid, shot through
with splurges of emotional outbursts...a long time spent over little’ (Bassnett-McGuire
1983, pp. 5-6). As we know, Shakespeare in many countries is regarded as a romantic.
As a non-translator, may I put forward a heresy—if the resulting performance is at odds
with the original text, does it matter? A set of audacious greetings like ‘pious dawning
catholicity’, or a transliteration with specious footnotes such as that provided by John
Hulme (1981)—included below as an appendix—can make amusing performance pieces
in their own right.
I have seen three productions recently at the University of Western Sydney which I
feel relevant to this topic—a beautifully truncated version of
(dir. Keith-Kay M.,
1993) an apparently very Spanish production of Lorca’s
Blood Wedding
(dir. Davis M.,
1993) and the Durang romp
The Idiots Karamazov
(Durang C., dir. Keith-Kay M., 1993).
These, together with many partly related snippets of research, form the basis for the rest
of this paper.
The production of
began with an eerie, essentially monophonic, vocal
soundscape from all the cast onstage. Hamlet was in a wheelchair, presumably in a
mental hospital, as he acknowledged three Gertrudes, three Ophelias and four nurses
(actually two pairs of female Rozencrantzes and Guildensterns). Next he uttered ‘To be
or not to be, that is the question’, and then Act 1 began. As a student production with
only six males and eleven females available, obviously there had to be some subversion
or adaptation but, interestingly enough, despite the numbers of females on the stage, there
was an incredibly strong adherence, whether conscious or not, to patriarchal values in the
staging, even in the positioning of the women on the periphery of the stage. Was this an
invalid adaptation of
Would it have been more or less invalid if it had been a
translation/adaptation? (Hamlet did leave the wheelchair; was this less invalid?).
Jerzy Sito stated at a Colloquium on Translation in 1985 that there were three main
periods of translation of Shakespeare into Polish—two echoing those of France and
Germany, being 18th Century rewrites with bowdlerisation and 19th Century romanticism,
together with a third resurgence after the second world war as Shakespeare became a
source in a search for order at a time of shattered values and crippled words and ideas. In
all there were seventeen different translations of
into Polish by 1985. Sito also
spoke of the ‘demons of language’ and stated he supported the sacriice of the ‘literal’ for
About Performance 1: Translation and Performance
the ‘meaningful’ whenever faced with this dilemma (Polish ITI 1985, session 1). Once
again we have the problem of translation. What does ‘meaningful’ mean literally?
Lauri Sapari noted that in Finland, although the language lends itself to strong lines
and violent emotion rather than bright and sharp wits,
the irst translations of Shakespeare
were expressionist, colourful and energetic. They also badly distorted the original.
Between the wars insipid and pale imagery in previous translations was lavoured by
strong political overtones and after the Second World War translations were inluenced by
Brecht, then Kott and Sixties’ new Radicalism—all with serious distortions. He admitted
to introducing a non-existent scene into
with heavy political overtones in his own
translation, raising the question of whether Shakespeare should be translated or adapted
(Polish ITI 1985, session 1).
Avi Oz outlined the dificulties in translating Shakespeare into either classical
Hebrew, ‘dead’ long before Shakespeare’s time, or the late 19th Century ‘New’ Hebrew
which, although mainly bi-syllabic, is full of ‘artiicially minted neologisms’ and has
no class-inspired modes of speech or tradition of poetic drama. The usual solution, Oz
noted, was to use ‘New’ Hebrew, but from the previous generation of poets to evoke a
feeling of archaism. These translations required additional lines, however, lengthening
Shakespeare’s plays even further (Polish ITI 1985, session 1).
After a comparison of tapes of English, Finnish and Hebrew translations and a
dramatised reading from Mr Sito’s Polish translation of snippets from Romeo and Juliet,
a lively debate followed. Opinions ranged from denouncing the possibility of translating
classics to those advocating that the ‘spirit’ of the original should have precedence over
the ‘letter’ (Polish ITI 1985, session 1). When does a literal translation become an
adaptation? Which is closer to the ‘spirit’ of Shakespeare, a postmodern or subverted
adaptation in English or any one of the seventeen Polish translations? Does it really
matter for any audience?
This session on translating the classics was followed by heated controversy over
‘literal’ translation versus ‘adaptation’ or ‘version’. The key speaker for this was Dusty
Hughes, a British theatre critic, director and playwright/translator (in other words a writer
from another’s literal translation). Admitting that British insularity had virtually excluded
foreign plays (except Chekhov’s) from the British stage until the early ’60s, his premise
was that the translator ‘stands in’ for the author in the rehearsal room, guarding the text
against directorial ravages (many agree with Stanislavski, preferring authors to be dead!)
while providing the actor with enough material to build a role without overburdening the
speech patterns with an embarassment of riches. He noted that what eludes translation
is the relationship of drama to the speciic place, time and circumstance of the original
production. He also stated that a playwright has an advantage over the ‘academic’
translator in that s/he knows the capacities of actors in the rehearsal room. This point
was queried by representatives of countries with a history of translation going back
somewhat further than 1960, objecting to the word ‘academic’. Possibly this objection
was academic. There was heated debate over whether situations and contexts should be
translated as well as dialogue and as to the ability of a non-linguist to echo the speciic
speech patterns, rhythms and actual sound of the original language. Hughes responded
that any attempt to reproduce this is doomed to failure and, moreover, denies the play-
wright/translator the lexibility of his/her own language. To be accurate is not necessarily
to be dramatic (Polish ITI 1985, session 2), although it must be said at this point that
inaccuracy doesn’t guarantee drama either.
Translation and the Non-Translator
This emphasis on target language (and by implication target culture) contrasted with
the director’s approach to
Blood Wedding.
Her process was a variation on the ‘collage’
method of producing a performance text by combining aspects from previous translations.
Reference was made to three different translations and the original Spanish. Lorca’s own
music was used and on many occasions his original Spanish was used, especially in the
songs and the marriage celebrations. From the time the audience was confronted by the
two factions performing a lamenco dance as a prologue, the actors worked with very
clear motivation, encouraged to immerse themselves in the source culture. As an audience
member I felt alienated, but that is not necessarily a negative aspect of the production.
Kruger notes that the meaning of a translated text arises from what one does to it,
not what one can take over from it (Kruger, cited Pavis 1992, p. 27) or, in Pavis’s words
(translated by Kruger), translation is ‘...interpreting the source order to pull the
foreign text towards the target culture and language, so to separate it from its source and
origin’ (Pavis 1992, p. 26). In this case the director chose to pull the translated text back
towards the foreign text. As Terry Threadgold implied recently in a paper for the Centre
for Performance Studies at Sydney University, the trouble with models of translation or
rehearsal is that they are never completely adequate (Threadgold, 1993). Although I am
not over-enthusiastic about Pavis’s model for the translation of
mise en jou,
I do see value
in the way that he sees some ive ‘concretisations’ (sic) on the way to a translated text.
Firstly, there is the source text T(0). The subsequent stages can be accomplished by one
or more people. T is the irst ‘literal’ translation, usually of the written text, not of the
mise en scène.
Next, this is analysed by the translator—the source text is bombarded with
questions from the target language’s point of view, becoming the initial concretisation
of a workable text in the target language or T(1). Analysed by a dramaturg or director
this becomes text T(2) which during the rehearsal process becomes text T(3). When it is
inally received by the audience, it becomes text T(4) and, I would suggest, possibly T(5)
after running (Pavis 1992, pp. 29-33).
Hughes probably agrees with Mounin (cited Pavis 1992, p. 28) that a playable theatre
translation is the product of a dramaturgical rather than a literary act. Yet, as Pavis notes,
the majority of translations of drama are only the written text. Actors know that almost
anything can be brought to life by the neglected actor and not quite so neglected director
and Durang plays on this in
The Idiots Karamazov
where a multitude of twisted literary
references and pseudo-translations are the basis for what can be a hilarious spiking of
literary canons. Once again, does it matter if T(3) or (4) is far removed from T(0)?
Back in 1981 Susan Bassnett highlighted problems of translation in the theatre
(Bassnett-McGuire 1981). This included a summary of responses to a questionnaire
designed to ind out the opinions and work methods of contemporary translators in
Europe. She also noted the results of a conference at Riverside Studios in 1980. What
did she ind?
That translators had lower status in Britain and the USA than anywhere else. That,
unlike originals, translations do not have ixed positions in the literary hierarchy. That
language is dynamic and that translators translate with the target culture in mind, therefore
the lifespans of translations are short and consequently there is always a demand for new
translations to replace these period pieces. That there were long lists of ‘bad’ translation
practices but vague ideas as to what were ‘good’ ones. That at Riverside not only could
the differences between the terms ‘TRANSLATION’, ‘VERSION’ and ‘ADAPTATION’
not be clariied but that there was a case for ‘INTERPRETATION’ to be added and that
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