Beyond Words – Translating for the Theatre

Trinity College, Dublin, February 12th, 2024.

I am very pleased to be with you here today. After more than forty years as a literary and dramatic translator I have learnt a few lessons for better and for worse, and I welcome this opportunity to share them with you.

With the advantage of being totally bi-lingual, I started my translating career working into into my native Swedish, for the simple reason that very few Swedish books were published in English at the time. I had the good fortune to be working with wonderful authors like Ruth Rendell and Kazuo Ishiguro, who went on to win the Nobel prize in literature. One highly enjoyable commission was to work with film star Ingrid Bergman for many months, handling the Swedish research material for her autobiography My Life, and then translating the English text into Swedish.

Many years ago, I was invited to a seminar on something then considered revolutionary: electronic translation. A spokesman for IBM gleefully told the roomfull of professional translators that they would soon be out of a job. Flaunting a sheet containing instructions in Russian for the use of a combine harvester, he went on to insert this into a massive desk computer. We were all amazed to see this device spit out a page of word-perfect instructions in English.

Then one delegate put up his hand and inquired politely if he could feed a Russian document of his own into the computer. This was granted, and out came a page with complete gobbledigook. The IBM rep was not amused. He accused the delegate of feeding a sheet of gibberish into the computer. “Not quite,” came the answer. “It was a page from Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky”.

The assembled literary translators heaved a sigh of relief. This confirmed that our jobs would not be endangered by technological development.

These days, digital translation has of course advanced much further. I spoke recently to a scientist who is busy developing the new quantum computer for handling AI. She works with components that are a fraction of an atom. And apparently, all that comes in the way of reproducing an exact copy of a human brain is permission by concerned governments.

I thought about it afterwards. An artificial human brain will no doubt prove useful in many ways, but what will it make of things like dreams and hopes, moral decisions, judgements on right and wrong, on affairs of the heart, as opposed to the brain? Our ability to love and cherish, to delve into the depths of our humanity? In short, what the arts are all about. Will there ever be a computer capable of representing all that?

What makes literary translation so fascinating is the fact that this is not just a matter of using our brains to replace one idiom with another. It is a delicate process of interpretation and appreciation, before you find the most apposite means of transferring a text from one language – and culture – to another.

At times this is taken a step too far. Like in the case of Hans Christian Andersen. Most of you, I’m sure, will think of him as a children’s author. But as a struggling writer in Copenhagen in the 1830s, Andersen had absolutely no intention of writing for children. A bit of a social snob, he aspired to be invited to glamorous weekend parties in Denmark’s stately homes. And the only way he could attain that was by producing clever, allegorical stories, masked as fairy tales, the reading of which would provide entertainment for the assembled most definitely adult guests after dinner.

A few decades later, Victorian England saw a big market demand for stories suitable for the nursery. And so, Andersen’s work was adapted in English translation as cosy reading for nannies putting their charges to bed. Hans Christian Andersen went down in world history as a children’s author. Having read his work in the original Danish version, I find some of them highly unsuitable for children.

There was a time when it was near enough impossible to persuade English publishers to take on new Swedish titles. Consequently, it was impossible to make a living from translating them. However, in 1983, when I was Chair of the British Translators’ Association, I got together with a handful of Swedish-English translators to form SELTA, the Swedish-English Literary Translators’ Association, with a view to promoting Swedish literature in English. Over the past four decades this organisation has grown from strength to strength and now has a huge membership. Meanwhile, the outlook for Scandinavian fiction in English has greatly improved.

At the beginning of my career, there was one English lady translator who handled most of the very few Swedish books finding their way into England. Examining her work, I found that the style of English she applied seemed largely identical, whether it was a book for young children, commercial romance fiction or a serious classic. Asked at a seminar whether she thought a translator ought to make an effort to reflect the individual style of the original, she replied somewhat chauvinistically: “Certainly not. The job of a translator is to produce prose that reflects how the English expect a book to read.”

This brings to mind the Nobel festivities I attended in Stockholm in 2017. At a special celebration for the Laureate, Kazuo Ishiguro, at the National Theatre, an actress read an excerpt from one of his books that I had translated. Afterwards, in an address to the audience, Ishiguro referred to the amazing experience he’d had, of hearing his own voice coming through, though he had not a word of Swedish. To me that constituted the best recognition I, or any literary translator, could ever hope for.

For that is the hallmark of a good translator: allowing the author’s voice to find its expression in a different language. And that of course does not come about by just translating the text, but by capturing the unique flavour of all that itcontains: narrative; inner monologue; verbal exchanges; social interaction; conflict and harmony; pleasure and pain.

About thirty years ago, having translated some fifty novels, I decided to specialize in translating contemporary Scandinavian plays into English. With my theatre background, it was a logical choice. And I have been lucky enough to work with leading Scandinavian playwrights, like last year’s Norwegian Nobel Laureate, Jon Fosse, Henning Mankell of Wallander fame, and the highly acclaimed Sara Stridsberg, still waiting to be performed in this country.

I have found that translating plays is in many ways different from working with fiction. For one thing, the text, i.e. the dialogue, is relatively insignificant. Good theatre relies primarily on rhythm, tension, dynamics. Then come things like characters, plot, structure and, finally, dialogue. In drama translation, these qualities need to be represented in that order of priority. And to be able to do this, you must first find your way to the heart of the play. It’s like listening to music: emanating, not only from lines being spoken, but also from the pauses in between: all that is not being said.

It leaves you balancing on a razor-sharp edge of judgement, making constant choices requiring a comprehensive knowledge of social and cultural conditions, both in the targeted country and in the play’s country of origin. The translator has to be very careful not to impose social prejudices lacking in the original version — or missing ones that exist.

When it comes to dialogue, we are all aware that characters speak volumes about themselves as soon as they open their mouth. To an acute ear, things like educational background, social circumstances, political persuasions, religious belief etc. are revealed, not only by the words actually spoken, but just as much by the way they are put together — especially in England, where people are only too prone to judge, or at least categorize, their fellow-human beings on the basis of their speech. I get told that I “have an accent”, as if it was bad breath. Our fellow-Irishman Bernard Shaw commented that “it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him.”

Through my own experience, I have found that the best way to translate a play is to forget all about substituting words in one language with words in another, and instead aim to reproduce the inner meaning of lines, and give these the most likely spontaneous expression, as spoken  by real people in the given situation.

As for thought, I’m often asked in which language I think – Swedish or English? They look dubious when I tell them that I am quite happy to think in either or, better still, neither. This technique, to go beyond words, known to many linguists, has been my key to translating, as well as to writing plays.  It has taught me that, in drama as in life, content and meaning are more important than words that may be uttered for all the wrong reasons.

Translators working, like me, from Swedish into English, are helped by the fact that the two languages are formatically and syntactically closely related. Words are used in basically the same way, basically the same order. However, that doesn’t mean differences don’t exist: they are subtle, but significant. I will give you some examples of the challenges this presents.

For a start, English in linguistic terms is defined as an analytical language, while Swedish is synthetic, expressing itself more through grammatical structures than through a sequence of words. English, as we all know, has profuse verbal resources flowing from a multitude of sources; Swedish, being more of a pure language, has to make do with a comparatively limited vocabulary. For each Swedish word there are supposed to be on average five English synonyms. In other words, when you translate a Swedish play, for each word uttered, you have to determine which of the five potential synonyms would be the most likely for your character to use.

Even more tricky is another necessary judgement: what proportion of the vocabulary available to them do the characters in the original make use of to express themselves? This has to be proportionately represented in the English version, so that you don’t make characters more loquacious or monosyllabic, basic or sophisticated, than the author intended. The temptation is to apply your own command of the target language, rather than that of the character.

There are also national peculiarities that, if faithfully translated, would convey conditions in the target version that weren’t there in the original. For example, Swedes tend to express themselves more categorically than Brits, using more active forms than the British, who have a fondness for understatement and passive expression. (I’m not sure to what extent this applies to the use of Irish English, which has its own influence, from Gaeilge.) In Sweden, there is also a tendency to overload the language with nouns in preference to other parts of speech. A translator has to be alert to any such quirks, which in the other language would immediately impose personal characteristics unintended by the author.

Just as poets often produce the best translations of poetry, it is often contended that playwrights are the best people to translate plays. I agree with that, as long as the playwright is bilingual like me, but that is, however, rarely the case. Unfortunately, instead of training professional translators to work with drama, a tradition has developed, in both England and Ireland, for theatre managements to take a peculiar way out. Gravely underestimating the importance of accomplished interpretation, they commission (for a paltry fee) a rudimentary literal translation from an unskilled amateur – nowadays, it may even be Google! Considering this to be a perfectly adequate basis from which to work, they then employ a playwright, who is given the task to rewrite the dialogue in acceptable English.

It is a practice so generally accepted, that in a competition for an international drama translation award, applicants were asked to indicate on the entry form whether their version of the play was based on a ‘literal translation’. I’d be interested to know how this may have affected the judging. Is it indeed possible to collect an award for a translation from a language, of which you don’t know a single word?

With the difficulty of finding good English translators for plays, I can see why English-speaking theatre managements have resorted to the solution of handing over these ‘literal’ translations, to established playwrights. Another incentive may be the view that their name will help sell tickets. But like any professional translator, I have strong reservations against this practice, and I think we ought to make our voices heard more clearly. For one thing, the actual translators (quite regardless of the standard of their work) are given no credit whatsoever. Moreover, they lose the statutory right to their intellectual property, since the rewrites are deemed sufficient to transfer copyright to the person doing the adaptation. (Otherwise, as you probably know, the copyright for all translated material legally rests with the translator.) In the case of popular, much-performed plays, this can be a source of huge financial gain to the adapter, who collects a substantial part of the royalties.

The practice of writing ‘new versions’ of foreign-language classics has been particularly successful — and hugely lucrative! — for some. This is of course due to the fact that they are based on brilliant, though outdated, translations, produced by highly skilled professionals in an era when the use of ‘literal translations’ and ‘new versions’ had not yet been introduced. For out-of-copyright classics, the adapters can claim royalties of a hundred per cent for the work.

Another serious effect of this practice is the loss suffered on the artistic level, in all cases I have seen, to the detriment of the original. You lose the import of the interpretation, which, as I mentioned before, is an element every bit as important as the expression. I believe this explains why Scandinavian playwrights, such as the brilliant Jon Fosse, has had huge success in most countries of the world, but is rarely produced in Britain and Ireland. The few English-language productions he’s had have been given only a lukewarm reception. I’m glad to say that my own translations of his early plays have fared better than most – but only in small experimental theatres.

Translating the plays by Jon Fosse has been said to present huge challenges. For one thing, he makes ample use of silence in his plays. How do you translate silence? Not just by writing the word in the script. No – silences for Fosse are an integral part of his dialogue, and have to be treated as such, built to materialise just as the playwright intended. He says himself that writing a play is like hearing a symphony, the music of which already exists. All he has to do is listen carefully and write down what is already there. With its reliance on rhythm and cadence, his plays allow for very little variation. Like a  house of cards, they collapse if not treated with due  sensitivity.

I have always enjoyed working with Fosse. For one thing, I have an affinity with his chosen vernacular, the so-called New Norwegian. Fosse made special mention of the fact that he is the first ever Nobel Laureate to be using this variant of Norwegian. It is a language not at all new, but salvaged from local dialects, in contrast to the official Norwegian, which is a remnant of Danish colonisation and carries the stamp of authority. The written form of New Norwegian is used by only 10% of the population.

I spent my early childhood in a remote village right on the Swedish/ Norwegian border, where the local dialect was very close to Norwegian. So it was a source of pure nostalgia for me to work with Fosse’s idiom, sparse as it is, and always to the point.

Fosse, now Nobel Laureate, is considered one of the most important writers of our time. His plays have been staged in over a thousand productions all over the world. As he rose to the pinnacle of international success, theatres all over the world vied for the privilege of introducing him in their own language. In the major theatres of Britain, this was done by engaging a leading playwright who would work from a literal translation.

To give you a couple of examples of the hazards this practice presents, I shall quote from two productions of plays by Fosse what I consider bad choices that were made, not by translator colleagues, but by these well-known playwrights. They are, by all means, excused by the fact that they were working without access to the original text.

I am the Wind is a play that, like most of Fosse’s work, deals with profound existential issues. It features two close friends onboard a boat. I remember a key moment in the play, one that stays with you. One of the two characters stares vacantly at the horizon, dreamily addressing the sea in preparation to, presumably, drowning himself. In Norwegian he would have said: “havet…” This word I would not have hesitated to translate as “the sea…” But when it was staged at the Young Vic in London, the character said “the ocean …”, which did not capture the depth of feeling expressed by the long “a” vowel in the Norwegian original – a quality that could easily have been represented by the “ea” in “the sea… in English.

The other example is from a play called The Girl on the Sofa, performed at the Edinburgh Festival. There is one moment where Fosse’s sense of humour has the potential to shine. A sea captain arrives home from a voyage earlier than expected, only to find his wife underneath another man on the sitting-room sofa. It takes no imagination to picture what the two of them are up to. The husband stands contemplating them unseen for a good while, keeping the audience waiting in suspense for a highly charged continuation of the scene.

At long last his cheating wife opens her eyes to see him. The pregnant pause continues, until she finally speaks. The axiom she utters is quite absurd in the circumstances, showing just how inane a person becomes when caught in flagrante. In Norwegian I assume she says: “Så du er hjemme nå?” My own version of that would have been: “Back, are you?” Enough to bring the house down. But the person responsible for the Edinburgh version kept the literal translation of the line provided: “So you are at home now.” A flat statement – not in the least funny. In Edinburgh nobody laughed.

When it came to staging one of Fosse’s plays in Dublin, the normal routine was applied: an Irish playwright was engaged to rework an existing translation. However, this was the official version, recently translated by me, approved by Fosse, published by Bloomsbury, and nominated for an award. Nevertheless, I had the dubious pleasure of reading in the Irish Times that a ‘new version’ of this play was to be presented, based on a ‘literal translation’ by myself.

With my professional reputation at stake, I couldn’t let that pass. I contacted the Irish Times, and a somewhat confused debate followed in the press. My friend Fosse, ever shy of confrontation, opted not to get publicly involved. I made a point of examining the so-called new version and found the integrity, not to mention the rhythm, of the play compromised by the addition of some rough Dublin slang and a few four-letter words – in total contravention of Fosse’s style. His dialogue is so minimalist, it avoids any offensive language, leaving profanities unspoken, between the lines.

Furthermore, a handful of words had been altered for no good reason, to the detriment of the play. It is about a depressed travelling businessman, who comes across a down-and-out woman in a park and ends up spending the night with her. Halfway through, she turns to him and says: “I’m your lady.” This is tongue-in-cheek, perhaps with a nod to the song popular at the time, and I can see a good actress having some fun with that line. First, the double entendre – her being a lady of the night – and then the role-playing, as they both make a game of pretending to be something they are not. It works as a clue, inviting a response from her co-performer.

In the Dublin version, this line was altered to “I’m your woman”, which again falls flat and means nothing. Neither actor could do anything with that line. I actually challenged the playwright, asked him what he thought he achieved by altering that word, and he said it was necessary because the woman was a down-and-out, so she couldn’t be a lady. But in the Norwegian original, what the down-and-out woman says is “I’m your lady”, not “I’m your woman”.

I didn’t win this battle. The few changes made were enough to allow the playwright to claim copyright for his version. But since this occasion, any alterations to translation of Fosse’s plays have to be approved by the translator, who retains the copyright.

In the early Noughties, I became involved in a comparative EU project to translate an original play into two separate EU languages. Irish-language poet and playwright Máire Holmes and I got together to produce two versions, in English and Irish, of an early Fosse play, And We Shall Never Part. It was a one-woman show being only an hour long, so the plan was to present the two versions back-to-back: the English one first, for those who might not have a perfect command of Gaeilge, and then after an interval, the Irish version.

We started with a showcase production at the Irish Writers’ Centre, using the same talented bi-lingual actress for both performances. What amazed us all was how different the two versions appeared. To me, the Irish seemed closer to the original, perhaps because New Norwegian, like Irish, is a language living through the spoken word, rather than the written. It is favoured by poets, and the lyrical quality of Fosse’s cadences did come across more clearly in Irish. It went to show just how languages differ, and though Máire and I had worked jointly on the interpretation of the play, she availed of a tool to express it more poetically, thanks to the qualities inherent in the Irish language.

We approached a number of major theatres in Ireland, but surprisingly, no one was the least bit interested in this exercise to illustrate, if nothing else, the clear nuances of language and culture between English and Irish. The two versions remain dormant to this day.

I once did a translation workshop with a Leaving Cert class studying French. I gave the pupils the task of translating into English the opening sentence of Albert Camus’s L’Etranger – The Stranger: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.” Just four words, couldn’t be simpler. I invited different suggestions, and there were plenty of them, all correct, but still different; “Today mother died. Mother died today. My mother died today. Today my mother died. Mam died today. Today, my mammy died.” Etcetera. What I wanted to show was the wide ramifications of literary translation, even when it is correct. No two translators produce identical results.

Having said that, the same freedom does not apply to translation of work for the stage. With the risk of repeating myself, the work of the dramatic translator is primarily to recreate a virtual stage reality that has the theatrical effect intended by the playwright. And to achieve this, it goes almost without saying that, in order to produce good translations for the theatre, you need to have some knowledge of stagecraft. So if you are at all interested in translating plays, I recommend that you gain, if you don’t already have it, some practical experience of work in the theatre, whether volunteering for a professional company or joining a university dram soc or an amateur drama group: as an actor, director, stage manager, ASM, or just as help to pull the curtain.

To be part of the process of putting a production together will give you an awareness of the way a script is brought to its full theatrical potential. The experience is fascinating, if not addictive, and much less lonely than other translation work tends to be. The culmination of an opening night is always a source of great excitement. Personally, I can’t think of any more rewarding kind of translation work, and I do heartily recommend it.