Beyond Words – Translating for the Theatre

Translating for the theatre is a unique discipline, with its very own pitfalls and requirements. Like poetry and unlike prose, translating drama is not primarily a linguistic exercise. The main requirement of a dramatic translator is to produce stage-effective dialogue — a rare and difficult skill. Just as poets often produce the best poetry translations, it is often contended that playwrights are the best people to translate plays. I agree with that. At the very least, the translator of a play needs to have a profound knowledge and experience of theatre as a medium, both on a practical and theoretical level.  

Unfortunately, theatre managements, especially in England, concern themselves almost exclusively with the expressive side of drama translation, gravely underestimating the importance of accomplished interpretation. A rudimentary literal translation is considered to be sufficient basis for a skilled playwright to produce a satisfactory version of a foreign play. It is a practice so generally accepted that in a recent 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 if, in the judging of the work, this would be held against the translator, or if it is 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 dramatic translators, I can well appreciate why English theatre managements resort to the solution of ordering cheap unskilled translations and then handing them over to established playwrights with instructions to re-hash the text into a decent dramatic rendition — “a new version”, as they cover themselves by calling it. But like most professional translators I have a number of reservations against this practice. For one thing, the actual translators (quite regardless of the standard of the 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 adapter. (Otherwise, under copyright law, the copyright for all translated material rests with the translator.) In the case of the popular, much-performed plays, this can be a source of great financial gain to the adapter, in stark contrast to the usual paltry fee paid to the translator. The practice of writing “new versions” of foreign-language plays has been particularly successful — and hugely lucrative! — in the case of European classics. This is of course due to the fact that they are rewrites of brilliant, though outmoded, translations of the original, produced by highly skilled professionals in an era when 32 the use of “literal translations” and “new versions” had not yet been introduced. Even in these cases, the adapters take full credit for the work.  

My most serious objection to this practice is, however, the loss suffered on the artistic level, in all cases I have seen to the considerable detriment of the original material. As has already been mentioned, in translating a play, the interpretation is an element every bit as important as the expression. And interpreting drama goes far beyond merely understanding the words: the actual text is in fact relatively insignificant. It has been said that writing a play can be compared to composing a musical symphony. The foundations of drama lie in rhythm, tension, dynamics. Then come things like characters, plot, structure and dialogue. In a dramatic translation all these qualities have to be represented in that order of priority. To be able to do this you must first and foremost comprehend the play. Hear its unwritten music, read between the lines. Get to know the characters, assimilate the friction between them; find your way to the heart of the play. I think anyone will agree that to achieve this by means of a literal translation would be very hard, not to say impossible.  In my work translating contemporary Swedish plays into English (directly from the original, I’m glad to say), my attention has been drawn to a number of difficulties which could not be fully addressed if a literal translation was used. For example, you often find yourself balancing on the razor-sharp edge of judgement in relation to choices for which you need a comprehensive and unbiased knowledge of social conditions both in Britain and in the play’s country of origin. We are all aware that characters speak volumes about themselves, about their social and educational background and circumstances, about political persuasions, religious beliefs etc., only by the way they elect to put words together — particularly in Britain, where people are only too prone to categorize (or dismiss) their fellow human beings on the basis of their speech. The translator has to be very careful not to impose restrictive social prejudice that is not present in the original version — and vice versa.  

English translators working from Swedish are helped by the fact that they work in languages that 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.  

For a start, English in linguistic terms is usually defined as an analytical language, while Swedish is synthetic, expressing itself more through grammatical structures than through an abundance 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 play, you have to make constant decisions which of the five possible synonyms would be the most appropriate for your character to use in each instance. Even more tricky is another necessary judgement: what proportion of the vocabulary available to them do the characters in the original version of the play make use of to express themselves? This has to be proportionately represented in the English version, so that you don’t make them more loquacious — or monosyllabic — than the author intended.  

There are also national peculiarities that, if faithfully translated, would make statements in the English version that weren’t there in the original. For example, Swedes tend to express themselves more categorically than people in the British Isles, using more active forms than the British, who have a fondness for passive expression. In Sweden, there is talk of the “noun disease” as a national affliction — a tendency to load 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.  

Some favourite Swedish words need to be rationed for the English dialogue to come across as natural and convincing. Little words like “ja” and “nej”, “och” and “men”, verbs like “mäste”, “tanker”, “tycker”, “tror”, adverbs such as “allt”, “nog” and “väl” are so over-used in the Swedish vernacular that, much of the time, they express very little. For this reason, they have to be applied with discrimination in any English dialogue.  

Through my own experience, I have found that the best way to translate drama is to forget all about transferring words from one language to another as in prose, but instead aim to reproduce the inner meaning of lines spoken spontaneously in certain situations by supposedly real people. To be able to do this, you have to concentrate on thought rather than verbal expression.  

One of my more recent commissions was to translate Jasenko Selimovic ‘s play Romeo and Julia in Sarajevo. Selimovic is a Bosnian playwright now writing in Swedish, much as I, born and educated in Sweden, now write plays in English. Possibly due to my own bilingual experiences, I found it particularly easy to reach in behind the words in Selimovic’s finely written dialogue. And the playwright’s reaction to the translation confirmed what I had set out to achieve: “It’s great — they are still my characters, speaking my lines — except they talk in English.” People often ask me, what do I consider to be my first language? They look dubious when I tell them that I have no preferred language — to me it is all the same whether I express myself in my Swedish mother tongue or in my acquired English. Surely, they insist, there must be one language in which you think? But I am quite happy to do my thinking in either or, better still, neither. This technique, known to many advanced linguists, has been my key to writing, as well as to translating plays. It has stood me in good stead in my work with contemporary Scandinavian playwrights who, unlike many of their more verbose colleagues, express themselves through content and meaning rather than mere words.