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21 - Translating for theater

" [...] plays that were merely read were dead, a woeful surrogate, and when I, in order to test her and deepen my misery, asked 'Even if they're read aloud?' she would say unabashedly and without the least consideration: 'Even if they're read aloud!'"1.

In the typology of texts to be translated, the theatrical text is that presenting the biggest problems as far as plausibility of dialogues and playability of lines are concerned.

When speaking of translation for theater, we must distinguish translation for printed editions and translation for acting. Drama, especially the classics, are also read for themselves, and in such a case the translator can set the dominant not in the playability but in the philological care for the original text and the culture where it originated. Translation for theater becomes, in this case, an example of literary translation, where obviously direct speech is much more prevalent than indirect speech, and where, therefore, any preoccupation for the translation of dialogues is justifiable.

But when a translation is made for the dramatization of a work, the criteria for playability are fundamental. Here is what Pirandello wrote speaking of the playwright, and I think can be said of the drama translator:

But in order for the characters to jump alive and moving off the written pages, the playwright must find that word that is spoken action, the living word that moves, the immediate expression, natural to the action, the unique expression that cannot be but that one, that is proper to that given character in that given situation; words, expressions that cannot be invented, that arise when the author has truly identified with his creature to the point that he feels it like the creature feels, until he himself wants it like the creature itself wants itself (1908: 235).

In Luzi's opinion, the acid test of the stage is when it reveals the adequateness of a translation. The stage functions as amplifier not only for the good solutions, also for the unhappy ones, causing moments of embarrassment in the theater. Luzi considers such a concrete possibility of trial a fortune as compared to the problems of poetic translation. In it the translator's liberty is enormous, and there is not even a direct confrontation with the audience.

The stage reveals even that circumstantial dramaticity a text of real dramatic poetry hides to the reading in its recesses, both in the thoughtful extension and in the tentative flattening of the speech: it allows, in short, the translator to reach out and touch more than just an explicit action the barely visible filigree of inner and diffuse dramaturgy projecting concrete consequences onto the scene [...] The stage like a seismograph records the variations in the character's energy /1990: 98).

such a likeness to the seismograph can be extended in general to the translator's revision and her self-critical mind. Having an audience - potentially or in reality - who listens to the produced text emphasizes the weaknesses in one's work and allows greater critical lucidity.

In drama translation, the maximum of the translator's sensitivity is required for fresh and plausible dialogues. An implausible dialogue line uttered by a character in a given work has a negative impact on the actor's work, it disables he identification with the part and his playing it well.

An important part of the drama production contains dialect, slang, and jargon elements. Here the translator must decide in favor of a re-creation of such elements with dialects, slang, and jargon in the receiving culture.

The question of dialect is very hard. The affected use of dialect (like when a translator attributes a given dialect to a character) often creates an unwanted burlesque effect. But the greatest problem is that the viewer gets a false idea of the theatrical work, thinking perhaps that it isn't a translated work, since he recognizes a dialect of the receiving culture.

One way to solve this problem (or at least not to make it worse) consists in the use of supertitles. A work is played in the original language, and over the stage a luminous text is beamed above the action containing the translation of the spoken lines. It is a solution systematically used by some drama companies. For example, the Malyj Teatr of Saint Petersburg, directed by Dodin, tours throughout the world, performing in Russian with supertitles and, if such a medium fatigues the audience, certainly doesn't discourage them from following passionately the company's representations, that can last many hours and are often divided into two evenings.

Creative re-writing is also widespread, often commissioned to playwrights of the receiving culture. Here the prototext is used as an outline, a pattern on which freely build the metatext. Such a procedure is particularly used in cultures where the taste for entertainment prevails over the cultural curiosity for the different and the new. So, in comedy, in general, especially in non-classical contemporary comedy, considering the dominant of the metatext as pure entertainment to the detriment of recognizability of the cultural origins of a work, there are frequent complete reworkings, with a reconstruction of the cultural references, changed in order to have the target culture as its subject.

The model viewer of such operations has few pretences or cultural interests, goes to theater to laugh, therefore more for physical exercise than mental. Drama critiques, on the other hand, are sometimes so well adapted to their cultural milieu that they do not realize they place odd demands on translators and adapters. Anderman quotes the case of a French critic:

When Pinter's The Caretaker was staged in translation in France, a French critic reacted negatively to Davies, the tramp, drinking tea. He would have preferred him to be drinking wine since in France 'tea is a drink taken mainly by genteel old ladies' (1998: 72).

This French critic has indeed little consideration for the spectators of his nation. He thinks they cannot understand that tea in a British drama has a definite sense in that context, and has the presumption of modifying the dramatic text of no less than the great Harold Pinter.

It is, however, valid to consider the time constrictions of audiences at the theater. If at home a reader has time to think over elements she does not understand and to seek help from reference works, at the theater she does not have that possibility. That means that, without necessarily thinking that the audience is ignorant, lazy or feeble-minded, it may be necessary to offer them the tools for understanding at least the greater part of what is played in the moment of use.



Bibliographical references

ANDERMAN GUNILLA Drama translation, in Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, edited by M. Baker, London, Routledge, 1998, ISBN 0-415-09380-5, p. 71-74.

CANETTI ELIAS Die gerettete Zunge. - Die Fackel im Ohr. - Das Augenspiel, München, Carl Hanser Verlag, 1995, ISBN 3-446-18062-1.

CANETTI ELIAS The Tongue Set Free. Remembrance of a European Childhood, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, in The Memoirs of Elias Canetti, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999, ISBN 0-374-19950-7, p. 1-286.

LUZI MARIO Sulla traduzione teatrale, in Testo a fronte, n. 3, Milano, Guerini, 1990, ISBN 88-7802-184-9, p. 97-99.

PIRANDELLO L., Illustratori, attori e traduttori (1908), in Saggi, edited by Manlio Lo Vecchio Musti, Milano, Mondadori, 1939, p. 227-246.

1 Canetti 1999: 138.