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Thoughts on: Translating moments, not words


I'm translating Calderón's La vida es sueño for a publisher [1] (I mention the circumstances because they matter. Who we work for, and why, and under what circumstances, materially effect the work we do [2])

I've reached lines 954-6:

Yo sé

que, aunque mi príncipe ha sido,
pudo agraviarme. [3]
These lines occur towards the end of Act I.

The basic situation is that we have two characters on stage: an old man, Clotaldo, and Rosaura, a young woman dressed in man's clothes. Both are concealing their true identity from each other. We know that they are in fact father and daughter, though the characters themselves do not, as yet, know the full truth about each other.

They suspect, however: they are each intently curious about the other.

Both characters want to keep their own secrets safe but want to probe into the secret of the other.

The whole situation is fraught with deep emotion.

The fascination, the pleasure, the humour and the pathos for the Madrid audience at the first performance in 1635 derives from this: the two characters are like fencers trying to probe for each other's unguarded places, for the chinks in their emotional armour.

We're leading up to the end of act one: the act has to end in an incredibly strong moment.

And this is a crucial speech: for now, in the heat and anguish of the moment, Rosaura lets slip who she really is and why she has left the safety of her home.

It is an incredibly important moment in the scene; and if I am to translate the line properly I have to find a way of conveying its importance. But when I translate the words, I find they say:

"I know that even though he was my Prince, he could still wrong me"

This is an absolutely terrible line. A good actress will gloss it over, make it sound like it means something: but on its own it really means nothing at all.

It is as if the characters have been fencing; and my problem arises because they have been fencing according to archaic rules which were utterly familiar to an audience of 1635.

And because these rules were utterly familiar then, Calderón had no need to explain them.

We see footballers suddenly break off in the middle of the game to explain what they're doing in the context of the rules of soccer. Drama, like sport, has to proceed on the basis of a set of shared assumptions: and these assumptions almost invariably remain unspoken.

The problem arises when we no longer share the assumptions. Then we need explanations.

And these lines specifically presuppose:

that the most important motive for action is honour, to preserve to maintain your own honour

that of equal importance is loyalty to your Ruler, who is the source of all honour and so cannot dishonour you

unless you are a woman, and your prince has made love to you, on the promise of marriage, and then abandoned you. If that happens you are left 'agraviada'.

Hence Rosaura's words:

aunque mi príncipe ha sido,
pudo agraviarme.

'Wronged' or 'offended' (the dictionary definitions) are wholly inadequate words for this; it means something more like "wounded degraded and despoiled to the very depths of your soul"

And so when she speaks these lines Rosaura is giving away everything.

She is revealing to her audience, and to her father, the secret source of her vulnerability and her shame.

This is a moment where the words at my command simply are not adequate to convey the importance of the theatrical moment. Something radical must be done: paraphrase, perhaps, adding new lines...anything to make a modern audience aware of the importance of what's happening here.

It has to be possible: audiences will believe anything, if you convey it with sufficient force and skill.

And if that's achieved, then this translation will function as a good play should: not as an end in itself, but as a kind of blueprint playwright and translator create.

And that we then use to all work together, playwright, actors, director, designers, stage crew and audience to create a vast and beautiful, a stunning and fantastic theatrical edifice of the emotions, the intellect and the poetic imagination. But at this moment -line 946- I don't feel like a playwright holding a blueprint. I feel like a tourist visiting a heap of ruins, staring at an anonymous hump of grass and being told by the guidebook: "This is the banqueting hall" and being unable to reconstruct it in my imagination or help actors and audience reconstruct it in theirs. and then the phone rings....

It's the Royal Court offering me a commission to translate a new Spanish play, Bazar, by a young Spanish playwright called David Planell.

The play has never been performed in either Spanish or English....

They want it ready for a rehearsed reading in a few week's time.

The deadline is impossibly tight but the prospect is inviting: better money, a real theatrical event, and above all the prospect of escaping all this 17th century sub-text.

But sub-text is not that easy to escape...

The play turns out to be a brilliantly funny and compassionate portrait of Moroccan immigrants to Spain. It's written using all the incredibly rich idiom of Madrid street slang - and - as if that wasn't complicated enough, this idiom is often given a colouring to give it the flavour of the Spanish spoken by Moroccan immigrants. We simply do not possess an English equivalent of this.

The nearest equivalent to the kind of shop that the play is set in is a shop just up the road from me called "Ali's Cave" - a place that sells everything from cheap T shirts to cheap electrical goods and is run by a family of local Asians. The Scots spoken by families of Asian origin offers a very tempting road to adaptation.

But this is to confuse and conflate two vastly differing cultures and ignore the difference between them in a way that is almost insulting. On the other hand, my insistence that we respect this cultural difference leads to many practical problems in rehearsal.

We find it difficult even to agree on an adequate translation for the word 'moro' - obviously a crucially important word in the context of the play [4].

It means 'moor'; but that is a very weak word - weak in the sense of the sound of it, weak in the sense of the fact it lacks any real meaning or connotations in English. Not all that many people, I suspect, actually know what a moor is..

As if that was not enough, the word is weakened still further because it sounds like 'more'.

In the context of the racism which prevails in our culture, its much easier for an actor to give words like 'Arab' or 'paki' an equivalent racist overtone. But we're not talking about Arabs, and we're not talking about Asians: we're talking about 'moors'.

And I think of the long centuries of cultural enrichment offered by the presence of the Moors in Spain; and the equally long centuries of cultural denial of that enrichment. To translated 'moros' as 'Arabs' seems to be an act of collusion with that racist past. So what seems theatrically effective to convey the feeling of the moment is utterly in contradiction with the real (an equally urgent) need to achieve accuracy in the word.

Demands of the moment- demands of the language - seem in conflict with each other. It is impossible to reach hard and fast conclusions here.

Different solutions are needed according to the demands of the moment.

In one case language has to be radically reordered to fit the needs of the moment: in the other, accuracy of language seems more important than accuracy of moment. But the problem at the heart of all this is essentially the same. The solutions to it have to come from the relationship between translator and playwright.

In the case of Bazar, this arose very directly from the fact that at the time of its translation the play had never been performed before - neither in Spanish or English.

and the author kept revising it. So my script was soon bulging with extra faxed pages that kept turning up from Madrid, and the revisions continued in rehearsal right up to the very last minute.

This is necessary; if a play-script is a blueprint, then it's a blueprint that almost inevitably will be full of mistakes. It's a blue print created in the dark - created by hunch, almost by smell: created by an intuition that is sharpened by some experience , but which is essentially a process of groping through the darkness.

The process is wisely described by Primo Levi:

"It can also happen that you can write some things that really are botched and futile (and this happens often) but you don't realise it, which happens often, because paper is too tolerant a material. You can write any old absurdity on it, and it never complains; it doesn't act like beams in mine tunnels that creak when they're overburdened and about to cave in. In the job of writing, the instruments, the alarm systems, are rudimentary: there isn't even a trustworthy equivalent of the T square or the plumbline." [5]

The main alarm systems the playwright possesses are the actors themselves: their sense in rehearsal of which lines don't quite work, which scenes don't quite carry.

So what was happening in the somewhat rushed three days of rehearsals was not so much that I was involved in translating lines or translating moments so much as working with the writer, David Planell, with the director Roxane Silbert, and the actors at creating them.

This occurred in hugely complicated but intensely creative bi-lingual quadripartite discussions; what was happening in one sense was no different from what happens when translating a dead writer. It was simply that the process of close, respectful (but also intensely critical) collaboration with the original author was happening not in my imagination (as it has to with the dead) but in actuality.

What I learnt in the hectic course of it all was how closely the two processes - of translating theatre and creating it - are intertwined. How essential it is, on a profoundly practical level, for the translator to be able to enter into this creative dialogue with the playwright - whether in reality, or in the imagination.

and then the phone rang...

It was BBC Radio Drama phoning about my play Writing Home to Mother.

They wanted to know what tribe the Kurdish tribesmen belonged to.

The play contains three lines I wanted spoken in Kurdish, and the translator had called to ask which tribe. It made a difference, apparently.

I struggle through my notes, and discover it was the Zibar tribe [6].

Now there was something a little foolish about this because the few lines concerned were not going to spoken by Kurdish actors, nor to a Kurdish speaking audience.

In fact they were spoken by Scots, who happened also to be playing the English officers in the same scene. They were to be coached to reproduce the approximate sounds on the morning of recording by a sadly anonymous [7] Kurdish exile living in Portobello. A major preoccupation of the play was the failure of the Kurdish people to unite themselves into a nation (and also, at the back of my mind, the problematic process by which here in Scotland we have been forming ourselves into a nation). There could hardly be a more telling image of this failure than the fact that they did not even share the same language.

So reflecting afterwards on whether it mattered to anyone, beyond the excellent and conscientious translator and his fellow exiles in Portobello whether these Scots actors spoke (an invariably) deformed Kurdish as spoken by the Zibar (as opposed to the Kurdish spoken by, say, the Bakhtiar tribe) I came to understand how strangely this concern of my translator somehow confirmed the correctness of my perception and added to the largely invisible web of connections that make up the structure of a play. This is a difficult area to describe, without falling into quasi-mystical meanderings or impenetrable jargon. Elsewhere, I've tried to describe as being part of the spirit of the language, or the spirit of the play [8] - the web of unspoken understandings, unquestioned shared values that make communication possible within a language at a given time.

and then the phone rang...

It was the lawyer, to do with the sale of our house. Now lawyers hate this invisible level of language, they loathe what is unspoken. The whole bent of their intellectual efforts is to devise a form of words that precludes all possibility of misunderstanding, that ties us down to the words, and allows us no escape into this shadowy world of the unspoken and the tacitly agreed.

Consequently, the language they use is completely incomprehensible. And we have to pay them huge fees to translate it for us.

It is as if communication utterly depends on the unspoken.

and then the phone rang...

It was Brian McMaster, of the Edinburgh International Festival, wondering if I'd be interested in translating La vida es sueño...

The unspoken is not only essential, it is inescapable.

And as I struggle to secure this commission [9], I understand while it matters to translate the words, with accuracy, passion, and a sense of theatre, what matters perhaps more is to learn how to translate the unspoken.

11th September 1997


[1] Nick Hern Books. They rather rashly announced it for this September. [return to text]

[2] The rather unorthodox form this paper takes is intended to reflect the circumstances under which I work. [return to text]

[3] edited José M. Ruano de la Haza, Clásicos Castalia, p 167 [return to text]

[4] especially in an utterly crucial scene on p 41. [return to text]

[5] Primo Levi, The Wrench, Abacus Books 1988, p 48 [return to text]

[6] as reported in The Times, November 11 1919 [return to text]

[7] His life was as hazardous as the circumstances of his people [return to text]

[8] "Translating the Spirit of the Play" in Stages of Translation, ed. David Johnston, Absolute Press 1996. [return to text]

[9] which at the time of writing has still to be confirmed. Just as the problem I outline at the beginning of this has still to be resolved. [return to text]