As our friends at Shakespeare’s Globe in London embark on their 2010-11 Education Programming, Shakespeare is German, and the National Theatre takes on Olivier’s Shakespeare : Violence and Memory (looking at Olivier’s films), I had the pleasure of seeing Euripedes’s Hecuba at Randolph College. While I sat on the rock benches in the open-air Mabel K. Whiteside Theatre (“the Dell”) and watched actors playing in carefully researched and created masks against the backdrop of a three-entrance Skene, I realized that this interpretation of an ancient Greek play was re-defining “translation” for me.

The first place I always start when I am mulling words is the Oxford English Dictionary. When I was working on my first Master’s thesis (“‘He Words Me’– Shakespeare’s Invention and Teaching of Language”), my loved ones joked that if I could sleep with that book, I would have. Their ribbing wasn’t far off the mark, I do love the two-volume set that Mom gave me, though my OED of choice is the excellent online edition and computers just don’t cozily fit under the pillow. I was not surprised to see that the OED defines translation in terms of language, but I was intrigued to see that it also does so in terms of movement (change of place, or, interestingly, date). I would hazard a guess that most folks think of translation as relating directly to language, but limiting the definition to our spoken or written or even gestural language is not enough. The OED definition is right when it comes to Art. Works of Art, whether made of marble or created by words and action, move through place and time, but when the medium and shape (in the case of dramatic literature, the language and the playing space) remain available to the audience, shouldn’t they have the opportunity to take the journey for themselves? Translation of that work, from marble to a representation on photographic paper, from English to German, or from lit, open playing space to darkened proscenium theatre, changes its very substance and filters the experience through someone else’s perception.

A confession: I did not dedicate myself to fluency in a language other than English. I studied German, Spanish, and American Sign Language, but I never got to the point in any of them that I felt I was “thinking” in the language. As much as I might like to, I cannot read Moliere in French, Chekov in Russian, or Goethe in German, and that means that I cannot ever grasp, wholly, the magic of their work. I will (until I learn those languages) have to take for granted that the person whose translation I am reading did a good job and that I am getting a sense of the originals. Thing is, though, “a sense” is not “the thing.” Another consideration: when I read a translation, the changes are all “quiet,” that is to say, the translations I’ve read do not identify the grammatical/syntactical/sense changes the translator makes, in spite of the fact that a translator must inevitably make those choices must. I can see the choices clearly when I watch, for example, an ASL interpreted performance: the sign language and the words coming out of the actors’ mouths do not line up exactly. The Deaf audience member is at the mercy of the skill of the interpreter, just as we, the readers (and, in the case of theatrical literature, performers) are at the mercy of the translator– only we don’t have the benefit of visual signposts telling the us where paths diverge. So, those of us without a second (or third, fourth, or fifth) language must acknowledge that we are not reading/seeing the author’s work as s/he wrote it. Moreover, we may be seeing something entirely outside of the imagination (and, perhaps, intention) of the artist who originally composed it. Not, as Seinfeld says, that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, I joy in adaptations.

Case Study: I once directed a successful adaptation of The Imaginary Invalid for the University Interscholastic League One Act Play Contest in Texas. My actors did a fine job making a good translation come to life but we were, in fact, fighting with the play the entire time. For example: we pasted a circus theme on top of Moliere’s characters, added stage directions that were not called for in the text, and added a spectacular dance scene in which Argon was tossed from Dottore to Dottore to the tunes of “Mr. Bungle.” Talk about a translation. Did the audience who attended this play see Moliere? Debatable. Did they have a good time? Enthusiastically.

What are we missing when we see Sophocles or Aeschylus in translation? If the audience leaves entertained, is that enough? I would argue that it is, as long as we (the audience and the producers) acknowledge that we are not, in fact, seeing Sophocles and Aeschylus. Just as when Germans read or see Shakespeare in German, they are not, in fact, reading or seeing Shakespeare. Shakespeare painted pictures with words. The way he arranged them, just as the choice of paint color or paint brush matters to an artist, makes a difference to the development of his subjects. The double meanings he built in add layer upon layer, an effect that is not possible to achieve outside of the original language.

Van Gogh’s Sunflowers hangs in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. A visit to see the oil on canvas will reveal layers of paint, the vibrancy of the newly developed (when he painted it) chrome pigment, and other details unavailable to the website observer, the art student holding an exhibition catalogue, or the print collector who hangs a framed version in her den. The translation from the original medium, whether to print or to screen printed umbrella, changes the experience. Sometimes the choice of the medium causes the change, sometimes the arrangement, and sometimes even the surroundings – usually all three. Someone, not you, translated the painting through his experience. My grandmother used to dabble in oils; when she died, each grandchild inherited one of her paintings. I received her take on Van Gogh’s painting. I love it. Then I saw his. Which is to say: then I saw the difference that translation makes. I had already formed an opinion about how sunflowers should look when painted in oil on a canvas, and I had heard my mom and aunts praise the beauty and technique my grandmother achieved, but when I saw the original, I saw so much more than I saw in the translation. We can love art that is derived from masterpieces, but, if we are unacquainted with the first form from which the copies come, are we enjoying the height of experience?

I’m a purist. I want to see art in its purest–closest to the original–form. I realize that it is foolhardy to say audiences should see everything in the original, but whether the medium of translation is language or place or both, the experience changes for the audience member, so why not get as close as possible? When I go to Shakespeare in English performed in a thrust theatre with the audience as part of the play, I feel closer to his work. Moreover, I feel so much joy in the transaction which filters little and allows my experience to be, well, mine. When I go to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in Italian with the instruments and vocal parts for which he wrote it represented, I have the same sense of closeness. I want to see Pinter and Shaw in English on a stage built with 3 walls to look like a realistic room, or I want it to be called a translation or adaptation. And, if we have to translate one (the language) for an audience, let’s leave the other (the movement) as intact as possible, as in Amy Cohen’s Hecuba. The experience of seeing art in as close to its original form is t
oo precious to ignore. Translation is a necessity in this world of blending cultures and far reaching media, but it does not replace the original, that’s why I am so glad that I was born into a culture that taught me to speak the language of Shakespeare and that I found a theatre that chooses to stick close to the staging with which he worked. What a joy it is to see actors playing to an audience in light, playing in rep, playing Shakespeare in the original. No translation required.