Watch the full video above, or read the second instalment of the full text below
I have spoken about translating poetry, but translating for the stage is a whole other matter, and lastly I want to say a little about my experiences in this area. In my case, this involves translations of verse plays, and, as we know verse plays which are not Shakespearean or Jacobean can produce what we might call ‘difficulties of reception’ for critics and audiences. To be frank, it seems that hardly anyone can tell whether the stuff is any good or not. People hear rhyme and think it must be doggerel, for example.
About ten years ago I was asked to provide a version of Aristophanes’ The Birds for the National Theatre, for a production to be directed by the distinguished Shakespearean Kathryn Hunter, whose intention was that circus and gymnastic skills would make these birds airborne. The National supplied a literal version, and I read various existing translations. What these had in common was an entirely respectable fidelity to the original (their declared aim). In the event they tended to produce a language which had vocabulary and grammar which were recognizably English but which also had a maimed, muffled, weirdly anachronistic character that bore little relation to English as it might ever have been spoken- at least, not outside the chalky darkness of the stock cupboard of an abandoned minor public school where the labours of their makers entered the hell of the unread sometime between the two World Wars. The actor Harrison Ford, in a different context, put the matter more succinctly, in his famous remark: ‘You can type this shit, but you can’t say it.’
Fortunately I had been asked to produce a version, which left some leeway for adaptation. The first thing I considered was form, and I decided to work in rhyming couplet pentameters. Just at the moment, rhyming couplets are slightly newsworthy because a film has appeared in which the script is in rhyming couplets. Unfortunately the writer seems to think a rhyming couplet must always be end-stopped, thus providing journalists with the opportunity to inflict their own emulative efforts on the printed page and the airwaves. That’s not the kind of rhyming couplet I mean. Some of you may have heard the poet Paul Farley’s not unkind but surely fatal review of the film – in rhyming couplets – on Front Row. I was looking for something that generates energy and comic possibility partly from the tension between line and sentence structure. Here’s a brief extract from the point when the new city of Ornithopolis takes off, as it were. A Messenger reports to the leader, Peisthetaerus (Pez) on public enthusiasm for the project, which is ‘aspirational’ and manufactured, like the mood being enforced for the 2012 Olympics.
Last week they dressed in rags like Socrates,
Bare-arsed, with clubs, their knuckles past their knees,
But now the coming thing’s birdolatry,
And everybody simply wants to be
A bird. They walk and think and talk like birds –
So much that they’ve abandoned words
In favour of the various species’ songs
And name their children Lark and Currawong.
So great is their desire they cannot wait
For you to come to them: now they migrate
In thousands to be blessed before this gate
With wings, by you, to join our airy state!
Of course, all this depends on the actors understanding the workings of the verse line and the varying emphasis given to rhyme – which requires an immersion in the shapes and timings and emphases of the English language. In the event, the admirable, courageous and wholly committed cast was multi-national and polyglot, including a Canadian French-speaker, a native French speaker, a Malawian, a Bulgarian and the wonderful Italian comedian Marcello Magni. Many of them were primarily physical performers rather than actors – a weightlifter, a breakdancer, a trapeze artist and other aerialists – and so had a long way to come in order to make the play’s language their own. Comedy is all in the tone and the timing: the wrong note or the wrong stress on the wrong syllable will kill the line and the gag. In the event, the production was perhaps an example of what Auden called a fair notion fatally injured.
There’s a song by David Bowie called ‘Always Crashing in the Same Car’, and it came to mind after I made a version of the libretto of Cavalleria Rusticana for English National Opera. As usual Cavalleria was paired with Pagliacci, the libretto for which was written by Lee Hall, who shows worrying signs of verse-writing ability to add to his prodigious theatrical talents. I hope his brilliantly funny Pagliacci expunged the audience’s memory of Cavalleria. I seemed to be responsible for a catastrophe, though the singers and the orchestra conducted by Edward Gardiner did much to make up for it. The cast of Cavalleria mysteriously acquired an additional member, the handicapped and completely silent brother of the protagonist. Not my idea. You might have thought that since I was doing the words I would escape the blame for this. Not entirely. I knew the omens were bad when I received a note during rehearsals complaining that the translation of opening chorus was ‘unrealistic’. I suppose in the end I got off lightly: the set was a shed, rather than, say, a public lavatory on Mars. In this case I saw how the translator can become the sin-eater for the entire project.
The theatrical work I’m currently involved in is a translation from Calderon, The Great Play of the Prodigious Magician, or, as I’m not very optimistically trying to get it called, Just Like That. Dating from the 1630s, this is a kind of Faust play, where the scholarly hero is suborned by the Devil in order to win the love of the virtuous Justina. The setting is Antioch during the Roman persecution of the early Christians. There are some fine comic scenes involving three servants involved in a ménage a trois which obliges them to observe complex shift patterns – an element which offsets to some degree the at times suffocating nobility, purity and so on which the other characters exhibit at considerable length. There are some very interesting theological debates about the nature of God and free will, plus a good deal of amusement arising from illicit efforts to gain access to the house of the beloved: what might be called cloak-and-ladder comedy.
The interest for the poet-translator lies in the variety of verse forms through which the play moves. There are, I think, seven, including two variations of ballad metre known as Romance; Decimas, ten-line rhyming octosyllabics; envelope quatrains known as Redondillas; and octosyllabic five line Quintillas. The entire play is rhymed. In this instance there is no decision for the translator to make regarding form, as an extant unrhymed translation indicates that only by sustaining its severe and various formality will the play work in English: otherwise it becomes a shapeless series of abstractions and assertions lacking the dramatic life that its formal obligations generate. Calderon’s bravura technique is the play.
Against this must be set the wealth of rhymes available in a Latin language, and what seems to be further conventional license over what constitutes rhyme. A cynic might be inclined to suggest that any two words containing a vowel appearing within fifty yards of each other appears to count as a rhyme, which is convenient for the original author but offers no practical assistance to the translator. So all this presents a very interesting challenge to the Anglophone translator working with the more restricted rhyming repertoire of English, but once the conditions are accepted, the riches on offer are considerable This is perhaps especially the case in handling the formidable rhetorical artillery piece of the Decimas, whose 10 line tetrameters rhyme ABBAACCDDC and are quite often divided between different characters. To reiterate: in this case Calderon’s technique seems to be the play.
On the one hand there is the intricacy of debate:
So if the hands of God
Are all of making, everywhere,
As one god makes man live
The other makes him disappear.
Now, since the two gods have to be
Of equal power, yet differ in the instances
In which they practice their desires,
Who can say which the winner is?
These propositions are impossible
And false, and thus you forfeit
The debate. But tell me what
You hope to gain.
The whole of good, the whole of grace,
All-seeing and omnipotent ,
Superior, with no competitor
Or equal, without precedent,
Beginning which has not begun,
One essence and one substance,
One power and one will – and if
As in this instance, there should be
One person, two, or more,
Then the supreme deity
Must be in essence single, cause
Of all the causes, unmoved mover.
And how can I refute an argument
Whose truth is manifestly clear?
On the other hand, here is a sample of the broad comedy in which the servants travesty the manners of their masters and mistresses. The virtuous Justina, full of pious outrage, has been fending off the impassioned approaches of three suitors. Livia, her maidservant, takes a more practical approach to the desires of Cipriano’s servants, Clarin and Moscon
Such is my outrage that you dare
To speak to me in such a way
My feelings have divested me
Of speech and wits. Must I prepare
To pick out one? How can I bear
The pressures weighing down on me?
Just one, you say? Would it not be –
The possibilities are there –
More fitting if I took the pair?
Why one, not both? Do you not see?
You wish to choose us both at once?
Won’t that be taking too much on?
A woman with an ounce of sense
Can manage two as well as one.
How can this arrangement work?
You’re not the sharpest tool in town:
I’ll love both loyally.
But look –
What do you mean?
When one goes out the other’s in.
I’ll derive my conclusion from working in the theatre. Poets count themselves lucky now to be invited to work for the stage. They are excited to be out of the house and spending the day with other people for a change. There is a price to pay for this, and its name is collaboration, which in the event means alterations to a script the poet may privately have considered engraved in marble and more lasting. It can be painful to undergo this brusque enlightenment and the accompanying slaughter, which are intended to create, in the end, a live performance, an event. But the practicality of the theatre, pragmatic and unliterary as it often is, does shed light on the position of the poet-translator: whatever makes the crossing into another language must arrive in the form of a poem, that is, an imaginative event, a live thing, not a report or a summary, and in this way serve the original by drawing interested attention to it.