Features Book Reviews Published 12 September 2011

The Art of Translation

Making translation sexy.

Simon Thomas

Anyone interested in non-English language theatre, whether it be the ancient Greeks, Molière and Racine, Ibsen and Chekhov or contemporary German drama, should have questions about the act of translation, although it’s something that’s all too often taken for granted. If you’re a speaker of the original languages, it’s less of a problem, although the way we receive “old language” raises questions in itself, but if you rely on the intervention of a translator, it’s a vital subject for scrutiny. In his essay-length book (50 pages of text, some 9,000 words), Ranjit Bolt addresses some of the issues, based on his 20-year experience of translating the classics.

A few years ago, every translation in London seemed to be by Bolt, and his terse, witty colloquial style ruffled a few feathers. At first appearance, he seems to take quite a few liberties but a brief study of his Goldoni versions against the originals shows that, line for line, he’s not changing much, just rendering it in a different way. The big question for a lot of people will be how “faithful” it is to the original and this is something Bolt tackles from the outset. The call not to be overly literal goes back at least as far as Ovid and Horace and, in his first chapter, Bolt talks about the impossibility of being completely faithful to a text.  It’s not so much whether you should be “accurate” but if you can be. Bolt argues you can’t.

He suggests that a good translator needn’t even have knowledge of the language he’s working in and, certainly, the trend these days is for poets or playwrights to work from a literal translation in delivering new versions of old texts. Adaptation, rather than translation, is the norm now. He goes as far as to say that a translator (in a loose sense at times) can improve on the original. I once asked the eminent Ibsen translator Michael Meyer if Ibsen sounds old-fashioned to a Norwegian audience. “Of course,” he said. How could it be otherwise? To that extent, an English-speaking audience has an advantage over a native one, as they’re not confined to the creaky old, outdated language that someone seeing the play in Norwegian is (although Ibsen also has a poetic dimension that we English speakers are scarcely aware of). Is the same true of Shakespeare in German?

Bolt quotes various commentators through history on the subject, some lesser known – Etienne Dolet and the Earl of Roscommon – and some more familiar like Dryden and Pope but, as he states early on, this is not a “high-brow” study. He even throws in some Bolt-esque colloquialisms (“Gawd ‘elp us”) to keep things lively. Some of his views may be controversial: Brecht’s Arturo Ui (which he translated for the National) is a terrible play and Molière was a second-rate playwright.  Molière, he tells us, is not that funny and needs some verbal relish to make him so. His raissoneurs (those figures, such as Cleante in Tartuffe who add reason to the scene and reflect the view of the author) need their flights of rhetoric spiced up if they’re not to bore the audience to tears.

Given the “judicious licence” he gives himself to tamper, it’s surprising perhaps that Bolt feels that verse comedy (for instance, Molière, of whom he’s been a prolific translator) shouldn’t be rendered in prose. It’s not great verse, after all, he adds, but he clearly enjoys the challenge of re-writing in rhyming couplets (“like eating meringues without the sugar” being the alternative). He turns again to Dryden, who allowed himself “a degree of latitude” with Virgil and Ovid, for justification. Sensitivity to the greatness of the original is another consideration – some playwrights and some works are “fair game,” others are not. Maybe knowing the difference is everything.  He points out that “the better a poet is, the less translatable” and concludes that much poetry is simply untranslatable.

Anyone who feels that Bolt isn’t as sensitive to originals as he should be may take comfort from his illustrative translation of Verlaine’s La Faune, which he claims “maintains the form (and) follows the rhyme-scheme.” He goes on to assert that “such formal fidelity is absolutely essential.”  It’s not all about meaning, but shape, imagery and music; maybe why Bolt hangs on to the rhyming structure of a writer like Molière. It’s certainly not out of reverence.  Bolt’s overall message seems to be that, if you want to impress a pretty girl (boy, whatever), it’s all right to say you’re a translator. He certainly makes a good case for it being more than an activity for drudges and that’s worth spending some time pondering.

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Simon Thomas

Simon writes theatre and opera features/reviews for Exeunt and Whatsonstage. He took a degree in Theatre Arts at the Rose Bruford College and has worked in the theatre, in various capacities since the 1980s. He has a keen interest in new writing, the early (and late) works of Henrik Ibsen, and the works of Carlo Goldoni, amongst other things. His book The Theatre of Carlo Goldoni is available on Amazon.

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