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Translation in the Theatre I: Directing as Translating

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Summary

Mark Batty You're known specifically as a writers’ director, and you have yourself commented that ideally the author should be present when you're dealing with his work and that it is a privilege to be in the head of genius when working on a classic play. Given these views, what relationship do you like to have with a translator of the work of a non-living author?

Peter Hall I think the problem always with translation is that you inevitably feel as if you're looking through frosted glass at the original, that you can't quite get at the absolute. I've always been terribly disturbed by Ibsen translations which seem to me to vary from the obviously almost pedantic accuracy of the Oxford ones to the over-colloquial, sloppy, ‘he's really a soap opera writer’ of Michael Meyer. And the precision has never seemed to me to be there. Years and years ago when I embarked on John Gabriel Borkman, John Russell Brown, who was a colleague at that time at the National, suggested that I should meet Inga-Stina Ewbank, whom I knew of as a Shakespearean but not as an Ibsenite; we met and we got on. The great thing about working with her is that she has an unrivalled knowledge not only of Norwegian, and of Swedish obviously, but also of English, and of the darker recesses of these languages. And it's not really a question of the literal meaning. Anyone can come up with that, it's the subtext, it's what is underneath the text that you need to be led to. So we did John Gabriel Borkman together; she did a literal, I did a speakable version of the literal and passed it back to her. She amended it where she felt I'd strayed too far, and it went back and forth between us about four or five times. It ended up as something which we were both willing to endorse, as a representation of Ibsen and as something which we thought had poetic validity on the stage at that particular moment, which was the 1970s. Ralph Richardson, who played Borkman, found it genuinely poetic, especially the last act, and said that he felt very comfortable in it. Now the reason for that success was also that Inga-Stina attended rehearsals.

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Translating Life
Studies in Transpositional Aesthetics
, pp. 387 - 396
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2000

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