EXPERIENCES OF COLLABORATION
TRANSLATING FOR THE THEATRE
By Neil Blackadder
I’ve been translating contemporary German-language drama into English for nearly twenty years. Several of my translations have been staged in the US and Great Britain, in some cases the scripts have been published, and many have been presented in staged readings. In the course of this work, I’ve found the collaborative work not only with playwrights but also with directors fascinating and extremely rewarding.
I first came up with the idea of translating plays from German while watching a performance of Sibylle Berg’s Hund, Frau, Mann in Vienna in 2002. It struck me that my background – having studied German and French, and later Comparative Literature – and my experience as a professor of Theatre had perfectly prepared me to translate German drama into English. First I translated Dog, Woman, Man, then I began searching for other new plays that might appeal to English-language theatres.
One of the first plays I found my way to was Die Sexuellen Neurosen unserer Eltern by Swiss playwright Lukas Bärfuss, and I ended up having a lot of success and satisfaction with that project. My translation was produced in London in 2007, and in New York the following year. Since then three other translations of mine have been staged: hamlet is dead. no gravity by Ewald Palmetshofer, Bärfuss’ Malaga, and Testosterone by Rebekka Kricheldorf.
The premiere of The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents in London was directed by Carrie Cracknell (at that time one of the Artistic Directors at the Gate Theatre), and during the rehearsals we worked closely together to refine the translation. We mostly did this via email: she would regularly let me know how her actors were handling the text, and what stood out to her. Carrie suggested edits, and in some cases I followed her suggestions – especially when she argued that the interaction between the characters, that’s to say between the actors, would be more effective with simpler lines. But in many cases I explained why I’d translated a particular passage in a certain way. When the language in a play is somewhat stylized, not simply like everyday speech – which is almost always the case in the plays I’ve translated – the translator must retain that quality.
I’ve translated several plays by the German writer Rebekka Kricheldorf, and with her especially I’ve exchanged lots of questions and answers. There’s a poetic element to plays like Die Ballade vom Nadelbaumkiller [The Ballad of the Pine Tree Killer] or Rosa and Blanca: the lines are written like verse, without punctuation, and there are many images. I often ask Rebekka whether a given formulation is an established expression or more an invention of her own. And sometimes in answering my questions, she explains that she wrote a passage in a certain way above all with a view to its rhythm and tone – even if perhaps it goes against grammatical rules.
I’ve also translated three plays by the Austrian playwright Thomas Arzt, which pose particular challenges. His plays include not only dialogue among characters but also parts designed to be sung by a chorus, and he writes those scenes in dialect. Thomas helped me a great deal by in effect translating those lines into standard German. In Alpenvorland [Alpine Blues] it’s even more difficult, because the choruses are also adaptations of Austrian songs and hymns – allusions that any Austrian would recognize, but which it’s almost impossible to translate. Workshops and artists’ residencies have given Thomas and me the opportunity to discuss my translations of his plays at length, and in the end we more or less wrote together new versions in English of the choruses. That’s an extreme case of collaboration between author and translator, but my view is that a translator should not restrict him or herself to a single way of working.
Another writer I’ve worked closely with is Ewald Palmetshofer (also from Austria). hamlet is dead. no gravity features what’s come to be known as “Palmetshofer-style” dialogue, where the characters speak almost entirely in unfinished sentences. This means the translator has to guess what a character would have said if they’d finished the sentence; and of course German syntax is often quite different from the English. As Ewald explained to me, the characters in hamlet is dead either can’t speak or can’t stop speaking: several scenes consist of long monologues in which the character thinks out loud in never-ending sentences about heaven, love, gravity, etc.
When my translation was staged in Chicago in 2014, I was able to attend rehearsals and get to know not only the director but also the actors, and elucidate for them particularly difficult passages. I could pass on to the creative team insights from my conversations with Ewald – for instance about the theories of Alain Badiou and the basics of set theory, which inform the script. Background information of that kind even found expression in the scenic design. That’s to say, I partially functioned as a dramaturg, which is quite often the case in my work as a translator. My experience as a professor of theatre also contributes. I’m a better translator for having taught playwriting, and I’m a better director because I’ve translated plays. Such connections are very important in the theatre.
Palmetshofer’s play die unverheiratete [the unmarried woman] presented a new challenge: he wrote almost the whole text in iambs – that is, in a rhythm whereby unstressed and stressed syllables alternate. Ewald told me he’d like it if the English translation was also consistently iambic. So in places I had to carefully alter the word order so as to sustain the rhythm – just as the author himself had. That was quite demanding, but also fun to do. And while I was struggling with this challenge, Ewald made it clear that what was most important to him was not so much that the rhythm be absolutely iambic throughout, but rather that his text feel to some degree like a classical play – in German, Schiller or Kleist, so in the English translation more like Shakespeare or Marlowe. After rehearsals and a staged reading in New York, I was able to talk with the actors about this, and they confirmed that they had experienced the language of the translation as unusual and as if from another time.
Along with Thomas Arzt and Ewald Palmetshofer, the third Austrian writer whose plays I’ve translated into English is Ferdinand Schmalz. In his Dosenfleisch [Canned Meat] I had to deal more than I had before with wordplay. The play takes place in a motorway service area where an insurance agent waits for the next accident. Schmalz plays, for example, with words that contain Verkehr [traffic] but have other meanings – such as verkehren [communicate or socialize] and verkehrt [inverted]. He also writes – similarly to yet also differently from Kricheldorf and Palmetshofer – in a poetic manner in which he’s barely trying to make his characters talk like real people, and giving a lot of weight to the music of the lines. In translating plays like this, one needs to find a corresponding style in English – which all the writers I’ve worked with fully recognize. They often make it clear to me that their primary concern is that the English version sound and feel right.
In translating plays to be performed, one isn’t simply dealing with a text that was written by an author and that a translator will now transpose into another language. My ideal is to translate a play for a specific prodution – in close collaboration not just with the author but also with the director and as a member of the creative team. In that way, the new version of the play arises from the collaborative work that is so fundamental to the theatre.
Neil Blackadder is a Chicago-based translator of contemporary drama and prose from German and French, and a retired professor and theatre historian.