L to R: David Henry Hwang, Tina Howe, Marion Peter Holt, David Ives, Annie Baker
David Henry Hwang: This is the translation/adaptation roundtable. With us tonight is Tina Howe, who’s translated The Bald Soprano and The Lesson and seems to have brought a number of works. Are these all your translations or are they different translations?
Tina Howe: No, different ones. It’s very tricky and deeply neurotic on my part.
David Henry Hwang: Marion Peter Holt, who’s a translator adapter of contemporary Spanish and Catalan plays, professor emeritus of theatre at CUNY Graduate Center, and visiting lecturer at Yale. I cannot pronounce any of the works that you have translated, so would you care to tell me some? They’re right there. There you go.
Marion Peter Holt: You should have had the English titles. Let’s see. Well here’s one, Blood by Sergi Belbel, and Barcelona, Map of Shadows by Lluïsa Cunillé, and one I’m very proud of and continually talking about is Guillem Clua’s Marburg. And I recently translated Clua’s The Promised Land, which is unperformed and hasn’t had a premiere in Barcelona yet. Earlier on I did four or five plays by Antonio Buero-Vallejo. The most famous is Sleep of Reason, which is his Goya play and has had more productions than any of the others, and The Foundation. Well, that’s a good sampling.
David Henry Hwang: And finally David Ives, who has done both translations and adaptations.
David Ives: Sometimes indistinguishably.
[Editor’s Note: Annie Baker, whose adaptation of Uncle Vanya was recently produced at Soho Rep, joins the conversation later in this transcript.]
David Henry Hwang: Well this will be one of the things we talk about including Feydeau’s A Flea In Her Ear and Is He Dead? by Mark Twain.
David Ives: Translated from the Twain.
David Henry Hwang: Yes, which I guess would qualify as an adaptation. Molière’s A Misanthrope became School For Lies in a beautiful production last season or two seasons ago?
David Ives: Two I think.
David Henry Hwang: Okay. Corneille’s The Liar, The Heir Apparent, adapted from Jean-Francois Regnard, and then you’ve done all these Encore’s adaptations.
David Ives: 33 of them actually.
David Henry Hwang: I’m David Henry Hwang and I actually have not done translations, but I’ve been translated, which I guess counts. I did Chinglish, which is a bilingual play, and worked with a translator and then also adapted a few things including Flower Drum Song. So we were talking about adaptations and translations and my first thought when I begin this type of work is, ‘To what will I be faithful, and what will I betray?
When we begin to consider moving a work from one form to another, whether it’s an adaptation (doing your own take on an already-existing story) or a translation (from one language to a different one): any work has its own spirit, plot, and theme. It also has structure and language. We can choose to be faithful to any of these, or violate them in service of some larger goal. So my first question is, let’s start with translation: What do you try to be faithful to and what do you feel that you have the absolute right to violate?
David Ives: I’ll launch into that. In translating plays (as opposed to, let’s say, translating poetry or novels, which I would never dream of doing) in translating plays the things that I’ve learned are that, A, plays should only be translated by playwrights, and B, in translating a play you are never translating the surface language.
You are translating the play, which is to say what lies beneath the language. I’ve learned in working on especially French classical plays that in a funny way the language isn’t what’s most important, or rather that the surface language is not what’s most important. We all know that O’Neill’s dialogue is some of the worst dialogue ever written, it’s often lumbering and clumsy, yet those are some of the greatest American plays there are. So in a funny way my main work as a translator/adapter is to work as a playwright first, to investigate what the original playwright was trying to do and to find a way for the characters that I am “translating” to express what they’re up to and who they are in the best possible way. In other words, you have to do playwriting work before you do any translating work.
David Henry Hwang: And what are you trying to preserve then? It’s clear that you’re not trying to preserve the surface layer of language, so what are you trying to preserve?
David Ives: What I’m being faithful to is the first law of playwriting, which is that you must be interesting at every moment or die. So I feel that it is incumbent on me to make a play which is at least as good as the play that I am working on and that my devotion should be to the art of playwriting and the happiness of an audience rather than the delight of the author, dead or alive, who I’m translating, although I have to add that I feel differently about dead and living playwrights. For example, I translated a Yasmina Reza play and I felt it incumbent on myself to try to be as faithful as I could – while also of course being as interesting as I could. When I was working on A Flea In Her Ear, Feydeau was safely dead and so I felt it was safe for me to take some liberties, and in translating French classical verse drama I have taken more than liberties. I have pretty much just gone off on my own.
David Henry Hwang: Now the one distinction, though, is Yasmina Reza. Were you the first translator?
David Ives: What happened was that Classic Stage wanted to do this rather unknown play by Yasmina Reza called Une pièce espagnol. A Spanish Play. Someone else had translated it and the actors and director didn’t care for the translation. So they brought it to me and said, “Would you work on this?” I read that literal translation to see if I was at all interested, then since I was interested I put the literal translation aside and worked straight from the French. I didn’t want that first version to affect what I did.
David Henry Hwang: Okay. Marion, you translate as opposed to working through a literal translation, you translate directly from the Spanish, and Tina, do you translate directly from the French?
Marion Peter Holt: And Catalan; the last ten years almost exclusively from Catalan.
David Henry Hwang: So let’s start with Marion, your thoughts about what you’re faithful to and what you’re not, also maybe any reaction you might have to what David just said.
Marion Peter Holt: Well we disagree obviously…
David Ives: Good.
Marion Peter Holt: …but let’s leave that for now.
David Henry Hwang: That’s good. That’s why we’re having a roundtable.
Marion Peter Holt: I should make one point between living and dead playwrights. With a couple of exceptions, I’ve only translated living playwrights, and in most cases, I’ve worked directly with a playwright and even more directly in the last few years because I’ve been working with playwrights who have a knowledge of English, and they can really evaluate the work that I’m doing. The last discussion panel I was on was in Barcelona a few years ago. They had a series called Playwright and Translator. We were together, and it was a rather weird situation because my ability to speak Catalan is not great, so the moderator was speaking Catalan and the playwright was speaking Catalan and I was speaking Spanish. I was responding in Spanish as we attempted to describe the translation process. This is a playwright, Sergi Belbel, whom I can use as an example, whom I’ve worked with very closely. He’s fluent in French, Catalan, and Spanish, but he’s pretty good in English. Also he has a personal type of dialogue just as Ionesco, for example, that Tina has translated, a very special kind of language that I feel I have to be faithful to in the translation.
His dialogue is what I call “Sergi-speak” (that’s my own description of it) and in dealing with it I have to try to create in English this kind of mixture of dark humor and sometimes very dark subject matter, and – of course, when I sit down to translate any playwright I try to recognize what I call the voice of the playwright. Every playwright has their own voice, undoubtedly, and my goal is to recreate that voice and the dialogue, thinking at the same time as the actor who has to speak that dialogue. Occasionally I channel an actor when I’m translating. I act out all the parts. What is fundamental when I start is that I’m acting out all the parts as I’m translating. I do have a little experience in that, in acting.
A few years ago we had a reading at the Martin E. Segal Theater Center of a play called Mobile. It’s a cell phone play. In Catalan it’s “Mòbil” and I decided to keep it as Mobile because there’s a double meaning in the play that cell phone does not capture but the word “Mobile” does. We were very fortunate to have an actress that—I can use this actress as an example because it’s Laila Robins—and Laila was perfection in capturing this language. Sergi happened to be there sitting on the edge of his seat and he later told her, “You are the person that I had in mind when I wrote this play.” So when I came to my next Belbel play and I started translating then immediately in my mind Laila was performing a very similar role in that play.
I’ve done this with other actors over the years. She just happens to be a very vivid example of that. Another example, in the play Marburg, which I mentioned before is set in four different places in the world called Marburg—Marburg, Germany during the time of the Marburg virus; Lake Marburg, Pennsylvania; Marburg, South Africa; and Marburg, Australia—four stories are interwoven. In the Marburg, South Africa scenes, which was a really difficult part because there is a South African woman, a kind of missionary, belonging to a Protestant faith in South Africa, and she has a very distinctive kind of speech.
I chose what helped me very much, another actress who immediately took over that part in my mind and that was Quincy Tyler Bernstine, again someone I knew from a play reading. So that’s part of the process. It is totally a performance process when I’m translating a play, and this is what I start with because I started before PCs and Macs existed and it was longhand or typewriter. I still do this and I find it impossible to sit for long periods at a computer for a first draft, so I do my first version longhand, notes and everything. The revision goes into the computer and I’m done, but I’m still doing the acting process.
David Henry Hwang: The acting performance process guides you.
Marion Peter Holt: Yes.
David Henry Hwang: Tina, getting back to this question of faithfulness, are you faithful to anything?
Tina Howe: Well, I want to take issue with what David said. I can’t wait.
David Ives: Good!
Tina Howe: I agree with David about mining the play beneath the language, but with The Bald Soprano, Ionesco made it very clear this play was about mining the tragedy of language itself. At the time he wrote it, he was trying to teach himself English, using a French/English phrase book. He’d come across sentences like, “The floor is below, the ceiling, above” or “Charity begins at home”. Reading these aphorisms out of context, he began thinking how theatrical it would be to create a play built around such nonsense. The harder the characters try to communicate, the more their words fly out of control.
So for me, language was key. I grew up in New York City and went to a couple of private elitist girls’ schools where you started French in the first grade. I loved the crunchy sound of it and since I’m a pretty good mimic, I could imitate the teacher, accent and all. I didn’t necessarily know what she was saying, but oh, the sound of it…!
I didn’t go to graduate school after college, but lived in Paris for a year. The defining moment of my life was walking into the tiny Théâtre de la Huchette on the left bank, and seeing The Bald Soprano. There was this very uptight English couple trying to get through a pleasant social evening with a similarly uptight English couple. They were so like my own talkative, uptight family, it was like being home! But their flights of fancy were even more absurd than ours! And in French! I thought I’d died and gone to heaven!
The audience was in hysterics as was I! When I came back to the States I figured my role in life was to become the American Ionesco, writing about female experience with the same absurd joy. But there’s a big difference, alas, between men taking these liberties and women attempting them. After a series of theatrical disasters that are too gruesome to go into, I suddenly got a commission to translate The Bald Soprano along with The Lesson. (The two always go together.) I jumped at the chance since the present English translations are so flat and airless – no alliteration, rhyming, punning, or music. So my job wasn’t just translating the words, but providing some of the fizz they leave in their wake. There was another challenge as well. Since the play is set in a suburb of London with English people speaking gibberish, it’s important to stay true to that setting. At the end when the dialogue disintegrates into complete nonsense, rather than trumpet the French, “Bazar, Balzac, Bazaine…Bizarre, beaux-arts, baisers…” the words changed to “James Boswell Edith Sitwell! George Orwell…Byron, Browning, Beowulf! Bizarre, baroque, brassiere!” This section called for the most inspired words I could find.
David Ives: Actually, we don’t disagree in the least because what you were doing was the playwriting work I was talking about. You had decided what Ionesco was trying to do, what sort of language the play demanded, and only then went on from there. Your example of Orwell, etc. is a perfect illustration of what I’m saying. You were investigating what Ionesco was up to and trying to find a language, a sort of new dialect of English to accommodate it I didn’t mean to say that the language of a play is not important. It’s that the surface language has other things going on underneath it, and you have to consider The Underneath before you can do the dazzle of the surface.
Tina Howe: It was very interesting. When this translation was performed at the Atlantic Theater Company with Jan Maxwell and Michael Countryman among others, they kept looking for the psychology underneath – what you were talking about in terms of the actors really mining a play. But here is no psychology beneath The Bald Soprano. The actors kept asking, “So what do we play?” My response was always the same. “Basically, you play valor. You’re trying to get through this nightmare evening. The guests come on the wrong night, none of you know what to talk about, but you soldier on.”
They say things that fall flat. There’s a silence. And then it’s about cranking up the courage to start over again. So bravery is the overriding concern. There is no backstory or complicated motivation. No one was abused by a nun. It’s just about getting through a difficult evening by rejoicing in the crazy language on the tip of their tongues.
David Ives: Of course. Everything you do has to tend toward that goal. You see what I mean? That’s the sort of playwriting underneath translating I’m talking about.
Marion Peter Holt: I think we all agree on that. That is sort of fundamental to the way we approach it.
Tina Howe: So much of it is dither, really dither, which I love. Real mayhem.
David Ives: “Dithering Heights.”
Tina Howe: I brought some other translations of brief passages to show you how whackadoo we all went, but I don’t want to bore you. I just—
David Ives: No, do it!
David Henry Hwang: Go ahead. Do it. This is exactly what—this is the subject.
Tina Howe: Since Ionesco had already died when I began, I had to get permission from his estate. I couldn’t take liberties. I couldn’t set the play in the subway, have a rhinoceros stroll through the room, create or drop other characters. I had to honor his script and wanted to. He was my idol, after all. I introduced him at the 92nd Street Y in 1986 and could hardly speak, since we were breathing the same air. He was so short and sad, I wanted to pick him up and comfort him, but I was also totally in awe of him and very nervous about leaving any fingerprints. Translating this play is tricky! And it begins with Mrs. Smith’s first words:
“Tiens, il est neuf heures. Nous avons mangé de la soupe,
du poisson, des pommes de terre au lard, de la salade anglaise.
Nous avons bien mangé ce soir. C’est parce que nous
habitons dans les environs de Londres, et que notre nom est
I’ll begin with the translation I think is the strangest.
David Ives: Who is it?
Tina Howe: Donald Watson’s. He turns “Tiens” into “Goodness!” and the fish and potatoes cooked with lard into “cold ham and mashed potatoes.” Donald M. Allen, transforms the fish and potatoes into “fish and chips,” but I don’t see a proper English couple serving fish and chips at a dinner party, so I chose to open with, “Good grief, it’s nine o’clock. We’ve eaten our soup, fish, buttered potato jackets and British salad.” The “good grief” and “buttered potato jackets” immediately sound the appropriately daffy note. A translator could lose their hair and their wits over these opening words. Just look at me! I’m really a 25-year-old girl, so you can see what this has cost me.
David Henry Hwang: That’s great.
David Ives: Tiens!
David Henry Hwang: You know this whole issue—what you call the surface language versus the language beneath—again, I haven’t really done translations as such, but I often write about people speaking more than one language. How do you represent that? Like in Golden Child, which is playing now at Signature Theatre, it’s a play that’s set in China in 1918. So English is standing in for Chinese, but then you have a British missionary who comes in.
So then it seemed to me that if the British missionary is also speaking English, which is standing in for Chinese in the play, therefore the British missionary needs to speak broken English. But I noticed when we were working on the revival, that if you get something wrong in English, your mistake is usually grammatical because English grammar is so complicated, whereas Chinese grammar is really easy.
But when you make mistakes in Chinese, they’re more likely to be about the words themselves because a speaker will get the tones wrong. So in Chinglish, ‘I love you’ was mispronounced as ‘Frog loves to pee.’ But in Golden Child, I couldn’t really represent that sort of mistake using English alone. In order to represent broken Chinese in English it had to be grammatically wrong.
Tina Howe: I love it. I love it.
David Henry Hwang: Are there things that you’ve done that you feel are more translations as opposed to adaptations? The School For Lies feels like an adaptation to me.
David Ives: I went through several steps. Don’t forget, lots of these ideas about translation come from having done all these Encores musicals, making concert versions of old or underappreciated or neglected musicals, whereby I had to cut, sometimes rewrite, reshape, cut characters, merge scenes and so on. So I had been doing adaptation for years before I ever got to translation. Then I was approached by a director about doing a new version of A Flea In Her Ear at a point when I had never translated anything.
A Flea In Her Ear is an interesting case because Feydeau and farce are so mechanical that in a funny way there are no characters. What you have are puppets who are given various positions in this clock, so the language tends to be very functional. I ended up being quite faithful to it, though still trying to find small ways to differentiate the characters, to figure out what the diction of these various puppets should be in this play’s social order, feeling like it was my job to brighten the social aspects so that people understood today who these characters are within the larger comedy clock.
Then I did Yasmina Reza’s play, where I was trying to be very faithful to her and I was very bored. I felt like I was working out a very complicated Sudoku. So I thought, well, I’ll never do that again, and then I was approached by the Shakespeare Theatre of Washington with an old French play. I seemed to have gotten this reputation of being a French translator. Anyway, they sent me this play by Corneille called The Liar from 1643, which had not been translated in a very long time in English, and I absolutely fell in love with the play.
It was if somebody had handed me A Midsummer Night’s Dream in French and nobody had ever translated it. The play had this sort of silvery rippling quality to the language, and it was in verse. I loved the sort of ripple, so I realized that not only did I want to translate this, but I was going to have to translate it into verse. That led to a different sort of level of translation because in a verse play it’s the verse that dictates the play. I also had to investigate why the play needed to be in verse, why verse was intrinsic, why verse was the natural choice for the characters to be speaking. In other words I had to make sure the whole thing had integrity. In the end, verse seemed like a perfect language for The Liar because the main character is an extravagant creator of these long baroque lies that function like arias. He’s on a verbal tightrope. The play needed to be as well.
Along the way I found the play itself needed help, and so I changed the plot a bit, changed the ending. You see, there is no reason to do that play as it stands. Not in English. I’m firmly against doing any play just because it happens to be by somebody who was famous once upon a time. This play was never going to work in the form it was, in the plot, in the development of the characters, it was simply never going to fly so I felt it incumbent upon myself to take what I had learned at Encores and to take what I’d learned about translation and sort of merge them and make a new play called The Liar. When I got to School For Lies, which is based on The Misanthrope, I went even further and basically created a new play using The Misanthrope, which is why I changed the title, because I can really no longer in all honesty call it The Misanthrope. It’s not The Misanthrope, but bears some relations to Molière’s play by retaining the lineaments of his plot and the essence of his characters.
Tina Howe: How I envy you, because I also translated The Lesson, which is wildly overwritten! In it the professor keeps haranguing his student with the same points. It’s not only repetitious but crushingly boring, quickly disintegrating into nonsense. One could easily cut a third of it. But I was the translator, not an adapter.
David Henry Hwang: You couldn’t cut it because you didn’t feel that you—
Tina Howe: It had nothing to do with me. I had signed an agreement with the Ionesco estate promising to translate the play. It was torture, because night after night I’d see audience members staggering towards the exit. I would have left too, but my hands were tied.
David Ives: I would’ve cut it.
Tina Howe: But then you would have been sued by Marie-France Ionesco and her fancy French lawyers for breach of contract.
David Ives: Let me make myself clear here, as this is an important point, given that we’re sitting in the offices of the Dramatists Guild. I would have cut it if and only if I’d been given permission from the estate to do that and it was written into the contract. Maybe most importantly I would never accept translating a play that I thought needed work if I weren’t first given an official free hand to do what I thought was my work as a playwright. This is why I prefer working with Corneille and friends. Not only is Corneille dead, more importantly, he’s in the public domain.
Tina Howe: But they’re always done together and I was desperate to tackle The Bald Soprano.
David Ives: Yeah, well there you are, but you see—
Tina Howe: I did the best I could to liven it up.
David Henry Hwang: Well if you negotiate the contract in advance then you have the right to do that. Have you ever altered or have you tried to be completely faithful?
Marion Peter Holt: Well, one time I altered a play drastically. It was a commission and I’ve always regretted it and so did the theatre because they destroyed the original structure, which is an unorthodox structure in the first place. For example, it ends with a short monologue and they wanted to split that monologue and put half of it at the beginning. That was only the first of many things, but I think every commission that I’ve had, which are three or four, were things that I probably would not have done just on my own, not necessarily plays that I disliked but plays that I would not have taken on. I’d like to make one point about Corneille because this is very interesting. You’ve done a translation of a translation. A Corneille play that is a version of a Spanish play.
David Ives: That’s right.
Marion Peter Holt: And so this is a double level of translation. You were working from a playwright who just took over, a lot of Corneille’s plays are based on Spanish plays. I can’t even remember who wrote the original.
Tina Howe: Ionesco.
Marion Peter Holt: You’re obsessed. But anyhow, I never thought about it before, but hearing you speak about how you dealt with Corneille and then I start thinking, well I’ve never compared Corneille’s play with the original, but there you have again a whole process of how a very talented playwright, a famous playwright, took another playwright’s work and did his own thing with it.
David Ives: I’m actually glad you mentioned this because I did compare the two of them and I felt that given what Corneille had done to the Spanish play I was certainly free, 375 years later, to play with Corneille. I was doing nothing more than what he had done. The Spanish play is incredibly dull and he turned it into this delightful play, and I thought, well, I could make it more delightful and so I did.
David Henry Hwang: But you didn’t feel compelled to improve on Yasmina Reza.
David Ives: That’s what I learned from Yasmina Reza: that I will never do that kind of work again. I will never again translate a living playwright because you must be faithful in a sort of dull line-by-line way to what they wrote, and that just doesn’t interest me. This is why I say if I’d been offered the Ionesco I would’ve read the plays and decided what my leeway was, and if they weren’t going to give me official leeway then I wouldn’t do the job.
Tina Howe: But I didn’t want to lose The Bald Soprano! I’d do anything to translate it. Even learn Russian if that’s what the estate wanted.
David Henry Hwang: Wait, so they would only let you translate The Bald Soprano if you did the other one?
Tina Howe: They’re a package.
David Ives: It’s always done as a duo.
David Henry Hwang: Oh, I see. Okay.
David Ives: I think translation is one of the most interesting topics in the entire world, because you are automatically in the realm of language at its deepest. Translation is like language interrogating itself. We can never know the truth about the world or about God, but we can actually get an outside perspective on language by going to another language. To see what a French translator or a German translator has done to Shakespeare is to learn something extraordinary about your language and the possibilities and limitations of the world you live in, the world you live in being the language that you speak.
David Henry Hwang: Is it necessary to know more than one language to get outside one’s language?
David Ives: I think so, although reading about translation can help you there. Have you ever read anything about translation that wasn’t interesting? Or about another language? I was just reading recently about French translations of Shakespeare. Did you know there is no real standard French translation of Shakespeare? Because nobody—it’s a fascinating history—nobody knew about Shakespeare basically until Voltaire told the world he was a genius and then the French suddenly got interested and started translating him, but they translated him into prose or, if they translated him into verse—because of French classical theatre, which had intervened—they had to translate him into French verse which is very different from English verse, and diluted his language. There’s a French poet named Yves Bonnefoy who has translated Hamlet five times, each time taking a different approach, and he says it is impossible to put it into French because the two languages are, quote, “metaphysically different.” Unquote. .
Marion Peter Holt: That’s very interesting about Shakespeare because I think one of the funniest things is to hear Shakespeare in Spanish. When I first heard Shakespeare in Catalan I thought, this is Shakespeare. It’s because Catalan has a lot of one-syllable words—“noche” in Spanish is “nit” in Catalan, and suddenly it seems the right rhythm. It was Measure For Measure, the only Shakespeare play I’ve seen in Catalan. I’ve heard Hamlet in Spanish and it’s unbearable.
David Ives: In what sense?
Marion Peter Holt: In terms of emphasis possible in that language. I have not heard Shakespeare in French, but I can conceive of it in French. Of course all the plays of Shakespeare had Catalan translations I think as early as the nineteenth century, the whole opus, and so hearing Mesura per mesura at the National Theater in Barcelona I thought, I’m going to be really bored. I just don’t like Shakespeare in a foreign language. It doesn’t work. Suddenly I realized this has the rhythm and the feeling of Shakespeare that you could not have experienced in Spanish.
David Ives: Shakespeare does go beautifully into German. Pick up Hamlet in the standard German translation by Schlegel from about 1825 sometime even if you don’t know any German, and you’ll see that somehow the weight of English and the weight of German are similar enough that it has the feel of Shakespeare. Shakespeare in French is much fussier. It doesn’t have the same gravity, I mean foot-on-the-ground gravity of English.
David Henry Hwang: I mean people always talk about Brecht and Brecht not being really, that we don’t really understand Brecht in English. Does anyone know enough German to comment on this?
David Ives: I’ve – hey, it’s Annie Baker! Welcome.
Annie Baker: Hi, everyone.
David Henry Hwang: Hi. Do you speak any German?
Annie Baker: Nein.
David Henry Hwang: People sort of say there’s something that Brecht does with the language in German that we can’t understand in English, but because I don’t know any German I can’t understand it.
David Ives: I think the standard English translations give a pretty good idea of Brecht. It’s the songs that are hard.
Tina Howe: May I ask the playwrights a question? About ten years ago a play by a contemporary Swedish woman came across Lynn Meadow’s desk. She’d read a literal translation and was very interested in producing it, so she asked me if I’d like a commission to translate it—if I’d read the literal translation and then boogie over it in my own Tina way. I said no, because I wouldn’t want a translator who didn’t know English to be given a literal translation of one of my plays and have her boogie all over it. How would you respond? And how would you feel about someone who doesn’t know English translating you?
Annie Baker: When my work is translated in foreign countries into foreign languages I actually do want a playwright—I’m not sure if this is what you’re asking, but I would want a playwright to work on it and not an academic.
Tina Howe: Yeah. That’s what David was saying.
Annie Baker: Yeah. I’m not sure if that’s what you were asking ‘cause you were talking about boogie. I mean, I wouldn’t want them to boogie too much.
Tina Howe: Well no—
David Ives: I think she means if someone gives you a play out of the Chinese and you don’t speak any Chinese would you take the play on?
Annie Baker: If I really loved it, I would.
DavidHenry Hwang: Yeah. We’re actually doing exactly that right now.
Tina Howe: That’s what I wanted to ask you.
David Henry Hwang: In a project co-sponsored by the Signature Theatre and The Lark, we’re inviting four Chinese playwrights to New York. I wanted to have a season of contemporary Chinese playwrights ‘cause there’s all sorts of interesting things going on in China. We never see any of it. So we’re inviting one from Shanghai, one from Beijing, one from Taipei, and one from Hong Kong and going through the translation process to translate these works into English, and then we’re gonna present them all in March in a one-week reading series.
In general, the formula we tend to be using is to have someone do a literal translation, then have a playwright who doesn’t know Chinese come in and dramatize it.
Tina Howe: Or boogie on it.
David Henry Hwang: Yes.
Marion Peter Holt: I have to get around to this. I don’t think there is such a thing as literal translation.
Annie Baker: Exactly. Yeah.
Marion Peter Holt: Because any translator has to make choices between I’m going to say it this way or that way, so those choices are built into what you’re calling a literal translation. There’s no way to change one language into another language without making a great many different choices along the way, and what might read one way here could just as easily read another way. That translator has made the choices. I’ll tell you what a literal translation is. One of my Facebook friends is a prominent Greek translator. It turns out that Catalan drama is very, very popular in Athens and she’s done the Greek versions of several contemporary Spanish and Catalan plays.
She’s done a lot of the same things I’ve translated. Her posts come up and they’re all in the Greek alphabet. I can’t read them, but if you’re familiar with Facebook and you get any foreign language postings you see “Translation” in tiny letters below them. You click and suddenly you get a literal translation, and believe me, it is very, very amusing because a literal translation is just exactly that. Sometimes the playwrights’ names are confusing to this machine that’s making the literal translation. Like Guillem Clua the playwright I mentioned earlier.
One of his plays was being done in Athens and there was a whole description of it. His name came out as Gkilliem Kloya, which sounds vaguely like Czech. You read through it. You have to almost be a translator yourself to decipher this literal translation that comes up for the Greek. You could do the same thing for Catalan and French.
But Facebook has its amusements and that is one of them if you have any friends who use a language that you can’t read, and of course I can’t read Greek because I can’t read the alphabet.
David Ives: That’s the problem of literal translations. A, I’m being given a translation that’s taken a position about this play to begin with, and B, I don’t have any insight into the language on my own. Without that insight even if it’s of a crude kind I would never venture in because I’d feel I was being unfaithful to the play. And I mean to the action and characters of the play.
David Henry Hwang: Annie, talk about your experience during the Chekov. What did you work off of?
Annie Baker: Well I speak and read some Russian but not enough to do a responsible translation on my own, so I did work with a literal translator. I actually found a Russian friend of mine who also does translation work herself. We met ten years ago working at St. Mark’s Book Shop and she became a translator and I became a playwright, and I went to her and I said, “I want to work with somebody on a literal translation of Uncle Vanya, but I want to be part of the literal translation process.” We acknowledged there’s no such thing as a literal translation and then I asked her to do a pass, keeping the original Russian word order if she could, and when she was torn between three choices for a word, put all three in a footnote.
So it’s sort of this fabulous document, her literal translation. Each page has like fifteen footnotes. There’s all these different options for word choices. I did two passes based on her literal translation and then I went back and looked at the original text, basically like word by word with my dictionary at the original Russian, and changed a lot.
Whether or not my process was traditional or particularly responsible, I actually feel like I created a very loyal translation of Uncle Vanya. I had various Russian speakers come and Russian scholars who know the play pretty well and they were like, “Yeah, that was weirdly loyal”, almost uncomfortably, maybe awkwardly so at times.
While I was working on Uncle Vanya I had the very strange experience of going to Moscow, meeting a woman who had done a literal translation of my play The Aliens, and meeting the playwright who only spoke a little English who adapted it. So while I was doing this Uncle Vanya someone else was doing the same thing to my play. And we had these hilarious English/Russian mixed conversations about it.
Then I saw a reading of the play and I was so happy with what the adaptor done. I just thought it was fabulous. I felt like he’d captured the play beautifully. Everyone described him as “the Adam Rapp of Russia.” He was this sort of renegade, badass 30-something guy with long hair and a beard. He was like the perfect guy for the project, and I’ve read some of his plays since and I love them and I’m actually interested in one day adapting one of his plays, boogying on one of his plays, because I feel like we have similar aesthetics.
We had great talks about theatre and I really wouldn’t have wanted anyone else to adapt my play, and we talked about what a weird process that was and how ultimately there were things – was his adaptation loyal? I don’t know, and there were moments where I was like, “Well that’s not really what I meant”, but it was gorgeous and it flowed and he got it. He got the spirit of it. We had kindred aesthetics, and that was actually the most important thing to me.
Tina Howe: Well, you met him. That’s key. You met him.
Annie Baker: Yeah. I met him after he did the adaptation, though. I wasn’t part of his adaptation process.
David Henry Hwang: I saw an M. Butterfly in Moscow that had been running for a couple of years. This was in the early 90s when Yeltsin had just come to power, and the production was sort of like Hair: everything out there is ugly, but in here, everything is beautiful. There was a Kazak actor playing the Chinese lead; he was a contra-tenor, so they could actually interpolate the Madama Butterfly arias. There were also a lot of boys with greased-up butts and Euro disco music.
I don’t really know how much it had to do with the play, but I kind of liked it. It seems to mean something to them and it’s been running for a couple years, so I guess that’s good. What about other people? You guys, your experience having your own plays translated?
David Ives: I have looked at French and German translations of my plays and I know enough to give notes on them. I saw Venus and Fur in Swedish, and all I can tell you is that all of the jokes were in place.
Tina Howe: Ironically, I just spoke with Julie Vatain, my French translator this morning. She just translated Painting Churches, titling it Danse à Boston (Huile sur toile) — not an easy task. Aside from having to reproduce the cadences of vanishing Boston blue bloods, the script is chock full of classic American and English poetry. What to do? Translate the poems or substitute French ones that that are similar in tone and mood? We both went for the latter. She’s already won a prize for her efforts and a bi-lingual publication is forthcoming. I’m thrilled with her work because her English is flawless. She’s also frighteningly intelligent and nuts about the theatre.
David Henry Hwang: So you’re saying that a translator should have some knowledge of the original language, and you’re also saying a translator should be a dramatist. So if you can’t find a dramatist who has the knowledge of the original language then do you just not do the play? That’s not ideal I suppose.
David Ives: A play has to demand to be translated. Speaking frankly? There’s no reason to translate most of the plays that have been left behind. It was only by great good luck that I found a couple of unknown French classical comedies that tickled me, but I also knew that I needed to go to work on them in the same way that I go to work on my own plays, to translate and doctor them at the same time because none of them would’ve worked as they were. So no, I don’t think so.
David Henry Hwang: And Marion, I guess your response to David’s argument that the play should be translated by a dramatist is that you also translate with an eye towards performance?
Marion Peter Holt: Yes. Exactly.
David Henry Hwang: Do you have anything else to say about that?
Marion Peter Holt: I don’t know. I’ve lived in theatre. I fell in love with theatres I think the first time when I was three years old when my mother took me to see a movie. I’ve lived it all my life and I acted in university theatre and acted in summer stock and if you’ve been in summer theatre then you know how you have to do things very quickly and very practically and yet entertain an audience at the same time. It just simply comes natural to me.
I don’t think any two translators work in the same way, and I wouldn’t want to suggest to anybody that you’ve got to take this step and that step and then this step. I think each person, if you are a good translator of theatre, then you have your own process and you’ve developed it and it belongs to you. My doing two versions of a line in my first longhand script is a bit like Annie where she had several different versions of words written down.
In my longhand version I have alternatives there, but I very quickly choose when I start putting it into the computer saying the lines in my mind or sometimes aloud as I’m doing this. It’s totally writing dialogue for actors and a play for a director to put on stage. That’s what it’s about. I’ve had a lot of things published, but none of my translations were done with publication first in mind, ever. It’s always been for performance and, well, a lot of them have been performed, so what can I say?
David Henry Hwang: Let’s move on to adaptations for a sec. I think the line between translations and adaptations can be fuzzy. I guess the question becomes why do you choose to adopt anything. In the case of Flower Drum Song, my intention was not to remain faithful to the original material, as much as to resurrect a Rodgers and Hammerstein show which remains to this day the only Broadway musical ever written about Asian Americans (as opposed to Asians in Asia).
It just never got performed anymore. It had sort of fallen off the face of the earth … so this was an opportunity for me to do my own version, if anything trying to be more faithful to the original novel than to the Hammerstein & Field book. Why do you choose to do an adaptation?
Annie Baker: Well I don’t know whether to call the one thing I’ve done that got me in this roundtable a translation or an adaptation. It’s technically I think in the world of translators and adaptations, it’s technically an adaptation. I didn’t—
David Henry Hwang: And why is it an adaptation?
Annie Baker: Well because I worked with a literal—I feel it would be irresponsible and taking too much credit for me to say I translated it because I worked with somebody else who speaks fluent Russian. I also think to call it an adaptation would be sort of wrongheaded because I think it’s more loyal to the original Russian than many things that call themselves translations. Like I took way fewer liberties than a lot of translations out there.
David Henry Hwang: Okay.
Annie Baker: So I don’t know what I did. I think it’s a weird line, but I’ve never really truly boogied on something, which I’m actually interested in. There are a couple plays that I’m interested in boogying on at some point in my life, but yeah.
David Henry Hwang: By the way, David, when you do the Encores versions of Rogers and Hammerstein, what do you usually find? I found it so interesting for instance that the whole Rogers and Hammerstein structure is they give you most of the big songs at the beginning and then the second acts have a few reprises and maybe—there’s an 11:00 number, but there’s so much more music that’s packed into the first act.
David Ives: That was the genius of Oscar Hammerstein, who I believe came up with that form, which is now the form that most everybody uses. The second act is reprises of the hit songs from the first. But I thought all the reasons you gave for adapting Flower Drum Song were great reasons to adapt. You were interested in the material, you thought it wasn’t done, it’s a great score, you thought you had a personal connection to that material. It all seems like a fantastic reason to adapt something.
David Henry Hwang: And why do you choose to adapt something or not to do it?
David Ives: I only adapt when I think that I have room to move, and when the play and the act of translating it have something to teach me. All of these Encores adaptations I’ve done were the equivalent of many years of graduate school in playwriting because each one of them was different. I had to take some forgotten or rarely done musical and cut it down to two-thirds of its size, performing a kind of literary ventriloquism whereby I had to think what the original creators were trying to do in this musical, what the voice of the original book writer was, and if I had to write new material it had to blend in so that nobody ever noticed I had created bridge material or a scene to put in a song that had been cut on the road. It was an immense immersion into 33 different works, trying to figure out how they worked and not upsetting the way they worked but helping them work a little better while still reducing them.
David Henry Hwang: So getting back to the original question of faithfulness, on the Encore adaptations you were actually trying to be very faithful even if that meant cutting and creating new material.
David Ives: Yes, but I was being faithful to what I saw as the original intent of this work. My job also varied from time to time. For example, there were Encores adaptations that I simply edited down, while there were early musicals like Pardon My English or Strike Up The Band where the original book was simply not workable or where they didn’t even have an original book. On Pardon My English they only had Morrie Ryskind’s first draft, from before the Gershwins got to work on it. It was 150 pages of single-spaced type with no songs in it.
Still, it was fascinating because you could see where Ira Gershwin lifted out a speech and turned it into a lyric. But I had to cut that down and write scenes to accommodate all the songs that were cut on the road, so it was a combination of editing and actual creation of material that would blend in so that nobody knew I had put in a scene. We reconstructed some of those old musicals by checking the out-of-town Playbills to see what the song order was.
Tina Howe: Now that I’m playwright-in-residence of the Rita and Burton Goldberg MFA in Playwriting at Hunter College, I’ve decided to focus on adaptation next semester. Since my graduating students will be up to their ears having their thesis plays produced, adaptation strikes me as a brilliant solution since it will continue to stretch their imaginations and hone their craft.
Annie Baker: I was gonna say that’s such a great idea. My mentor in grad school, Mac Wellman, always said, “Well if you have writers block just sit down and try to write your favorite play over again.” Uncle Vanya and like Hamlet were my two favorites, so he was like, “Just go try to remember as much of Hamlet as you can and write it and it’ll be amazing.”
Tina Howe: Yeah. That’s a great idea. Maybe I’ll do that instead.
David Ives: When I was teaching a term at Columbia I came up with an exercise that ended up being very fruitful. I took a scene from I think it was The Beaux Stratagem and said, “Take this scene and make it today.” It was two women. I said it can be a man and a woman, it can be two women, it can be set anywhere, but figure out what is fundamentally happening in this scene and Translate it into today. The range of things that came out of this scene was spectacular.
You could see how it got everybody on their uppers. They had to be really sharp. It was a form of translation and a form of adaptation.
Annie Baker: Speaking of not knowing the language well, I stole this exercise from my mentor, but I do this when I teach. I have my grad students, we go around the room and we say a language that we know badly. Like “I took a year of French in high school” or something and I make them in a half-hour write a play in that language. The plays are a lot like, “Hello. Where is the bathroom? Yes, please.” But they’re amazing. Because of that restriction and that simplicity they’re always wonderfully absurd and vulnerable little pieces.
David Henry Hwang: We had a course my first year of graduate school in drama, which was called Drama 20 where we did exactly that. You had to adapt a short story and it was the first year of MFA program, this was the first time you ended up working with the actors and a director. But also I kind of feel like almost everything I do is an adaptation in some sense because I usually base my plays on some other play. I think I wanna write a play that’s sort of like x. For Chinglish I was like, I kinda wanna write Glengarry Glen Ross set in China and for Butterfly I kind of wanted to write a Peter Shaffer play.
Tina Howe: Oh, that’s really interesting!
David Henry Hwang: So in some sense I feel like everything for me is a bit of an adaptation because it builds on stuff that already exists.
David Ives: We also can’t forget that 35 of 37 Shakespeare’s plays were adaptations. I suspect if you stopped him on the street today and said, “What do you do for a living?” he would say he’s an adapter. Or a producer. He was certainly an adapter as much as he was a playwright. I think adaptation takes so much of the burden off of you because you don’t have to come up with something of your own, out of the bottom of your soul, every morning. You can sit down with somebody else and just play, which is what playwriting is supposed to be, isn’t it?
Marion Peter Holt: You were talking about teaching. I’ve taught translation for the stage twice, and the first time I had a completely English-dominant class, that is the first language was English. I would take what I consider a rather tricky scene from a fairly well known Spanish play and assign it to perhaps five people. Each one would translate it. Then we would compare those different versions and I would let the class vote on which of these versions really captures the voice of the original playwright.
The second time I had to change everything because I had several students whose dominant language was Spanish. I had one student who spoke Buenos Aires Spanish, another who spoke Madrid Spanish, and of course the usual English dominant-students. So I assigned a play, an English play, to the Spanish-dominant students.
One would do a Buenos Aires version, the other one would do a Madrid version, and then we would compare those two versions in terms of the language differences and the cultural differences that exist between two major theatre capitals, Buenos Aires and Madrid. So in a sense I was teaching playwriting but I was teaching it in terms of not creating your original text but taking an existing text and recreating it in various forms depending on who the audience was going to be, and it worked very well. I think the students responded and it was a lot of work for me. I had to read them all.
David Henry Hwang: Tina or Annie, is there anything you want to adapt that you think about maybe doing in the future or kind of dream about?
Annie Baker: I have a secret German play, but I don’t know any German, so I’d want to learn at least a decent amount of German, but I’m not gonna say what it is.
David Henry Hwang: Okay.
Annie Baker: It’s my secret play that I discovered.
David Henry Hwang: But it’s a play that you’ve read in English already?
Annie Baker: Yes, a sort of bad translation in English. It’s by a writer I really like. I don’t know. One of my goals in life is to learn German, so I want to do that. Then I might translate this play.
Tina Howe: My brother has a PhD in classics. For years he taught Latin, Greek and Sanskrit on the college level. He’s retired now and lives in New Haven with his wife, who also has a Ph.D. At the age of 78 he suddenly decided he wanted to learn Hebrew. (Which is wicked hard!) And Why? So he can read Genesis in Hebrew. He can already read it in Latin, Greek, and German, but more than anything in the world he wants to read Genesis in Hebrew! Talk about a secret ambition… Words fail!
Marion Peter Holt: It’s the original.
TinaHowe: It’s just so… inspiring.
David Henry Hwang: Is there a work from another medium you want to adapt like a novel, a short story?
David Ives: I would love to take a whack sometime at one of the Greek plays. I learned ancient Greek at one point, and had enough to be able to read Euripides and stumble through Sophocles. People have no idea from the English translations of how strange these plays are, how intensely weird. I just don’t know what language, what English language, what English dialect you create to put those things on stage.
Tina Howe: Anne Carson has done a lot of -
Annie Baker: I was going to say, have you read her?
David Ives: Oh yes. And I’ve seen her play translations onstage.
Tina Howe: She almost creates a new language the way she smashes words together.
David Ives: And yet I find her so unsuccessful that she’s one of the reasons I would love to work on the Greeks because I find she’s totally un-dramatic. Anne Carson is a great poet, but I just don’t find her play translations workable. They’re coherent as poetry but not coherent as plays, not workable as plays because she hasn’t the done the playwriting work she hasn’t asked herself, what is the action of this play. So the language of her play translations floats somewhat. It’s like bits of ice in a river rather than the river itself.
David Henry Hwang: Tell me about adapting English to English with Mark Twain.
David Ives: That was fun. Some producers came to me with a recently discovered Mark Twain play called Is He Dead? and asked if I’d be interested in adapting it. Well, was not only one funny idea, it was two funny ideas, so I could hardly turn it down. Unfortunately they would not let me change the title, which I think is just a disastrous, terrible, horrible title. The Twain estate would not allow me to change the title.
Annie Baker: What did you want to change it to?
David Ives: I don’t remember. Anyway, the title doesn’t sound like a comedy, it sounds like a bad murder mystery, which it’s not. I did learn one thing from that experience: of all the reviewers who reviewed that play, only one read the original Twain play before writing his review. In other words, none of them knew what they were talking about. They were ascribing lines to Twain that he never wrote, and ascribing things to me that I didn’t write
Annie Baker: I had that experience with Vanya where – not that the reviewers needed to know Russian, I’m sure none of them do – but a lot of them wrote like they did. They’d be like, “Ah, yes this Russian word ACTUALLY means”, and they’d be totally wrong. Like even if it was complimentary, they’d be like, “She takes this Russian word and translates it as this”, and I was like, that’s not what it is.
Then sometimes they’d claim it departed too much from the original in certain instances and I’d be like, that is literally what he wrote. It is interesting the way people approach reviewing translations and adaptations. That’s sort of a whole other conversation. Like how do you weigh in as an audience member? That’s a whole other thing, but I was really interested in that, how people felt the need to sort of presume a knowledge of Russian even if they didn’t have one as opposed to being like, “I don’t know. I don’t know what she did, but this was my experience.”
Marion Peter Holt: You can’t win on that one with critics because you never know what to expect. You’re probably lucky if they don’t even mention the fact that it’s a translation or adaptation.
David Henry Hwang: It’s one thing for works that haven’t been translated. It’s clear that we translate them because for some reason somebody wants to see them in another language or hear them, and then works which have been badly translated. Works that there are a lot of translations of; why do we do them again? What is the impetus?
Tina Howe: Can I answer that? A number of years ago I got a six-week fellowship to teach the third year playwrights at Columbia. Ubu Rep, the bilingual theatre company, was doing a production of The Bald Soprano at the time – first performing it in French, then taking a ten minute break and turning around to do it in English with the same cast. Being such an Ionesco freak, I insisted on taking the class, even though they confessed that they didn’t know a word of French. “Just wait!”, I said. “You won’t know what hit you!” When the evening was over I asked them which version they preferred. In one voice, they cried, “The French one, the French one!” They didn’t understand one word, but the texture, music and joy of the language overwhelmed them. I’d never seen them so animated…
So even though I’m this tall, waspy American woman, I was determined to see if I could translate it into English with the same giddy insouciance.
David Henry Hwang: So you were feeling that there wasn’t a translation out there.
Tina Howe: Right.
David Henry Hwang: Annie?
Annie Baker: Yeah. I mean there’s a couple of—I really like Paul Schmidt’s translation of Vanya. I think it’s really good and I just think he’s a great translator, but I didn’t feel that there was a translation that captured the beautiful, elliptical, awkward quality of the Russian grammar. If you look at the original Russian text of Uncle Vanya the characters often don’t speak in full sentences, and when people translate, adapt it, they always feel the need to clean it up. There’s like some crude nineteenth-century slang in it and everyone’s always cleaning it up and trimming it and making it into fully grammatically correct sentences.
I was really interested in translating the fragmentation and confusion. So that I guess was sort of my angle. I also felt like I had something to learn from it. I also was sort of being selfish and I was like, I wanna spend a couple years with this text, and I also think there are certain plays that are so good and I think Uncle Vanya is one of them that it deserves—well, at first I was like, why am I another douchey American playwright doing an Uncle Vanya adaptation? And even just sitting here talking about it I’m just like, ugh. But honestly I think that play deserves a thousand adaptations and translations, I really do.
I think the more there are the better we’ll all understand it. The idea of somebody translating my play a thousand different ways is very thrilling to me. The idea that there might be an—I love Misha Durnenkov’s 2010 translation of The Aliens in Moscow, but I love the idea of somebody else translating it ten years from now. It makes me very happy. So yeah, I wanted to learn from the play and I also did feel like I had something to offer it, which was I guess a kind of loyalty combined with my particular ear.
David Ives: It’s fascinating. I had exactly the opposite impulse when I decided to take on The Misanthrope, which I wanted to work on because it’s a play that’s never satisfied me, one of those plays where the idea seems so great and the actual play always has left me cold. . I thought, what a great idea for a play, a crabby, articulate misanthrope and a witty, vivacious widow in love. But the action always seemed to me to begin too late and end too early, and I wanted to know: how did these two people ever get in the same room together?
So I just started thinking, if Shakespeare woke up in the middle of the night and thought, hmm, crabby, articulate misanthrope and witty, beautiful widow, what would he do with that? Then I started laying out all the scenes that were in the play, then all the scenes that I thought were missing, all of this on index cards on my dining room table, the same way you work on a movie.
My impulse was not to translate The Misanthrope. I wanted to take the situation and make a play. To take Moliere’s idea and see where I went with it. The Richard Wilbur translation of The Misanthrope will always exist, it’s wonderful, but it was the play that I wanted to dig into.
David Henry Hwang: I felt when I was working on Flower Drum Song, that directors often work with great artists who are no longer with us, and as playwrights we don’t have that opportunity so often, but one time that we do get to do that is when we either adapt somebody else’s material or we do a translation. It gives us a chance to have that same experience whether it’s to learn something or to fix something. We think we can do it better or we just want to understand the work.
Well, thank you. This is a big subject, and I really like this notion that translation is endlessly fascinating because language is endlessly fascinating and tells us so much about people and culture and ourselves. Thank you all for telling us so much about yourselves tonight.
David Henry Hwang
’s work includes M. Butterfly, Chinglish, Yellow Face, Aida, Flower Drum Song, and Soft Power. Tony Award (three nominations), three OBIE Awards, Grammy Award (two nominations), three-time Pulitzer finalist. Opera libretti include five shows with Philip Glass, Ainadamar with Osvaldo Golijov, and the upcoming M. Butterfly opera with Huang Ruo.
(born Mabel Davis Howe; November 21, 1937 – August 28, 2023) was an American playwright. In a career that spanned more than four decades, Howe's best-known works include Museum, Painting Churches, The Art of Dining, Costal Disturbances, and Pride’s Crossing, among others. Among her many accolades, she won the 1993 American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature; 1998 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best American Play; 2015 PEN/Laura Pels Theater Award, Master American Dramatist; the 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Lillys; inducted into the 2017 American Theatre Hall of Fame; and 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Dramatists Guild.
Marion Peter Holt
has adapted four French verse comedies: The Liar, The School For Lies, The Heir Apparent, and The Metromaniacs.