Ludwig Wittgenstein once said: ‘the limits of my language mean the limits of my world’. All our communication, our expression, our articulated thoughts must at some point pass through the medium of language: artificial grammars, constructs and semantic boundaries. Even our silences must be eloquent in the framework of a broader on-going conversation with our fellow man. The theatre is no exception. Although theatre is by definition an art of performance and spectacle, it has long engendered the tradition of speech within it. Sometimes it aims for simple expression, sometimes for poetic ambiguity, but always dialogue is a crucial vehicle to carry the weight of theme and sense. This too is subject to the limits of language and our understanding of it.
The argument concerning plays in translation is one that extends to all literary media: can the flow and subtlety of an original piece of literature, with its own nuances of style and idiom, really emerge unscathed in a new and foreign tongue? Perhaps it is déclassé to butcher Italian opera with stylised English libretti and even to translate is solely a populist manoeuvre, perhaps, for those who cannot appreciate the artistry of the original.
True, there is the theatrical mystique of the foreign words. Maybe some plays such as those of Shakespeare seem to require the particular pentametrical tendencies of English and the mores that inspired them. It is also true that sub- titles can be well and subtly placed so as not to detract from a performance. No one would deny the merits of plays in their original language being performed out of their original context, and yet a play, or any other art form, in a foreign language is by its very nature exclusive. It cannot not always be accessible, since one would like to keep an eye on a translation flashing overhead, or a finger poised above an English script, and even then you are still at the mercy of the translator for sense. It is certainly not possible to be fluent in any language that might crop up, nor is it acceptable, I believe, to be restricted to the artistic contributions of one’s own tongue.
It is not even as simple a matter as that. ‘Translation is an art both estimable and very difficult, and therefore is not the labour and portion of common minds; it should be practiced by those who are themselves capable of being actors, when they see greater use in translating the works of others than in their own works.’ These are the words of Ignacy Krasicki, a Polish poet and multi-lingual translator. Translation must take into account less concrete constraints: context, not just grammar and idiom. More often than not a literal translation will simply fail to do a work any justice. Fidelity and transparency, or fluency, are two qualities to be striven for in a good translation and they are not necessarily compatable. A 17th-century French critic coined the phrase, ‘les belles infidèles,’ to suggest that translations, like women, could be either faithful or beautiful, but not both at the same time.
And what of the cultural transposition to take place for something to hold equivalent weight in its new linguistic setting? Radical translations have placed Sophocles’ Electra in a post-Freudian context to evaluate her isolation and madness, or Macbeth in Nazi Germany to exploit its themes of totalitarianism. In effecting a smooth transition between original and reproduction, the translator’s role is often described as that of a ‘bridge’, transferring and supporting, no less than that of an ‘artist’, creating and innovating.
Dryden, discoursing on then creative scope of the translator, said: ‘When [words] appear… literally graceful, it were an injury to the author that they should be changed. But since… what is beautiful in one [language] is often barbarous, nay sometimes nonsense, in another, it would be unreasonable to limit a translator to the narrow compass of his author’s words.’ As a student of Classics, this vision of the power of a translation appeals to me. A translator must be judicious, insightful, sympathetic, expressive and not to mention flexible.
The very art of translation can provide as much pleasure to an audience as the original, providing an almost dual level of intellectual engagement. The audience is in the power of the translator, who chooses which themes to exaggerate or suppress, which word-plays to reproduce literally and which to invent. It is important for an audience to understand that they are at a second remove from the original, but it is their responsibility to enquire into the calibre and fidelity of the translation. From the opening curtain, they must yield to the art-form of the translation itself and all the richness it can offer.