Transmutation of Soul
"As a director, I believed that my role in this process was to be the devil’s advocate, to question every word that did not sound quite right"
By Stacey Christodoulou
Translating is more than a transformation of words; it is a transmutation of soul. Taking an original dramatic work and making it understandable in another language means not only changing words but weaving them in such a way that the play’s essential meaning is illuminated and preserved. For The Other Theatre’s piece, Recovery by Greg MacArthur, Emmanuel Schwartz graciously took up this task. As a director, I believed that my role in this process was to be the devil’s advocate, to question every word that did not sound quite right – whether it be in meaning, rhythm, or in tone. I knew that with a translation of great feeling and intelligence that it would be a stimulating conversation. So after the first draft, I pulled out the fat dictionary and the even fatter thesaurus at the local library and went to work – checking, re-checking proposing alternatives and asking for explanations.
I trusted Emmanuel in his choices and am grateful that he listened to all my questions
French is my third language, after English and Greek. I know it well enough to know when something is off but not well enough to be insistent on what is appropriate. That is actually the best position for me to be in: I could question without trying to be the authority figure. I trusted Emmanuel in his choices and am grateful that he listened to all my questions no matter how fussy they seemed to be. I wanted to sleep well at night knowing that I had asked every question that could be asked.
The questions were technical and practical: Was there a way to shorten a phrase to match the punch it had in English? Did the language reflect the social class of the character? How Quebecois would it be? How would the characters curse? A word could embody many meanings in English but there would be no equivalent all-encompassing word in French – what word would be appropriate? The title of the play itself proved to be quite tricky in this respect. What aspect of the meaning would we highlight, if forced to choose only one?
When a French translation is true, it feels like the emotion of the original English text is amplified tenfold.
If there is a way to learn to love the architecture of language in general, it is to participate in translation. You learn to appreciate the uniqueness of each language – its strengths, its particular sonority and sadly, its limitations. In the end, the translation is its own beast. It is not an imitation of the original. It has to possess the “voodoo” of its source material – that indefinable quality that makes it a living, breathing work of art. If the translation can capture not only the meaning but also the feeling that the original engenders in its audience, then it has succeeded.
It cannot be denied that French is a language of great feeling. The permutations of vowels that make up its structure lend themselves beautifully to emotion. When a French translation is true, it feels like the emotion of the original English text is amplified tenfold. Similarly, a text of richness and substance, such as Greg MacArthur’s Recovery, grounds the emotional outpouring in a deep understanding of life. In the end, one hopes that the two works, the original and the new, will stand together like two fraternal twins, alike yet not alike, with similar DNA and mannerisms, but each having its own heart, which beats its own distinctive tattoo.
Réhabilitation (Recovery) by Greg MacArthur, translated by Emmanuel Schwartz is at the Segal Centre, February 24-March 10,