The roleThe role of a translator is often crucial but invisible, and you only become aware of his or her existence if they’re doing it badly. And if you, the translator, are doing it properly, you have to understand, and feel, the text as well as any of the actors: a lot of translators of drama can’t work in a library or a shared office space because they have to say the lines out loud. They can’t help but say the lines out loud.
But that’s in an ideal world, of course, and there’s rarely the time, or money, to do it like you want to, particularly if you’re self-employed, and even if you do put in the extra effort for the love of it, that switching gear from translating a website for a camping site or agricultural machinery, or a prenuptial agreement, juicer instructions, etc., to a dialogue about the nature of existence and our place in the landscape and the development of society or history, seems too much to ask. Even writing a piece about my involvement in this production, seems too much to ask…
I’d maintained some contact with the theatre scene after I graduated in Dutch and then Arts Administration eight and nine years ago respectively1 (the Arts Admin was so I would know how to sell all those Dutch plays I was going to translate), but the career that seemed so promising proved still-born, partly due to the ‘dreaded circumstances’2. And then, suddenly, out of the blue, a contact I’d made while I was still in that ‘promising’ phase several years ago, while I was still feeling very pleased with myself for being the Dutch-speaking Englishman, that contact suddenly got in touch with me.
It was Jeroen van den Berg
And he wanted to talk to me about a project he was working on.
Jeroen’s part of the production was still being written even after I’d already started translating it, and even after actors had already started reading it. I’m not entirely sure why Jeroen liked me to be present for such read-throughs, maybe he just knew that I liked to be there and he was just granting me that small pleasure, or maybe he understood that it would help me work better.
A translator can help an actor, however, if a line’s not working by giving them permission to change it, or to change it for them, because a British actor will otherwise treat a text as if it’s sacred. But that didn’t apply here, because the playwright was present in the form of the director, Jeroen.
Tip! When translating a play, and particularly a bilingual play, always number the pages, otherwise you need the translator at the read through to help sort out who says what after whom…
Jeroen’s text, the dialogue between the two characters, partly based on the dialogue between Jeroen and Ian, is full of so many ideas and observations, so many things where you think, flippin’ ’eck, they’re right, or a particular feeling, or the zeitgeist that you remember from when you were young. Things that are all the more poignant because they were written by a Dutchman but were just as true for me as an Englishman. It doesn’t surprise me at all that audiences at Oerol stayed long after the performances to talk with each other about what they had just seen. And then the insights into our perception now of where we are, how that has been affected by technology, by smartphones. The anecdotes which were prompted from everyone at one read-through remain with me now. Talk about ‘kill your darlings’, there is so much resonance in the material about the relationship between landscape and character that has been left out of the final production! I hope that it gets used in future plays.
And then Ian.
I was a bit apprehensive about meeting Ian. I’d been told he was a Welsh nationalist firebrand and despite my understanding and sympathy for the oppression of Flemish speakers until the ‘60s in Belgium (I did a degree in Dutch, remember?) and even my sympathy for Fries, I still had a fairly patronising attitude towards Welsh aspirations of nationhood: my response to ‘English go home’ would also have been ‘What? Before or after we spend our money?’3 Or the feeling that speaking Welsh is something artificial ‘they’ put on when the Englishman is in the room and that they’ll go back to speaking English once you’ve left. Of course, Ian’s intelligence, charm and passion won me over in minutes and it now seems bizarre that I grew up within sight of the Welsh hills, that I’m even a quarter Welsh, but I know nothing of Welsh identity. And that I’d overlooked the fact that the English have sucked every raw resource out of Wales for centuries…
And then Ian’s text, the monologue… the power just blows you away. It seems like an actor can’t not perform it well. I even sent a copy to a Dutch drama teacher friend of mine for her students to study.
And Jeroen really does have to use that material that he didn’t manage to get into this production.
Anyway, back to translating that camping site website…
For Dutch readers:
1 That’s how the bachelor-masters system works in the UK, your masters can be fairly different from your bachelor (and don’t use the Dutch abbreviation BAMA, we won’t know what you’re talking about).
2 An expression drawn from the overuse of the euphemistic phrase “Closed due to circumstances”, particularly in shop windows. Whatever those circumstances are, you should watch out for them.
3 Reaction painted under graffiti on a wall in Wales in the seventies.
Terry Ezra, Translation, correction/editing and copywriting for the cultural, retail and policy sectors