On the translation of plays

Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to sit in on a reading of a French text, “Sanctuaire.” As it happens, the text is a new translation of “Safe House,” the first part of my play The Lavender Railroad. A translator here in Ottawa, Hugues Beaudoin-Dumouchel, has been working with a local French company, Théâtre de la Vieille 17 and although I am only tangentially involved in the process, I’ve found the exercise to be fascinating.

I’ve always had a theoretical appreciation of the translator’s art, especially when it comes to literary texts. Living in Ottawa, where the omnipresent political debates are addressed in both French and English, I certainly understand how challenging it can be to find the right way of expressing a phrase or an idea in another language. As in politics, so in the arts: there are always subtexts and subtleties that are harder to translate than the bare words – yet the meaning of what’s being said is likelier to be found there than in the words themselves. How do translators do this? As I say, it’s an art.

What was fun for me in this instance, though, was the chance to observe Hugues and to answer the (many) questions he had about the words and phrases I’d selected. This happens to be a text with plenty of allusions that are probably quite mysterious to a non-English speaker; and there are more than a few puns that are surely impossible to translate to another language. Writers always have to make choices – here was an opportunity to revisit the choices I’d made and to explain the reasoning behind them, if only to help guide Hugues in his own work as he made his own choices.

The title – “Safe House” – was a relatively easy task, and Hugue’s choice of “Sanctuaire” as the French version was in my view probably better than the original English. “Sanctuary” conveys certain concepts that “Safe House” doesn’t (and vice versa) – in particular, a religious connotation that ties in nicely with the themes of the “Ex Cathedra” part of the play. Things get tougher, though, once we get to the text itself. What do you do with an allusion to the movie Casablanca? Do you keep it in, assuming that a French audience is familiar with the film? Or do you find a comparable French work – a film, a play, a novel – that will resonate in the same way? Harder still was a reference to T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” – it seems there is no French equivalent that really works.

And what about the characters themselves? Sebastian is from the American South, which among other things connects the titular Lavender Railroad with the historical Underground Railroad. Does he remain so in the French version? Or does the translation require a “translation” of the character to a different social background? What happens then to the Lavender Railroad? (And how do you translate that in a meaningful way?)

These are the kind of tasks that the translator faces, and for me the fun was to read Hugue’s choices, and then to hear them read by actors earlier this summer. The story was familiar, as were the characters, but once a piece has been translated it is very much a new “interpretation” – simply because the translator has had to interpret the playwright’s text, just as directors and designers and actors do. And so the delight I felt was very much akin to what I enjoy when a new group of artists mount one of my plays – I get to rediscover the piece through their senses, and often I learn new things about the piece.

I very much hope Hugues goes on to translate the rest of the play, and I’ll be very interested to see a French production of it. I’m sure it will very much hold its own!