Friday, September 3, 2010

More on Fidelity of Translations

John M Morrison wrote for Guardian on how dramatic works were given cavalier treatment on stages by the translators who often rewrote, Lost in translation: why have we declared war on foreign dramatists?

Whatever will these silly foreigners get up to next? Did you hear about the Chinese version of Hamlet that gave the play a happy ending? Surely we all know you can't rewrite the classics, and my Chinese example is imaginary. But British theatre commits artistic assault and battery of this kind on an increasingly regular basis. The victims, sprawled in the wings with their scripts torn to shreds are invariably playwrights who had the misfortune not to write in English.

The latest example is Heinrich von Kleist, who has been dead for nearly 200 years, but that's no excuse for the version of his Prince of Homburg at London's Donmar Warehouse. At the end, the audience sees the prince dying in a hail of bullets as the Elector of Brandenburg, a prototype fascist dictator clad in black, supervises his execution by firing squad. Unfortunately, this is the exact opposite of what happens in Kleist's original, in which the final scene is a mock execution. The Donmar's rewrite man, Dennis Kelly, has turned the play on its head, substituting a scene of superficial drama for the original's dream-like ambiguity. For me it spoiled the evening. As Michael Billington exclaimed at the end of his review, "Oh Kleist!".

Germans aren't the only casualties in this war on foreign dramatists; eminent Russians have also been run over by the National Theatre juggernaut.

One can argue that in the theatre anything goes, particularly when the author is safely dead and long out of copyright. But one of the principles that marks off theatre from film is respect for the artistic integrity of the author's text, even when he or she is no longer around to complain.

Treating foreign works in this cavalier fashion sends the same message as the decline of language teaching in schools; we are increasingly a monoglot culture, treating classic plays in other languages as mere raw material for our own theatre.

I remembered that years ago, I had an argument with a friend on if Chinese people can understand Shakespeare. I thought he was being dismissive when he claimed that Chinese could not get Shakespeare. I told him that the very best Shakespeare theater experiences I ever had was a magnificent King Lear in Manchurian Shenyang, China in 1980s. I was also pride in having read all the dramatic works by Shakespeare. Or sort of. At the time I was reading him, I was in middle school therefore I only read translation done in 1930s!

Chinese can get the essence and spirit of Shakespeare for sure but much of the poetry would have lost in translation for sure, no matter how faithful the translator had been.

One thing I was sure was that that particular translator did not dare to tinker with the dramatic contour. In general, the quality of translation in then China was good. The proof was that almost all translated literature didn't read like written in colloquial Chinese. The structure of sentences were maintained as much as possible. Reading translated literature were usually treated as serious lessons other than entertainment the British and American reader or theater goers demand now.

I have repeated fretted over the bad translations we got in my previous blogs: Scrupulous Germans? Nein!, Art of Translation, Lost in Translation, and The Arabian Nights, Fairy Tales of Brothers Grimm and Anderson.

It is a sad fact that readers of translated literature didn't get our respect, with few exceptions such as the wonderful translator team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

My advise: Try to understand great works in its original languages, otherwise, prepare to be fooled.

Limelight / 聚光燈 / Rampenlicht
Limelight © Matthew Felix Sun

No comments:

Post a Comment