Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Best Theatre Blog Writing of 2010

Kaite O'Reilly- Translating "the Persians"

In my review of the summer's stand-out production I gave more space to the language than other reviewers. “The first scene phrasing has a tautness and a glibness of language that has been honed through a government spin machine” was how I put it: “Failure is not in our language.” “Any doubt is traitor to our cause.” “Our boys” are “spiked for adventure”. With Xerxes’ brilliant crossing of his army over the Hellespont into Thrace the prospect for the Greeks is “as futile as fighting a hurricane.”

“...Metaphors are direct and short. “The bloom of the Persian land is gone.” “These are the thoughts that shroud my mind.” “We are trampled like grass. God’s heel has ground us down.” The text is not afraid to employ words of a period flavour if they fit the rhythm. “Behold” and “thereafter” both occur. Where modernity fits it is used. On the news of defeat the language is simply “It’s confirmed. The report’s accurate...Kaite O’Reilly has seeded her text cunningly but lightly. “We live now in a time of terror.” The Queen says “Cruel words for those sons serve overseas.”

The attention to the language was prompted by Kaite O’Reilly's commentary on the making of her new adaptation, easily the most illuminating writing to feature on the company's site in the year. The first entry appeared on 26th May. Its first paragraph starts with enthusiasm: “one of the most illuminating and exhilarating projects of my life.”

The process was dauntingly thorough. “...through my close reading of 23 translations, made across three centuries, I like to think I have a sense of the bass line – the original ‘voice’: These 23 voices were a composite passage to the work but also a sense of the dramatist. “Aeschylus, poet, philosopher, soldier-playwright, anti-warmonger, humanist...could have written a swaggering tale of victory, of the battle-prowess Greeks and their cunning and sacrifice to protect this early, emerging experiment in democracy. He could have written a xenophobic pageant of blood-lust and warriors, filled with self-congratulatory jingoism and gloating over the dead. Instead he chose to write a powerful anti-war play which painfully depicts the waste and agonies of conflict – the pity of war - written with fire and dignity from the point of view of the defeated”

The follow-up of June 2nd addresses wider issues in translation. Colin Teevan is quoted. “There is no exact correlation between languages. This process becomes even more difficult and contingent when you’re translating between times as well, there is no exact correlation between periods.” Even the term “translator” itself was in question. “I asked my agent to find some other term to describe my work other than a ‘translation’, which was the phrase in the paperwork. I don’t read ancient Greek, and as the American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf claimed more than half a century ago, a different language is a different reality.”

“During my musings about ‘translation’, ‘updating’ and ‘contemporary, new version’, I was distracted by an interview with the translator and dramatist Colin Teevan. He points out that the great Greek lexicon, the Liddel and Scott Dictionary, is itself a piece of Victorian writing and Liddel was part of the British colonial project attempting to equate Greek classics with British civilization.

“Therefore Teevan – a post-colonial Irishman working in the early Twenty-first century – has to translate from the ancient Greek into a Victorian English tainted with all the social and cultural associations entombed in that language, and then re-translate the Victorian English into a more contemporary idiom, before even beginning to think of his own interpretation.

“My job was trying to pick up the echo of the playwright through the medium of many existing English translations and ‘reworkings’, filled with the predilections, biases and values of the times the individual translators lived in. I read scripts where the expansionist Persian force was reinterpreted respectively as Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and Bush Senior and Junior. There was blood over land, blood over oil and a post-apocalyptic Twenty second century version with blood over water.

“There was slang (sadly no longer contemporary or intelligible – a lesson for writers, there), rhyming couplets, heroic hexameter, and complex poetic schemas which failed to keep my interest. I tried to read the farce with songs, but there’s a limit even to my love of research. I soon settled into reading direct translations rather than these ‘reworkings’, which are multiple..

“The issue that became very present as I read these translations (and surely the first that crossed the translators’ minds, as it was the first to cross mine when I was considering the commission) was: Why re-make this now? What is happening socially or culturally to warrant – or demand – a ‘new’ version? What might be the audiences’ reason for engaging with this?

“I read Victorian versions stiff with flounces and patriotic, indigestible poetry foreshadowing the death of Empire; post-dramatic versions where the language was so spare, it was all but flayed from the body of the original narrative; and brave Modernist inter-war versions, descrying war whilst anticipating another. I began to pay attention to the year the translation was made in order to comprehend the socio-political times in which it was written.

“What became apparent very quickly was the sense of a long line of practitioners who had, over the ages, thrown their hat into the ring and made ‘their’ version of this great classic, informed, if not provoked, by the age through which they lived. There was always something that warranted a new translation or production of this particular play – invariably the anticipation of, the participation in, the protesting against, or the recovery from a long, bloody, and in many cases, unnecessary conflict.

“In this sense although I agree in principle with Teevan’s assertion that “there is no exact correlation between periods”, during my reading I had a constant sense of déjà vu, with each writer responding to their own times with the ageless story of “the Persians”. It was also humbling to sense this rope of ‘new’ versions reaching back to the first millennia BCE, and strangely emotional to think that in my own small way, I would be joining it.”

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
20 December 2010


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