Last year we attended International Translation Day, organised by two of our partners – English PEN and the British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT). In a session titled ‘Crossing Borders’ Sasha Dugdale (translator, reviewer, poet, and editor of Modern Poetry in Translation) spoke about her experience of translating plays from a Russian idiom into a British one. The talk was excellent and we wanted to hear more. In this piece Sasha comments on the ‘infinitesimal choices’ she is compelled to make in any translation, and specifically when translating Russian verbatim theatre.
I began translating – as I suspect other translators do – in necessity. In my case there were Russian contemporary plays to translate for a Royal Court theatre seminar in Moscow at the end of the 1990s – and no one to translate them. I took up my pen reluctantly and I have not put it down since. The plays I began with were radical in the sense that their existence was a challenge to the theatrical establishment: they were filled with the contemporary scenarios and taboo language which were not permitted in the grand repertory theatres and they had a rawness and energy which was not hard to communicate in English. Britain had already experienced the in-yer-face drama of the earlier 1990s and understood this Russian new writing to be something similar. Often the parallels were drawn between this new Russian generation and the generation of ‘angry young men’ in the 1950s who founded the Royal Court. The English language had no trouble therefore in accommodating the spoken word of these plays, even if the situations in the plays and the emotional responses to these situations often felt other to British ears.
The use of a British urban language in my translation had an effect on the audience’s reception of the plays. Some theatre-goers and critics responded to the ‘kitchen sink’ nature of plays by Vasily Sigarev, without noticing the artifice, the metaphorical nature of the play, the elements of fantasy and whimsy. They saw the dreary post-Soviet landscape, so beloved of documentary makers and photographers, and they chose to admit that, rather than anything more peculiar, original or individual. I felt uncomfortable about this because I had made decisions in my translations which certainly made such readings possible. The English vernacular of the plays had powerful associations in British culture. I am not sure I could have acted differently – when I tried a more neutral language it seemed to betray the rawness of the Russian. But whatever tone or language we choose for a translation, cultural and social associations will follow.
As the writing in Russia changed to accommodate the changing reality of Russia in the 1990s and 2000s, young writers began practising a genre called ‘verbatim’. ‘Verbatim’ is a term for material based on interviews, gathered and edited according to certain principles. But in Russia the attraction of verbatim was that it allowed writers to reflect exactly what was happening around them and the young writers travelled round Russia, to Murmansk after the Kursk submarine tragedy, to visit conscripts who had been in Chechnya, prisoners and mothers of missing soldiers to gather material.
This work became known as ‘documentary theatre’ and ‘documentary theatre’ as a term soon grew to encompass much of the new writing work, from pure verbatim to more traditional plays set within the realities of contemporary Russia. I translated a number of documentary pieces, including September.doc, a piece made from internet forum discussions of the Beslan massacre. Documentary theatre can be powerful and instructive in the right hands and this piece was important. It contrasted the texts of pro-Russian, anti-Islam commentators and pro-Chechen or Ossetian commentators. The racism and invective on both sides was shocking and inflammatory, to the extent that even translating the words felt foul and depressing. The experiences of Russian Mujahideen in the Caucasus wars of the late 1990s were the first accounts I had heard of a jihadist phenomenon which was to sweep Europe.
Translating the Uprising
When the Maidan uprising happened last year in Kiev a group of Ukrainian writers turned to verbatim to record their own part in the uprising and what they were witnessing. The resulting material was edited by playwright Natalya Vorozhbyt and director Andrei May. I translated this work for the Royal Court.
“Then those Policemen ran off and a new lot came and started hitting me… I managed to save my face because I fell on my right side and covered my face and my head with my hands, but they hit me so hard that this hand… I couldn’t move it, and my fingers wouldn’t move at all… They carried on beating me, they beat me really hard, until I stopped moving.”
(Maidan Diaries, 2014)
I have doubts about the translation of verbatim theatre and I’d like to discuss them here. Verbatim is speech, it is characterised by natural speech rhythms and syntax, hesitations, mistakes and repetitions. Some of it doesn’t make sense, or it makes sense when accompanied by gesture and eye contact and a common understanding in the space between interlocutors. Verbatim reproduces speech as if we are hearing it on a news report. Clearly it is theatre, and mostly we can tell watching it that it has been edited and we know that it is read by an actor in an artificial space and context. But we still trust the language as being free from artifice.
There are numerous infinitesimal choices which we make as we translate, and many of them are dictated by our sense of a character and what he or she would say. When I translate I try to observe, first and foremost, speech rhythm. Often the rhythm seems to convey more of a character than the actual content of the speech. Of course mostly rhythm and content go hand-in-hand, and there is no conflict, but occasionally I will depart from a literal meaning to convey something more strikingly ‘true’ in the rhythmic utterance.
I also work at finding each character a tone and an individual voice in English, which means making some conclusions about the characters and what sort of a person would be a good ‘equivalent’ in English. In the short text above, for example, the Russian is not polished, or particularly refined in its vocabulary – an ordinary young man is retelling his extraordinary experiences of being beaten by the Berkut (special police). So, to give a couple of tiny examples, I have used ‘a new lot’ to refer to the new wave of police bearing down on them which better conveys the spoken everyday nature of the language, although a literal translation here would be ‘the next ones’, and I have recreated the slightly broken nature of the sentences, the small digression about his hand, where clearly he must hold his hand up to indicate it, but the English ‘brokenness’ is necessarily slightly different to the Russian. I notice that I have repeated ‘move’ in the sentence about his hand (‘I couldn’t move it, and my fingers wouldn’t move at all’), to intensify the sense of rhetorical strain and lack of vocabulary, although in the Russian he uses different words for fingers and hand. Tiny things, but aggregated they make for profound differences. I have, at some point in the process of translation, decided how this man will sound in English, and that decision has lit my way like a torch.
When the audience hears voice in a verbatim play they imagine they are hearing a ‘real’ voice, a real and unmediated experience. In fact the truth is that the translator takes the elements of speech, blows them apart and then reassembles them so the truth ‘at the heart of them’ is conveyed, the truth of the person I see standing before me. I liken this process to a Cubist painter who reassembles a visual truth as a highly mediated composition. The difference between audience understanding and the process of translation is complicated and so is rarely explained, but in the case of verbatim this is awkward, as the piece is often (as Maidan was) seeking to persuade us of the truth of a situation. The hall of mirrors that is literary translation is best kept out of sight.
The reason to translate verbatim pieces is clear: they are revelatory and they allow us to identify with peoples and situations around the world which would otherwise be beyond our understanding. I want to be able to speak about the processes by which these works reach us.