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It Ain't English:Reflections on Staging Original American Plays in Britain
By Jeff Johnson..The Global Guy..page2
In another case, I was directing "As You like It" with a group of native Danish speaking students at the University of Aalborg. They had all learned English in different countries, so they all had different accents - regional American, Euro-English, Australian, Queen's English. But some had studied in Ireland and Scotland, so their accents were what we call heavy. And this one young woman had studied in Glasgow, and had a boyfriend from the Highlands, yet, as is common with many people who speak English as a second language, she could not hear how broad her accent was. After some preliminary readings, during which I couldn't understand a word she said, I finally had her read the part of the country girl who in the end marries Touchstone. Her famous line "I'm not a slut" was perfect.
Denmark was also where I first encountered the problems associated with having an original play translated. Working with the translator turned out to be easier than I imagined, mainly because with this particular play I had three factors in my favor: the play was a short one-act, it was more allegorical than naturalistic, therefore more "open" for interpretation of setting and characterization, and, correlative to the second point, it lacked a localized field of reference, making the context portable. Still, the little things caused the most trouble, beginning with the title. "Streetdate" translated to "A Date in the Street" - the street in the Danish title referring to a famous strip of bars in Aalborg, where the play was staged, adding a fortuitous local resonance that gave meaning to an otherwise impossible allusion. Also, the names of the characters were signicant beyond their denotative functions. One male character preferred to be addressed formally as Wallace, but the others in the play ridiculed him by calling him Wally. A female character, Mary Beth, thought her name too country and wanted to be called Edie, a name she found glamorous. Another male character was named Spike, an overt sexual innuendo, ironic because of his impotency. Finding equivalent names in Danish to convey the same sense in English became a chore, resolved finally by using local names which could only approximate the more universal meanings implied in the original text.
To return to the point, transferring an original American play into a British arena can be trickier than actually having one translated. Reworking a play into a foreign language implies restructuring the cultural context, which, paradoxically, liberates the text: an "accurate" translation often requires a complete retooling of the language and the situation to fit a specific cultural field, especially in drama, given the fleeting nature of dialogue which does not enjoy the elucidation (or encumbrance) of footnotes, glossaries or explanatory digressions. As a rule of thumb, the more neutral the surface action, the less difficult the recontextualization. For example, a non-verbal play is fairly universal, so requires little if any restructuring or "translating." Likewise, a verbal play with an abstract field - say, "Waiting for Godot" - also lends itself to a fairly easy adaptation into different languages, the main difficulty arising in the jokes and wordplay. The problems increase as the field becomes more culturally dependent, the language more localized, the characters more naturalistic, the references more familiar. Albee's "The Sandbox," for instance, could be staged with only minor tinkering whereas his "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" may require a taxing rework of the original script. (I saw a production in Budapest entitled "Who Fears the Wolf?" and it was as if the audience saw another play based on Albee's.)