By Dimitris Psarrás*
In a previous article entitled “Palimpsest, or The Art of Saying Almost The Same Thing,” I offered my first reflections on the work of translators―especially those translating for the theater. This time, I'll go deeper into the subject and try to explore translating for the theater in general lines.
For a start, I would like to define more precisely what translation is. We can say that translating is being aware of the system that controls two languages, as well as the structure of the text you're translating. From then on, a translator's mission is to copy such structure, but using the other language system, so as to make readers experience the same feelings while reading the translation at an emotional, phonological, and structural sense.
We could compare translating for the theater to an enormous labyrinth, inside which the translator is trapped. When you think you've found a good way out, at the same moment you're about to yell “Eureka,” you realize you got yourself lost again. You must find firm answers in a wave of doubt, which will bring about yet more doubts and so on and so forth... Until you finally deliver your translation with one great doubt in your mind.
When translating for the theater, translators live and breathe the world that surrounds that work. It is a journey down a world that reveals itself right in front of your eyes. You can see images and experience smells and sounds right next to the characters. Translators identify themselves with the work and use their five senses to “assemble” a play and “act” in it. You laugh at what's funny, you cry when something brings tears to your eyes, you hear characters whispering in your year, you imagine actors acting, you feel the rhythm...
One of the main elements when it comes to translating for the theater is knowing how words are pronounced, how the text will sound to a speaker of that target language. It's about the affection certain words are able to bring with them and the feelings they might awaken in the audience.
When you translate for the theater, the voice and the dialogue are brought to life in your mind and the weight of each word torments you constantly. In order to translate in an efficient way, you must place each sentence in a truthful scenario, imagining them spoken by a native speaker of the target language. That is the only way you can hear what the sentence sounds like and, consequently, calculate its weight and connotations.
Then again, if we wish to illustrate what translating for the theater means, we could put it on a scale. On one side, we put the sentence, the image from the original text. On the other side, we go through our cultural resources in the target language to find a counterweight that is susceptible to balancing the scale once again.
Translators must scan the four corners of their minds, go through their encyclopedia-like knowledge, recall all their human experiences―both the ones they have lived in their own skin, as well as those experiences that came to them through books, newspapers, narrations, magazines, movies, etc.
They must analyze the sentences, the words, and the logic behind dialogs while keeping in mind the period in time when the story is taking place, the social status of each character, the relationship between them, the ideological profile and objectives of each character... And translators do it all with the purpose of making sure that scenes will sound and flow naturally.
In theater, each punctuation, each pause―either short or long―is a conscious decision made by the author, which turns into a conscious decision by the director when it's time to guide the actors who will embody each character. Consequently, when a play is translated into another language, it's the translator's job to make a conscious decision in order to successfully translate that original conscious decision made by the author into the target language. This way, the director and the actors of the translated text will be able to make their own decisions.
I could provide many more examples to shed some light on the process of translating for the theater. However, an article like this isn't the best medium to detail all dimensions pertaining to the art of translating for the theater. It would take a doctoral thesis, perhaps. What I can firmly state is that translating for the theater is a path full of obstacles, but also full of satisfaction!
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in Spanish at Artezblai.com
DIMITRIS PSARRÁS studied Translation and Interpreting at the Montpellier III Paul Valéry and March Bloch Universities in France. He is fluent in French, Spanish, Catalan, English, and Greek―his native language. He has worked as a translator and interpreter at the Cervantes Institute in Athens and the Ramon Llull institute in Barcelona, as well as the Thessaloniki International Movie Festival in Greece. He has also contributed with several Greek publishers and different translation and interpreting agencies both in Greece and abroad. With María Jatziemanuíl, he founded TeatroPasion.es, a website dedicated to theater in Spain and Latin America. He has translated 25 plays from Spanish, Catalan, and French to Greek, many of which have been seen in theaters in Greece and Cyprus. Additionally, he has translated Greek works into Spanish and Catalan. He is a member of the International Theater Institute (ITI).