One curiosity of the theater – though it is being seen more and more in film as well – is a script that has been translated from another language. When we watch a play in translation, whether it’s one of the recent runs of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya that have come through DC or a 2000 year-old Oedipus, we aren’t watching the real, original thing. We see the play through the lens of the translator, who interprets and alters to fit the play to their vision of how it should be.
To find out more about his new translation of Jean Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot which opens this week at WSC Avant Bard, I got on the phone with Laurence Senelick who may be one of the sharpest and smartest theater professionals I’ve ever interviewed.
Alan Katz: So, Laurence, what do you do?
Laurence Senelick: I’m the Fletcher Professor of Drama and Oratory at Tufts University, basically a theatre historian, a translator, and actor, a director, and also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
AK: lots of different hats?
LS: Oh, yes, all of the above.
AK: Despite the age of this play, the content and social issues involved in your new translation of Madwoman of Chaillot, feels fresh and really present.
LS: The playwright, Jean Giraudoux, died in the mid-1940’s, but he was already concerned about the industrialization of the modern age. He was a poet who was nostalgic for humane cultural values that were being forced out by commercialization, by industrialization, by international greed. It was very perceptive of him to be aware of these things before this age, where they’ve become immense and monstrous. So the basic concept of the play is that you have a bunch of crooks, who are nobility, who represent the stock exchange and major industry, all kinds of exploitation companies (the critical word being exploitation there). They see Paris as simply an oil field that can be taken advantage of. Paris represents Giraudoux’s humane cultural values. The Madwoman, because she’s mad and doesn’t subscribe to any kind of rationality, represents the potential triumph of the human spirit when it’s not constrained, but goes by its sentiments. Essentially, it’s a fable or a fairy tale.
But Giraudoux is no Brecht. He’s not a political dramatist telling you to ponder these questions and decide on a course of action. He certainly doesn’t tell you to build barricades or go to the stock market and shoot everybody. What he gives us is a poetic praise of the human spirit being able to overcome what seems to be encroaching on our lives from every direction.
AK: I want to know about your translation of Madwoman which opens here this week, but first take us back a little in time first. What got you started translating?
LS: As I tell my students when I’m persuading them to learn foreign languages, it was not to be lied to. That is, when I really started studying plays seriously and reading other people’s translations, I began to wonder: where is the quality of these plays? They’re supposed to be great poetic tragedies or a very funny comedy, and this wasn’t coming across. I was majoring in comparative literature, so as I began to study languages, I rapidly discovered that the originals were a great deal more interesting than the published translations.
So I started translating myself. While I was still in undergrad, I translated and directed a one act play by Georges Feydeau, which was a huge hit. And I never stopped. I decided that if I was going to direct a play, I would have to learn it by translating it. Now, I read about 9 languages, so it isn’t too hard.
AK: Impress me with the list!
LS: French, German, Italian, Russian, Classical Greek, Dutch, Spanish, Polish, and English!
AK: What appeals to you about translating from French into English?
LS: French is a language that keeps control of itself. At least until relatively recently. It’s governed by strict laws of grammar and syntax. Traditionally, it went for a somewhat limited vocabulary, compared to the exuberant baroque vocabulary of English. So in bringing it across, one wants to keep the logical structure of the language, but at the same time, imbue it with a kind of color that will appeal to an English speaking ear. Which is a rather odd image, but you know what I mean.
THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT
June 4 – 28
Gunston Arts Center
2700 S. Lang Street
Thursdays thru Sundays
Tickets: PWYC Thursdays and Saturday matinees; $30 – $35 all others
Tickets or call 703 418 4808
AK: I’m sure the French Surrealists would approve. What about Madwoman?
LS: As a high school student in Chicago, we were taken to Northwestern to see a production of Madwoman, and I fell in love with the play! A very strong production, beautifully costumed. I thought it was a great play. But I didn’t realize at the time that I wasn’t watching the original play, but Maurice Valency’s version of it. Later, I read the play in his English version. Then I came across a back issue of Theater Arts magazine in which the critic Eric Bentley pointed out how Valency had travestied the original play. He compared a very important speech at the end of Act I in a literal translation with what Valency had done, saying it was, well, inadequate. That made me read it in French.
When I read it, I saw that it was a totally different play in many respects. But I didn’t try to translate it then. The problem was that Valency, who was a professor at Columbia University, was commissioned to do the translation for the production which ran from 1948-1950 on Broadway. Essentially, he took Giraudoux’s play and tailored it to the taste of Broadway audiences in the late 40’s and 50’s. The kind of audience that had very low patience for listening to rhetoric or poetry, that was rather sentimental and didn’t want to hear anything that was cynical or overtly sexual. Because it had been the Broadway production, he managed to garner the rights, so that it was the only version that could be done in the English-speaking world. That’s why there were no other translations.
AK: That seems ironic, given the content of the play…
LS: Exactly, it’s a play against proprietorship! But that was Valency’s way of planting a flag and getting very good royalties, because Madwoman was done all the time by regional and college theaters, always his version.
It wasn’t until a few years ago, when a colleague of mine at Tufts who has a great interest in ecology saw Madwoman as an ecological play, and asked me to translate it afresh. So I did, but I couldn’t publish it until the 70 year period after Giraudoux’s death (2014).
We have in this country a Congress that is constantly trying to increase the amount of time before a work becomes public domain, so works continually remain in private ownership, usually of heirs that had no hand in the creation of the work to begin with. I think it’s a great abuse to the spread of culture, but there you go…
AK: Is that something that’s holding the theater back?
LS: I don’t know if it’s holding the theater back, but it is holding back the general diffusion of works that would be of interest to audiences who don’t read the original languages.
AK: Now that the 70 years have passed, do you think Giraudoux will enjoy a resurgence?
LS: I would hope so. When I was growing up, Giraudoux and Anouilh were the two leading French dramatists in the world. Everyone did their works; you couldn’t get away from it! Nowadays on the American stage, very few foreign plays are done.
The thing about Giraudoux which some people might find off-putting is that he is a poetic dramatist. Not in the sense of lyrical poetry, but that he is in love with language. His characters often speak very rhetorically. You need actors who are capable of getting that across, but most modern actors aren’t trained for that. They’re trained in a neo-Realist manner, with short phrases, the colloquial language we all speak. Even if that language is highly stylized (like in David Mamet’s work). When you see a speech that goes on for a page and a half, you need an actor who can really make that work. Like an aria.
In the opening of Madwoman you have a couple of monologues by the villains of the play. Each does this in a long, convoluted speech. A funny way to open a play, which a lot of people would find hard to take. Need I say that in Maurice Valency’s version, all those speeches are cut, either to the bone or entirely.
It’s a major problem with adaptations and translations today. When an author is thorny or difficult or creates an idiosyncratic language, the translator will often iron out the wrinkles. But that makes it bland, and easy for the audience. It doesn’t challenge the audience’s ear, or even [challenge them] at all. But Madwoman does. In other respects, it’s a very contemporary play.
This is part of the problem of translation. You want to make it sound fresh, have a modern audience follow it. But you don’t want to update it to the degree that you lose the flavor of the period.
I trust the author. If they’ve suddenly done something funny with the grammar or story logic, I don’t feel I have to correct the author. Imagine if someone translated Mamet into standard French. You’d lose all the flavor! You have to find a French equivalent for a very idiosyncratic language. A language that no one in America actually speaks, even though it’s made up of familiar phrases, but the phrases are orchestrated in such a way so that people can point to it and say, “That’s Mamet!” It’s the same thing with Chekhov, the same with Giraudoux, the same with any great dramatist. They’ve created their own language. My job as a translator is to convey the idiosyncrasy of that language. This isn’t Berlitz.
AK: So you aren’t really translating French, you’re translating Giraudoux?
AK: What are things like going forward for you?
LS: I’ve got another translation coming out this year; it’ll be of August Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata, probably coming out in the fall from Broadway Play Publishing.
AK: That’s one of his less done works, right?
LS: Yes, its one of the late chamber plays, but I think it’s one of of his best. A kind of dream play…
AK: I look forward to it! And I’m looking forward to seeing your translation of Madwoman of Chaillot!
“Four eccentric women and their outrageous street friends conspire to save the world from rapacious capitalists. The classic French comedy is a fable for our times in the professional premiere of a new English translation that gives the 99% their due. Vive la résistance! #OccupyChaillot!”
The Madwoman of Chaillot runs June 4 – 28, 2015 at Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang Street, Arlington, VA. Details and tickets.