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10 November 2008updated 22 Jul 2021 11:30am

Translating Lorca

The difficult line of transforming a play from one language to another continues to challenge and so

By Ruth Collins

Bringing the work of legendary Spanish playwright Federico García Lorca to the stage is much more than simply making appropriate lexical choices, but how do we translate Lorca?

In short, it’s not an easy task. Much of Lorca’s work is saturated by strong imagery. For the translator, the cultural resonances associated with such imagery may seem completely unfathomable to foreign audiences. This was demonstrated when the first ever translation, Blood Wedding, Lorca’s arguably most translated (and so his most famous) work, was virtually laughed off stage.

In the cultural setting of 1930s America, José Weissberger’s attempts to translate the play’s floral imagery were caustically derided as ‘verbal gardening’― the language was awkward and stilted and the audience certainly weren’t buying it.

David Johnston, Professor of Hispanic Studies at Queen’s University Belfast and renowned Spanish expert and theatre translator, recently translated two of Lorca’s plays: The House of Bernarda Alba, commissioned by the Belgrade and Play Without a Title for Fail Better Productions.

For Johnston, theatre translation is a lengthy process involving much drafting, redrafting, discussion― and debate ― between the translator, director and the actors, to strike the right balance. For Bernarda Alba Johnston and director Gadi Roll went through nine or ten drafts ‘…of different Bernarda Albas and it was a case of picking and choosing what worked on stage for this particular performance.’ The final production is very stylised. Yet rather than departing from his original vision and Lorca’s original text, Johnston considers that he and Roll created a production which works well because it avoids falling into the trap of trying to localise or foreignise the performance. Instead, they ensure that ‘The spectator’s imagination is located precisely where it should be … in the theatre.’

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Jonathan Heron, director of Johnston’s new translation of the rarely translated (and so rarely performed) Play Without a Title, described bringing a translation to life in the theatre as “a process of thinking about what a work of performance can do for a text and allowing the text to breathe.”

The production, performed superbly by students from Warwick University, illustrates a keen awareness of the themes and concerns which are inherent within the play, those of revolution, reality and illusion and the desire to create living and breathing theatre which really resonates with el pueblo. Aided by the innovative staging, the audience witnesses the action from the side as Jay Saighal, who plays The Director, continues to waver between the stage and backstage, effectively highlighting his character’s sense of frustration and predicament.

In The House of Bernarda Alba, the stark austerity of the metallic walls creates a barren, clinical and hostile environment. Hostility exudes from the staging and the girls’ charged dialogue generates an atmosphere of resentment and frustration which really oozes out of the performance. Chairs, as in Johnston’s 2003 production of Blood Wedding with Belfast’s Bruiser Theatre Company, are innovatively used to stage the action and become an integral part of the chorographical framework. Here the actresses are forced to perch on them awkwardly, awaiting Bernarda’s next command. This is not a production for the fainthearted, says Johnston, but ought to be ‘… a difficult night in the theatre’, with the audience duly assimilating the characters’ sense of discomfort. Yet as the first scene expertly demonstrates, the chairs can also be used to provide a sense of catharsis. There is something undeniably humorous about the awkward silence at the beginning of the play, as eighteen women dressed in black sit in rigidly formed rows, facing the audience, one by one whipping out their fans in the quintessential Spanish fashion. Johnston indicates that these points of catharsis show the strength of Lorca’s writing and heighten the emotional intensity of the performance for the audience, enabling them ‘to blend out of the tension and then go back into it and really take it on board.’

So have we learnt how to translate Lorca for the stage? In one sense, a stage production of a translated work can be described as creating, not simply a translation, but a version of a play. Irish poet Brendan Kennelly, who also brought a production of Blood Wedding to Newcastle Playhouse in 1996, avidly favoured the term ‘version-maker’ to translator. And certainly, these productions have undoubtedly succeeded in creating compelling versions of Lorca’s plays. Yet these are only two interpretations, many others are possible and many translators and practitioners will continue to try and bring the playwright’s words viscerally and vividly into the realm of performance. So, what will they try next? The Public anyone?

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