Heldenplatz (Arcola Theatre 12/2/10) 14 February 2010

I've always wondered what goes on in the mind of a translator. Not so much the translators that immediately translate conversations from person to person but those employed to translate a literary piece of work from one language to another. Do they intend to keep the English version as close to the original as possible or do they translate the essence for the original into a work that's accessible to English speaking audiences? Either way, I find translations problematic. I can usually tell it something was originally in a different language, as there is usually a stilted quality about it, an English as a second language quality about it. There's nothing wrong with that but there are always elements that are either lost in translation or remain obscure to the likes of me unless I've done some proper research in advance.

All of these issues lie at the heart of Heldenplatz. It's very evident during the first long, almost monologue (clocking in at close to an hour). As the play takes place in Austria and is addressing social and political issues within the country, it makes numerous references to specific locations and buildings. Without any knowledge of these places and buildings I could only guess at what the characters were on about. Add to that very mannered and stilted dialogue and you have what I found to be an impenetrable play.

Before I go any further I have to confess that I didn't buy a programme (which was also a play text) so I have absolutely no idea who played who or what the characters names were. For the record here are the actors:

Hannah Boyde, Paul Brightwell, Daniel Curshoen, Andrew Hawkins, Caroline Horton, Petra Markham, Barbara Marten, Jane Maud, Clive Mendus and Holly Strickland.

Also, I think it fair to give you the description (from the leaflet):

'Heldenplatz by Thomas Bernhard
Translated by Meredith Oakes and Andrea Tierney
Directed by Annie Castledine and Annabel Arden

Austria, 1988. For the Schuster family - intellectual, Jewish, Viennese to the core - the country remains as uninhabitable as it was when they fled in 1938. Forty years on from World War ll, irrational hatred, neurosis and decadence still reign.

Bernhard explore the shared isolation of people who have lost their bearings along with the most of their illusions. Condemned in his homeland when it was first released, the play delves deep into Austria's historic alliance, exposing the right-wing sensibilities of some of the country's most prominent citizens,'

Without going into too much depth, the play is divided into three sections. In the first are we encounter two female maids in the household of the recently deceased boss - the Professor. The elder speaks to the other about the Professor and her life with him. He seemed to have hated almost everything and was always torn between a home in what I think is the name of a place and not a household in Vienna (and funny enough even after having it repeated at least, no exaggeration, a hundred times during the course of the evening I still can't remember the name - the word 'Ibuprofen' always comes to mind) and Oxford in London. That wasn't a metaphor by the way, but how the name translated phonetically in my mind.

Also repeated was the fervidly polishing of the Professors many, many pairs of shoes by the younger maid and the ironing of a shirt by the older maid while discussing how the Professor liked his shirts to be ironed. The shirt would get folded, continuing with how the Professor liked his shirts to be folded and then the maid would shake the shirt out, iron it again, then fold it again... you get the picture. What else were they talking about? That there were still Nazis in Vienna after all this time and that it's difficult to know who to trust.

Scene two - three more people, two women and an older man, who are also throwing Viennese names around so I had to guess that the two women were mother and daughter as they were always referring to father and grandfather. I finally figured out they were sisters and the old man with then was their Uncle, the brother of the deceased. They basically talked about the same things covered in the first part.


Scene three - the meal after the funeral. Everyone from the first act plus some additions were in attendance. The maids set the table and their presence upsets the equilibrium a little (evidently, the elder female maid was left one of the Professor's houses in his will and the fact he had a will was a surprise to many). The discussion? Pretty much the same as in the first half - with the mention of 'ibuprofen' so many times, a friend and myself had to stifle giggles. The Professor's wife comes in, making a mini scene, she hears the sounds of the Nazis in Heldenplatz square (which their home overlooks) then abruptly dies in her soup.

End of play.

Imagine sitting in a pub in a Country you know little about with a few people you don't really know but who know each other very well. These people have a few issues they feel passionate about, mainly dealing with relatives and their fellow Countrymen. Over the course of the evening they have quite a few pints, loosening them up a bit, and the passionate topics of conversation get more intense. After the fifth pint and the umpteenth time around the subjects at hand your initial interest in trying to decode their conversation begins to wane as you discover they are just covering the same ground, over and over. That's how I felt during the performance. It was interesting to watch in the beginning, but then after hearing the same thing five, six, seven times I lost interest and began thinking of ways to make it shorter.

As you can probably tell, I didn't get very much out of it. I get the feeling this play is very much in a German tradition of playwriting of some sort. For me it had echos of Chekhov and I think there were echos of other literary traditions that I just didn't get.

Finally, the translation. Going back to what I said in the beginning, it seemed that the translators were very faithful to the original German. Was that wise? For me no. Or possibly yes. It depends on the audience. I guess there would have been only two choices in the matter - translate it as faithfully as possible or throw in a few things that would make it more understandable to the layman. Either way I feel to fully enjoying Heldenplatz would have required a good knowledge of Vienna, it's history, some German, classic literature and drama on a semi academic or 'really a big fan' level, or extensive notes in a programme. I don't really think that much studying should be done to enjoy a play unless the evening is being promoted as a form of theatre new to these shores. If the latter were true you would know what you were letting yourself in for and would take tit upon yourself to get clued up before attending. Otherwise, you could be, like me a little lost in translation.


peony said...

It's never the translator's decision, is it?... or maybe hardly ever! And so much depends on target audience and how close the languages are to each other.... The author's opinion being extremely important as well--
translators don't usually get to call the shots!

I worked on a novel translation (romance novel) and basically was given so much freedom that I re-wrote entire chapters... for example, the Japanese started with a string of a dozen poems and I had confidence that that would ever work in English for that kind of work so was asked to entirely re-write... but I have also worked on poetry translations of poems that are so famous that there is no way I could alter anything so what happened (and this is common, I think) is I read the original and then turned away from the Jpse and just wrote an english poem. However, I had to go back and check that all the jpse parts were available in the English translation.

It all depends....and theater is an entire different situation since it is a performance art.

This is such a personal preference thing but if it were me, I would have wanted all the historical background information in a pamphlet and have as close as possible a translation that made sense in english... and this is important, because we aren't talking about patents, the english should really stand on its own-- but that is a tall order.

If you are interested, I wrote these blog postings on the subject of translation as the slippery slope of doom (lol)




There is quite a bit in the "Heidegger's Translator" part of my blog... anyway talk to you on FB