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Translation of Drama: A Study of “Stepmother” by Rudolf Sloboda

Reid E.

Constantine the Philosopher University in Nitra (Slovakia)

Literature and literary texts are very closely connected with culture and cultural identity of a particular nation. With the aim to survive and spread culture, literary translation has a very important role. Bassnett expressed very eloquently the importance of translating literature: “Literary exchange is made possible through translation, and translation has so often provided necessary impetus for literary innovation. We may ask ourselves, where Shakespeare would have been had there not been so much translation activity” [Bassnett 1997: 33]. Translating poetry has the highest status of literary translation and far less time has been spent on translating dramatic texts. Dramatic texts cannot be translated in the same way as the prose texts, though the translation process is often carried out as translating prose. Theatre texts must be approached as a fully rounded unit and it is impossible to separate texts from performance. Sometimes there is an artificial distinction created between the two. They cannot be separated, because it is only in a performance that the full potential of the text is realized. Veltruský claims, that the relationship between the dialogue and the extra-linguistic situation is intense and reciprocal [Veltruský 1994]. The actual sense of individual units of meaning depends as much on the extra-linguistic situation as on the linguistic context. Corrigan believes that at all times the translator must hear the voice that speaks and take into account the gesture of the language, rhythm and pauses that occur when the written text is spoken [Corrigan 1961].

Drama translation, in general, considers non-verbal, verbal and cultural aspects as well as staging problems and must be actable and speakable. Translating drama faces more difficulties than any other literary genre, because it must consider semantic as well as cultural, historical and socio-political aspects and also the form-content dichotomy. Zuber expresses that “not only the meaning of a word or sentence must be translated, but also the connotations, rhythm, tone and rhetorical level, imaginary and symbols of association” [Zuber 1979: 92]. Translating dramatic work from one language into another means transferring the text and cultural background, so it can be actable on the stage. The audience must be able to understand it immediately and directly. Translation of a play requires more consideration of non-verbal and non-literary aspects than does the translation of novels or poetry [Tabačková 2012; 2013]. Aplay depends on additional elements, such as movements, gestures, postures, mimicry, speech rhythms, intonations, music and other sound effects, lights, stage scenery and the immediate impact on the audience. Most dramatists do not intend to write literature, they are writing for actors. Consequently, the translator of a play should not merely translate words and their meanings but produce speakable and performable translations. In a translation process it is necessary for a translator to mentally direct, act and see the play at the same time [Zuber 1979].

There are two opposed ways of approach to the literary translation:

1. Method of alienation, or the source-language oriented method – where the translator tries to retain the faithfulness of the original text;

2. Method of adaptation, or the target-language oriented method – where the translator tries to adapt the translated text to the reader, his culture and time. There are three methods of adaptation: elimination (deletion, omission), substitution (for example a lexical substitution of an old word for a newer one, or a difficult word for an easier one), alteration (morphological, syntactical change) [Orvig 1978].

Newmark’s approach to the literary translation is closer to the alienation method, but in some cases he suggests to use the adaptation method [Newmark 1997]. He claims that the more seriously the literary text is, morally and aesthetically, the more accurately it should be translated, reflecting the thought, style, emphasis, rhythm and sound of the original. That a word repeated in the source language text, should be repeated, never replaced by a synonym, in the translation. Sound, linguistic rhythm, speech rhythms, colloquial language and linguistic innovations are fundamental factors in literary language and have to be recreated in the translation, sometimes at the cost of literal or denotative meaning.

My approach to literary translation was the alienation method, especially because of the importance of consideration of cultural specifics. The task of the translator is not to render his work so that it would become immediately familiar to his own people, but to maintain the strangeness or foreigness of the original work. The translation must be a discovery to the translator as well as to the readers or audience. The translators should not underestimate the readers and audience, their imagination and understanding for something new and strange. Translations can mediate new cultural knowledge, experience and can help to form people’s opinions on cultural matters. Adaptations concerning certain adjustments with the aim to make the play actable are sometimes necessary. Adaptations concerning morphological and syntactical changes, but also substitution and elimination of certain words are sometimes needed. Non-poetic, colloquial language and even slang or dialect words are used in dramatic texts. This kind of language might be used to keep characters as close as possible to reality, to localize the action and also to characterize the social status of the participants. The disadvantage of this kind of language is that it is prone to change, especially the slang terms and phrases [Horváthová 2014]. If the playwright tries to keep the language very close to reality, it can drift away from it in terms of time. To keep the intended closeness unspoiled, plays written in colloquial style or slang should be permanently translated to the correspondent language at the time of their performance [Corrigan 1961].

Great disadvantage of translating drama is that the translator is not the only and last author of the translated dramatic text. Drama is in a constant process of translation. According to Ferenčík the translator’s interpretation is only a basis for the final – stage interpretation [Ferenčík 1982]. The translator’s creative participation on the final version is much lower than that of a translator of other literary texts. He put in order the communicational process of drama translation: Author → Translator (interpret Nr. 1) → producer/director (interprets Nr. 2) → other participants: designers, actors (interprets Nr. 3) → audience (interprets Nr. 4). He remarks that this process does not show hierarchy of interpretations, but shows a process of development in terms of time. For this reason, it is necessary to translate the dramatic texts as closely as possible to the original, otherwise the interpretation by the last participant in the chain might be changed and deformed, and the original intention of the author can be lost or completely twisted. Cooperation of the stage interprets with the translator is advisable in this complicated process of drama interpretation.

The play I chose to translate is a timeless contemporary work written by Rudolf Sloboda in 1995, called “Stepmother”. The intention to translate a Slovak play was to help to promote Slovak culture, which I believe is rich and qualitatively comparable to any of the dominant cultures. I cooperated with a native English person with literary feelings with the aim to overcome the most crucial features of the play. The reason for translating “Stepmother” was the universality of the play. The main idea of good and evil and the fight between them is so universal that this play could be put to any stage and it would be still familiar to its audience. The basic dramatic conflict is a moral duality of the characters. On one hand, there is religious Zita, who is spontaneously protecting the helpless mentally ill girls – Martha, Sue and Ana. On the other hand, there are the real fathers – a businessman, priest and tailor, who abandoned their children and put them in the Mental Institution. Yet the fathers are show as the worst outcasts of the society, because they did not only abandon their daughters, but in the climax of the play they abused them. A typical characteristic present in Sloboda’s plays is the ironic and provocative element of devils – Lucifer in Hell and Reul on Earth, who constantly fight with God for the power over the humans. They are indeed nice devils executing justice. Finally, the fathers go to Hell and Reul infected by Zita’s goodness becomes a human being. There is a very little cultural background in this play that the foreign audience would find difficult to understand. The fact that the play is set in Slovakia, particularly in Bratislava can be educational.

The text of “Stepmother” is quite exceptional because different acts are written in different styles, with usage of different language. The source for this analysis is the second act of the play. It does not represent the main idea of the play, but it offers very good examples from the linguistic point of view. The second act takes place in the Mental Institution. The whole act is written to resemble the ordinary real-life talk with real-life characters in real-life situations. The main part of this act is a conversation between gentle Zita and her three adult adoptive daughters, who are mentally challenged. Because the girls are mentally disabled, their language is very simple and children like. Syntactic constructions are very peculiar too, because they do not follow the rules of standard Slovak. However, to mix up word order is a typical characteristic of children, and we must remember that the girls are mentally challenged and their language is limited as that of children. The vocabulary phrases and expressions they use is mostly common colloquial (mamička = mummy, zadunieť – rumble, Tak už pôjdem – Well, I´m off), but also special colloquial such as slang (huba – gob, lúza – rabble, obchyt-kávať – grope). Although they use very simple or bad syntactical constructions, colloquial words and expressions, they occasionally use intellectual words (preventivne – precautionally, famózne – fabulous), perhaps to manifest that they are adult and not stupid. The girls´ speech is always very dynamic and emotional. For example, frequent interruption of an utterance before it is completed indicates a moment of emotions. Usage of interjections (Bože môj – Oh my God, Mama, toto. . no toto – Mum, erm... erm) also indicates strong feelings and emotions. The aspect of emotion and power of short sentences and colloquial language is very important to retain in the translation.

The language of the second act is colloquial and children like language. I assumed that translation of this act would be difficult and my assumptions were proved right as I have realised that translating colloquial and children like language with maintaining the author´s concept is a very difficult task.

As was mentioned before, the syntactic constructions are peculiar and are not according to the rules of the Slovak language. The girls are mentally challenged with children like language and the typical characteristics of children like Slovak language is mixed up word order. This seems to be an easy and evident matter, but only up to the point when it comes to the translation. Since the English grammar does not have declination, the word order is strict and precise. Here is the untranslatable problem and that is to maintain the children like language, which is demonstrated in the original by the play with the word order. The untranslatability of the mixed up word order weakens the whole play. I tried to compensate the lost strength of the word order by applying some characteristics of the English children´s language. For example, the word “jelenčeky” should be correctly translated into “little deer”, but I have translated it into “little deers”, because it is a common mistake of English children.

The girls´ speech is very dynamic and emotional. Despite I could not carry the power of the syntactic constructions into my translation, I believe that I have managed to maintain the power of the short, dynamic and emotional sentences, for example: “Kto si nás všimne. Aj keby sme sa ako obliekli. ” – “Who would notice us, whatever we wore. ”; or “Nech ju šľak trafí. ” – “To Hell with her. ” In the second case I had to find an appropriate colloquial metaphor, which would be of a similar length and strength. There were a few metaphors, which I translated with the same approach, for example: “všetko pôjde ako po masle” – “everything will go like clockwork”.

Translation of colloquial phrases has to be done at the same colloquial and expressive level. A translator has to be familiar with the target language colloquial phrases, when he/she wants to translate them correctly. However, to find the right equivalents is not always easy. I have translated the Slovak common colloquial phrases “Tak ja pôjdem” and “Šťastlivú cestu” into the English common phrases “Well, I´m off now” and “Have a good journey”. Both phrases are colloquial, carry the same message and are of the same length. The colloquial greeting phrases, which Martha and Reul used when they first met were more difficult to translate: Martha: “Tak ako, pán doktor?” Reul: “Ujde to, a vy?” These phrases are not literary translatable into English, but can be substituted by colloquial equivalents with the same function: Martha: “All right, doctor?”, Reul: “Not so bad and you?”.

However, the power of the short dynamic sentences could not always be maintained and had to be substituted by longer sentences in order to keep the same meaning. For example a short expressions: “Len lekári nás občas prezrú hore, ale co z toho” or “On vôbec nevyzlieka” were translated into longer phrases: “Only doctors sometimes see us naked, but what do we get from that” and “He doesn´t want you to undress at all”. The Slovak phrase “te som nerozdala ani tisícinu” was translated to an English equivalent “I have given next to nothing away yet”. The Slovak expression “tisícina” is perfectly translatable into the English “a thousandth”, but since the literal translation does not carry the same meaning, the common English phrase with similar meaning was used.

There were present two words, which might be symbols for the society. In order to keep the function, adaptation of equivalent English symbols had to be used. The first one “studnička”: Zita: “Ja by som chodila rada aj do lesa” Ana: “K studničke” symbolises a place where Slovak people go when they are on a walk in the forest. I adapted this symbol to the English “stream”: Zita: “I´d like to go to the forest” Ana: “To a stream” because natural forests with natural springs are rare in England, and that is why the image of a stream is more common to English people. The second symbol “stovka” meaning hundred crowns in the meantime became unfamiliar even to Slovak audience, because the currency in Slovakia is Euro. However, a meaningful equivalent expressing an essential amount of money, which one always carries on him/herself, which is not of a great value is a “tenner”. “Stovka” and “tenner” are probably equivalent expressions regarding their value in each society.

Fronting of some words is quite a common thing in the girls´ speech. It is perhaps because they talk very emotionally and interrupt each other´s speech. When they are excited to say something, they interrupt someone´s speech by saying “aj”, “aj ja” – “also”, “me too” at the beginning of their speech. They also use various interjections, which also manifest their strong feelings and emotions. For example “Bože môj” and “Mama, toto... no toto” were translated to “Oh my God” and “Mum, erm... erm”.

This particular play was written for particular actors and the playwright gave his characters real names of the actors. I have maintained the names of the main characters, but adapted them to the English equivalents: “Zuzka” – “Sue”, “Anička” – “Ana” and “Marta” – “Martha”, because the Slovak names would be difficult to pronounce. There was also a problem with translating the Slovak name “Firásek”, which was only mentioned in the conversation. This name represents a dodgy person or a drunkard. I could not find and English equivalent and I did not want to keep the same name, because of the lack of meaning and difficult pronunciation. Therefore, this problem was solved by invention of a new name “Fraud” from a noun meaning deception or cheating.

Translation of this second act was difficult because of a large number of various devices, socio-cultural expressions and phrases, which had to be adapted in order to make them understandable to the English audience. Despite of some necessary adaptations I believe that the translation of the “Stepmother” play was successful and translated faithfully maintaining the essential conception.


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Corrigan R. Translating for actors // The Craft and Context of Translation (ed. Arrowsmith W., Shattuck R.). – Austin: University of Texas Press. – 1961.

Ferenčík J. Kontexty Prekladu. – Bratislava: Slovenský spisovate, 1982.

Horváthová B. Approaches to Translating English Idioms into Foreign Languages // Language, Literature and Culture in Education. Nitra: SlovakEdu, 2014.

Newmark P. Paragraphs on Translation. The Linguist. – 1997. – Vol 36. – No. 1. Newmark P. Paragraphs on Translation. The Linguist. – 1997. – Vol 36. – No. 2.

Newmark, P. Paragraphs on Translation. The Linguist. – 1997. –Vol 36. – No. 5.

Orvig M. (ed.) Children´s Books in Translation. – Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1978. Tabačková Z., Gálová S. Translatológia aj pre netranslatológov. Nitra: ASPA, 2012.

Tabačková Z. Teaching Translation to „Non-translators“ // Teória a prax prípravy budúcich translatológov a učiteľov anglického jazyka. – Banská Bystrica: Belianum, 2013.

Veltrusky J. Príspevky k teórii divadla. Bratislava: Divadelný ústav, 1994.

Zuber O. The Languages of Theatre: Problems in the Translation and Transposition of Drama. – Sydney: Pergamon Press, 1976.

Для цитирования:

Reid E. Translation of Drama: A Study of “Stepmother” by Rudolf Sloboda // Перевод в меняющемся мире: Материалы Международной научно-практической конференции. – М.: Издательский центр «Азбуковник», 2015. – С. 166-171.


Теория перевода

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