This article appeared in the 2012:2 issue.
Walking in the shadow of giants is a humbling experience. It is also a great learning curve. What better way of finding out about the craft of writing than following in a master’s footsteps, and the best way to do that is to translate his work. For me it has been a long, interesting journey exploring Strindberg’s plays, short stories and novels and finding out how he has crafted them.
My relationship with Strindberg started when I saw his play Master Olof at Gothenburg Civic Theatre at the age of fourteen. I was so struck by his language that I saw the play three times, which in those days meant that I had to forfeit my pocket money and skip the cinema and the cafés for a couple of weeks. The next step was borrowing his plays from the library and reading them at home. I still remember the excitement at encountering his muscular language, his rich imagery and powerful sounds. In the 1950s he was still a bit of a bête noir, a fact which made him even more exciting to a teenager, of course.
I kept studying Strindberg and Shakespeare side by side throughout my four years of upper secondary school and since my school was situated next to the Gothenburg Civic Theatre I attended most performances there from the ‘gods’, i.e. the upper circle. In an attempt to find out what had made these playwrights great, I wrote down expressions that I found especially impressive or original and filled a notebook with quotes. Several years later, when I was married to an English actor and theatre director and living in England, I tried to make him interested in Strindberg so, in 1965, when he was invited to take the director’s course at the BBC the first short play that he directed for television was Strindberg’s The Stronger, under my influence. It took twenty years before I could persuade him to direct another Strindberg play. It happened in 1985, and I had been asked by a producer to find three unknown Strindberg plays that she wanted to put on at The Gate Theatre, Notting Hill. They were Motherly Love, Pariah and The First Warning. The critics were amazed at the discovery of these ‘hidden treasures’ which had not previously been performed in England, and they were lavish in their praise, so the three one-act plays were subsequently published by Amber Lane Press. Encouraged by this positive experience my husband asked me if I could find another unknown Strindberg play that he could direct at the Gate. I suggested Thunder in the Air (Oväder), another play that had never been translated into English, (as opposed to American) so our production would be yet another British premiere. We played to full houses for one month in February 1989. The actors were all well established. Two of them had been working at the RSC and another actor had starred in a television serial that my husband had directed. The beautiful young girl who played Gerda, a character based on Strindberg’s third wife, Harriet Bosse, had just starred in a film, so we were well served by excellent actors and again, the national press turned up and were very positive. It looked as if Strindberg had had a breakthrough in England at last and we were thrilled and hopeful. But sadly, the enthusiasm for him soon fizzled out. However, the commercial publishers were alerted to the recently discovered plays and, provided they had been produced in the theatre, they were happy to publish them. After the month-long run at the Gate I was commissioned by Absolute Press to translate the other four chamber plays, as well as Strindberg’s last play, The Great Highway.
We presented The Great Highway as a staged reading with professional actors at the Strindberg conference at East Anglia University in April 1990. The Pelican was put on at the Orange Tree in Richmond and directed by Sean Holmes who has since taken over the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith as Artistic Director. The Black Glove was produced at the Chelsea Centre and The Ghost Sonata by several small theatres and university drama groups. With these nine plays now available in bookshops something strange happened. Within a few years The Chamber Plays were re-translated by two other translators and The Great Highway likewise. It was the more remarkable since nobody had shown any interest in these plays for a hundred years.
The five Chamber plays in my translations have been produced several times since then, both in this country and in the U.S, notably in New York in the year 2000 when all five were playing in repertory at an off-off Broadway theatre. The Father, Lady Julie and Playing with Fire are, of course, a much safer bet and apart from Playing with Fire they have been staged many times.
While studying English at university I had written a dissertation about three different translations of The Father: Walter Johnson’s, Elizabeth Sprigge’s and Michael Meyer’s, and I stated at the time that I found Meyer’s translation the most imaginative and at the same time as close to the original as you could get without becoming too pedantic or dull. When required, Meyer invented new, striking metaphors to replace some of Strindberg’s, notably the one about the ‘innanfönster’, secondary windows. Bertha, the fifteen-year-old daughter in The Father says: ‘när du kommer far, så är det som när man tar ut innanfönstren en vårmorgon’. Meyer translated it as: ’when you come, father, it’s like throwing open the windows in the spring’. Admittedly, he didn’t try to find an English equivalent to the set of extra windows which were attached to the inside of the other windows for the winter with wadding in between to absorb the moisture. Once these windows were in place you couldn’t open them so the day when they were finally removed in the spring was quite a dramatic event. Meyer’s ‘throwing open the windows in the spring’ is a very evocative alternative.
Years later, when I had started translating Strindberg myself, Meyer and I met on a number of occasions and even though he regarded every Ibsen or Strindberg translator as a rival, he was courteous enough to review Thunder in the Air favourably in The Times Literary Supplement. He would often sit in the front stalls and listen carefully to any Strindberg play which was advertised as translated by someone else. If he recognised phrases and unusual solutions he would pounce on the ‘translator’ at once and accuse them of plagiarism. He was of the opinion that it was very unlikely that someone else would arrive at the same words or phrases. If he suspected plagiarism he would simply get up from his seat and make a terrible fuss in the middle of a performance. I told him very early on that I always translated from the original and would never look at anyone else’s translation while working on one myself. I think this reassured him and whenever we met there was a cordial atmosphere and mutual respect.
On one occasion The King’s Head, London, were doing two short plays by Strindberg, The First Warning and Playing with Fire. They had advertised in The Stage but without mentioning the translator, so Meyer and I agreed that one of us should go along and check if they were using one of our translations. My husband and I went along and, sure enough, every word, every sentence was verbatim from my published translation of The First Warning. After the interval they carried on with Playing with Fire and not one sentence was identical to my version. Not one. On the other hand, it was definitely Meyer’s, so we talked to the director after the show and asked why she had used these translations without acknowledging us in the programme. She claimed that she had been short of time, but we insisted that she published an apology in The Stage, which she duly did. I think this experience highlights the misconception that several translators can arrive at the same words. A simple exercise with students would easily dispel that myth.
The translation of plays is in many ways a very unsatisfactory experience. If you are doing some pioneering work you can be sure that there are others ready to step in and jump on the bandwagon and, as long as they have access to a theatre, however small, and connections in the business, they will fight for recognition. The competition is fierce and the methods can be quite ruthless. I was surprised to find a new Strindberg translator some fifteen years ago whom I didn’t associate with the Scandinavian languages. For the sheer fun of it I walked up to him in the interval during a performance of his translation of The Great Highway at The Gate Theatre and addressed him in Swedish. I was met with surprise and it was quite clear that he failed to understand me.
The major theatres very rarely use a literary translator when putting on a foreign play. They prefer to be in charge of the whole process and often commission a so-called literal translation, not always from someone with a good knowledge of the source language. From this literal translation a wellknown English playwright will produce a new version and if the director is of the Katie Mitchell calibre she will then create her version from the playwright’s version. This is what happened when The National put on Strindberg’s A Dreamplay and something very far removed from Strindberg’s original play appeared on the stage. Strindberg’s serious play had turned into a hilarious farce.
So, unless you are lucky enough to know a director and some actors who want to put on your translation, your work could be a gift to someone with those very contacts but without the language skills.
I have been fortunate enough to work with both my husband and my daughter in the theatre and together they have directed seven of my Strindberg translations. Lately, The Father and Playing with Fire have been broadcast on BBC with other directors. It would be nice if we could persuade some producer to take a risk with one of the history plays or Lucky Per’s Journey, but in both cases the casts are too big, the costs too enormous so it is fairly unlikely that that would happen.
Even BBC Radio is reluctant these days to put on a play with a large cast. Strindberg never had the breakthrough that Ibsen or Chekhov had in England. He lacked the measured, bourgeois subject matter, I suppose. His plays don’t take place in country houses or recognizable drawing-rooms, like Chekhov’s and Ibsen’s. I think Strindberg is considered too weird, too shrill and extreme for the English temperament. He lacks the subtleties you’ll find in Chekhov and the slow methodical build-up that you have in Ibsen’s plays. Strindberg is often highly charged, hysterical even and the unrestrained passion, madness and despair that he is so good at depicting are often embarrassing to an English audience. Another problem that actors have with his scripts is the unpredictability. He might say something in scene 1 and let the same character contradict him/herself completely in scene 5. Actors find this unsettling. We have had many discussions about this when putting on his plays in England. We have tried to emphasize that people say different things to different people, they contradict themselves, they lie, they exaggerate and if you remember that, you’ll find that Strindberg’s plays are, in fact, truthful and credible.
I don’t think we can hope for a sudden Strindberg vogue in England. The most likely scenario is that Lady Julie (Miss Julie), The Father and Dance of Death will be revived now and again. It is very unlikely that one of his history plays, or The Ghost Sonata for that matter, will ever be produced on one of the major stages in the capital. In order for that to happen you need the unlikely combination of a well-known translator and a director who is a Strindberg fan and enough of a name to be able to recruit good actors. Meanwhile, I suppose we should be happy that we have at least one Swedish playwright who has joined the classic repertoire, even if very few of his plays have passed the harsh criteria set up by English theatre producers. The main reason for that is money. A play with a large cast, especially if it is by a foreign playwright, doesn’t stand much of a chance of being produced. If it has a cast of three, like Lady Julie, it is a different matter. It all boils down to money in the end.