Found in translation

Pub date April 5, 2011

Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.

— Goethe

THEATER In Mark Jackson’s breakout theatrical hit, 2003’s The Death of Meyerhold, title character and playwright Vsevolod Meyerhold asserts that “the classics are always new. That is why they are called the classics.” That philosophy of theatre is one that Jackson’s other plays frequently embrace. From reimagined Shakespeare to adaptations of underproduced Russian dramas, Jackson’s work is invariably characterized by his respect for and understanding of the universal nature of human emotion, regardless of location or century, as well as an intensely verbal style of playwriting and often aggressively physical staging.

It’s a logical progression that a writer with such a facility for his own language might eventually turn to the translation of theatrical works in other languages — especially after spending a year abroad, steeped in the theater scene of another country (in Jackson’s case, Germany). To date, Jackson has translated two full-length works, Faust, Part 1 by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Mary Stuart, by Friedrich Schiller, presented in 2009 and 2010 by the Shotgun Players at the Ashby Stage. Translating from a director’s perspective, Jackson’s primary focus is on the spirit of the original play, and the intentions of the playwright, not necessarily a word-for-word direct interpretation.

“Why do that,” he wonders when asked about his approach, “except out of academic interest?” In addition to preserving the overall intention of the pieces he translates, Jackson also focuses on what he calls the “music” of the German language.

“Fortunately, because English is a Germanic language, it’s easier to retain the melody of it,” he explains. “To streamline the text but keep the poetry.” From Jackson’s perspective and personal experience, it’s the music of a language that ultimately reveals the character of its people, and therefore the characters of the pieces he translates.

For Rob Melrose of the Cutting Ball Theater, an experimental Bay Area company with a dedicated bent for the classics and the avant-garde, translation is an opportunity to stretch his comprehension of the English language and language in general. A dabbler in five languages in addition to English, Melrose has translated a total of seven plays from French and German and appreciates the insight into different cultures learning languages has given him: how the spare simplicity of French reveals the elegance of the French; how the logical, tightly constructed phrases of German are engineered as flawlessly as one of their vaunted automobiles. But even more, he appreciates the ways that these other languages push him as a writer and an artist.

“Working in another language makes you think differently,” Melrose explains. “Learning how other languages work helps me appreciate our language better and helps me identify what is unique about it. It also helps me stretch English a bit by trying to make it do what French can do or what German can do.”

It’s fair to say that Bennett Fisher, a cofounder of San Francisco Theatre Pub and an English teacher, has an in-depth understanding of English, which may be why for fun he chooses to translate plays from ancient Greek and French. The convivial atmosphere created by San Francisco Theatre Pub doesn’t mask its emphasis on thinking theatre, including Fisher’s translations of Cyclops and Ubu Roi. For his Greek translations, Fisher relies on the translation website Perseus project (, first translating chunks of text verbatim, then struggling to fill in the blanks.

“What I end up with is a kind of “me Tarzan, you Jane” sentence,” he says. “Then it’s a kind of puzzle to figure out what it means and how to phrase it to make it sound conversational. Once I get a handle on that, I can do all the stuff I do with French in terms of getting at feeling, tone, intent, and all that. There’s a lot of trial and error. It’s kind of like being a director — you try interpreting the dialogue in different ways and eventually you find a choice that feels right.”

It’s not just the classics that inspire local theatre-makers to try their hand at translation. One of the most exciting productions of 2006 was foolsFURY’s take on Fabrice Melquiot’s The Devil on All Sides, translated by artistic director Ben Yalom. A harrowing blend of magical realism and atrocity, Melquiot’s play set in the former Yugoslavia was pronounced the theatrical discovery of the year in his native France in 2003. The production went on from San Francisco to New York City, and helped inspire foolsFURY’s ongoing Contemporary French Plays Project, with two more Melquiot translations in the works and more possibilities waiting in the wings.

Daniel Zilber, cofounder of the Thrillpeddlers, translates original Grand Guignol plays from early 20th-century Paris, retaining all the melodrama and humor of the originals. Both the foolsFURY’s emphasis on physical artifice and the extreme naturalism of the Thrillpeddlers stem from French theatrical traditions, an influence that even extends to the writing and staging of their English-language productions. Much the way the art of translation pushes theatre-makers like Jackson and Melrose to think differently about the language of playwriting, so does the language of French theatricality encourage foolsFURY to create seething tableaux of writhing bodies, as in 2008’s Monster in the Dark, and the Thrillpeddlers to push the playfully edgy Grand Guignol aesthetic in their English original shows.

It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that some of Bay Area theatre’s most compelling risk-takers are also drawn to the possibilities translation offers them — from the challenges of the process to the rewards of producing a fresh interpretation of a classic work for the modern stage. But the greatest impact of the translation process may well be the way it continues to influence these theatre-makers during the creation of their original works. Perhaps Melrose puts it best: “It’s only by knowing these other languages well and by translating classic works that I have the idea to push English in my own writing.”