Since Hywel John's play Rose opened at Svenska Teatern yesterday I thought I'd share a text I wrote during my MA (2012-13) in Exeter. This is a reworked and abridged version of a paper a wrote for a course called "Cultural adaptation" and it deals with the questions involved in translating this play. You'll find the text below and this time it will only be posted in English.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
THOUGHTS ON TRANSLATING ‘ROSE’ BY HYWEL JOHN
In this essay I will discuss some of the challenges attached to translating Hywel John’s play Rose, first performed at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011 (Hywel John Work, n.d.). It is written in English, but contains some Arabic words and expressions and I have been asked to translate it into Swedish, to be performed in Swedish in Finland. This will be the first translation of the play into Swedish, or any other language as far as I am aware. As it is a new play it does not come with a tradition of translation as some classic works do. It will be translated directly from the original language, and the translation will be based solely on the text, as I did not see the production in Edinburgh.
Translation always includes adaptation. As David Bellos says, ‘No translation is the same as its source, and no translation can be expected to be like its source in more than a few selected ways’ (2012: 335). The degree of adaptation however varies greatly depending on the genre of the source and the purpose of the translation. The focus of this essay will be on translation without cultural relocation of the story to another place. In other words this is not a full exploration of the continuum of adaptation possible within the frame of translating plays.
When discussing translation the terms ‘source’ and ‘target’ are used to denote what is translated and what it is translated into (Bellos, 2012: 64). Looking specifically at translation of plays there are other terms that are used alongside these two. Derrick Cameron uses the term ‘tradaptation’, first introduced by Robert Lepage to look at how classic works where transferred to other cultural situations, to talk about the multicultural context of modern British theatre (2000: 17). In this context the strength of the term is that it can be applied and used as a way of making clear that all translations are also, to different degrees, adaptations. Eva Espasa writes about the idea of ‘performability’ in relation to translation and how it relates to the idea of “speakability”, the flow of the text to be spoken by the actors (2000: 49).
The first concern in translating Rose, then, is how to replicate the different languages the two characters speak. Arthur uses formal, slightly archaic English, infusing his language with literary expressions while Rose infuses her English with curse words, slang and abbreviations. This comes up in one of their arguments:
Arthur: I am a grown man, I can take all your slings and arrows.
Rose: Why can’t you talk proper?Arthur: I talk more properly than you, young lady, that is clear –
Rose: I hate it, it’s like you live in a Charles Dickens book or something – this is
1998 Dad – (John, 2012: 44)
So in trying to replicate the differences one has to look at what the different levels of language available to Swedish speakers in Finland are. The Swedish spoken in Finland is not considered a separate language from the Swedish spoken in Sweden, even though there are differences in vocabulary, pronunciation and syntax. There are however regional differences within Finland, dialects that are quite recognisable to other speakers of Swedish in Finland. There is also slang used among young people, which tends to be infused with words and expression from Finnish, English and other languages.
Looking at Arthur’s language, there are different possibilities when it comes what kind of references to make by the Swedish he uses. It is possible to simulate a generic old-fashion sounding language or to emulate the language used by famous Finnish-Swedish writers from the literary canon. For Rose there are two options; to give her the language of contemporary Finnish-Swedish urban teenagers by using slang expressions in Finnish and English; or to use slang devoid of influences by other languages. In both cases it is also important to give her language a distinct character of spoken language. Introducing Finnish and English in her lines would denote a belonging to an urban milieu, which in my eyes would be appropriate. A problem however is that the slang she uses in the original does not contain words from other languages. During the play she deals with a few words of Arabic and the impact of the foreignness of them to her would probably be greater if she did not already use expressions and words from other languages in her daily life. Mixing in Finnish and English in her lines also begs the question if Arthur is more upset by her use of improper language, or the facts that she uses non-Swedish words.
The main challenge in translating Rose’s lines is the curse words. The word used most often in the original is ‘fuck’, which comes as no surprise, since it is a very versatile word. However, there is no equivalent word in Swedish or Finnish-Swedish slang that has the same flexibility and which covers all the same meanings. A lot of curse words in Swedish tend to be connected to religion and be different names for the devil or hell. This might in some cases be the only viable option, but the sexual connotations of ‘fuck’ are not to be forgotten. When looking to keep those connotations the words at disposal are words connected to genetalia. In one scene Rose says to Arthur ‘You big… fucking idiot!’ (John, 2012: 36). This could translated ‘Du din… jävla idiot!’ (You, you… “devil” idiot!). Because of the way Swedish works ‘Du din…’ is recognised as a threat, albeit slightly childish, and adding the ‘big’ to that part of the sentence would be strange, if it was important to keep it, the word should be added to the second part of the sentence. The use of ‘jävla’ here, even though it is a curse word, is quite tame. Another possibility is ‘Du din… fittans idiot! (You your… cunting idiot!). ‘Fitta’ is a very crude word for female genetalia, and even though it is used as a curse word by young people, it can still case debate when used in literature or on stage. A third option would be ‘Du din… vittun idiot!’ (You your… cunting idiot!). This is basically the same expression; the difference is that ‘vittu’ is the Finnish equivalent. It is perhaps less contentious because of the distance created by the fact that it is a different language, while at the same time being recognised as contemporary language used by youngsters. ‘Vittu’ is a word that is heard a lot e.g. on public transportation in Helsinki. This would then mean bringing in Finnish slang into Rose’s vocabulary.
In the play there are a range of references specific to English culture and they offer a different type of challenge. One example is marmite (John, 2012: 61), which is mentioned as Arthur retells the story of Rose’s birth, his wife’s death and the start of their life in England. In Finland there is no Marmite, and unlike cricket which is also mentioned in the play (John, 2012: 17), I doubt Marmite would be something that people that have not experienced it themselves are familiar with. The context makes it clear that it is something you eat on your bread, which in my view is enough, especially since I see no deeper importance connected to the marmite in the story. It would be possible to exchange it for e.g. marmalade, which would probably be more recognisable as English in Finland, but it would not contribute anything to the telling of the story.
Similarly the reference to Hamlet’s soliloquy quoted earlier can either be dealt with by a direct translation of the line or by using the translation of it from one of the existing translations of the play. In both cases the reference would probably be lost on the majority of the audience, for not being familiar with translations of the play. A more difficult question is posed by the quotation from Romeo and Juliet used in the beginning of the play (John, 2012: 16-18). The alternatives are to either keep the quote in English or to use a translation of it. Arthur makes Rose recite the lines once in the beginning of the play (John, 2012: 16-18). Leaving it in English would be a possibility, since it would make it more clear that it is a quote. The use of the quotation is introduced by a discussion where Rose is prompted to say that English is her favourite subject at school (John, 2012: 16). This could also be seen as a reason for leaving the quotation in English. If it was to be translated into Swedish then the question is if it would be better to use an existing translation of the play, and in that case which one, or if it would be better to translate the lines for this context.
In not relocating the events of the play there will be two different levels of distensation for the audience. Firstly, the events take place in a country and culture different from their own, even though most people will have some idea or experience of England. Secondly, the play deals with a culture removed from the Finnish experience, that of the immigrant or refugee from a non-European part of the world. The characters in the play can be seen as foreign to the world they inhabit, and that world in turn is, at least to a degree, foreign to the audience watching the play in Finland. So how can these issues be dealt with in the translation? Bellos spends a chapter discussing ‘The Paradox of “Foreign-Soundingness”’ (2012: 41-56). According to him one of the ways that were traditionally used during the Romantic era to ‘make a text sound foreign’ was to leave words and expressions un-translated (Bellos, 2012: 42). This has been discussed in connection to some of the previous examples. Contrary to what Bellos writes about English speakers today (2012: 45), Finns are expected to know English which does away with part of the problem with leaving words or expressions in English. Bellos goes on to say ‘Foreign-soundingness is … only a real option for a translator when working from a language with which there receiving language and its culture have an established relationship.’ (2012:48). Even though there is a knowledge of the English culture in Finland, the degree to which there is a knowledge about immigrants in England is smaller. Is there then an established convention of representing people of foreign descent in Finland or in the narrower field of Swedish language culture in Finland? I would say no. The conventions that the audience would be familiar with, if any, would be from TV and film from other parts of the West, e.g. Sweden, England, USA. On the other hand the ‘mistakes’ Arthur makes in his language (e.g. ‘whoops the daisy’ (John, 2012: 12)) can still be recognised as those of a non-native speaker even if they do not place him firmly in any specific culture.
There is of course the possibility that the director would want to relocate the story to Finland. In that case there are some basic questions to be answered before getting down to the level of challenges discussed so far. First of all, would the context be that of Finnish or Swedish speaking Finland? Considering the audience it would be logical to use the Swedish speaking context, but that then impacts the idea of having a family come to Finland, know Swedish and chose to be part of the minority rather than the majority. On the other hand, choosing the Finnish speaking context would probably be as accessible a world to the audience. However, part of Arthur’s choice of England seems to be connected to the fact that he has learnt English as a young boy and he is familiar with the national culture, like the stories of King Arthur and the nights of the round table and Shakespeare.
In keeping with the idea that this story contains a realistic element, it becomes difficult to see where it is possible to find a place where Finnish and Finnish culture is taught or even familiar to people. A possibility would be Russia or Estonia, since Russians and Estonians are the two largest immigrant groups in Finland (MotI, 2012:4) which has historical been a country to emigrate from (Singleton, 1998:158). However, something of the heart of the play would be lost because these are both neighbouring countries to Finland, so the geographical, mental and cultural distance is a lot shorter between them and Finland than between Arthur’s home land and England. The manifestation of the identity-theme would become smaller in scale, since the gap between the cultures would be smaller.
There are several challenges inherent in translating Hywel John’s play Rose and these are created primarily by the many layers of identity manifested through language and concrete references to literature, religion, language and culture. In this essay I have touched on some of the issues that need to be discussed and decided on when doing the translation.
Bellos, David (2012) Is That A Fish In Your Ear?: The Amazing Adventure of Translation, London: Penguin Books
Cameron, D. (2000) ‘Tradaptation: Cultural Exchange and Black British Theatre’ in Upton, C-A. (ed.) Moving Target: Theatre Translation and Cultural Relocation, Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing
Edensor, T. (2002) National Identity, Popular Culture and Everyday Life, Oxford & New York: Berg
Espasa, E. (2000) ‘Performability in Translation: Speakability? Playability? Or just Saleability?’ in Upton, C-A. (ed.) Moving Target: Theatre Translation and Cultural Relocation, Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing
Hywel John Work [Online] Available: http://www.curtisbrown.co.uk/hywel-john//works/ [3 December 2011]
John, Hywel (2011) Rose, unpublished
Ministry of the Interior (MotI), (2012) Annual Report on Immigration 2011, online publication http://www.intermin.fi/download/35733_maahanmuutto_eng3107lr.pdf [accessed 7 January 2013]
Singleton, F. (1998) revised and updated by A.F. Upton, A Short History of Finland, Cambridge; Cambridge University Press
 What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet. (Act 2, scene 2)