Thursday, 11 July 2013

Translating the untranslatable

When it comes to translation it is not always words and phrases which cause the biggest problems, but a cultural concept. I have yet to see a satisfactory rendering of Midsummer Eve in an English production of Fröken Julie, for instance.

Still, it is quite clearly stated in the script how Strindberg intended the scene. The peasants enter the kitchen, sing an ambiguous - but not obscene - song, dance around and leave.

Clearly, this pagan festival has given rise to all kinds of sexual fantasies when English directors have staged the play. Why is that, I wonder? Where do the huge phallus symbols come from, where the simulated sex scenes in the kitchen? ‘Peasants shag like rabbits, don’t they’, seem to be the general assumption.

I have shown my students these particular scenes from various English TV productions and compared them with Alf Sjöberg’s film from the 1950s and the students are invariably shocked and annoyed at the misrepresentation of Strindberg and can’t understand why the directors have chosen this coarse interpretation.

But what do you do when you have to translate something quintessentially Swedish as Midsummer, Lucia celebrations - and Walpurgis night with its bonfires, singing and undergraduates’ white caps. And the yearning for the countryside or the sea from the month of May onwards is a fever with no recognizable equivalent in England.

When Strindberg refers to autumn already in August it is hard for most Europeans to understand why, since August often is the main summer holiday month south of Scandinavia. But keep in mind that Swedish children go back to school after the middle of August when daylight hours are shrinking fast and you realise that the arrival of the lamplighter at that time, as in Strindberg’s Thunder in the air (Oväder) really means that the first signs of autumn have appeared. All this is very difficult to put across to any audience south of the Baltic. August - autumn? August, the foremost holiday month?

Another concept which is practically untranslatable is ‘innanfönster’ which is a very important word in Strindberg’s The Father. Double glazing and secondary glazing conjure up quite different ideas. What Strindberg is referring to is the extra windows that you can hook onto the window frames on the inside and keep in place for the length of the winter months. They helped to keep the cold out and the heat in before the days of universal double glazing. Taking them away in the spring became a symbolic act of saying farewell to winter. You could then open the window again and let in the air, sounds and scents of spring. Because spring had, indeed, arrived.

When Bertha in The Father makes her strong and passionate statement about her father by saying that when he comes home it is like taking away the inner windows on a spring morning, it is a beautiful and moving declaration of love - but it is untranslatable. If we use words like double glazing or secondary glazing they would refer to a 1960s suburban middle-class home. And that misses the point completely. So, as a translator, you have to find another expression, another way of putting Strindberg’s message across. It is not always easy or possible. As George Barrow, the English 19th century linguist, put it:’Translation is at best an echo.’


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