From ancient Greek to modern French, Bay Area theatre explores the possibilities of translation
"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."