To modernize an old translation--or not...

It's a challenge enough to get the mass public to come out to see a show at the theatre, but when you perform an old translation of a piece written in the 1800s, are you further intimidating your audience by the sometimes-archaic style of speech? 

Today, on the Leonard Lopate show, I heard an interview with award-winning actress, Lesley Manville, speaking about her recent role in Henrik Ibsen's "Ghosts" at BAM.  She mentions how this particular translation of the Norwegian playwright's work was translated in a less literal fashion, to modernize and personalize the language for our time.  She cites the literal translation as "clunky" and many of us have certainly heard or read translations that feel less than natural. 

So is this a good thing to take a bit of license in order to bring the play to a more relatable level?  Or are we losing something that is inherent in a good ole foreign translation?  For this production, most likely the modern translation will make the play more accessible, and perhaps bring a lesser-known work to the forefront (remember, Ibsen is writer of the very famous, A Doll's House. Even Old Navy has a dark blue color labeled "Good night, Nora."  And after Shakespeare, Ibsen is the next most produced playwright.).  BAM knows how to put on a good production, and if Ibsen is "the father of realism," then maybe the language should be made a bit more real, for our generation.

So what would be missed with modernizing the translation?  Well, for me, personally, I like a good ole foreign translation. I started reading Ionesco when I was 14 (first in French, then in English) and there is nothing like that translated feeling.  It is not natural; it is sort of clunky, Manville is right. It makes the play feel a bit less real, more absurd (even if the playwright isn't intending to be absurd).  I think it brings a sort of unique humor when it's humorous, and a bit of eerie feeling when it's dark.

When I first read Ibsen in college, I loved his style of writing. I immediately could tell this was a translation and I liked that.  It made it funnier, darker, it felt older.  Like an amazing flapper dress you find at a thrift store.  It brings you back to a time when you weren't around, but can appreciate.

But that's me.  And I doubt most people feel that way. So.  I'm all for modernizing translations, if they stay true to the original intent.  I think it will make the play more accessible and what's wrong with bringing theatre to the masses?  That's the point of much of theatre anyway, so why put extra barriers up?  Connect with Ghosts and Ibsen and make the characters more believable. I'm probably in the minority of appreciating these old oddly-worded translations. But hey. I do.  So if I'm reading Ibsen, I'll pick up a copy translated in 1882. ;)

And I'll leave the post here with a few enticing quotes about Ghosts, written a few centuries ago:

"Gross, almost putrid indecorum.... Literary carrion.... Crapulous stuff" – Daily Telegraph
[So they used the word "crapulous" in the late 1800s?? Literary carrion! Yikes!]

"Ninety-seven percent of the people who go to see Ghosts are nasty-minded people who find the discussion of nasty subjects to their taste, in exact proportion to their nastiness." – Sporting and Dramatic News
[Remember, this play has illegitimate children, STDs...Ibsen does not shy away from the taboo!]

"As foul and filthy a concoction as has ever been allowed to disgrace the boards of an English theatre.... dull and disgusting.... Nastiness and malodorousness laid on thickly as with a trowel." – Era
[Yes, it's a word, even though spell check in 2015 thinks it isn't. Malodorousness: Having a bad odor.]

"Lugubrious diagnosis of sordid impropriety.... Characters are prigs, pedants and profligates.... Morbid caricatures.... Maunderings of nookshotten Norwegians" – Black and White
[M-Webster warns they do not usually have the word "Nookshotten" available to look up for free, but I lucked into a "limited basis" definition. It means "jutting out at numerous angles." I was afraid it was some Norwegian slur!]

Okay--now if you go see it, give me your own current review of Ibsen's Ghosts! Let's see if you use the word "crapulous."

Share your thoughts! How do you feel about old translations? If you're bi-lingual, do you feel they often do the original text justice or not?  Do you find them not as accessible?