Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

Translating HEROES: A Lesson in Adapting

Thursday, November 03, 2011

by Jacque Troy, Education Director/Literary Manager

"One of the attractions of translating HEROES is that it's not the kind of play that I write.  It's much more a truthful comedy than a play of dazzling wit." -Tom Stoppard (interviewed by Alex Sierz, The Telegraph, 2005)

Though the list of recognizable, crowd-pleasing plays by Tom Stoppard is considerable, ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD, first produced at the Edinburgh Festival in 1966 and a year later by the National Theatre, earned him fame and fortune. Beyond creating compelling original work, Stoppard has also entered the arena of translation.

Tom Stoppard is a British playwright, knighted in 1997.  He has written prolifically for TV, radio, film and stage. He co-wrote the screenplays for Brazil and Shakespeare in Love and has won one Academy Award and four Tony Awards.

To quote the astute summation of his work by one journalist, "Stoppard is always written about as if he were an intellectual acrobat. But behind the intellectual high jinx there lurks an often passionate humanist whose writing betrays an increasing concern both with the abuse of freedom and the nature of love."

Considerably less is known about Gerald Sibleyras whose play LE VENT DES PEUPLIERS (The Wind in the Poplars) inspired Stoppard's translated work, now titled HEROES.  Scant internet information confirms that Sibleyras was born in 1961 in Paris and that his latest play is titled LE BANC (The Bench). LE VENT DES PEUPLIERS has been translated and produced in countries worldwide including the United Kingdom, Germany, and Uruguay. The play premiered at the Theatre Montparnasse and received four Moliere nominations including Best Author.

With two such literary notables collaborating, you might imagine that crafting an English translation of this touching and hilarious play for a West End opening would be as breezy as, dare I say, a wind in the poplars.  But a 2005 interview with Stoppard and Sibleyras revealed otherwise.  It began with concern about a literal translation of the title.  Stoppard revealed, "There was a certain amount of anxiety about that because of 'The Wind in the Willows.' That seemed to threaten some kind of confusion."

Even well into the process, minor confusions remained.  Stoppard admitted, "After months of translating, I thought I knew what every word meant-and I've just discovered I was wrong."  Assuming that the French word 'niche' meant a recess, the playwright intervened good-naturedly.  "Gerald has just politely pointed out that it means kennel; as there's a stone dog on stage that makes perfect sense."

Overall, Sibleyras expressed enormous gratitude for his process with Stoppard.  "The first version of the play was too long," Sibleyras conceded. "(Stoppard) asked me every time he wanted to change a line, and slowly, but surely the play improved."

In the past, Stoppard admits that much of his work might be correctly called an adaptation, "I once did a play which Ferenc Molnar set in a castle in Hungary, and which I set on an ocean liner going to New York. (ROUGH CROSSING-directed by C. Michael Wright for Next Act in 2002) That's what I call an adaptation."

Stoppard definitely approached HEROES as a translation, which meant he adhered to self-prescribed rules about the process.  "The starting point is to be utterly faithful to the original.  But if you abide by that completely you are doing the author a disservice."  Stoppard also insists, "You should not translate for more than two hours at a time.  After that, you lose your edge. The language becomes clumsy, rigid."

Luckily for all of us, with Sibleyras' faith and Stoppard's careful guidelines, HEROES emerges as a compact, compassionate and witty reminder of how true friendship is an exquisite collaboration as well.

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