Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Lost Without Translation

Shakespeare doesn't work without text. It's not Shakespeare.

I've just returned from the National Theater of China's production of Richard III, which is currently playing at the Skirball Theater at NYU. In Mandarin. Without supertitles.

It's captioned, with a brief description of each scene projected onto a screen above the stage, at a cost of  what makes the play great, the precision psychological game and the beautiful, permanent havoc wrought on the English language. Without that, it's a story about a king, and some people who talk, and some people who die, and a new king by the time it's all over.

It reminded me of the recent and much-talked about magazine article by a man, writing about how his autistic son learned to speak and to connect with people by watching Disney cartoon movies. One of his observations was that Walt Disney had set out to make movies so bold and brash that they could be watched without the sound on, and this way, young children who had not yet learned language could still understand them, and ultimately make increasingly sophisticated connections between the bold colors and outlined characters and the dialogue and emotions and social interactions. This, he surmised, was why Disney movies worked as a conduit between his son and the world — they were a clear enough cipher for that particular need.

Watching Richard III in Mandarin is as good as watching it with the sound "off," as much as that metaphor can work for live theater. This was a story about a king fit for a child, and could just as easily have been the nursery rhyme about Old King Cole. But Richard III is not a nursery rhyme or Disney cartoon movie with an obvious likable hero going out on a quest with the aid of his sidekicks, vanquishing a monster and maybe one central internal demon as he goes, and coming home victorious. This was a story about a king — you could even call it a story about the historical Richard III told on stage if you wished to give that king a name — but it was no more Shakespeare's Richard III than any other text written about that monarch. It exists in parallel to Shakespeare's play and to every other literary-fictional representation, rather than as a translation of what it purported to be.

I didn't do a good job preparing for the theater this time because I've seen two live productions of Richard III in the last four years (and in fact, it was really interesting to see the way that the set design for this production was very clearly in conversation with Sam Mendes' production of the play, but that was so overridden by the sense of alienation from the action that the language barrier created) and I've watched Sir Ian McKellen's portrayal of the role on film several times in that same period and so I didn't think I needed to reread the play before I went to see it again tonight. I was a bad sport about it, too, once I realized what was going on. By the middle of the second act I had pulled out my phone, searched for the text of the play — thank you, God, internet and MIT —and tried to follow along as best I could. Of course, it doesn't really work like that. Productions of plays don't necessarily adhere completely to the script — lines are omitted and rearranged, and in this case I think that some of the minor characters were conflated, although it was really impossible to tell. There was no way to line up the subtle gestures of the actors with precise moments in the text. It was all broad, gross strokes, missing a cipher appropriate for the audience.

And that's not to say that I went in blind. The promotional materials say that the play is staged in Mandarin with supertitles, but by supertitles, they meant a single rough caption for each scene or two or three: the story-board (interesting typo: story-bard) version that misses everything about this version of the tale that makes it this version. I was a little bit suspicious upon receiving and reviewing the program when I arrived, with its quotation from a review that reads: "It scores for its intense confrontations and for a fascinating, mercurial villainy that needs not translation." I didn't for a moment think that this meant that it wasn't actually going to be translated. That reviewer is correct that this Richard III is a mercurial villain — the actor played him not as a hunchback but as someone who feigned physical disability when it suited him. However, without that variation being tied to the text, it was impossible to understand his vision for the character.

(I looked up the review to see if the quotation had been pulled out of context. It doesn't seem to have been. But the review does mention that the three witches from Macbeth dropped in — and I had wondered what was going on when three witch-like characters I didn't remember from Richard III turned up in the first act. If you're going to do a Shakespeare mashup, some guidance is required for an audience that cannot discern the Mandarin equivalent of "double, double, toil and trouble.")

Others people in attendance were worse sports than I was: there was a constant flow of audience members out of the theater throughout. When the thing was finally over, nobody clapped. The house lights came up, people got up and put on their jackets, and left.

In a way it was a very straightforward comment about text in translation that didn't require a lot of perveracating or theory or problematizing the cultural and literary and performative questions and all the kinds of things I'm supposed to be doing to text all day. Forget about what subtleties are lost in translation and whether translation and death and resurrection are related and what is or is not translatable and what the task of the translator might be. Forget about it all. If you can't speak Chinese, you can't watch Shakespeare in Chinese. It is all lost in translation without re-translation.

The translation is the cost of the meaning.

I'm sure it was a very nice play for the people in the audience who spoke Mandarin. It may even have been Shakespeare for them. But for me, for the people who left, for the people who sat there with their phones out struggling for the meaningful details that make the play William Shakespeare's, all it was, in the end, was a brash, colorful children's tale about an old king and a new king and about what was lost.


  1. The history plays are my favorites, and I agree with you about the need for language there. But what about plays like the tragedies? I have a very strong preference for the ballet "Othello" over the play, because I find the play's plot completely implausible: why should such rational, word-loving people behave so stupidly? In the ballet, it's obviously all about sex and sexual jealousy, no reason involved, and I can go along with the whole thing. I have similar, though less intense, feelings about R&J. But maybe I'm just a philistine (it's not the first time I have suspected as much).

  2. In the philistine department, I've never seen any of the relevant ballets. I guess given the extent to which Shax borrowed stories, I'd also question the extent to which they are really Shakespeare at that point, but I really don't have the basis on which to assess that. That said, the conversation that I had with a friend yesterday hinged on what it is that makes Kurosawa's versions work so well, and whether they would be as effective without the subtitles turned on...

  3. Just thinking about it a little more, the only even similar basis I have for comparison is the ballet version of Don Quixote, which is a nice story about a man who imagines himself to be a knight, but is definitely not Cervantes' Quixote. And there, too, there's such a long tradition of remaining that story, even beginning before Cervantes' death, that I"m not sure it matters in an absolute sense except to say the they're versions of a story, rather than a representation in one medium of the exact same story told originally in a different one.