Catherine Grosvenor on translating Anna Wakulik's 'A Time to Reap'

Is this the first play you’ve translated?

I’ve translated ten plays from Polish and two from German but this is the first time that a translation that is all my own work has been staged. I did the literal translation of Tadeusz SÅ‚obodzianek’s play Our Class (which also starred Sinead Matthews) which Ryan Craig used as the basis for his version at the National. I’ve also adapted three plays from Finnish and I’m currently working on adapting a Chinese play, working from literal translations each time as I don’t speak these languages. And my own plays have been translated into Polish and Catalan, so I feel like I have some good insights into different aspects of the translation process.

How do you approach translating something like this? Is there a different technique/ or any particular challenges that translating a play presents?

Each play is its own world and each writer writes differently, so each play demands its own strategies and its own approach from the translator. A particular challenge with translating theatre is that there is no room for footnotes (although footnotes seem to be a growing trend in German theatrical texts), so any additional information you feel you need to give the audience needs to be incorporated in the body of the text. This can take you into slightly tricky territory in terms of authorial voice, but wherever possible I work closely with the original writers to make sure they are comfortable with any new lines I might want to add for clarity. You also need to watch out for the sound of the spoken language, both in the original and in translation, as this is ultimately the form in which your translation will reach its audience.

How do you normally work with writers and how have you worked with Anna?

I’m lucky enough to work with living writers, so I can email, skype and meet in person to pester them with endless questions about the exact nuance of a word or the connotations of a cultural reference. Anna and I have spent a lot of time together in London, in Poland and in the virtual world so I have a really good sense of her voice and what she wants to achieve in her work, and these are the things which are most important to me.

What happens to the meaning of something when you translate it in to another language? Does it lead to revisions in the original – does it uncover a vocabulary that often better expresses its meaning?

A few writers have said to me that they prefer my translations to the original. I think this is because they are always at a slight distance from the translation and don’t see all the subtleties that they would long to correct in their own language. Sometimes when you ask a writer to clarify a line, this in turn clarifies what they are trying to do with the words in the original, so they get back to you with a reworked line. On the other hand, there are always things that work on a variety of levels in one language that can’t be replicated in a translation. My task then is to look for an alternative place where I can achieve a similar effect to what the writer achieves in the original.

It’s been said that, theoretically, there is no such thing as translation; that translating a French word will never get its full implications across to the English – it’s a impossibility.” Can you ever be totally loyal to an original, or is a translation, in a sense, also inevitably a re-writing?

A writer writes and an audience receives a work within a social and cultural context as much as within a linguistic one, so in that sense every act of translating is more an act of interpretation than replication. You can get close though, and the more work we have in translation, the more we can learn about other cultures which then broadens the context in which a translation works. I like to resist the idea that anything is impossible in translation – you just have to find the right solution.

How closely should translation even seek to replicate an original? Is it true that the best translators stay as invisible as possible?

The answers to these two questions depend on the effect and the function of the texts in question. In a text that strives for objectivity, such as a legal document, I would also strive to be objective and invisible. However, every text is produced by an individual and translations are produced by at least two individuals. If you conceal the individual identities involved, you risk confusing subjectivity with objectivity. In a text that is as subjective as a play, the translator’s self is an important part of the process and this should be open and clear. A Time To Reap is Catherine Grosvenor’s version of Anna Wakulik’s play Zażynki and a different translator would have produced a different version. It’s important to be aware of that.

What does it feel like to have the pressure of potentially influencing an audience’s perception of a piece?

Generally good; sometimes terrifying.

There are some funny moments in the play, but humour is something that can vary according to culture. Were those sections a challenge?

Oh yes! For example, there’s a line in the original where Piotr hands Jan a gift from his ex-wife. In Polish, Piotr gives him a box of eggs – and ‘eggs’ is slang for testicles in Polish. So I spent a long time thinking of items of food that could have come from an organic farm and have an emasculating effect on Jan. We went through different kinds of sausage and salami, a baby carrot and withered plums before arriving at the solution that the production team most liked: deep-fried cock.

Anna also maintains that Jan’s comment to Piotr that he has cancer is very funny; I have yet to meet an English actor who feels the same way! We see the humour, but find it very dark – Anna insists that it’s a light-hearted gag in Polish.

Do you aim to try and produce the same effect on the English-speaking audience as the play would have had on its native audience?

Absolutely. Translate the effect rather than the words, that’s my motto.