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A Burning Passion

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Playwright Alistair Beaton weighs up the joy and the pain of translating Max Frisch’s play The Arsonists.

When London’s Royal Court Theatre invited me to come up with a new translation of Biedermann und die Brandstifter my first reaction was one of caution. This play is iconic in German-speaking Europe, but little known in the UK. It was first seen in England in 1961 (also at the Royal Court), in a translation by Michael Bullock, entitled The Fire Raisers. Since then it has not exactly warmed the cockles of English hearts. I wondered whether there really was an audience for a new English version of this singular play.
 
At this point I should confess that I speak German. This may seem an odd and unnecessary statement, but the fact is that in contemporary British theatre a ‘translator’ does not need to have much (or indeed any) knowledge of the language from which he or she is translating.
 
A new paradigm of translation now dominates the London stage: an established English playwright is handed a literal translation of a foreign play and asked to come up with a ‘version’. This is not all bad. The translating of a play requires more than mere academic knowledge of the language. A playwright brings an understanding of how language works not on the page but on the stage. But this fashion has major drawbacks. Every translator has a duty to deliver the essence of the original. As plays age, new translations open the door to a new generation. By subtly updating the language, the translator makes the original play accessible to a modern audience. But when it becomes a ‘version’, when the translator makes his or her own interpretation as important as the original, then some awful cultural vandalism is taking place. When the original text becomes the plaything of a famous translator of this sort, then an audience is cheated of the opportunity to experience the original play.
 
Of course, it’s not quite as black and white as I am making out. There is always a natural tension between fidelity to the original and a genuine desire to make the play accessible.
 
That tension is certainly something I felt when I tackled Max Frisch’s seminal play. At one level it’s a very simple piece, a metaphor for the failure of middle class morality to recognize and counter unalloyed evil. Frisch of course never names the evil. That lack of specificity is part of the power of the play. It allows the audience to fill in the gaps, to decide for itself what is the nature of the evil that threatens to engulf and destroy the well-meaning Herr Biedermann. Most critics have assumed that Frisch’s metaphor refers to the failure of the German bourgeoisie to make a stand against Nazism. Others believe that the unnamed evil is Communism. It doesn’t really matter who is right. The point is, the audience is allowed to make its own decisions.
 
This, to me, is the essential power of the play. That’s why I found myself in a rather tense relation with Ramin Gray, the director of the new production at the Royal Court. He wanted to turn the play into a metaphor for the failure of the British middle-class liberal elite to make a clear and unambiguous stand against radical Islam. I didn’t like this. For me, the power of the play lies in its refusal to state the nature of the evil that Biedermann fails to resist.
 
This conflict was more than just a creative conflict between director and translator. This was a fundamental philosophical disagreement about the responsibility of the translator. It’s not that I favour a slavish and literal translation of the original. Indeed, I took some liberties. There seems to me no point in translating ‘Holzwolle’ as ‘woodwool’, because nowadays hardly anyone knows what woodwool means. Similarly, I don’t translate ‘Koehler’ as ‘charcoalburner’ because frankly I don’t think many young people have any clue as to what a charcoal-burner is. But as translator I had a duty to catch the idea, the meaning behind the word. Since the arsonist using the word is demonstrating what a decent, simple, working class man he is, I decided to translate the word as ‘miner’. ‘My father was a miner’ is clearly a manipulative statement by a man trying to make his bourgeois host feel class guilt, whereas ‘my father was a charcoal-burner’ would mean virtually nothing to a modern audience.
 
A translator is always walking a difficult line between fidelity to the original and respect for the needs of a contemporary audience. There is no perfect solution. In The Arsonists I have tried my best to find an acceptable compromise. Let no one say I have shown a lack of respect for the original. To make sure I was getting things right, I twice went to Zurich, once to see a production of Die Brandstifter (unutterably dreadful) at the Schauspielhaus, on a second occasion to talk to people who knew Frisch and to spend a week with a Swiss German author with whom I worked through every line of my translation to make sure I had grasped every nuance.
 
At the end of it all, I was pleased to discover that I had come up with a translation that appeared to speak to people here and now. Audiences coming out of the Royal Court came out arguing about what the play meant. That’s how it should be.
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Alistair Beaton
is the author of the hit West End play Feelgood, which won the Evening Standard Comedy Award in its year. In 2004 he wrote the anti-war satire Follow My Leader and followed this in 2005 with a satirical novel A Planet for the President (Orion Books). Among his translations and adaptations is Nicolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector (Chichester Festival). His television includes A Very Social Secretary, about the David Blunkett affair, and The Trial of Tony Blair.
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