by Estelle Rosen
One of Canada's preeminent play translators, Shelley Tepperman is also a dramaturg with a long history in Canadian theatre specializing in script development, project development, and translation for the stage. She translates from French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese and her more than 30 play translations—three of which were nominated for Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Literary Award—have been produced on CBC radio and on stages throughout North America and the United Kingdom. Her most recent GG nomination was for The List. Shelley spent several years working for CBC Radio Arts and Entertainment. She also works in documentary film and television as a writer, director, and story editor.
CHARPO: What makes an effective play translator and what challenges did you face in the translation of La Liste/The List by Jennifer Tremblay?
TEPPERMAN: A play translator is often a bridge between cultures. An effective play translator needs a variety of skills… an understanding of how a play works as a piece of theatre, an acute sense of the rhythms and music of spoken language, and the ability to write in many different voices. But beyond that it's essential to understand how the play reaches audiences in its original culture, and how this can be recreated or adapted for the new target audience.
With a play, you’re never merely translating the literal meaning of the words, you're conveying the many things the author is accomplishing with the words. The words are the surface of the play: they provide codes and clues, and serve as a map for the creative team who will bring the play to life. The words must function as believable dialogue but covertly deliver additional meaning: literary, psychological, social, political, and historical.
If I miss seeing the original production of a play I intend to translate I ask to see an archival DVD
But sometimes a lot of what the original audience picks up is between the lines, or under the surface. A play translator must cultivate an awareness and sensitivity to recognize, then somehow convey, what isn't being stated. Sometimes this is psychological subtext. And sometimes assumptions and references that are part of the original audience's shared history and cultural discourse may need to be made more explicit for a new audience. So a good play translator is part sociologist, part cultural anthropologist, and part creative problem solver. You need to know what goes missing in the journey from source culture to target culture and how to somehow supply that information dramatically.
If I miss seeing the original production of a play I intend to translate I ask to see an archival DVD... I learn a lot from the actor's vocal nuances and body language, and by hearing where the audience reacts.
The main challenge in working on The List was reproducing the spareness of Jennifer Tremblay's language while preserving all the layers of meaning in each line. English lends itself to economy but French can convey certain things more succinctly. My approach was to translate the line as economically as possible and then continue to remove anything extraneous. It was howJennifer Tremblay had written the play and was a bit like rewriting in her footsteps.
There are subtleties you can miss if you’re just translating the words without understanding what's really going on. One example: Jennifer Tremblay had written “Merci, vraiment” when the Woman is offered birthday cake after Caroline has died. In my first draft I translated this as “Thanks, really” which didn't feel right when I re-read it. I then realized that The Woman is declining the offer because she is appalled. My final version was "None for me, thanks". French speakers say a polite "merci" when declining (with the "non" implied, but not stated). To accept, they would say "(oui), s'il vous plait".
Jennifer Tremblay also has a very unique relationship to time in her writing: we flow from the past to the future to the present and there aren’t always clear markers. It's complicated by the fact that the piece is a monologue, and that while it recounts factual events, a lot of it takes place in a tormented woman's memory and imagination. Because verb tenses work a little bit differently in French than in English, it was sometimes tricky to understand where we were in time, what was in the past (and how far), what was real, what was a repeated action, what was completely over, what was continuing into the present. The challenge was to preserve the fluidity of the character's mental shifts while providing the markers for an actress, director (or even reader!) to know where we are at all times. It was something we refined over various different drafts, trying different solutions.