A Conversation with
the Translator

David Gregory speaks with John Freedman about the translation of The Polar Truth. Gregory, a third-year MFA Theatre student, is working to create the first English translation of Los Engranajes (The Gears) by contemporary Spanish playwright Raul Hernandez Garrido. Also Gregory’s thesis project, the play premieres in the U.S. at Towson University in February 2010.

John Freedman, theater critic of The Moscow Times, has published nine books on Russian theater. His play translations have been performed in the United States, Australia and Canada. He is the Russia director of The New Russian Drama: Translation / Production / Conference.

DG: What was it about this particular play that led you to devote your time and passion to its translation?

JF: I often come to the plays I translate through productions of them. If I see that a play works well on stage, and I can imagine it would work in other ways in other circumstances, it is likely to grab my attention. That happened when I saw Georg Genoux's production of The Polar Truth in Moscow at Teatr.doc. It struck me as a marvelous chameleon of a play that could be done in vastly different ways. I must add that, by the time I saw this play, I was already a big fan of Klavdiev's and I was dying to take a shot at putting him into English. 

DG: How did you approach the translation process for The Polar Truth? Did you work with the actors or director of a particular production of this play? If so, how did that affect the final translation?

JF: I did this one as I have done most of my translations up to now. I found a play and writer that I loved and wanted to share with people in the United States, and so I went to work on it. In other words, I had no idea where this play might go, whose hands it might end up in. I just knew this writer needed to be known in the U.S. and I was determined to do something about that. When the Towson/CITD New Russian Drama program began picking up speed, it was natural that I would include this play among the many I was having people read at Towson. Actually, Daniel Ettinger was the first person I sent it to and he was quite supportive. I gave it to others, Robyn Quick included, and through Robyn the play ended up on course syllabi and found its way into the hands of Joseph Ritsch. Joseph saw something that spoke to him in the play and he chose to direct it. There you have it. That’s how it worked with this particular play.

Before rehearsals began, Joseph and I discussed the play, the translation, the writer and the context during one of my short residencies at Towson. I have not discussed the translation with the actors or Joseph since he entered rehearsals. None of them have sent me any questions, so I can only assume and hope that they found the translation to be clear and effective.

DG: How did your collaborative relationship with Yury Klavdiev surface? How much freedom does he and other playwrights give you in the translation process?

JF: A brief chronology of my relationship with Klavdiev would be this. In early 2006 I saw three productions of his plays in Moscow and was mightily impressed. That same summer I attended a playwriting festival in Togliatti, Yury's hometown, where Yury staged and read an early version of his extraordinary play The Slow Sword. It was a revelation with its references to Japanese anime, Tarantino films, Russian violence and thuggery, Russian sentimentality and Russian ethics. I introduced myself to Yury and did an informal interview with him for The Moscow Times. I ended up writing a couple of articles about him based on that fascinating chat. The following year, when I saw the production of The Polar Truth, I realized I wanted to take this "relationship" further. 

Yury is a fabulous "collaborator." I did with his work what I always do: I translated the text quickly, stopping for nothing, rushing over what I didn't know or understand, and just getting a text down. What I do is flag everything I have questions about as I race through the translation, seeking in the first draft to capture the energy, the velocity, the ebb and flow of the work as a whole. My first drafts always contain more asterisks than words. Essentially, they are a collection of questions. I then go back and comb the sloppy new English text more carefully, checking it against the original. I do this several times until I am left with those problems I simply cannot solve with my own limited knowledge. This is when I approach the writer with specifics. Many such questions are often stupid. But the translator MUST know what he or she is doing. So if the question is stupid, I ask the writer's forgiveness, and I honestly pose stupid questions. I sent a ream of questions to Yury and he got back to me within a day. He provided clear, concise, explanations of everything. His command of his play, of what he wanted to say, of what might remain hidden in the text but needed expression, was striking. I had known before that he was a meticulous writer, but it was only at this point that I realized the full extent of his meticulousness.

DG: Do you have a specific style of writing you like to incorporate into all your translations and how do you determine what style is best for the piece?

JF: I suspect every translator does, indeed, have his or her own style. That is probably inevitable. We all have our own DNA, after all. However, our job as translators is not to express our own style, but that of the original author. One of the things you must do – to the fullest extent it is possible – is to, shall we say, "dissolve" into the original author's style. I think that is a more precise image than "blending." You really want to become one with the vision, the mannerisms, the outlook, the temperament of the author. I have translated very different writers – Olga Mukhina, Nikolai Erdman, Yury Klavdiev and Maksym Kurochkin come to mind immediately. These are four different planets – four different universes, actually. It's not for me to say how successful I have been working with them. But I know that I feel almost physiological changes coming over me as I work on their texts. I feel myself becoming informed by these dramatic worlds, becoming more tender, more caustic, less tolerant, more acerbic than I really am. This is one of the reasons, incidentally, that I try to get a first draft down as quickly as possible. It is not easy to go in and out of another person's mind and sensibility. I throw myself in, let myself drown in the vat of Mukhina's or Klavdiev's worlds, and work feverishly to get some sort of a whole before returning to my own reality. 

DG: What are your goals in a translation and how do you gauge the success of a translation of such as The Polar Truth?

JF: I guess my goal is to bring out American qualities – things that Americans can identify with easily – without eclipsing the original Russian qualities. It is a hard thing to do, but the ultimate goal is to make an American audience aware of a foreign experience while also recognizing much in the work that is familiar.

DG: For our translators out there, what piece of advice can you give when embarking on a translation of their own?

JF: All I have to offer are paradoxes.  Sometimes the best way to render a text faithfully is to violate it in some way. A perfect example is humor, one of the least translatable elements of any culture. I often do not try to create a joke or pun in the same place where one exists in the original. As I “lose” an author’s pun in one place, I know that a similar opportunity will arise in the English soon. I allow the structure of English – and I mean both the language itself and the structure of the way we formulate thoughts in English – to determine where the humor will make a natural, organic appearance.

But probably the biggest, most daunting piece of advice I can offer is this: A translator must not only know two languages, two cultures, two traditions and two histories, but he or she must also know what he or she does not know. Let that sink in a minute.

You must know what you do not know. You must recognize the outer limits of your own personal knowledge. You must sense when a phrase or scene implies more than what it actually communicates on the surface. These are the moments when you go to the author and say, “I know what you’re saying, but I don’t think I get everything you are implying.” It is a virtually impossible, but nonetheless crucial, task. The point is this; you must always doubt everything you write, even as you blindly trust your instincts. You must know that there are cultural allusions, literary quotes, personal quirks and political references lurking under the simplest of phrases. If you miss out on these, you are missing out on the whole drama of the play.

Panel discussion on Yury Klavdiev. CITD New Russian Drama Conference at Towson University. From left, Christian Parker, Yury Klavdiev, John Freedman, David White. May 2010. Photo: Robyn Quick