NER Editor Carolyn Kuebler asks Maja Zade, whose translation of Marius von Mayenberg’s play Moving Target appeared in NER 37.3, about her roles as a dramaturg and German translator, and the unique crossroads of the two as “translating for performance rather than just words to be read.”
CK: This play really struck me for its language—the repetition, the movement, the indeterminate nature of all the voices. It’s so abstract and yet so visceral. Can you tell us a little about how the author works, and how this play in particular was written?
MZ: Moving Target is a bit different from Marius’s other plays, more open, in that it does not have a set cast of characters and is more fluid in the way it moves between monologues, description, and dialogue. I think this openness is partly due to the process through which the play came about. It was a collaboration with the director Benedict Andrews and a specific group of actors. They had an improvisation phase first, and then Marius went away and wrote the play, and I translated it, and then they went into rehearsals. After that Marius only made some very small changes. In general, he thinks carefully about every line in his plays, and he can give you a reason for every word that he chose. I think that’s why I like translating his plays so much. I appreciate the fact that he is so careful and so precise, and that he forces me to be equally precise.
CK: When I read this play, I see only faint traces of its being a translation. In other words, you make it look easy. What were the challenges of translating this particular work into English?
MZ: This play, and Marius’s other plays, are quite dense linguistically, and he sometimes uses phrases or expressions that are slightly unusual, or odd-sounding, that reveal something about the characters or that make you conscious of the language being used. The challenge in translation is to make that feel like a deliberate choice and not like an awkward translation.
CK: What came first for you, your work as a translator or as a dramaturg?
MZ: I initially worked as a reader at the Royal Court Theatre in London, and while I was working there the theatre wanted to commission a translation of Marius’s first play, Fireface (1999). They were having problems finding a translator who could get a grasp on the language he uses, so I translated the first couple of pages, just to show them what I thought the play should feel like in translation. They liked it so much that they commissioned me to do the whole play. It went on from there, with the theatre asking me to do several more translations. I became a dramaturg shortly afterwards, and of course working in theatre and spending your days in a rehearsal room helps, because you need to have a feel for what the words would sound like spoken by an actor. Translating plays is about translating for performance rather than just words to be read on the page.
CK: Did you work on the staging of Moving Target? What was your role?
MZ: I wasn’t really involved in the staging, because the rehearsals took place in Australia and I was in Berlin. But I had worked with the director, Benedict Andrews, on other shows as a dramaturg, so knowing both Marius and Benedict, being familiar with their imaginations and how they work, of course helped as I was translating it.
CK: What is the process of translating – do you talk first, do you see the plays in German, do you go back and forth with many drafts with the author?
MZ: I think the first play that you translate by a writer is usually the most difficult. When I translated Fireface I had a couple of longer conversations with Marius during which I asked him questions about the language of the play, the characters, their motivation and intentions behind individual lines. Since then I’ve been a dramaturg on many of his plays, which means we’ve had many conversations about the plays while working on the performances, and I know the texts well by the time I translate them. This, coupled with the fact that I know all of his work and have now known him for a long time as well, makes the process of translation easier.
But normally I do a first draft that is often quite literal, then I put the original play away and try to rewrite it in as many drafts as it takes to make sure it doesn’t sound like a translation, and then I go back to the original for another draft to check that I haven’t strayed too far from it. And then if the writer speaks the language I’ve translated it into I send it to him or her to read, and make changes if necessary.
CK: You’ve also translated works into German, by Lars von Trier and Caryl Churchill, among others. Did this require a different process? How did you come to do this work?
MZ: In general, I only do translations if someone commissions me to do them, and also only if I really like the plays, because if I don’t I would rather do something else with my time (and I also have a full-time job as a dramaturg). So I was commissioned by the German publishers of those writers, and I already knew most of the work they had done up to then, I had been a dramaturg on a few Caryl Churchill plays we did at the Schaubühne and knew her personally. But the process itself isn’t really that different from translating into English.
For additional insight into von Mayenberg’s work, you may read his interview with RealTime Arts Magazine.