Thursday, June 23, 2011

Translator's Note for The Pig, or Václav Havel's Hunt for a Pig

            This is not a play, exactly.  Nor is it an operetta, exactly.  It is a collage.  An adaptation of an adaptation.  A multimedia and multidisciplinary work culled from two different cultures and three centuries.
            Originally a short dialogue from 1987 and printed in a samizdat or underground magazine (often photocopies of photocopies), the piece is a shaggy-dog tale at heart; a comic (and true) story of Havel’s attempt to hold a pig roast for his friends.
            In 2010, Czech director Vladimír Morávek, of Theater Goose on the String, rediscovered the dialogue and decided to stage it.  He began by giving lines to characters only mentioned in passing, but then made a more radical choice: he added sections from of one of the most beloved Czech works, The Bartered Bride.  This new version was the centerpiece of a theater festival in Brno last June.
            I was invited to attend the festival yet knew nothing about the piece before I arrived. Like many of Havel’s plays, I see it as a veiled critique of the Communist system; however The Bartered Bride adds another layer to the story.  The operetta was written at a time (the 1860’s) when the act of speaking Czech was in itself a nationalistic gesture. Spoken Czech had died out and Smetana, among others, wanted to restore it as a living language (and gain independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire).  In the context of The Pig, the celebratory music foreshadows the Velvet Revolution, the overthrow of Communism, and Havel’s election to the presidency.
            Indeed, near the end of the piece, Morávek slips the words “truth and love” into the lyrics; a reference to Havel’s most famous quote, “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred.”
            Upon seeing the production, I asked whether I could translate The Pig for a production here in New York.
            I cannot speak Czech.
            I have taken classes and done my best to learn it, but Czech, especially spoken Czech, eludes me.  The sounds are very difficult for my ear, and I’m sure when I speak it my accent is terrible.
            And so the title of translator seems a little suspicious to me.
             But what I did was this:  I worked with a native speaker, Katerina Lu, until I was relatively certain I understood every nuance of the original.  I then took my notes and attempted to find ways to not only convey not only the meaning of the lines but also Havel’s rhythms and wry humor.
            And then I started writing my own dialogue, particularly for the Journalist.
            The Journalist was written in “English” in the original, though I often found myself correcting the often technically correct lines for ones that would seem natural to an American.  And as I wrote, I realized how much information Americans would lack that is simply common knowledge for most Czechs—from the plot of The Bartered Bride to the events of the Velvet Revolution.
            So I began adding lines that helped set up the play for American audiences.  And then, as I started working with the director, Henry Akona, I started adding some silent characters, partly so we could utilize the video capacities of 3LD, partly for the flavor that those silent characters give to most of Havel’s plays.
            And then I played with the placement of choruses, added a few more lines, and…
            In the end, this is a work that takes what was presented in Brno and enhances it with our own creative imaginings, as Havel’s original was enhanced by Morávek.  To me, it has now become something of a cross-cultural dialogue.  What better way to express a work whose two main characters are an American and a Czech?
            But primarily, it is Havel himself who was the main inspiration behind my efforts. The Pig is the only Havel work in which he appears on stage as one of the characters.  My challenge was to convey Havel’s voice, which is witty, wise, sometimes a little testy, but always compassionate and humane.

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