David Johnston translated The Dog in the Manger for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2004, adding to a string of acclaimed translations of great Spanish plays. A professor at Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland, he combines a scholar’s knowledge of literature with a playwright’s flair for dramatic language. With the Shakespeare Theatre Company bringing The Dog in the Manger to the stage in Washington, he talked about translating Lope de Vega for a modern audience:
Lope de Vega was extraordinarily prolific. He was writing and staging a new play every month over the forty years of his career as a playwright. But very little of that huge output has been staged in English. One of the reasons for that has certainly been the dearth of good translations. It was mainly Spanish specialists who produced translations of the plays, and although these translations were well-meaning they were excessively academic – as faithful and loving as puppies, but you still don’t want them under your feet when you’re trying to walk. It’s really only in the last fifteen or twenty years that good writers have turned their attention to these plays.
Lope writes a beautifully crafted fast-moving theatre. His plays burst onto the stage, then use a whole variety of different styles – from farce to puns and comedy to tragedy – in order to bring the audience into the heart of what’s happening. His plays are emotional roller coasters, full of subversive humor and a sublimated, but still dark and deeply-charged eroticism. How do I try to bring these across in translation? By trying to keep myself alive to what Lope is trying to do to his audience, in every single moment and movement of his writing.
The Dog in the Manger is one of the finest comedies in the Spanish language. And I think any good play speaks to any audience. But as a translator I’m also aware that performance takes place in the here and now of a specific audience, and that if that audience is going to maintain its engagement they have to have some sense of issues that concern them too. For this play, “ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with?” does it for me.
Some measure of adaptation is always necessary to act as a bridge between us and any time or culture that is distant from us; translations and theatre are about two-way traffic. Both translation and theatre import the complexities and the challenges and the traumas of the world outside us, but they also invite us to travel outwards, to journey into the heart of that which we are not. The audience is able to experience the play as having something real and meaningful to say about the way we live our lives today, as well as allowing us to feel in some way what it must have been like to live in a time and a place far from us. It’s exactly the opposite of what a museum does.