Akiva Fox: What is the Spanish Golden Age?
David Johnston: It was a period of extraordinary creativity that lasted from about 1550-1680. Like many such times of huge creative energies it coincided with a growing sense of collective crisis, a crisis that, in the case of Spain, was symbolized and accentuated by the unimaginable trauma that came in the wake of the defeat of the so-called ‘invincible armada’ in 1588. It was a time of remarkable innovation, when writers like Cervantes and Lope de Vega, and artists like El Greco and Velázquez created new ways of writing and painted new ways of seeing.
AF: Despite the astonishing volume of plays from the Spanish Golden Age, even experienced theatergoers know little more than Calderón’s Life is a Dream or Lope’s Fuenteovejuna. In part, does that stems from the lack of good translations?
DJ: Lope de Vega was extraordinarily prolific. Even at the most conservative estimate, he was writing and staging a new play every month over the forty years of his career as a playwright. But with one or two exceptions, very little of that huge output has been staged in English. Or indeed in Spain for that matter, so perhaps we shouldn’t feel too guilty. One of the reasons for that has certainly been the dearth of good translations. But there is a wider problem, I think. Until relatively recently – I suppose until the early 1980s - Spanish culture languished ignored by much of Europe and North America. It was a sort of kick on the backside that our liberal democracies felt they were delivering against Francoist Spain. The upshot was that it was mainly Spanish specialists who produced translations of the plays, and although these translations were certainly 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 (and a translator has to be a good writer) have turned their attention to Lope and Calderón – writers like Adrian Mitchell and Jo Clifford in the UK, and José Rivera in the US.
AF: So how do you select the plays you translate?
DJ: I’ve only ever written translations of the plays I’ve been commissioned to do. I suppose I’ve had some say in suggesting what plays those may be, but in a way we’re still at a stage when they select themselves. Of Lope’s five hundred or so proven plays I think I probably know about thirty of them reasonably well, and all of them are great, all of them would – and one day, will – work very well on the English-speaking stage. But the ones that I’ve done – like The Great Pretenders, The Gentleman from Olmedo, Madness in Valencia and, of course, The Dog in the Manger, are among the greatest dramatic masterpieces of the European theater. They’re self-selecting.
AF: How does your stage work tie into your work as an academic?
DJ: It keeps me sane.
That’s the short answer. I think that writing for performance and taking part in the collaborative work that putting a play on entails are activities that inform all the rest of my work as a teacher and essayist. They’re the proof of the pudding, the point where theory intersects with practice.
AF: What style do you try to bring to your translations?
DJ: I’d far rather someone said “that’s a good translation. I wonder if David Johnston did it” than “that has all the hallmarks of a David Johnston translation.” What I mean is that each play makes specific demands of the translator, just as it does of the actor and director.
AF: What are the particular challenges of translating comedia, and how do you address those challenges in creating playable English versions?
DJ: One of the defining features of the comedia is that it was written in a variety of verse forms. Every time the verse form changed, it signaled some sort of transition point to the audience, whose ears were entirely attuned to picking out and reacting to different metres and rhyming schemes. In my view, and I imagine in that of the people that come and see these plays today, playability is crucial. I think that the highly complex poetry that maps the storyline of the original plays is not only a feature that contemporary English-speaking audiences will be deaf to, but it might also impact in a negative way on the way in which we experience them. This may come as a sort of heresy or well-rehearsed impertinence to some academics, but the truth is that translation implies difference and change. What I’ve opted to do in my versions of Golden Age plays is to use eight-beat lines as the base for the play. This is a device intended to speed up the action, bring a quickness of thought and action wholly typical of Lope, but yet challenging and unfamiliar to English-speaking actors much more used to the more ponderous iambic pentameter.
AF: What specific challenges did The Dog in the Manger present?
DJ: I think it’s one of the finest comedies in the Spanish language. Comedy presents its own challenges of timing, even punctuation. And the sonnets in the play that Lope brilliantly uses to enable characters to pour out their turbulent inner worlds directly to the audience. These are all huge challenges, but translating anything and trying to make it a work in another language is both a misery and a delight. The audience can decide in what measure.
AF: You seem to have a particular affinity with the works of Lope. What is there about his language, his characterization and his plots that appeals to you? How do you try to bring those across in your translations?
DJ: Lope writes a beautifully crafted fast-moving theatre. His plays sort of burst onto the stage, then use a whole variety of different styles – from farce through puns and acerbic comedy to tragedy – in order to bring the audience into the heart of what’s happening. His plays are theatrical tour de forces, 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 no one particular way, but I suppose by trying to keep myself alive to what Lope is doing, what he is trying to do to his audience, in every single moment and movement of his writing.
AF: How do you think The Dog in the Manger speaks to a modern audience? As the translator, how much "adaptation" do you feel is necessary to bring a 400-year-old play to a modern audience?
DJ: I think any good play speaks to any audience. It creates moments of real engagement and complicity in the theatre. 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. “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. And of course there are degrees of adaptation. West Side Story is one sort of adaptation – of Romeo and Juliet – and it’s brilliant. But The Dog in the Manger is much more faithful to both the letter and the spirit of Lope.
AF: You've now worked with Jonathan Munby on several Golden Age productions. Why do you feel this collaboration works so well? He's said that he hopes that his productions do just what your translations do - namely, build a bridge to a culture and a time foreign to us. What skills do you think he brings to directing these plays, and what might he bring to The Dog in the Manger?
DJ: Jonathan is a great director. He has a huge sensitivity to Lope’s style of theatre, to their tumbling shifts in tone and emotion. He’s a director who deals beautifully with comedy and stage business, but who’s also not frightened to trust words, to allow them to do their full work. Those are the qualities that he’ll bring to The Dog in the Manger.
I think the idea of a bridge is a very good one, because it should remind us that 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. I’ve seen Jonathan achieve this in other productions - so that 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 speaking to us of a time and a place far from us, allowing us to feel in some way what it must have been like to live and be there and then. It’s exactly the opposite of what a museum does.