Interview With Paul Walsh, Translator Of The Ghost Sonata (Extended Version)


Paul Walsh is Professor Of Dramaturgy And Dramatic Criticism at Yale School Of Drama.  He is also author of a new translation of August Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata, which Undermain will be performing from April 13 to May 11.  Several weeks ago, he was kind enough to answer some of my questions about translating this notoriously rich and difficult modern masterpiece.  What follows is the full text of our interview — previously available in truncated form in the Undermain Newsletter.

Stephen Foglia: Just to orient ourselves, how did you come to translate Ghost Sonata? And what prepared you for the task?

Paul Walsh: Many years ago, when studying for my master’s degree at the University of Minnesota, I became fascinated with Strindberg. He is after all a fascinating character. And with the help of a professor in the Scandinavian department there (the great Strindberg scholar Göran Stockenström) I received a guest fellowship from the Swedish Institute to study in Uppsala, Sweden. I spent several years in Sweden, studying the language and reading everything I could about turn-of-the-century Scandinavian theater and drama.  And of course I also studied Norwegian so I could read the plays of Strindberg’s nemesis and scourge, Henrik Ibsen. I later went on to write my doctoral dissertation at the Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama at the University of Toronto on the early plays of Strindberg.

But there hasn’t been much of a demand for new translations of Strindberg’s plays in the American theater. Strindberg may be called the “father of modern drama,” but when it comes to our stages he has been kind of an absentee father: little seen, little known, and little appreciated. After all, he wrote 63 or so plays and only a small handful are ever seen on our stages and those very rarely. So there hasn’t been much of a demand for new translations.

Then a few years back the intrepid Rob Melrose of the Cutting Ball Theater in San Francisco and I started talking about how his theater would be celebrating the 100th anniversary of Strindberg’s death (in 2012). What he decided was that he was going to produce all five of Strindberg’s Chamber Plays in rep. It was of course a completely insane idea: most of the Chamber Plays are never produced at all, much less all five and in rep with the same actors, designers, and director. Of course I jumped at the opportunity to translate them for Rob and the productions last fall were extraordinary, especially the “marathon days” when audiences could see all five plays in a single, very long, and very Strindbergian day.

I had done an earlier version of The Ghost Sonata years before when I teaching at SMU for a group of students who wanted to mount it as a summer experiment. But it was the Cutting Ball that gave me the opportunity to return to The Ghost Sonata and retranslate it in along with the other four Chamber Plays and that was fascinating — sometimes grueling, but always rewarding — experience. To look at all five plays as a unit was a revelation. Not only are the themes the same, but the resonances and reverberations of one play to the next — and the radical diversity of approaches that Strindberg takes in each of the plays — was revelatory. I’ve come to understand the play better and to appreciate the intimacy and honesty with which Strindberg reveals himself and his view of the world in this play so much more deeply.

Looking at previous translations—and there are a fair number of them—could you describe to me misgivings you had about them or specific areas in which you hoped to improve upon the existing body of work?

Translations for the stage profit from being renewed every generation or so, as our spoken language changes. Often a translation can start to feel dated, intrusive, obscure. The rhythms are suddenly wrong. This is not to say that there are necessarily any deficiencies in an earlier translation, but translations can date just like milk. They can get sour and curdle. I can’t say that I am familiar with all the various translations and versions of The Ghost Sonata in English, but I do know that a dated translation can make for a dated rendering of the play on the stage.

Here as with all my translations, I have striven for a text that is playable and speakable by contemporary American actors. This doesn’t mean that I’ve tried to update the play or its language in anyway, but I have tried to capture the vibrancy and obscurity of Strindberg’s text in a language that is as fresh and alive and active in the theater as the original was in 1907.

One of the things that makes translating Strindberg such an exhilarating and demanding challenge for me is that he was a consummate man of the theater who understood the intricacies and challenges of writing for performance better than most. Every time I read one of his plays I’m reminded of the ferocity of his theatrical imagination, the intimidating recklessness with which he discarded familiar forms and structures and approaches to dramatic writing, and the depth of his investigations into what it means to be a writer and a human being living on the cusp of the 20th century. His plays constantly surprise me, fascinate me, frustrate me. And I see it as my task and my duty to make them equally surprising, fascinating and — yes, frustrating — for the audience in performance: to present their richness to the audience and also their opacity, without either obscuring or explaining the mysteries at their core, and certainly without apologizing for them.

I’ve also tried in this translation to honor Strindberg’s sometimes erratic punctuation, which isn’t always very grammatical. Lots of commas, no periods, long sentences that go on forever. There are clues here to the actors, I think, and I always want to do my best to make any clues in the original text available to the actors in my translation. After all, it’s the actors’ job to translate text into speech—and that’s a difficult job in itself without the translator getting in the way.

Since my translation was headed for the stage, I knew from the start that I wanted it to be a text for performance not for reading. This hasn’t always been the case with other translations. I knew that actors would be spending weeks working through and discovering the text in rehearsal and there’s real freedom in knowing that. Besides I love actors and marvel at what they are able to do. I fear that some translators in the past have treated the play as a reading text and have obscured moments in performance by trying to clarify them for a reading public.

The play is rather famously dense in plot detail and back-story. One thing I admire in your translation is the relative ease with which you put through the full soap opera of exposition. Is that something you consciously sought? How did you achieve it?

The clarity and ease you find in my translation is really Strindberg’s not mine. I simply followed Strindberg’s text without embellishing or erasing anything. He is after all a master and his exposition of the tangled web of this strange house is masterful. “It’s a little complicated,” the Old Man says. “It’s damned complicated,” the Student replies. That’s Strindberg’s sense of humor: but by trusting his text and working to get the rhythms and emphases right—and trusting the actors and director and designers who will make it live in space and time—it can sometimes came out right. I’m so glad you like it. I have to admit translating still remains pretty much a mystery to me, though I’ve been doing it for years. I think if the mystery ever evaporates I’ll lose interest.

What were some specific challenges in translating Ghost Sonata? Any particularly untranslatable phrases?

One of the biggest challenges in translating the Ghost Sonata is finding a sufficiently resonant and poetic language for Scene Three that is still in keeping with the kind of language spoke in Scenes One and Two. Scene Three is remarkably difficult since the emotional resonances are so richly lyrical and also so quick to change. It’s even more difficult to play, especially after the tour-de-force “ghost supper” scene. But Strindberg knew the difficulties and persevered. And he crafted an experience for the audience that is daring and daunting, full of honest revelations and subtle self-deceptions and bitter recriminations and resigned resignations. How to make all this present without overburdening the scene and the quiet simplicity of Strindberg’s language? Yes, it was certainly the biggest challenge of the play.

Not just in the third scene, but elsewhere in the play the Student sometimes says the most inane things. “Before what is hopeless there is only despair,” he says in the first scene for example. I mean, give me a break. I would never say that. But then I’m not the student and if he wants to self-dramatize with a cliché voiced as a proverb, that’s his prerogative. I’m kidding of course, it’s ultimately Strindberg’s prerogative. And that’s what Strindberg wrote, or something like it. And such lines gave me trouble. But in a play like The Ghost Sonata it’s crucial to decipher the tone and the intent and the feeling and the attitude of each line and not just try to make it sound like good polite everyday English. Because these characters are not as polite or as every-day or as good as we are or try to be.

Strindberg’s paraphrase of some stanzas of the 13th-century Icelandic “Sólarljód” (Sun Song) was very difficult, though I guess I can’t really say it was untranslatable since I’ve translated it. Maybe it’s just that it’s impossible to translate well.

What resources did you draw from in your work? Were any especially helpful?

Swedish has this verb — “att grubbla” which can be translated “to ponder” or “to ruminate” but for me it also has the sense of digging in the dirt (like the archaic English verb “to grub,” that probably entered English during the Viking migration). I think of “att grubbla” as a way of life and a way through life. It’s a kind of brooding. In Swedish you can “grubbla bort” or “grubbla ut” things (“ruminate away” or “ponder out” things). And for me it has associations with the grave (“att gräva,” to dig). The word “att grubbla” doesn’t appear in The Ghost Sonata (though Strindberg does use it elsewhere), but it was always in my mind as I was translating. I couldn’t shake it. Because the whole play has this quality of pondering and digging in the dirt. So I guess what I am saying is that sometimes a translation relies as much on the cultural nuances of the language itself as it does on the words of the text.

As I translated I found myself digging around in the on-line version of the Dictionary of the Swedish Academy (Svenska Akademiens ordbok), which is like their OED. It’s an amazing work full of amazing things. The first volume was published in 1898 and by 2008 they had gotten up to the letter “T.” So some words are still not available in it. But what a brilliant collection of the arcane, the obvious, the obscure, the prescient. I also found Gunnar Ollén scholarly annotations to the text in the new national edition of the collected works of Strindberg (Nationalupplagan av August Strindbergs Samlade Verk) incredibly helpful. And when I’m bored I like to look at Strindberg’s Occult diary (Ockulta Dagboken). I have a facsimile edition that was published in the 1970s and I like to try to decipher his handwriting and look at his drawings.

Ghost Sonata is a thematically rich play. It’s been interpreted through many different critical codes—as fairy tale, as Swedenborgian parable, as social critique, etc. Do any of these broad readings influence how you approach a specific word within the text? Is it necessary or helpful to appeal to a higher-order understanding of the play, or can you work piece-by-piece with what is literally in front of you?

Strindberg is a generous collaborator, leaving plenty of room for actors and director, or critics and scholars, or audiences and readers to discover new ways into a play like The Ghost Sonata and new ways to produce it. Perhaps this is one reason that the play continues to fascinate us. There is no definitive reading, in my mind, just a myriad of possibilities. So I didn’t sit down to translate the play with a specific notion of what it’s about or how it constructs or deconstructs meaning. I’ve taught the play several times, but never very successfully, and I think each time I’ve taught it I’ve come at it from another perspective. I do believe it’s a Swedenborgian parable and a fairytale and that it’s a scathing social critique, and many other things besides, but I try to keep my professorial persona at bay when I’m wearing my translator’s hat. I try to translate moment-by-moment, bit-by-bit, and not interpret as I go. Of course every act of translation is an act of interpretation, just as it is always an act of betrayal. And the effort to keep both interpretation and betrayal at bay will always ultimately fail. But I do think it’s worth trying.