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On the challenges and pleasures of translating
by Sara Romano, France Magazine
When superstar French playwright Yasmina Reza snagged a Tony Award this past June for God of Carnage, she told the audience that she shared the honor with "my dearest Christopher." Indeed, Christopher Hampton, translator of God of Carnage and four of her other plays, has been integral to Reza's international success.
A celebrated writer, Hampton has collected a few trophies of his own, including an Academy Award in 1989 for scripting Dangerous Liaisons. He has since written screenplays for such popular movies as Atonement (2007) and, last year, Cheri. He has also penned a dozen plays, lyrics for two Broadway musicals and two opera librettos, and is currently working on another play about British colonialism as well as a screenplay about his childhood. In spite of these many endeavors, translation remains dear to the heart of this Oxford-educated artist.
God of Carnage centers around two couples who meet when one of their sons beats up the other's son on the playground, breaking a few teeth. Their conversation is initially courteous and civilized but quickly degenerates, revealing just how thin a social veneer can be. The title refers to a line spoken by Alan, the father of the assailant, who says that man's natural inclination is to be brutal and violent, that little boys in Africa are taught to kill when they are only eight years old, and that he believes in the god of carnage.
The Broadway version represents the first time that Hampton has shifted the setting of a Reza play—in this case, from Paris to Brooklyn—in order to better connect with an American audience. France Magazine caught up with the long-haired Hampton on a rainy summer day in London to ask him about these and other challenges involved in translating Yasmina Reza.
First, tell us about your relationship with Yasmina Reza.
We have a very good relationship. We've known one another for more than 10 years now. So we know each other's ways. She certainly isn't afraid to express herself forcibly about what she thinks works and doesn't work.
So she's difficult?
No, she's meticulous. That's as it should be. Sometimes she becomes exasperated and says, "Well, English isn't a very rich language, is it?" I have to point out that it's actually incredibly rich. It's just that there isn't any way of saying this or that particular thing in a way that will suit an actor! In interviews, she sometimes says that she suffers when her plays are done in other languages. But you know, there is no alternative.
How is her English?
It wasn't so good when we first met, but unfortunately, it has gotten very good! [He chuckles.] So there's nothing that gets past her.
How did you come to meet her and work with her?
I had a wonderful agent named Margaret Ramsay. She was everybody's agent—Vanessa Redgrave played her in the film Prick Up Your Ears. She used to send me things that she thought I might find interesting. In the '80s, she sent me Conversations After a Burial, Yasmina's first play. I read it, and with stage director Howard Davies, who had done my version of Liaisons Dangereuses, we tried to get various theaters to take a look at it because we thought it was an interesting play. But no one wanted to do it. It's very hard to get foreign plays produced in London.
And why is that?
I think it's because we're very insular. You have to wonder whether we English believe that somehow, because of Shakespeare, our plays are more interesting than anyone else's. There is all sorts of interesting work going on over in Europe, but you just can't get anyone to do it here.
So how did you manage to finally work with Reza?
A few years later, I was staying in Paris, working on something or other, and I went out to get a sandwich. I walked past the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées and saw that they were putting on this play called Art. Then I saw that it was by Yasmina. I went up to the box office to buy a ticket for that evening, but they were sold out for weeks to come. Aha, I thought, this is very interesting! That evening, I managed to find a return ticket and saw the play. I loved it.
When I got back to London, I asked my agent to try to get the rights. He looked into it and reported back to me that they belonged to Sean Connery. I told him, "Don't be ridiculous." A few days later, Sean Connery rang me up and asked me if I would like to translate it, and I said yes.
What did Sean Connery do with the rights to that play?
He made a lot of money. His wife Micheline, who's French, had seen the play and told him about it. That's how he became involved.
What is it about Yasmina Reza that resonates so powerfully throughout the world?
People recognize the truth of the situations that she puts her characters in. Everybody has experienced those stresses and strains. There's the comedy of recognition, which audiences love. The plays are extremely elegant and economic; there's not a word wasted. Everything is to the purpose.
Art actually effected a change in the way people go to the theater. Her model of a 90-minute performance and no intermission—everybody in and out in an hour and a half—audiences love that.
In the translation of “Art,” you kept all of the names in French.
We had a debate about that. I remember the very first meeting with Sean Connery and the other producers, it was in a restaurant in the West End. They asked me if I would set it in London, but I said no, because it is a very French play. I didn't think that an audience would believe that three Englishmen would get into a tremendous row over a painting. It just wouldn’t work.
All of her plays that have been presented in London and New York exist in two versions: an English version and an American version. American is a different language, and you wind up making five or six changes per page. The sentences are constructed differently. Typically, we get together with the actors a few days before rehearsals, go through the play and translate it into American.
They suggest the changes?
Well, no, I suggest them. I go in with the changes that I've made, then the actors tell me what modifications they want made, and what lines don't sound comfortable to them. Eventually we get an American translation.
When we got together just before Christmas, somebody—I don't quite remember who—said, "Why don't we set this one in America?" At first, Yasmina and I both said, "Oh, no, no, no." We automatically rejected the idea. Then both of us thought about it, and realized that there isn't actually anything in this particular play that localizes it in France. If it were set in the United States, the actors would feel more comfortable, the audiences would feel more comfortable.
One of the actors lives in Brooklyn. We thought Brooklyn might work—it is a specific area, the equivalent of the arrondissement where the play is set. We put in all the local references. So the flower shop at Mouton-Duvernet becomes a Korean deli. Instead of the Parc Montsouris, we have Brooklyn's Cobble Hill Park and Walt Whitman Park. Instead of the Métro, there is the El, and so on.
“Art” is a great play. Do you think God of Carnage is as great a work?
Yes, I do. I think it absolutely nails something about middle-class possessiveness and pride and all the various competitive neuroses that people suffer from. I think it defines all of that very lucidly.
Do you know what Reza is working on now?
I don't, actually. It's always a nice surprise. I just wait and see. By the same token, the first time she saw the American version of God of Carnage was the night before the Tonys. Everyone was very apprehensive, but she loved it, and everyone felt very relieved.
I think I'm right in saying that she always prefers the American version to the English version. She thinks the American idiom is somehow closer to French than English is.
Because it’s more direct and less restrained?
I don't know what it is. She has said to me many times, "I'm always longing for my plays to go to America, because I prefer what you do in America to what you do here in London." I think she likes the informality of it more, the really gloves-off feeling that you get with American actors.
There's a scene in the British version where Alain says to Véronique: 'You're motivated by an educational impulse which is sympathetic.' In French, the word is sympathique. Does that translate as "sympathetic"?
No, sympathique means "nice" in English. But I used "sympathetic" because it sounds amusing. Yasmina and I often have this conversation. For some reason, audiences tend to laugh at her plays more in Great Britain or America than they do in France. This disturbs her a little bit. Initially, she thought I was slipping extra jokes into Art. But it has nothing to do with that. It is because a turn of phrase and the manipulation of turns of phrases just strikes an audience here or in America as more comic.
Comic or pretentious?
I don’t know, but I probably nudge her plays a little closer to being comic.
When translated, French can seem pompous, don't you think? Do you exaggerate that?
Yes, translated French can sound pompous, but no, I don't exaggerate that. I think I always translate as accurately as I possibly can.
So you are translating, not adapting?
Oh, I never adapt. First of all, she wouldn't let me, and secondly, I wouldn’t want to. They’re really separate philosophies.
You are a very good writer yourself. You don’t find it frustrating to translate?
No, I love it. Translation uses completely different muscles than those you use when writing your own play. I sometimes say that it's like going to the gym. I like to work with the language, I like to find the best ways of expressing what the author wanted to say. When I'm writing a play, it's a slow process that can take many years. But I can finish a translation in a few weeks.
Yasmina Reza doesn't take several years to write her plays.
No, she doesn't, she's quicker than I am. She's a phenomenon. I don't know whether any other foreign writer has ever won a Tony. She's won two—one for Art and another for God of Carnage. What she's done is pretty extraordinary. We in Britain may be insular, we may be opposed to doing foreign plays, but Broadway is all that to the nth degree.
Could that be because she wrote Art when contemporary art was starting to explode in popularity?
No, I don't think that it has anything to do with that. I think it has to do with the fact that, from the night the play opened in London, it was a phenomenon.
So you were one of the catalysts of her international success?
I guess so. It really goes back to Peggy Ramsay. She said "Look, pay attention to this one." God knows, there are a lot of plays produced in France every year. I read a lot of them, and some of them are very good. It's finding the jewel that is the challenge.
So Reza's success is not a product of circumstance and luck?
I don't think so. Because she's been so successful, people tend to resent her. There's something about success that people react against.
Let's talk about you for a minute. You had an extraordinary childhood, growing up in different countries around the world.
Mostly in Egypt. From the ages of 5 to 10, I lived in Alexandria, which is a place I absolutely love. My father was working for a company called Cable & Wireless, he was a radio engineer. And I was very unhappy when I had to come back to England. I have written a screenplay about my childhood, and I want to turn it into a film.
What did you like about Alexandria?
It was very relaxed and cosmopolitan and Mediterranean and warm and friendly. You come here, and it's the middle of summer, and everyone is walking around with umbrellas. [He points to the Londoners running in the August torrents.] It's a weird country to suddenly land in at age 11. It's like Proust said: All paradises are lost paradises. My lost paradise is Egypt, Alexandria.
Is the movie of your life being made?
I've written a draft. I'm meeting with Colin Firth, I've asked him to play my dad. I don't know him, I've never worked with him before, but he seems very keen. He likes the script very much.
What else are you working on now?
There's a play that I've been working on for a long time. It's about the British in India. It takes place at the turn of the 19th century, the same era as Liaisons—around the time that the British first formulated the idea of colonialism and exploitation. When they started out, they were quite interested in other cultures. Then at some point, sometime during the early 19th century, they changed to wanting to impose their own. So I'm very interested in that moment.
Why is this particular play taking so long?
A play is such a difficult thing, and to get it absolutely right, it takes forever. When I was very young, I was writing a play every three years. Now, it takes me five or six years.
Are you working on any movies?
I do get a lot of novels sent to me, but very rarely do I find one that seems right. I found Atonement myself; I read it and really wanted to do it. But there are a lot of very good novels that won't make very good films; they just don't have a dramatic shape. There’s a difference between the way a novel unfolds and what happens in a movie. In particular, there's a difference between novels and what you need to deliver at the end of a movie. I like working on masterpieces. Cheri is a masterpiece, I think. I like working on books that I love, and a lot of the books I love are French.
Why is that?
That's what I studied at university. I've always had a particular feeling for it. Liaisons is at the beginning of the period of literature that I really like, and Cheri is near the end. Between 1770 and 1920, there were 150 years of great French novels. I just adore Balzac and Flaubert and Zola and Proust.
Although you haven't done any of those.
No, I haven't. We talked with Stephen Frears about doing La Chartreuse de Parme, but it's too big. I've also considered L'Education sentimentale. But it's very very difficult to get people interested in these things. Even in France.
Reprinted by permission from France Magazine.