Prescient for Our Own Time
An Interview with Ghosts Translator Paul Walsh and Director Carey Perloff
Seattle Rep: How did the idea for a new Ghosts translation come to be?
Carey Perloff, director: Paul and I have happily worked on numerous new translations together, from Strindberg's Creditors to Ibsen's A Doll's House. We chose Ghosts in part because it contained such a great role for one of my favorite collaborators, David Strathairn, and in part because the notion of buried beliefs coming back to haunt us seemed so prescient for our own time.
SR: Paul, if we were together looking at a piece of an original Ibsen translation of Ghosts side-by-side with the same scene of your translation, what would a reader first notice with these two in comparison?
Paul Walsh, translator: Ibsen’s plays were first introduced to English-speaking audiences during the Victorian era by translators who were both British and Victorian. As a result, their translations import a certain way of living and being in the world that’s both British and Victorian, and also more self-consciously literary than Ibsen’s originals. Their characters are more loquacious and more polite, and they rely on circumlocution and innuendo so as not to give offense. Ibsen’s plays strike me as more direct and plain-spoken than that, and this is where their complexity lies. Part of the challenge of translating a play by Ibsen is to find a language that is as natural and resonant, and also as porous and unresolved, as Ibsen’s. This is what I’ve tried to achieve in my translation of Ghosts and I think what distinguishes it from earlier translations of the play. Here’s a passage from the first English translation of Ghosts, done in 1888 by the theater critic and Ibsen advocate William Archer, with the same moment from my translation (trimmed a bit in accord with contemporary expectations about pacing and focus):
William Archer’s translation (1888):
MANDERS. Questions of that kind I must decline to discuss with you, Mrs. Alving; you are far from being in the right frame of mind for them. But that you dare to call your scruples "cowardly"—!
MRS. ALVING. Let me tell you what I mean. I am timid and faint-hearted because of the ghosts that hang about me, and that I can never quite shake off.
MANDERS. What do you say hangs about you?
MRS. ALVING. Ghosts! When I heard Regina and Oswald in there, it was as though ghosts rose up before me. But I almost think we are all of us ghosts, Pastor Manders. It is not only what we have inherited from our father and mother that "walks" in us. It is all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth. They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we cannot shake them off. Whenever I take up a newspaper, I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines. There must be ghosts all the country over, as thick as the sands of the sea. And then we are, one and all, so pitifully afraid of the light.
MANDERS. Aha—here we have the fruits of your reading. And pretty fruits they are, upon my word! Oh, those horrible, revolutionary, free-thinking books!
Paul Walsh’s translation:
PASTOR MANDERS. I refuse to debate such questions with you, dear lady, since you’re far from being in a proper state of mind. But how dare you say it’s cowardly of you —!
MRS. ALVING. Then let me tell you what I mean. I’m timid and I’m frightened because there’s something here inside me that terrifies me — something I can never be free of. When I heard Regina and Oswald in there, it was like seeing a ghost in front of me. I almost believe we’re all filled with ghosts, Pastor Manders. It’s not only the opinions we inherit from our fathers and mothers that return in us. It’s all sorts of beliefs and lies — specters from a past we thought were dead. Whenever I pick up a newspaper it’s like I see them peering out from between the lines. They’re everywhere, all across the land, as numberless as grains of sand. And that’s why we’re all so wretchedly afraid of the light, all of us.
PASTOR MANDERS. And there we have the result of your reading. Fine fruit, I’d say. All those abominable, revolting, freethinking publications.
Throughout, my goal has been to create a translation that’s faithful to the original, but also speakable and playable by living American actors performing on stage for American audiences. Sometimes this means making small cuts in the text to propel a thought forward (in a way that I feel is faithful to Ibsen’s text if not always literal). What it doesn’t mean is trying to update the situation or the language or have the characters behave as if they were living in the 21st century. I’m particularly attentive when translating to the rhythms of American speech, and I’ll often adjust my translations in rehearsal to fit comfortably into the mouths of the particular actors we’re working with. But most importantly, I do my best to make available to the actors all the clues to intention and tone that Ibsen provides without embellishing Ibsen’s text, or smoothing out complexities, or clarifying obscurities. For example, Ibsen was fond of interrupting a thought with dashes; rather than completing sentences that he left incomplete, I’ve remained faithful to his practice. Most of all, I have tried to provide the actors with an English text that addresses a contemporary American audience with the same freshness and vitality as Ibsen’s original addressed his audience.
SR: Carey, you are known for reimagining classics. What has this new production of Ghosts brought forward that most excites you?
CP: Every day in rehearsal, I am reminded of what a radical writer Ibsen was. I am trying to keep alive all the contradictions and dialectics the play contains—today we like to know which side "virtue" resides on, but Ibsen knew that morality is messy, and that "truth" is a multi-faceted weapon. So I want the production to wrestle with the fierce collisions and contradictions of the text, and also the sorrow of never really being able to know another human being, let alone ourselves. I've also loved experimenting with how to make the visceral presence of "ghosts" alive in the room, through music, lighting, staging, and every theatrical tool we can imagine. We are living through a terrifying historical moment in which the ghosts we thought we'd buried have risen up violently in Europe, so this idea is not abstract, it is absolutely real.
SR: What is it like for both of you returning to this translation now that theaters are reopening after pandemic closures?
PW: Like most people I spent the last two years in uncomfortable isolation, uncomfortable because I found myself delving unchecked into past ambitions and past mistakes. It’s what people do, I suppose, when they spend too much time alone. It’s certainly what the characters in this play have done, as became so clear to me on the first day of rehearsal. Being in rehearsal with such amazing collaborators has not only allowed me to see the play in a new way, but has given me new hope for the future despite the enormous uncertainty of the present. I wondered if I’d ever be in rehearsal again—back in public, back where real life happens in the moment. And here I am, facing a play that has grown richer and more complex and more important over the past couple years and watching it come to life in ways I never could have imagined. I can’t wait to share with an audience the amazing work that everyone is doing.
CP: It's amazing how visceral theater can be when it is actually embodied! So much of Ghosts is about secrets, sexual heat, evasions, and attacks, and when that happens in real time as opposed to on Zoom, the impact is amazing. To be back in the room with this remarkable and diverse company, to feel their vulnerability and to hear their breath, is incredible and invigorating. Postpandemic, we are also trying to work in new ways, to go deeper, to listen harder, to trust each other. It's been a wonderful process.
SR: What do you hope audiences take away from this production?
CP: That to be a parent or to be a child is a complex negotiation that never ends. And that women have only really begun the fight for autonomy and cultural value.