I live with one of those arty-filmy types, who idolises Ingmar Bergman, and
who forced me to get tickets to Ghosts
when we were filling out our BAM subscription last year. Ghosts is
a relatively minor Ibsen play which has been loosely translated by Bergman into
Swedish (from Norwegian) and directed by him in a production for the Royal Dramatic
Theatre of Sweden, who John Lahr of the New Yorker calls "probably
the best repertory theater in the world".
The five performances of Ghosts here in New York have been long-anticipated,
and sold out for months. This is despite the fact that they’re in Swedish. There
were certainly a lot of Swedes in the audience, but most people were following
the translation. Bergman obviously has a broad and deep following.
I’m no stranger to theater in a foreign language, even if you exclude opera.
I once went to an all-day-long Russian-language performance of War and Peace
at Tramway in Glasgow,
and although it was incredibly boring at points (the political discussions did
tend to drag a little) I managed to cope with the supertitles much as I would
with the same thing at the opera, or with subtitles on a film.
So I was looking forward to this play. I’m a big Ibsen fan, and I’m always
interested in seeing theatrical productions which are acknowledged to be among
the best in the world.
I didn’t make it past the interval.
The reason had nothing to do with the acting, the direction, the stage design,
or the play itself. All, I’m sure, were first-rate. Even the costumes were great.
But the whole theatre-going experience was destroyed by BAM’s mind-blowingly
idiotic decision not to use surtitles, like any other theatre would, but to
use simultaneous translation instead.
It was just like when you go to an international conference: you walk up to
the little man with the headsets, and give him a credit card, driver’s license
or the like in surety for your little piece of high-tech gadgetry. The headset
itself was a bit like this
one, but not quite as nice: the earpieces didn’t have foam covers, which
meant that – because the weight of the whole device was borne by the inside
of your ears – you were definitely feeling it after more than an hour
Four translators worked on the piece, which had many more than four characters,
meaning that sometimes you had the same person speaking two different parts
in very close proximity to each other: weird, and disconcerting. What’s more,
because (I suppose) that it’s much easier to find English-speaking Swedes than
Swedish-speaking Americans, the translators sometimes got pronunciations wrong,
or tripped over their lines. (The translation from Swedish to English, by the
way, was beyond dreadful: cliché-filled hackwork at its very worst.)
The translators made what was probably a smart decision not to attempt to act
their parts: the acting was on stage, and the translation was merely to keep
us up to speed with who was saying what to whom. But when the characters are
shouting and crying at each other, there’s definitely a disconnect when what
you’re hearing is delivered in such a deadpan that often it was hard to work
out whether a certain line was meant sarcastically or not.
What’s more, Ghosts is a dialogue-heavy play, which means that a lot
of the time the characters simply stand or sit on stage and have long discussions.
Everything, here, is in the delivery – but we who were listening on headphones
got none of that, since the translation effectively drowned out all of the audible
information from the stage.
For me, choosing between simultaneous translation and surtitles in a theatrical
context is a no-brainer. If the art resides largely in the text and the delivery,
then we should be able to hear it; if you’re listening to a bad translation,
badly delivered, you’re never going to appreciate the play. Surtitles do detract
attention from what’s going on on-stage, but most of the time, in this play,
that was very little. And one of the great complaints about surtitles in the
operatic world – that they steal attention from the music, which is what
really matters – simply isn’t relevant in the case of theatre.
What’s more, surtitles are much more forgiving of bad translation than simultaneous
translation is. With a surtitle, you’re always aware that what you’re listening
to is a very loose translation of the original, there to provide an idea of
what’s going on. In films, most of the script is jettisoned by the time it reaches
subtitles, without too much in the way of ill effects. You glance at the surtitle
to keep abreast of the plot, and then refocus your attention on the action.
Simultaneous translation, on the other hand, offers no opportunity to concentrate
purely on what’s going on in front of you: it’s impossible even to hear the
actors. The whole theatrical experience is mediated through an uncomfortable
headset housing uninspiring voices. (And which, incidentally, delivers hissing
white noise when no one is speaking, especially if you turn your head away from
the stage at all.)
I really can’t imagine why BAM didn’t go the surtitle route, and chose to use
translation and headsets instead. Maybe some kind company donated the headset
technology, and BAM felt that it had to use them. Maybe Bergman got full of
himself, and decided that he didn’t want surtitles bespoiling his perfect production.
Maybe the cost of making slides for surtitles was a lot greater than the cost
of hiring translators for the week. None of them strike me as particularly good
reasons: if you know what the real reason was, do leave a comment below.
But at least there was a silver lining: leaving BAM early meant that we were
finally able to try out Thomas
Beisl, the hot new Austrian restaurant in Fort Greene. Great food, wonderful
beer, very reasonable prices: all in all, one of the best places to eat out
in New York, I’d say. If you have tickets to future performances of Ghosts,
I’d recommend you sell them to the line of desperates wanting to get in, and
go treat yourself to a delicious Viennese meal with the proceeds. You’ll have
a much more enjoyable evening.