On Translating Strindberg’s Chamber Plays

Presented to the Association of Swedish Teachers and Researchers in America (ASTRA), Berkeley CA, October 2012

It is a great pleasure to have been invited here this afternoon to share my thoughts about the mysteries and challenges and joys of translating Strindberg’s Chamber Plays for the stage. Challenges are foremost on my mind because talking about what I do is always a challenge for me, and especially when asked to talk about what I do to a group of experts. I’m much better at talking about what other people do. Besides, translating remains pretty much a mystery to me, though I cherish this opportunity to try to unravel a bit of this mystery for myself and share my doubts with you.

Strindberg man of the theater

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 am 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. These 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.

So my first goal when I sit down to translate a play by Strindberg is to recognize and honor its opacity and the complexity this intimates. In other words, translating Strindberg, for me, is not about speaking on his behalf, making his idiosyncratic vision of life clear or even acceptable. It’s about discovering in his language the concrete depth of his thinking and making this speakable and playable in English for American actors on the American stage. My task, and I take it seriously, is to bring Strindberg’s plays — in all their complexity — to the contemporary stage for contemporary audiences who (I hope) will be as fascinated and exhilarated and challenged by his vision of life as I am myself.

That’s my goal. But I’m sad to say I rarely get the opportunity to test it. Strindberg may be the father of modern drama, as we’re so often told, but I’m afraid he’s been a kind of absentee father on our stages: little seen, little known, and little appreciated. A few of his plays are read in modern drama classes — but always the same few. And occasionally one of these few finds its way onto one of our stages. But for the most part Strindberg remains an enigma: scary, dour, and formidable. People would rather see Ibsen, as if it’s one or the other.

Cutting Ball

That’s why I was so thrilled and honored when Rob Melrose at the Cutting Ball Theater invited me to prepare new translations of the five Chamber Plays for production as a cycle as part of the international celebration of the centennial of Strindberg’s death. It’s a project that Rob and I had talked about for several years, but it was still a shock when the theater decided to go forward with it. These aren’t easy plays, nor are they comfortable. Nor do they fit easily into a small theater like Cutting Ball’s (or like Strindberg’s own Intimate Theater for which they were written). Obviously, Strindberg’s notion of the intimate was different from ours. These aren’t plays in which two or three characters sit around a table and talk. The Ghost Sonata, for example, requires three different sets, including the two-story exterior of a modern apartment building with action on both floors and characters entering from inside the building. And it has fourteen characters, as does The Burned House. Clearly Strindberg’s notion of the intimate was not small; rather, I think, it was about offering the audience an experience of intimate self-revelation leading to self-discovery.

It’s an ambitious undertaking, to produce the five Chamber Plays as a cycle with the same cast, director and designers for all five plays. Maybe even a foolhardy one. The risks are palpable. But over the past ten years, Rob and the folks at Cutting Ball have embraced their motto — “Risk is this … ” — in everything they do, and embraced it with commendable fortitude and imagination. So that’s what I’ve tried to do too in preparing these translations.

And when I sat down with the actors this past summer to work through my translations, I realized that Strindberg’s status as the absentee father of modern drama had changed. Now he’s like an eccentric grandfather: surprising in his depth and breadth of experience, shocking (maybe even embarrassing) in the intimacy of his revelations, starting in the reach of his imagination. A new generation is discovering Strindberg for the first time and they find him daring and outlandish, but also familiar and sometimes magical. It’s this strange quality of being constantly remade by the world he tried so desperately to understand that makes Strindberg seem always of our time and perhaps a step ahead. And it’s this quality that I’ve tried to capture in my translations: this quality of daring and risk, this quality of intimacy and surprise, this quality of having been freshly made once again.

Of course, Strindberg doesn’t made things easy — not for me as translator, not for the actors, and certainly not for the audience.


Take Storm, for example, the first of Strindberg’s five Chamber Plays and his first excursion into a dramaturgy of intimacy for his new Intimate Theater. Storm is a play that seems to be one thing but then reveals itself as something else. The Old Gentleman has locked himself away from life, clinging desperately to his memories of a past that he has transformed into a little altar to the home. He lives in the past, preferring to cultivate private memories of past happiness than face the loneliness and isolation of his present life. “When time has passed,” he says, “all memories are beautiful.” And later he describes his memories as poems he has made “out of past realities.” All this changes suddenly when the Old Gentleman’s ex-wife and child invade his quiet life. What had seemed to him to be beautiful memories reveal themselves instead as fabrications he has constructed to keep the seething resentments of the past from bubbling up into the present. The Old Gentleman has convinced himself that he is at peace and tries desperately to behave as if he were; but as the play proceeds that peace proves to be a false façade that begins to crumble (a motif that runs throughout the Chamber Plays). Old resentments re-emerge in a litany of accusations and recriminations against his wife, against his brother (who is the only contact with the world that he allows himself), and most importantly against himself. But Strindberg has chosen to keep these emotions muted, intimate, guarded and this makes my task as translator doubly challenging: to keep the stakes high and the language cool. To suggest without revealing, as Strindberg does. And to insure that at every step the tone is right, so nuances are clear but misunderstandings avoided.

All of this is further complicated when, two-thirds of the way through the play, the Old Gentleman reveals to his former wife that he had met his daughter on the stairs “a bit ago.” “Have you met?,” Gerda repeats. “Yes, but I didn’t need to tell anyone. Haven’t I the right to keep quiet? Besides, the meeting was so upsetting that I struck it from my memory, as if it had never existed.”

Well this changes everything. If the Old Gentleman met his daughter on the stairs “a bit ago” then he’s known all along that Gerda, his ex-wife, has moved in above him, even if as he says, “the meeting was so upsetting that I struck it from my memory.” And if he’s known all along then was his surprise at seeing his ex-wife in his dining room — or outside his window standing next to his brother — as shocking as it seemed? Is the Old Gentleman a calculating manipulator like Gustaf in Strindberg’s earlier play Creditors or is he really able to strike something so surprising and so upsetting from his memory “as if it had never existed”? Or has he buried this too in that place deep inside where things continue to seethe?

Here is an example of what I call the opacity of Strindberg’s writing. He has inserted a challenge at the center of the play that’s almost insurmountable. And we have to believe he has done it intentionally. Of course it would be easy for me to say this is the actor’s problem and the director’s and not the translator’s. And ultimately it is their problem. But before I can pass the buck I must be sure that I have it right, and that all the clues and nuances and intimations that Strindberg has provided in the text line up so the actor and director can make the best possible choices. Are there things I’ve missed? In Creditors, for example there were many clues to point to Gustaf’s carefully laid plan and to the cynical tone of that play. They were subtle but clear and in translating that play I taught myself to see them. But such clues are missing here. There’s nothing to suggest that this is a cynical play about revenge as Creditors was. The moments of accusation and retribution here are ultimately unsatisfying for all concerned. So if not that, then what?

And this is the question that, as translator, I must be able to answer in order to proceed. It’s why I say that every act of translation is an act of interpretation, though by that I don’t mean determining what the play means so much as trying to discern what is happening moment by moment, and trying to find a pattern that ties these individual moments together. This, I think, is part of my responsibility as translator.

It’s also why I think of translation as a dramaturgical task — based in reading and listening — rather than a writerly task. It’s not my job to write or rewrite. It’s my job to read and listen as I translate words and thoughts and motifs from one language into another, trying as best I can to maintain all the resonances and clues and possibilities of the source text in my translation, and thinking always about the three different plays I am translating: the writer’s play, the actor’s play, and the audience’s play. When these three plays meld into one, I have done my job.

One of the major motifs in Storm is the motif of not saying everything that’s on your mind. It’s like a kind of forgetting, this decision not to speak; or at least an approach to life that encourages forgetting. Early in the play Louise, the Gentleman’s maid, tells the Confectioner that she “loves … the dignified reserve of not saying everything you think.” And we have seen how there can be comfort in that. But we have also seen that it is a comfort built upon the anguish of not knowing what anyone is really thinking. And this is the anguish that the Gentleman has chosen to live with in order to guard himself from pain. It’s an anguish that reveals itself throughout the play in the flicker of moments between characters when a gesture or a glance or a word intimates something that the characters would rather conceal. (As Gerda watches, the young maid Louise enters and talks to the Gentleman. Gerda pulls on her gloves, the stage direction tells us, “so the buttons break.”)

Here the anguish of “not saying everything you think” is revealed most dramatically, but it is revealed elsewhere in the play as well. Louise experiences it, and Gerda, and certainly the Brother and the Old Gentleman. Perhaps everyone but the Confectioner, and maybe him too. And this is what the play becomes about, if not quite what it means, as that anguish is revealed in the exchange of gazes between maid and ex-wife, between Gentleman and Brother, between maid and Gentleman, between Gentleman and ex-wife. It is this that Ingmar Bergman learned from Strindberg — how the self that language conceals can be revealed in the trajectory of the gaze — and it is something that I as translator have to be always sensitive to since it is this exchange of glances that underscores the intimacy of revelations in the play that can’t be disguised by language.

So my role as translator demands that I be alert to the nuances of the text, of course, but also to the nuances of the performance text — created out of the verbal, gestural, spatial, temporal and scenic signs of performance: alert to what actors will bring to the moments I am translating and alert to how these moments can be revealed or obscured in performance.

Do I think about all these things at every moment I’m translating? Absolutely not. But after the fact or when I get stuck along the way, I look for clues and solutions wherever I can find them. This means choosing words whenever I can that reveal and conceal simultaneously.

Let me give you an example. Early on in Storm the Gentleman is explaining to his brother that all summer long he has stayed inside.

Have you really stayed in every evening, never been out?

Never! The light evenings make me shy.

It was this word “skygg” that gave me trouble. Should I translate it as “self-conscious,” “uncomfortable” “embarrassed”? “Awkward” was a good possibility, but I felt it was too general and too appropriate? Besides I liked the sound of “shy” and its resonances. I liked that it was a strange choice: a bit too revealing, slightly inappropriate to the moment, and surprising and a little uncomfortable. The sense here is timid, circumspect, hesitant and a bit self-conscious. I chose “shy” because it’s an ambiguous little word not a heavy, ominous or philosophical word: the feeling is a “little” feeling that makes the Gentleman feel little. And to my ear it intimates things the Gentleman is trying to conceal. My choice posed a challenge for the actor and this convinced me that it was right. Something uncomfortable was intimated in that single word that would resonate later as the play revealed itself.

Freud described the analytical situation as a dialogue between the unconscious of the analyst and the unconscious of the analysand. This, I think, is also an apt description of theatrical translation, especially when dealing with texts as opaque as Strindberg’s Chamber Plays. Accessing the subconscious layers of a dramatic text demands unusual sensitivity and perspicacity, but it also demands that the translator allow his own subconscious to play upon the text and then to listen carefully to what is revealed. Since I read the Chamber Plays as an attempt to reveal through intimacy, translating them demands paying honest and unguarded attention to what my own subconscious is revealing to me moment-by-moment as I work through the texts in an attempt to access their hidden layers. And that, after all, is the goal. When the clues start to add up I can convince myself or console myself that maybe I’ve got it right.

Storm is like a stroll, as Rob Melrose has said. There’s a plot, there’s a drive, and dramatic things happen, but you can watch it for a long time and not know what the play is going to be about. It seems to be one thing, and then reveals itself as something else entirely. Because the emotional journeys of the characters are so embedded, this is a play that you have to get all the way through to the end before you know what has happened in the beginning. And as this play unravels, it becomes a play of seething emotions that are kept in check. The task is to provide the actors with the means to make these emotions beneath the surface visible without overwhelming the quiet simplicity of the surface text. Ultimately it is up to the actors to find these moments of seething emotion, but in order to do that they must be able to trust the clues the text provides.

The Burned House

The second of Strindberg’s Chamber Plays, The Burned House, defies assumptions about the forward trajectory of action as the soul of the drama. Strindberg has written a meandering play that wanders from recollections of the past to meditations in the present without drawing conclusions or providing answers. But in the process, the play provides its audience with the experience of the search for meaning and does so in terms that are intimate and self-revealing.

This is a play that ponders: a play in which “att grubbla” (to ponder, to ruminate) is a way of life and a way through life. Now it’s not so easy in English to “ruminate away” things or “brood them out” as it is to “grubbla bort” or “grubbla ut dem.” And this is because our notion of pondering or ruminating or brooding is not linked to the grave in the same way as it is in “att grubbla,” with its intimations of mortality and its links to “att gräva” (to dig).  True, in English we can “root around,” which gathers up resonances from the contrary senses of “to take root” and “to root out,” but like the archaic English words “to grub” or “gruble” it lacks the variety, the currency, and the resonance of “att grubbla.”

Now the word “att grubbla” doesn’t appear anywhere in The Burned House (though Strindberg does use the word elsewhere: in the Black Glove, for instance, where the Tomte says the Conservator “grubblar öfver lifvets gåta …” (ruminates over the mystery of life) and the Christmas Angel asks “Är det att grubbla öfver?” (“Is that something to ruminate over?).(For the San Francisco production I felt compelled to change “ruminate” to “ponder” since the actress playing the Christmas Angel is named Ponder and I liked the idea of her asking “Is that something to ponder?” even though, or maybe because, its double-meaning creates a silly inside joke. In any case, it was this special sense of pondering that is also a digging in the ashes of the past that gave me a way into the play. So I guess what I’m saying is that sometimes a translation relies as much on the cultural nuances of the source language as it does on the words of the text.

In fact, translating Strindberg for me is never just about translating the words. It’s always also about getting the thought and the tone right. The challenge, of course, is not to intrude upon the text or to let my particular reading of it dominate or subvert other possible readings. It isn’t my place to do the actors’ job or the director’s. But it is my responsibility to do whatever I can to insure that they have what they need to their jobs better. And this is what I mean when I say my goal is to make these texts playable: to insure that there is something there for the actors to play and to play with.

I was worried that the actors would find The Burned House unplayable since so much of it is reflective rather than active. What do these characters want from each other? Why do they go on speaking or listening? What is the Stranger searching for in the ashes of the burned house? Freddie Rokem has written that the Chamber Plays seek to initiate a theatrical “discourse of death,” and of course he’s right; but here is it a conversation in which death is made present but life does the speaking. The actors understood this right away: It’s like an episode of the Twilight Zone, they said, in which coincidences happen and people say things that don’t necessarily coalesce into conversation, but do add up nonetheless.

In a letter to Emil Schering, his German translator who had just set to work translating The Burned House, Strindberg admits a new found usefulness for long speeches and monologues: “The French form of dialogue has degenerated into catechistic questioning and precludes profundity and exhaustive treatment,” he writes. And this provides a clue to what he has set out to do in The Burned House. The monologues and meandering scenes intimate a new kind of drama: profound or at least pondering in its approach, and defiant in its dismissal of overt dramatic action as the play moves from the mimetic to the performative.

This is why I (perhaps jokingly) told Rob Melrose at Cutting Ball that I was going to translate the title “Burnt Plot.” Not only is it a more literal translation of Strindberg’s title (Brända Tomten), though not a more accurate one, but the detective plot goes up in smoke by the end of the play and we are left contemplating other things as the play derails assumptions it set up in the opening scene about what kind of play this was going to be.

Near the end of the play when the Stranger summarizes for the Wife what his meanderings have revealed — “Suffering leads to patience; patience provides experience; experience leads to hope; and hope doesn’t allow itself to be shamed” — he does so not as if he were revealing a meaning or a truth, though he believes this truth does have meaning, but as an attempt to share what he has managed to “grubbla ut” while digging in the ashes and through the actions of his life. This is not so much a summation as it is an intimate revelation in his own private “discourse of death” that provides a sense of reconciliation with life that is a first step toward meaning. It sounds like a sententia, a meaningful summary, a moral; but in fact it is a discovery voiced as a conclusion, and also a deliberate — perhaps desperate — attempt to make contact with another person in order to initiate a discourse of death with the living, who after all are the only ones who can respond.

Knowing how actors think, what might be useful to them, how they work, is of enormous value to me as a translator, especially when dealing with plays as complex and opaque as these. By listening attentively to how actors phrase their lines and to the questions they ask, and even to the unconscious substitutions they make in rehearsal, provide insight into the dramatic subtext of the play, that allow me to make subtle adjustments in the translation. The obliqueness of Strindberg’s language reveals itself in the twists and turns of thought, the sudden and surprising revelations of hidden secrets and disguised desires, the unfinished thoughts and intrusions that complicate these plays and these characters, and this demands courage and precision from the actors. To serve them, a translation has to be just as precise and detailed and rich as the original without embellishments and without a veneer of literary preciousness. Actors deserve a text they can mine for clues and nuances. A text they can trust. But most importantly, they deserve a text they can render into speech.

This is what I mean when I say that I strive for a text that is speakable. This doesn’t mean, of course, that all the rhythms should be consonant and all the words intelligent. In that same letter to Emil Schering, Strindberg cautioned his translator to retain “the incomplete (abortive) intentions” he had written into The Burned House “because they give a naturalness to the portrayal of life, since life is full of stranded plans, whims, projects which serve to fill out conversations, yet still constitute a source of energy.” When a locution is tortured or cramped or confusing — as is so often the case in these texts — this is a clue and not an error. It is something to honor in the translation, not something to sort out or erase.

This does mean, however, that the accents are crucial line-by-line so that thoughts flow through the words in English as they do in Swedish (or get lost within the words). This is why I attend closely to Strindberg’s punctuation, especially when translating the Chamber Plays.

There is of course a danger when speech becomes speeches, as it tends to do at moments in each of these plays. But that’s something the actors can sort out if the words they are provided with allow them to track a progression of thought and discovery that makes these speeches active in the present moment of performance. Ultimately these texts are meant to be performed because, as Eszter Szalczer says, they perform something.

As a person of the theater, who has profited from years of watching and listening to actors and directors struggle with linguistically and imagistically challenging texts, I feel a kinship with Strindberg. I understand, for example, when he wrote to the actress Svea Åhman telling her: “Don’t act so much! Our small stage can’t bear that and doesn’t need it.” I understand the impulse and I understand the impatience. Åhman was playing the role of the Mother in The Pelican and the Mummy in The Ghost Sonata in their premiere productions at the Intimate Theater and Strindberg was anxious that the plays transcend their apparently melodramatic means: “Be sparing of gestures and grimaces!,” Strindberg wrote: “Speak slowly but with an inner feeling, so that the word is alive and has time to make an impact.” There is a clue here to me as translator to what these plays demand: a simplicity, an honesty, a directness that keeps “acting” at bay. And this suggests to me that the language of these plays demands this same level of directness and simplicity.

It is the primary challenge for me as a translator: to always listen, but stay out of the way, so that a conversation can emerge between these texts, these actors and this audience. I am an invisible facilitator, a ghost as it were, a wanderer in this theatrical world of illusions and dreams and desires, sometimes without a clue even about what it is I am searching for, but with a mission and a task: to let Strindberg’s very personal, very intimate, and quite daring attempt to “grubbla ut” or “grubbla bort” the mysteries of life shine through.