Authenticity and what translators think about: Eva Buchwald on Purge

Written for Spoonfed:

Authenticity and staying true to the text are two elusive issues that often surround translated plays. I can’t help questioning a critic who lauds a play’s authenticity: how do they know? But perhaps I’m wrong to be so doubtful; maybe we have a universal instinct that picks up on the elements of human experience that explains our perception of what’s authentic. But a more logical way of addressing the issue is ask what translators think about when they approach an original text with an English-speaking audience in mind: what constraints do they face? How much of translation is adaptation? And how much inclination do they have to leave their mark on their translation?

Eva Buchwald is a translator and a dramaturg at the Finnish National Theatre where Sofi Oksanen’s Purge premièred in 2007. The play follows two women of different generations: one living during the Soviet occupation of Estonia and the other living with its violent legacy in the ’90s. It explores issues of sexual violence during political conflict and what drives these women to become violent themselves. Purge also highlights the links between language and identity and will have its UK debut at London’s Arcola Theatre from 22nd February.

Eva wrote to me recently about the challenges of translating a play like Purge for an English-speaking audience, which she makes a point of noting is not homogeneous. “The English-speaking world is a vast and variable entity,” she writes. “The effect of a play in translation is probably as unpredictable as the effect of any new play. At the same time on some level, humanity is the same everywhere so I think translators try to convey lucidly whatever is universal in a given work because that is what will resonate with audiences everywhere. In the case of Purge, the play was written by a Finn but none of the characters are Finnish, so there is already a linguistic twist there – even in the play’s native language the characters are ostensibly speaking Estonian or Russian.”

Purge covers the period of occupation in the ’40s under Stalin following German occupation during WWII and its ramifications in the ’90s. It looks at the the effects of the Red Army’s abolition of private farms and the formation of farming collectives. Inevitably, its specific historical and cultural context means it resonates differently in different locations, something that is beyond the translator’s influence. “For Estonians,” Eva explains, “this is a story which cuts very close to the bone – there is a sense of direct identification. A British audience has more distance: not only watching a play about another country, but also from the viewpoint of a nation which did not suffer military occupation in the last century. This doesn’t make the play less powerful, but its point of emphasis shifts.”

“One of the play’s important points is that the violence these women have experienced has led them to be violent themselves,” she continues. “Both have killed and both turn on each other at some point in the play. The two women reflect two different forms of oppression – one by military invasion in a time of war, one by organised crime in a time of peace. But this context is merely a frame for what is essentially a powerful study of human endurance and the consequences of oppression and exploitation.”

The legacy of violence in Purge is integral and something that surpasses differences in language. “Violence, particularly against women,” Eva writes, “is a strategy for maintaining nationalist supremacy – in times of peace as well as war.” But these are human rather than political issues, and “small political references in the text aren’t essential to an understanding of the play’s basic themes. In one scene, for example, one of the main characters talks of escaping to Finland. When the play was performed in America I noticed that it wasn’t clear to Americans that Estonia and Finland do not share a land border but are divided by the Baltic Sea. As a translator this didn’t occur to me as a point that needed clarification and I don’t think the detail caused any great misunderstandings. Although perhaps some missed the humour in the reference to the Baltic as a ‘ditch’.”

But does a translator have much control over these shifts in emphasis and can they still create something unique to them? “There are many factors besides the translation that leave their mark on a text.” says Eva, “As a translator I always try to provide as much insight into the original work as possible even if as a dramaturg (my day job), I may feel certain elements could be cut or modified for a given foreign audience. However, as I don’t yet know my audience when I translate, this is a task which inevitably lies with the director.”

Given that the English-speaking world is as varied as Eva mentions and that context can become a structure used to evoke our universal humanity, it seems the question of authenticity is less about questioning a play’s realism and more about drawing on our shared qualities present at the root of the text.

runs at Arcola Theatre from 22nd February until 24th March

Image: Writer of Purge, Sofi Oksanen by Toni Harkonen

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