A good English play on Lorca's words

March 27, 1998

To have two plays running simultaneously in London is an achievement accomplished by few - the likes of Alan Ayckbourn, Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Gwynne Edwards.

If the least recognisable of those names did not actually write the original plays, his words are those currently being heard every night.

Professor Edwards is better known to his neighbours and colleagues as a professor in the department of European languages at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. But over the past 11 years he has translated 40 plays into English. The two running in London are Sophocles' Antigone, at the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, and The Surgeon of Honour by the 17th-century Spanish dramatist Calderon de la Barca, at the Southwark Playhouse.

While he works in a number of languages, his main interest is Spanish. The Calderon play, in the original El medico de su honra, sets particular problems as it is in verse and highly stylised.

This is the sort of challenge his style of translation is designed to meet. "What I always try to do is keep the style of the language. A lot of translators introduce modern usages and colloquialisms, and there is a real risk of losing the style of the piece."

This particularly applies to his speciality, the plays of Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936). "I have translated 12 of his plays. They mix prose and verse and have often been felt, by English critics at least, to be a little inaccessible, set in a remote world. But I think the important thing is to keep that sense of the remote and the exotic by staying as close as possible to his language and images."

As translator he has met the cast of both London plays. "You normally meet in the first few days, at the read-through stage. This gives actors a chance to ask questions and also suggest changes that will make lines easier for them."

Professor Edwards, who owns the copyright of his translations, says he is quite flexible about changes. In Spanish, French and Italian he works from the original text. In Greek he has had to adopt a technique used by many translators - working from a literal translation of the original and reworking it into verse.

The translator, he says, must be the servant of the original writer rather than cherishing dramatic ambitions of his own. "If you think you can do it better, you are adapting rather than translating."

Translation work gives him little free time for writing of his own, but he will have a piece of his own staged this year, as part of the celebrations of the Lorca centenary.

"It is called Poet in New York and based on the nine months he spent in New York in 1929. It is drawn partly from the letters he wrote to his parents and partly from my own contributions - about 50:50".

The play, to be performed in Newcastle in May, is a one-actor show and it will have a woman playing Lorca.

But if Professor Edwards enjoys the theatre, his real love is opera, and he readily admits to an ambition to work on operatic translations. "It is a very difficult field to break into."

Confronted with the thought that much opera combines magnificent music with banal words best left untranslated, he says, "That is probably a consequence of the old-fashioned translations often still in use. I'm sure it could be done much better."

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