“Writing Forward” in Troubled Times: David Johnston on the Art of Translation
David Johnston’s Translating the Theatre of the Spanish Golden Age: A Story of Chance and Transformation is a delicious mixture: it is at once a memoir of a life in the theatre, a treatise on translation, an introduction to Spanish Golden Age drama, and a meditation on the value and power of art. Rejecting the fantasy of the perfect conversion from one language and time to another, Johnston defines his craft as an “act of writing forward,” of bringing the rich playtexts of the past into present contexts (11). The string that ties together the varied elements of this slim volume is the idea that contemporary audiences may respond to these plays as much as the audiences of early modern Spain, and that they deserve to performed again, to be heard in the idiom of today, and most of all, to be seen.
The story of Johnston’s own conversion from theatre lover and student of the Spanish language to award-winning translator begins with an explosion. Taking a book down from the Queen’s University library stacks, Johnston feels the reverberations of a bomb from nearby Dublin Road. In his lucid, fast-moving prose, he describes the chance and transformation that follows: “A four-story building had disappeared from the skyline and a stunned and bewildered flock of dark starlings was still spinning in the air in front of a huge pall of grey smoke and brick-dust. I looked down at the book in my hand. A battered Spanish edition of Calderón’s Life’s a Dream” (6). In the collision of 1635 Madrid and 1974 Belfast, the poetic illusion and the stark reality of the leveled building, and the echoes of authoritarianism that united them in Johnston’s consciousness, the translator found his vocation.
The rewards of that inspiration are evident throughout the book, as Johnston peppers his story with his own marvelous English renderings of the original Spanish. Adept at both comic and tragic tones, he illustrates the vibrant character and contemporary relevance of these plays by providing examples of his process and its products. Unlike more conservative translators, he argues that the use of profanity is sometimes necessary to shock the audience. He thus translates Laurencia’s monologue from Lope’s Fuenteovejuna, in which she condemns the cowardice of the village men, to convey the force of her rage: “You call yourselves men? Go and fuck / each other, then finish your sewing! / Cowards! Sheep! Hide behind your women / . . . we’ll dress you in scarves and skirts. / and powder your white cheeks with rouge” (43). Through Johnston’s words, the reader can feel Laurencia’s torment and fury.
Johnston brings a translator’s sensitivity to not only the language of these characters but the larger social dynamics they portray onstage, rejecting the idea that these works unequivocally reinforce orthodox, Catholic, patriarchal values. In his account of Fuenteovejuna, “its depiction of the outer excesses of authoritarian abuse, its recognition of the causes, if not the validity, of revolutionary action, and its positioning of women as both the victims of, and, in the final analysis, the prime movers against sexual violence,” still resonates today (55). The theater offers a space for a culture, whether 17th-century Spain or the current United States, to simultaneously perform and examine itself. The social inequalities and anxieties over authority that dominate our public conversation are also at the center of these vital early modern plays. Drama does not merely reflect, but instead foregrounds a proliferation of voices and interpretations.
Toward the end of his story, Johnston remarks that the book will be a success if it inspires others to translate. As part of the Diversifying the Classics project at UCLA, I’m grateful to have Johnston as model and motivation, but the audience for this book is far broader than aspiring translators of dramatic texts. It may be especially valuable for those in the theater, but this wonderful story of chance and is transformation is a rare gift for anyone interested in the conversation between Spanish and English, past and present, politics and art.