September 23, 2020
ART

Preserving the Poetic Dimension: A Conversation with Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik

HENRIK IBSEN (1828–1906) was a Norwegian poet, playwright, and theater director. He is often called “the father of modern drama,” and his plays have been performed internationally to tremendous acclaim for over 100 years. Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik’s translation of Hedda Gabler and Other Plays, released in January by Penguin Classics, breathes new life into four of Ibsen’s most famous plays, showcasing their skillful attention to style and dramatic tension. Dawkin and Skuggevik’s translations of A Doll’s House and Other Plays appeared in 2016. Their versions are becoming widely accepted and, with Shakespeare Frankfurt’s 2018 production of An Enemy of the People, have already begun to be staged.
Dawkin originally trained and worked as an actress and theater director. She has worked as a translator from Norwegian to English for 10 years, in collaboration with Skuggevik, and has independently translated novels, short stories, cartoons, poetry, and nonfiction. For his part, Skuggevik also has a background in theater and has worked as a translator from Norwegian to English for 15 years. In collaboration with Dawkin, he has translated novels by Ketil Bjørnstad and Lars Ramslie and, over many years, the cartoon strip Nemi, as well as nonfiction works by Ingar Sletten Kolloen and Petter Aaslestad.
I spoke via video call with Dawkin, in London, and Skuggevik, in Oslo, about their work as translators of Ibsen. This interview has been condensed and edited.
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KATHLEEN MARIS PALTRINERI: You both have extensive theater experience. Since attention to voice is paramount in the translation of works for the stage, what are your practices for rendering into English the rhythm, cadence, and register of the distinct voices of Ibsen’s characters?
DEBORAH DAWKIN: In a sense, our process wasn’t that different from the process of an actor or actress because each draft you’re doing is like a rehearsal for understanding the meaning and motivations of a character and the words they choose.
Can you talk about your collaborative translation process?
ERIK SKUGGEVIK: We did everything together. Looking back, it’s almost impossible to know who came up with this or that solution, and there is no point in trying because it was the work of two minds.
DEBORAH DAWKIN: Sometimes we’d done something that on the surface was an accurate translation, but it didn’t feel right. You dig and dig and dig until you actually understand what’s going on in a scene. I think anyone that’s really in love with a master can revisit them again and again throughout their lives and find out more, something different, every time.
ERIK SKUGGEVIK: One example comes to mind in An Enemy of the People, there was this one line …
DEBORAH DAWKIN: That no translator had ever made any sense of, or they glossed over.
ERIK SKUGGEVIK: Toward the end, Dr. Stockmann chases these ex-radicals out of his room, and there’s one line from Aslaksen, where he uses the Norwegian word “forhold” — and what he means is, “If I only understood the local conditions.” This word “forhold” can mean both relationships and their conditions and layouts. And obviously he’s trying to find his way out, but he’s using language that’s too formal, it sounds too political for someone desperately trying to find a way out of a house. It doesn’t make sense. Then I discovered that this is one of the few times Ibsen uses a meta-joke: where it’s the same line that the same character — at least a character with the same name — had said 40 years earlier in The League of Youth. It’s a little pun that Ibsen slipped in for people who knew his work. He’s using the same line that was his catchphrase from a much earlier play, and it finally made sense because it at least offered us a reason for why it was the way it was.
DEBORAH DAWKIN: What this points out — and I think this is important — is one of the aims that we had as translators: if a sentence seems problematic, keep at it until you understand why, instead of just skirting over it. There’s one thing I’m really proud of that we preserved (which, as far as I know, hasn’t been preserved in any other translations), and that is when the mother [Gina] in The Wild Duck is using malapropisms. Most of the time translators ignore that kind of thing because it’s awkward, but she does this right to the end when her daughter is dead. So, when the audience finds it funny, it’s a daring move on Ibsen’s part. Because at the beginning you’re just going to laugh at these ridiculous things she says. But then, what on earth do you feel about these absurd mistakes when they come right at the end, after her daughter has died? She’s lost virtually everything. It’s one of those wonderful times when comedy becomes tragedy, and it’s even more tragic.
ERIK SKUGGEVIK: It’s difficult to capture. It also requires that we get it and have the confidence to keep it. Here’s a sheet of paper that lists all Gina’s malapropisms. There’s about 100 of them throughout the play. Botched pronunciations and such. Some are very difficult to catch because they’re so linked to language itself; sometimes you can make too much of them if you copy every instance. But this is one that comes right at the end, where in Norwegian she pronounces “pistol” as “pigstol” partly because it sounds funny — and “pig” doesn’t mean “pig” in Norwegian, obviously — but it’s a kind of mispronunciation. And then, to the slightly huffy Hjalmar — who’s got more of an education and is a bit embarrassed at times by his wife, who is a commoner — that mispronunciation becomes an irritation. He gets irked sometimes about her pronunciation.
In thinking about your role as translators of these extraordinarily well-known plays, I first wanted to ask if you felt pressure knowing there are all these other translations out there, but as I was reading your translations, I began to wonder: Did the fact that there were these preexisting translations give you the freedom to devote your attention to the linguistic level of detail in his writing?
ERIK SKUGGEVIK: There is no right answer to translation; you know, there are mistakes that can be made, but there are many answers, many solutions that can be right depending on different priorities. But, to be honest, I don’t think we ever thought, “Gosh, it’s been done before. We’d better be careful.” Since all of these translators have translated Ibsen before, including in his own lifetime, Ibsen’s reputation has changed. He’s gone from being this uncouth rebel that talked about things that shouldn’t be talked about, which is how he was received in his own day, to becoming recognized as someone who wrote good dramas, to then being included in the feminist movement in Britain and Europe in the 1960s and ’70s, largely because of Michael Meyer’s translations. Now there’s no one who doubts Ibsen’s greatness. So that gives us a liberty to focus even more on his poetic dimension. He started life as a poet, and you can see it in his plays — their precision, the palette is very specific to each play. His catchphrases, ways of talking, are very specific to the play and the character. So, we didn’t need to sell it and make it work. That job was done for us.
Yet most of these translators who have done Ibsen before had Norwegian as a second language. Deborah grew up in England, and I grew up in Norway, and with that background, we could, yes, trust Ibsen, but we could also investigate — we had access to both languages in, I dare say, greater depth than most other translators.
DEBORAH DAWKIN: My relationship to other English translations is maybe slightly different than Erik’s because that’s where my love of Ibsen started. First, I think it’s like any actor or actress taking on a great role, when it’s been done 100 times before and you have those moments of panic and terror where you go, “What the hell am I doing? Perhaps it would be better not to venture on this.” Of course, it’s about process because, once the process is rolling and you’re completely involved and doing your own digging, you’ve lost your self-consciousness. And the interesting thing is that no one translator has a monopoly on all of this.
You mentioned Ibsen in relationship to feminist movements. Was Ibsen actually a feminist? His plays do have such strong female characters. And what do you think are the social and political resonances of his plays for today’s world?
DEBORAH DAWKIN: Ibsen’s not an epic dramatist, like Shakespeare or some of the great French writers. He’s a social writer, very grounded in the social structure that he is writing about. But his dramas are not purely psychological — they’re not just a man and woman tearing each other’s eyes out. No, they’re a man and a woman tearing each other’s eyes out in a certain specific cage. For me, the cage — the social structure they’re beating their heads against — is just as important as the personal relationship. The relationship of the characters is always directed by the structure in which they find themselves.
Personally, what I think Ibsen can be very useful for is to help us understand our own social history. I think you have to remember why theater companies go back again and again to do Ibsen. Because the roles are so great, it’s so magnetizing, it’s so fascinating, that we can’t help it. I’m not sure it really tells us that much about our society now, or that it can. I mean, Hedda Gabler cannot. Hedda is a creation of her situation at that particular moment in history, of the demands on a woman in that particular level of society at that moment.
ERIK SKUGGEVIK: You mention feminism. Ibsen scholars say that he did reject these labels himself. He might have done this for strategic reasons; whatever was attached to these labels at the time, we don’t know. What’s interesting is that, in other parts of the world, some of these plays we think aren’t relevant anymore, they are dangerous still because they’re criticizing structures of society.
DEBORAH DAWKIN: And it shouldn’t be forgotten that Ibsen himself says that “a truth only lasts for a decade.” That’s one of the things that comes up again and again in An Enemy of the People. And I think he purposefully shifts the boundaries of what he’s saying as he goes from play to play.
ERIK SKUGGEVIK: These kinds of issues permeate down to the micro level when we as translators are trying not just to do a faithful translation but to leave different interpretations open. That’s one of the biggest challenges I felt we had. It wasn’t enough to just make a choice that works. We had to investigate what there is to be mined, but you can’t translate what you can’t see.
DEBORAH DAWKIN: As an actor or actress, when you get a theater text, it’s written almost like a road map with clues, so right from the beginning, a playwright will be giving an actor clues about who this character is, where they’re coming from and what they want, what kind of person they are. One of the reasons I think Ibsen is such an extraordinary playwright is that there isn’t a single sentence wasted. Some playwrights might spend time with exposition. There’s none. Every single sentence is loaded. It tells you something more about the character, what the character wants, something to do with the relationship the character has with the other character on the stage.
ERIK SKUGGEVIK: On top of telling the story.
DEBORAH DAWKIN: After translating him, that’s one of the reasons why I think, “God, he’s amazing.”
ERIK SKUGGEVIK: We were constantly keeping in mind that this isn’t the finished product. Of course, it is because it’s been published, but in a way we had to think that this is the last but one stage, this is the stage before the actual performance. And as with our theater background and experience in looking for clues and finding out what information is in the words, we also have that additional element of trying to give to an English-speaking actor or actress as much material to work with as possible — to work out the motives and the backgrounds of these characters and their ambitions.
How do you view your translations as contributing to the discourse on Ibsen?
ERIK SKUGGEVIK: There’s a constant need for translations. Look at Shakespeare. It’s more and more difficult to get to the original. And Ibsen is obviously a far more recent author. But written Norwegian has changed more than spoken Norwegian in the last 100 years because what was Danish was also Norwegian. I mean Norwegian and Danish do not sound the same at all, but the languages are extremely similar in other respects, but the orthography, the spelling was Danish.
DEBORAH DAWKIN: We all have to have the humility to understand that no one translation is ever definitive. Personally, I feel that we have gone on a long enough journey that our translation is worth studying and looking at in detail. One has to respect a translation that somebody has put a lot of work into, whoever that translator is.
One of the qualms about translation is that we can’t be absolutely certain what a text means. Now, if I allow that to rule me as a translator, I’ve got no ground to stand on. I have to trust myself; I have to feel that there is a possibility of finding a truth.
ERIK SKUGGEVIK: There is an emotional truth there as well. You have to translate in ways that recognize what’s going on in a play, that recognize and support the conflict and the dilemmas and the panic. It has to make sense on an emotional level, and what I feel we’ve managed to do overall with our translations is to preserve the poetic dimension. I don’t mean in a lyrical sort of way. I mean the precision and the composition of language and words, paying attention to how people speak and what words they used and what those words represent.
DEBORAH DAWKIN: But sometimes Ibsen does take that risk. There are moments in The Lady from the Sea where he shifts and you think, how far do I dare go? — because he does allow his characters to shift into poetic language and then reins it back in. This is a very experienced poet and playwright. He can really play.
ERIK SKUGGEVIK: We started volume one [A Doll’s House and Other Plays] 10 years ago. It’s been a privilege in every respect to work together with Deborah and to work on such a quality writer.
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Kathleen Maris Paltrineri is a poet from Iowa. She is an MFA candidate at the Iowa Literary Translation Workshop. Her work may be found at kathleenmarispaltrineri.com.
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