SAY "THE MASTER BUILDER" quickly, 10 times in a row. Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, does it? The title of Henrik Ibsen's play, which opened last night at the Kennedy Center, sounds like an honor bestowed on the cleaver Boy Scout who single-handedly designed and constructed a solar-powered log cabin.
Still, "The Master Builder" beats "Bygmester Solness," which is the title of the play in Norwegian, the language in which Ibsen wrote it in 1892. That is, the words "The Master Builder" sound better to us provincial American-speakers.
In the play, one of the lesser characters called Solness, the title character, "chief" or "boss" according to various translation, and "The Chief" or "The Boss" might fit an American marquee much better than "The Master Builder." But they just wouldn't mean the same thing. There doesn't seem to be any way to translate "Bygmester," as it is used by Ibsen, into English exceot for "The Master Builder." So awkward though it may sound, "The Master Builder" it is. Translators must balance prioritie and make decisions.
This is the sort of activity that has concerned actress Jane Alexander lately. For in this "Master Builder," Alexander not only plays Hilde, the young bohemian who inspires Master Builder Solness to try to top his own career, but sho co-translated the tex with Sam Englestad.
No one seriosly thought about changing the title, of course, but put the Engelstad-Alexander translation next to several others, and you will find variations from translation to translation in almost every line. This isn't unusual in the world of translations. What is remarkable is that one of the stars who usually recite foreign playwrights' lines without much thought of the translator's task took that task upon herself. And Jane Alexander doesn't even know Norwegian, though she says she's learning more and more of it every day.
Fortunately the other half of this translating team, Sam Engelstad, was born and raised in Oslo. Engelstad and Alexander met between takes on the set of "Eleanor and Franklin - The White House Years" in Los Angeles. Alexander was Eleanor, Engelstad was the American Film Institute apprentice to director Daniel Petrie. The actress mentioned that she had arranged to do "The Master Builder," one of her favorites since the age of 15, at the Kennedy Center but that she wasn't completely satisfied with the available translations. The apprentice replied with something like, "Hey, let's translate a show together."
Three weekends and two full weeks later, they had done just that. It was rough at times. They devoted a full day to one particularly pesky sentence which Alexander cannot even recall now. Basically, Englestad supplied the Norwegian, translating it as literally as possible into English, and Alexander shaped the English sentences until they made contemporary sense. They tried to make the finished product as literal as the bounds of up-to-date usage and Ibsen's dramatic and lyrical sensibilities would allow, but at times these criteria didn't seem to go together at all.
There was the matter of profanity. At one point, says Alexander, her character says something like "What the hell" in Norwegian. A modern audience would probably be shocked - not by the words themselves but by the fact that a young woman in 1892 would use them so casually. You've jazzed it up entirely too much, people would tell Engelstad and Alexander. The most authentic translation would strike modern audiences as the least authentic.
Even so, Solness has been given this line (describing the abominable architectural taste of a client): "They'll take any sort of crap, just to have a roof over their heads. They don't care what the hell it is, but it's not a home." Alexander feels this sort of talk is necessary to establish the gruff, punchy style of Solness, and maybe it won't sound as strange coming from his mouth as it would coming from her character's.
Alexander was amazed to find an even rougher synonym of "crap" in the Norwegian text and was told that its use was more common in Norway - and therefore less provocative - than it is here. The use of the word rebuts the common stereotype of Ibsen as a puritan, says Alexander. But no matter how authentic the word is and no matter how much English-speaking stages have loosened up since more prim translations were made. Alexander felt modern audiences would just be unduly distracted by its use in this context. So it's missing from this translation and the show's GP rating is safe.
The translators' decision on another four-letter word, "sure," went the other way. In their version, Hilde is asked, "All alone, Miss Wangel?" and she responds with "Sure!" A few lines later she answered another question with the same word. In translations by Avid Paulson and Rolf Fjelde, respectively, her answer is "Yes - quite alone" and "Of course." If this use of "sure" sounds too quick and flip for your conception of the way, people talked in 1892, says Alexander, she's sorry but that's the way it is in the original - a one-word response with a more flippant connotation that you'll get from American usage of "of course."
In this example and many more, this translation seeks to cut away some of the verbiage found in other translations. Here for example, are versions of the same line by Paulson, Fjelde and Egelstad-Alexander, respectively:
"They admired all his innovations - thought his design was something new in architecture, they said."
"They really liked what he wants to do. They thought it was completely new and different - that's what they said."
"They rally liked his concept. They said they thought it was very original."
Paulson's translation throws a lot of words like "superfluous," "frightfully" and "ferreted" around; not only are these admirable words hardly conversational staples, but there's something very British about the way they're used.When the line "You've ferreted me out completely" was read to Alexander, she laughed and remarked that only David Niven could carry off such a line comfortably.
Her principal objections to existing translation were either that they were too British-oriented or that they were American but dated.
Alexander has not set her own translation in granite. She was asked why a line in her reads, "You made quite a career for yourself," when Paulson and Fjelde use ascension imagery - "You kept going up in the world" and "You pushed your way up" - which gives us a hint early in the play of the climb by Solness up a tower that is the climax of the play's action. Good point, she said. She was also surprised to learn of one whole speech by Mrs. Solness that was apparently cut from the Norwegian version she and Engelstad used.
As far as she's concerned, the more people who contribute suggestions to the translating process, the merrier. She hopes Eva Le Gallienne feels the same way. Le Gallienne, who was acclaimed for her own Ibsen translations and performances earlier in the century, lives in Westport, Conn., where this production of "The Master Builder" will run for a week following its engagement here. Alexander has a funny feeling that Le Gallienne expects to go to the theater and hear her own translation, and Alexander indeed planned to use it until she met Engelstad. She likes Le Gallienne's version but she feels it has become ever so slightly dated. She must write to Le Gallienne soon and break the news, she tells herself.
In "The Master Builder," the consuming fear of Solness is that the younger generation is about to "come knocking on the door" and push him aside. She ponders this as she thinks of Le Gallienne. "It's just like in the play," she says. "Here's the younger generation."