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Translating Anger and Passion

Hachiya Mizutani
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

The New National Theatre's Production of Look Back in Anger

In July this year, the play Look Back in Anger (1956) by the British playwright John Osborne was performed at the New National Theatre in Tokyo, and I was in charge of translating the script. This production was the last in a series called Gendaigeki no Keifu wo Himotoku (Unraveling the Genealogy of Contemporary Theater) that was started by director Keiko Miyata when she became the Artistic Director of the New National Theatre, Tokyo. This series, which started with a production of a play by Ibsen, featured 12 plays that have had an impact on Japanese contemporary drama. Instead of simply rehashing masterpieces of the past, this series aimed to shine a light on the meaning of these plays in the modern era, and were therefore performed with new translations.

Look Back in Anger first premiered in 1956, and is therefore the newest play in the series, but the only available Japanese translation in libraries is that of the Japanese premier in 1959. Although I have great respect for the original translation, I can't help but notice its antiquated language. A crucial factor in translating plays is making sure that the language used is completely modern and relatable by people at present. Translated scripts do remain in their written form, but first and foremost, the stage on which the play is performed must be considered.

Look Back in Anger and Its Relevance to Japan in 2017

Photo of the production of Look Back in Anger

Set in the Midlands of England, Look Back in Anger features a working-class protagonist named Jimmy Porter, who's deeply resentful of the old order and its accompanying set of values. Although Jimmy has a loving relationship with his wife, Alison, who comes from the upper-middle class, he is often disparaging towards her. Jimmy's anger is so intense that at times it is even comical, and frequently leaves the audience unsure of where his anger is directed. Of course, the decline of England during the 1950s sets an important backdrop, but we can't expect the audience to have prior background knowledge of it. The translator's task is not to understand his anger with facts and knowledge (although it is necessary at times), but to convey his passion directly and tangibly to the audience.

After all, even though this play is set in England 60 years ago, the production is performed in Japan in 2017. Even the characters named Jimmy and Alison are played unmistakably by Japanese actors. Even if the conversations are against the backdrop of the 1950s, as long as the play is performed on stage, it inevitably connects to the modern age. On the stage, a fictitious past and a real present must constantly coexist. Unless language that is suited to the present is used, the performance ends in failure. Therefore, unless it is aiming for a certain effect, the language and expressions must not sound old-fashioned. Having said so, the essence of the work becomes lost if it is completely restrained to the present. As I turned and looked through the pages of the original script, I was looking for clues on how to connect the two periods of time in order to convey the passion of the script that was delivered to the audience when the play first premiered, to a modern audience. I found this connection right at the beginning of the first act.

The One and Only Connection

As the curtains open, we see Jimmy in the middle of a vitriolic tirade. Right before he shifts his target to his wife Alison, he disparages her wife's brother, who is a politician. Here, Jimmy ridicules the conservative attitude that refuses to change the present condition by proclaiming, "The only way to keep things as much like they always have been as possible, is to make any alternative too much for your poor, tiny brain to grasp." As I was translating and retranslating this passage, I remembered a catchphrase written on a bright red poster of a conservative political party during the lower house election in 2014. I realized that I could use this phrase in the translation not only to ridicule Alison's brother, but to echo criticism of the inflexible and narrow-minded nationalism that was present in 2014 and since. There was barely a need to change the wording of the phrase to convey this.

Jimmy's anger was disdained by the older, conservative generation of London at the time the play premiered, but found an overwhelmingly receptive audience in the younger generation. There is therefore no need for Jimmy's anger to be understood by everyone. Even if it earns the scorn of conservatives, all that needs to be done is to set fire to the smoldering anger of those who are discontented with the present condition. I finally settled on a translation that reads, "If you want to maintain the status quo, all you can do is reject other views by claiming your mind is too feeble to understand that there are alternatives."

The Original Work Relates to Japan's Reality

Photo of the production of Look Back in Anger

The phrase "there is no alternative" was my way of bringing the present reality of Japan into the play, but the reason why it doesn't sound out of place is because there is an element within Look Back in Anger that is still very relevant to the 21st century, which is in fact a core theme of the play. This leaves the impression towards the end of the play that it is actually the play that is resembling the present, and not the other way around.

There is a scene at the end where Alison, who had left Jimmy as if to escape her unbearable life with him, returns after she miscarriages their child. Jimmy quietly collects his anger, and directs it towards the world through his hurt, exhausted wife. "The injustice of it is almost perfect! The wrong people going hungry, the wrong people being loved, the wrong people dying!" This phrase captures present-day Japan so perfectly that it almost feels as if it was written to describe Japan in the year 2017. The lies spewed by the political administration in the past few years! The rise of families living in poverty, the neglect of those in need of love, the more than 20,000 victims of suicide each year, and the complete disregard for those who are most in need! Considering these realities that plague Japan in 2017, Jimmy's anger seems to travel through time and jump into the hearts of the members of the audience. My translation reads, "The injustice in the world is now complete! Those who need food the most starve, those who don't deserve love receive it the most, and those who don't deserve to die drop like flies!"

The Task of the Translator

Look Back in Anger is told in an enormous volume of overwhelmingly heated and intense language. Although it is important to convey the meaning of the words that are used, in this case, it is even more important how this passion is conveyed. In translating the passion of Jimmy's anger, Walter Benjamin's The Task of the Translator comes to mind. He states that the task of the translator consists of producing echo of the original in the target language. In the case of Look Back in Anger, this "echo" is replaced with "passion." If the performance and its language is able to stimulate the imagination of the audience, and allows them to feel that echo (or passion), it means that the classic work has successfully been a given new life through translation, and can continue to live on as a classic work. Looking back, I wonder if I had accomplished my task as a translator in the theater production in July.

Hachiya Mizutani
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Hachiya Mizutani completed his doctoral courses at the Graduate School of Humanities, Gakushuin University. He is currently a professor at the School of Culture, Media and Society at Waseda University (Creative Writing and Criticism). Works he has translated include The Skin of Our Teeth and The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder, Widows and Desert Memories by Ariel Dorfman, and more. Translations of scripts used in plays include The Other Side by Ariel Dorfman, The Crucible by Arthur Miller, Our Town by Thornton Wilder, and more.