In Review: Selected Serbian Plays

Selected Serbian Plays

Review: Selected Serbian Plays, edited by Branko Mikasinovich and Dejan Stojanović, with afterword by Dennis Barnett (New Avenue Books, USA, 2016).

Reviewed by Paula Gordon

Volume 6, Issue 4 (Fall 2017)

Introduction

This book contains translations of ten Serbian plays written between 1937 and 2006. The editors say, “The choice of authors . . . is based on their acknowledged reputations and individual excellence in areas of topical significance, theatrical innovation, continuous performance and acclaim, and enduring truth and message” (iii).[1] Some of the translations have been previously published and performed in English and some appear to have been completed specifically for inclusion in this book.

The following plays are included:

The Deceased, Branislav Nušić, 1937

Hallelujah, Djordje Lebović, no date given

The Bird, Aleksandar Obrenović, 1958

Hats Off!, Aleksandar Popović, 1967

The Traveling Troupe Šopalović, Ljubomir Simović, 1985

Balkan Spy, Dušan Kovačević, 1982

Times Have Changed, Siniša Kovačević, 1986

Caroline Neuber, Nebojša Romčević, no date given

Barbelo, on Dogs and Children, Biljana Srbljanović, no date given

A Boat for Dolls, Milena Marković, 2004

Each play is introduced by a paragraph or two about the author and the play. The book also includes an introduction about the history of theater in Serbia and the place of the included authors in that history by Branko Mikasinovich, and an afterword placing the plays in social context by Dennis Barnett, who also translated and edited a number of the plays in the volume.

The book is a trade paperback; at 710 numbered pages, it is 1 3/4 inches thick. The interior design is monolithic, with large blocks of text—12-point type evenly spaced at Word’s 1.15 setting, when 11-point single-spaced lines with additional line space between each character’s dialog would have made for easier reading (on the other hand, I would rather the type be too large than too small). The text is fully justified and character dialog is not indented in any way; stage directions also begin flush left.

This anthology is just that—a compilation of plays. For it to serve as a reference work, it should contain more details about each play and author, including, at minimum, the title in the original language, the year written, the date and location of the premier performance, and bibliographic information for the original publication in Serbian. Information about derivative works would also be of interest to readers. For those plays that have been previously published in English, that information should also be provided, along with an acknowledgment of permission to republish (this information is not required by US copyright law, but it is often requested as a condition of republication, and it is always appreciated). The introductions to two of the plays say that they were performed in the US—it would be helpful to indicate whether the translations in the book are the ones that were performed or if the book is presenting new translations. A list of other works by each author (plays and any theater reviews or essays about the performing arts) would be appropriate for a scholarly work as would a list of any published or otherwise existing English translations of those works.

For the book to serve as a sampler of Serbian works ready to be picked up for the American stage, it would need to provide permissions data and, for the most part, this is missing. There is no information about how a director could seek permission to mount a production from the playwrights or their estates. Furthermore, no information is provided for seeking permission from the translators, their estates, or any third-party rights holders for the use of these translations in a production. The copyright page for the book itself does not provide contact information, either a physical address or a website address for New Avenue Books. This means that any director interested in mounting one of these plays is faced with the daunting task of determining who holds the rights before seeking permissions.

Another feature of many play samplers that is missing in this anthology is basic data about the plays: a character list (number of male and female characters, age ranges), number of acts and scenes, stage settings, and any special requirements, such as live musicians, animals, or special effects.

As a translator myself, I was disappointed by the lack of information about the translators, the circumstances under which the plays were translated, and the dates of translation (which is useful dramaturgical information). It appears that some of these plays were translated some time ago, because a few of the translators are deceased. Biographical data about the translators could have been given in a separate section at the end of the book.

Translators’ notes are also useful in monolingual compilations of translations from countries for which the publishing or production conventions are not widely known. They can relay to the reader that a playwright was adhering to or deviating from theatrical conventions of the time, and whether and why the translator has, for instance, adapted the stage directions for an American stage (generally, right and left in stage directions of these plays refer to the actor’s perspective, that is, stage right and stage left, but these playwrights indicate upstage and downstage using a variety of terms), standardized cues for beginnings and ends of scenes (or retained the playwright’s impressionistic descriptions of how the lights should fade), or transferred every typographical feature of the original even if not standard in English typesetting. A freestanding note is also the best place for the translator to sound out pronunciations of proper names, give historical background and cultural context, explain whether the play is presented as a work of literature or as a script for production, and discuss his or her approach to translation challenges presented in the work.

My overall impression is that the editors were too timid with regard to presentation: the plays appear to have been printed as found or as submitted, without imposing standard conventions or even correcting typographical or formatting errors. These errors in some of the plays are numerous and distracting, even to the point of obscuring meaning, such as when stage directions are not enclosed in parentheses or when dialog is italicized as if it were part of the stage directions. The ancillary material, too, would have benefitted from professional copyediting and proofreading. That would have caught, for instance, the introduction calling the play by a different English title than the one used in the translation (The Šopalović Traveling Theatre vs. The Traveling Troupe Šopalović; The Doll Ship vs. A Boat for Dolls) and the statement that Biljana Srbljanović was born in 1970, followed by another statement that her first play was produced in 1970 (581).

These criticisms notwithstanding, the compilation is an enjoyable read and a fascinating window into the culture and politics of Serbia over the past 80 years and three systems of rule (kingdom, socialist federal republic, and parliamentary republic[2]). The editors chose socially conscious plays, most of which contain implicit, if not explicit, political commentary. The styles are familiar: comedy of manners, theater of the absurd, play within a play, bawdy political satire, post-war drama, allegory, and conventional drama. Each translation succeeds in capturing the spirit of the original, although some translations are more successful than others. Three of the plays, if staged, would require a brief program note situating the play in place and time to allow an American audience to follow comfortably (I have noted this where appropriate), but the others, I believe, can be enjoyed without additional context.

The plays share a number of themes:

  • Post-war recovery and reorientation (Hallelujah, Times Have Changed, Barbelo)
  • An individual’s relationship to and survival within an oppressive, corrupt, or dysfunctional system (all the plays contain some element of this, but particularly Balkan Spy and Times Have Changed)
  • Class prejudice; hypocrisy and false piety of “elites” (The Deceased, Hats Off!, Caroline Neuber)
  • The role of artists and theater in society (The Traveling Troupe Šopalović, Caroline Neuber, A Boat for Dolls)
  • An individual’s search for meaning; alienation; the impossibility of communication (The Bird, Barbelo, A Boat for Dolls)

For students of translation, the anthology presents an assortment of into-English translation challenges that pose particular problems when translating for the stage:

  • Whether to anglicize the names of characters (e.g., John for Jovan, Paul for Pavle, Pearl for Perla), leave their original names, or change to a translation of the name (e.g., Hope for Nada, Pearl for Bisera, Stache for the nickname Brko)
  • How to deal with social context, cultural references, or historical facts that constitute plot points
  • How to render wordplay, slang, and dialect when the particular manner of speaking conveys to the original audience information about the character that is otherwise unspoken (social class, education level, region of birth or upbringing, formality or informality, prejudices)
  • What to do when characters speak a third language in the play, a language the original audience is likely to understand, but the target audience unlikely (in the case of The Deceased, Russian)
  • Whether to translate or localize certain words or phrases (endearments, food and drink, state or religious holidays, names of landmarks and cultural icons)
  • Predjemo na “ti”: What to do when characters start out addressing each other formally and then make a point in the dialog of switching to the informal “you”
  • How to deal with plot points that hinge on the original language’s use of masculine and feminine forms (in The Traveling Troupe Šopalović, an actress is rehearsing a man’s part but keeps inadvertently converting the first-person masculine verbs in the script to feminine forms)

Every translation in this anthology is worthy of a more detailed discussion, but with ten plays to discuss, there is not enough room to explore how each translator approached these challenges in their respective translations.

For each play, I will fill in some of the gaps in the ancillary material mentioned above, provide a plot summary, in some cases with additional thoughts, and weigh in on whether the translation is playable and how it compares in content, tone, and style to its original. Not being provided with the original plays, I searched for them online. I was able to find a few in “official” versions (published in books or magazines), but the rest I could find only on Scribd, in what I consider “unofficial” versions, retyped or scanned and OCRed without correction and, all too likely, without permission. I have no way of verifying the accuracy of these Scribd versions, but I trust they are accurate enough to get a sense of the original play. They helped me answer questions that came up as I was reading the English translations, but I tried not to base my criticisms of the translations on nuances of formatting or punctuation that might not be correct in these online versions.

The Deceased

Original title: Pokojnik.

Playwright: Branislav Nušić, 1937

Translator: Duška Radosavljević (no date given)

Edited by Dennis Barnett

Original accessed via print anthology. [3]

About the translator: Duška Radosavljević is “a dramaturg and academic with a research interest in modes of theatrical authorship including writing, directing and devising as well as theatre criticism in the digital age.”[4] She is the author of numerous book chapters and journal articles on dramaturgy and has served on judging panels and as a theater critic and peer reviewer. She also translated The Propsmaster by Uglješa Šajtinac (published in Three Contemporary European Plays, Leeds, UK: Alumnus, 2000). In 2015, she won the Theatre and Performance Research Association’s (TaPRA) David Bradby Award for her book Theatre-Making: Interplay Between Text and Performance in the 21st Century (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).[5] She is an instructor at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London.

The Deceased is a three-act play with a prelude (the prelude is the set-up, taking place three years before the beginning of act I). The action for the prelude and each act is continuous from beginning to end in a single location, with scenes demarcated in the text by “adding” characters every time a new character enters—there are no pauses in the action or scene changes within acts. The prelude and the acts take place in four different tastefully appointed rooms (three different sitting rooms and a study).

This is a period play (1930s Belgrade), a comedy of manners, a critique of the newly moneyed class of capitalist social climbers. Pavle, co-owner of a successful engineering and construction company, discovers that his wife has been cheating on him with his business partner; he decides to leave town to clear his head. He quickly arranges his affairs, telling his wife, business partner, and young protégé that he is leaving and does not know when he will return (all this occurs in the prelude). We find out in act I that Pavle is still missing three years later. Due to a series of coincidences that were set up nicely in the prelude, he was presumed dead shortly after his departure, and his loved ones and business associates made the best of it—for themselves: the wife married the business partner, the trusted protégé claimed authorship of Pavle’s life’s work, and a distant relative turned up to claim the inheritance. And then Pavle reappears. No one is willing to give up their recently acquired wealth and prestige, and they conspire (cliquishly, humorously, clumsily) to rid themselves of “the deceased” by any means possible. In so doing, they readily expose their own avarice, selfishness, hypocrisy, and social status-seeking. What differentiates this play from some of our American and British classics in this genre, however, is that Pavle does not get satisfaction in the end—in this play, crime pays.

Overall the translation reads well and captures the tone, register, and humor of the original. It plays as a period piece, and I believe that the adopted British English of the translator (born in Croatia, career in the UK) enhances the style, especially to an American ear (something about that British accent). It is definitely playable, although an American director might want to make a few minor linguistic changes to make it more idiomatic in American English. A few examples: “at your hand” instead of “by your hand” (82); “I can guarantee for him” instead of “I can vouch for him” (110); rafter instead of joist or beam for a supporting element of an entire house (81).

A close comparison of the original and translation turns up some inaccuracies—two examples:

  • Pavle’s construction-site foreman is about to read him a letter written in Russian, and Pavle says, Razumeću toliko, translated as “I think I might not understand that much” (15). The scene that follows, in which Pavle understands quite a bit of the Russian, would make more sense if the Serbian were translated more literally, “I will understand much of it.”
  • In this same scene, the foreman reads the initial endearment, then apologizes, and Pavle, who has just discovered his wife’s infidelity, exclaims, “Čitajte samo!” translated as “Yes, go on” (15). We don’t get any indication of his emotional state in this translation; better would be, as written, “Just read!” or “Keep reading!”

However, these and similar minor flaws do not mar the overall success of the translation. In the original and in translation, it is a very funny play.

Hallelujah

Original title: Haleluja

Playwright: Đorđe Lebović, 1960 (date found in further research)

Translator: Nikola Koljević, 1970 (date found in further research)

Performed at Hope College, in Holland, Michigan, in 1970

Previously published in Branko Mikasinovich, ed., Five Modern Yugoslav Plays, New York: Cyrco Press, Inc., 1977[6]

Derivative works: Haleluja was adapted into a television film in 1971 (IMDb entry: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0212984/)

Original accessed via Scribd

About the translator: Nikola Koljević (1930–1997) was a young visiting scholar at Hope College in Michigan when he translated this play[7] (in an interview in the November 1970 Hope College Anchor, he said he translated the play in about two weeks[8]). According to his Wikipedia entry, he was a “university professor, translator and an essayist, one of the foremost Yugoslavian Shakespeare scholars.”[9] His Serbian translation of Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was published in 1989. He was also an elected government official, first a member of the tripartite presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina and then, after the start of the Bosnian war, vice president of the breakaway Republika Srpska.[10]

An additional note about the playwright from Wikipedia: Đorđe Lebović was the founder and first president of the Association of Playwrights of Serbia. He wrote for theater, radio, television, and film, and wrote the screenplays of some of the best known films of the former Yugoslavia, including the WWII classics Valter brani Sarajevo (Walter Defends Sarajevo) and Partizanska eskadrila (The Partisan’s Escadrille), both directed by Hajrudin “Šibe” Krvavac.[11]

Hallelujah is a play in three acts (twenty-four scenes). There are many different settings, most occurring in and around a hospital—the patients’ ward, an office, the mortuary, a store-room, a courtyard, the entry gate—as well as various indoor and outdoor town settings—a family kitchen, a woman’s attic bedroom, a boy’s bedroom, a coachman’s quarters, a priest’s office, the front yard of a house, a town road, a field, the path to a graveyard, and a graveyard.

This drama takes place just after a war, and although the war and the country are never named, the reader infers that it is WWII. The protagonists are former concentration camp prisoners who are now patients in a hospital located in the defeated country. Imagine, for instance, that survivors of a Polish concentration camp were recovering in a hospital in defeated Poland, where the hospital orderlies are now prisoners of the Allied Forces and the townspeople had sided with the Germans. The play opens in a ward of seven patients, with one of these seven having just died (this character, Yoyo, although he has a name, is not in the character list—he is dead from the beginning of the play). The remaining six patients are archetypes of sorts: there is an adolescent named Pip, a formerly religious Jew named Moishe, a former lawyer Yustus, the always hungry Zola, the ironic Sipka, and Zero, who was a kapo in the concentration camp (a prisoner who enforced the rules and punishments of the camp on fellow prisoners in return for privileges), whom everyone despises. The plot revolves around the improbable desire of these prisoners to hold a proper funeral for Yoyo instead of letting him be tossed into a pit, per hospital practice. The action revolves around their attempts to cajole and outwit the hospital staff into approving and assisting in the burial and their first interactions with people “on the outside.” They go out into the town and try to convince the hearse-driver and then a poor farmer to transport the coffin, a priest to lead the service, etc. At the same time, they are confronting their own demons and navigating their relationships with each other. The play is bleak and at times predictable, but it is well-written, with a mix of dramatic, tender, and comic scenes.

The translation is playable, but it definitely needs language editing and would benefit from a revision based on a careful reading of the original. In a few places, the translation either does not match the original or is not worded in such a way as to “read” to an English-language audience, for example:

  • Sipka says of Zola, who “thinks of nothing but food,” “Dackle—postoji,” translated as “Thanks, therefore—exists” 121). This makes no sense in the scene. I read it as “Therefore—he exists” (the pronoun is understood), Sipka’s wry twist on “I think, therefore I am” (that is, even if he only thinks about food, at least he thinks). The set-up would require some linguistic juggling, but I think the joke could be approximated in English.

On the other hand, the somewhat stilted (and, as the 1970 Hope College reviewer said, “ponderous”[12]) language of the translation creates an odd effect of alienation. At first I likened it to the way it would sound if an Eastern European theater company were trying to perform the play in English. But as I got further in, it felt as if the characters had been so traumatized by their experiences in the concentration camp—or in the case of the townspeople, by their severe deprivation during the war—that they were relearning language after a long period of silence and isolation. Certainly this was not intentional, but the translation might be instructive to a contemporary translator trying to achieve a similar effect.

The Bird

Original title: Ptica

Author: Aleksandar Obrenović, 1958

Translator: Daša Drndić (1971 is the likely date of translation, according to further research)

Performed at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois, in 1971

Previously published in Branko Mikasinovich, ed., Five Modern Yugoslav Plays. New York: Cyrco Press, Inc., 1977[13]

Derivative works: Adapted into a radio play, 1958

Original version not found

About the translator: Daša Drndić is an acclaimed writer in her native language, with ten novels (including Trieste, Leica Format, and Belladonna), numerous short stories and radio plays, and essays and criticism to her credit. She herself has been translated into many languages.[14] She received a master’s in theater and communications at Southern Illinois University in 1971.[15] I am guessing that she translated The Bird while studying there, which would accord with information given in the introduction to the play that it was performed that year at the university’s Center for Soviet and Eastern European Studies and Performing Arts (197).

The Bird is a one-act play; descriptions call it a “scenic miniature,” one of four that make up the full-length play Variations. It takes place in the backyard of an old married couple’s house.

This is a one-act in an absurdist style and also, I believe, an allegory. It reminds me of Albee’s The Sandbox or Beckett’s Happy Days (although notably, it predates these two plays, which were written in 1959 and 1960, respectively). A husband and wife are trying to catch a bird that only the husband can see. Their conversation about the bird is simple and childlike, a series of declarative sentences and short questions. At times they make elliptical references to past painful events, but over the course of the play, each appears to be resolving to be kinder to the other. About halfway through, a neighbor enters. He is looking for the basket he lent them ages ago, which neither the husband nor wife have any memory of. The neighbor describes the basket in glowing terms—he entrusted it to his neighbors knowing that they would take better care of it than he would have done himself. Eventually a basket is found, but it is old and worn and does not satisfy the neighbor. The neighbor is angry and disappointed; he leaves but soon returns with a shotgun, and once he confirms that the couple’s sought-after bird is flying just above, he shoots it. A crow falls from the sky and the neighbor laughs. But the couple do not get angry at the neighbor; instead they are full of wonder for the dying bird whose heart is still faintly beating:

OLD MAN:  Just like mine.

OLD WOMAN:  Really, like yours. It won’t last long.

OLD MAN:  A little, at least. At least a little bit. A bit longer… Before night comes… (213)

I was not able to find the Serbian original of this play to compare the translation to, but the translation strikes me as just right. There are no false notes or awkward constructions to remind the reader it is a translation. On a personal level, I found this play surprisingly affecting, both for the relationship created between the old man and the old woman and for their hopeful belief in this bird, which the reader suspects—almost from the beginning of the play—is a construction of the husband’s imagination.

The introduction to the play interprets it as follows: “In Variations, Obrenović concentrates on the existence of ‘the little man’ in contemporary conditions, often with satirical colors. The play exposes the intimate and basic situations of an individual; it is a presentation of a happening, an event” (197). (Note that this quote is representative of the quality of writing for all of the introductory texts.) I am inclined to describe this play as an allegory about belief and cynicism. The husband and wife desperately want to believe in this bird; they want to trap it, to see it, and to hear its beautiful song up close. And when confronted with the reality of a half-dead crow, they do not discard their belief in the bird, rather, they adjust—poor bird, it was once so beautiful and now it’s just a crow. The neighbor, on the other hand, when presented with a dusty old basket in place of the beautiful one he lent to his neighbors so long ago (if it ever existed, we cannot be sure), cannot reconcile the physical object with the ideal he had in mind. He gets angry, disillusioned, desperate. He lashes out by shooting the bird, but this provides him no consolation, no satisfaction.

Hats Off!

Original title: Kape dole

Playwright: Aleksandar Popović, 1967

Translator: E.J. Czerwinski (between 1967 and 1969, according to further research)

Original accessed via Scribd

About the translator: E.J. Czerwinski (1929–2005) had a long and distinguished academic career in Slavic languages and literatures, with many years writing about and translating contemporary drama from the region, specifically from Poland and Yugoslavia.[16] He served as editor of Slavic and East European Arts and on the editorial boards of the journals Comparative Drama, World Literature Today, Gradiva, and Twentieth Century Literature. In the 1980s, he spent time in Yugoslavia to complete entries for the World Encyclopedia of Theatre Ensembles and translations for an anthology of Yugoslav short stories that was published in Slavic and East European Arts.[17] According to his writings, he seemed to take a particular interest in the work of Aleksandar Popović and translated a number of his plays in the 1960s.[18] He must have completed his translation of Hats Off! before 1969; he refers to it in a 1969 article in Comparative Drama.[19]

Hats Off! is a full-length play in two acts, without scene demarcations. Based on a reading of the Serbian version, the action takes place on a multilevel, multifunctional set that can serve as a king’s court, a palace balcony, and other public and private locations in and around the halls of government, such as it exists in the world of this play.

The note I wrote shortly after starting to read the English translation was “Wow—rhyming, kind of like a Crystal Fields / George Bartenieff risqué comedy!”[20] This play is a bawdy romp about palace intrigue. If there were doors on the set, they would be slamming furiously as characters rush in and out. They chase after and flee from each other, hatch plans with multiple partners, lift their skirts and drop their pants. The players are the old ruling couple, the couple’s indolent son, a manservant and lady-in-waiting (who are constantly trying to outwit and fend off the advances of their masters), and a mysterious character named Eugene, whose first line is “Mooooo!” As well, there is a chorus of seven women, the Sedam Redušice. (A reduša is one of a corps of workers taking orders from the acting domestic head of a workers’ collective, she works in the living quarters, keeping the fires lit, dishes washed, floors swept, etc.) The role of the chorus is to sing and dance—mainly, it seems, to whip up a general sexual frenzy and perhaps to confuse the old man.

The editors of the anthology say in the play’s introduction that the play “is a protest against mechanization, bureaucracy, and automated life and sex” (215). I am instead inclined to interpret it as a straightforward sociopolitical satire. To me, it appears to present a nepotistic ruling class more concerned with its own comfort, reputation, and longevity than with the concerns of its citizens. It is not a stretch to find parallels between a king’s court and one-party rule.

As well, I disagree with the editors’ statement that “Popović rapidly alters his themes and subject matter, with little regard for the form or content, stressing only the values of the humorous and the satirical.” In my reading of the original, this play does have a plot. Yes, the characters are frequently distracted by the prospect of sex, but they also know what they want to gain politically.

This brings me to my criticism of the translation. This is the one play in the anthology that I think does not work in the published translation. It doesn’t work for me because the translation, although cleverly rendered, is so free as to have lost the through-line of the original. The translator clearly made a decision to translate using clichés and slogans and to have the characters speak in rhyme where possible, which mirrors the declamatory feel of the dialog in the original. But although the basic scene structure, the bawdiness, and a fair amount of the dialog is present, there is a loss of meaning. I was not able to tell what was going on from the English translation alone. I think the biggest problem with the translation is that it does not fully render the stage directions in English. Without these stage directions, the reader (and eventual director) cannot envision the action, the relationship between characters, or even the meaning of the dialog, which does not make sense if you cannot “see” what the actors are doing on stage.

To illustrate, here are the stage directions from the very beginning of the play, with the translation, the original Serbian, and my draft translation with notes in brackets in the third column. (The original is from Scribd, and it appears to have been typed up by hand, but long sections match the translation, so I believe it is accurate enough to judge by.)

Print version Original (from Scribd) PG literal-ish translation
(Act I)
(On by Day—Off by Night)

(MACABRE’s (DRAGOJKO’s) Court. Nightmarish confusion.)

 

/Sve počinje iz mraka. prvo dođe svetlo s vetrom. na sceni skamenjeni u pokretu igre: sedam redušica, Dragojko i Ostoja. Arsa zavaljen u tronu Odadžija i Okica napred na rampi skamenjeni u pokretu, u nekom teškom radu posle svetla s vetrom dolazi blehmuzika, kolo. sa zvukom kola svi igrači 7 Redušica, Dragojko i Ostoja. Ožive, zaigraju, Okica i Odadžija nastave da rade, a Arsa ostane u tronu/ (All begins in darkness. First comes light and wind. Frozen in mid-action are the Seven On-Call Girls, Dragojko, and Ostoja; Arsa is stretched out on the throne; Odadžija and Okica, downstage at the footlights, are frozen mid-action in some kind of heavy work. After the light and wind comes the sound of a brass band playing a kolo. With the sound of the kolo, the Seven On-Call Girls, Dragojko, and Ostoja come to life and dance, Odadžija and Okica resume working, and Arsa remains on the throne.)
(…)  
(Flourish of trumpets, pompous gallop) /bleh muzika pompezno galop s folklornim prizvukom/ (Brass band music, a pompous fast dance with a hint of folk)
MACABRE (DRAGOJKO) (Enters doing the gallop): Come on now, let old Dad take you for a little walk through history! DRAGOJKO /nastupa uz muziku ka rampi/ Odadžijo… DRAGOJKO (appears with the music and heads to the footlights): Odadžija…
GERTIE (OKICA): That’s Macabre, the head-codger around here!

 

OKICA To je taj Dragojko koji ovde vedri i oblači… OKICA: This is Dragojko, the head honcho around here…

As the curtain rises in the original, there is a great wind. Could this be a sweeping out or a sweeping in? What does it mean that the wind is blowing but the characters are frozen? This alone provides intriguing material for a director to work with. When the action begins, some characters dance while others work and another lolls on a throne—we already have a sense of who does what in the world of the play. As the curtain rises on the translated play, there is nothing but confusion.

In the second excerpt, also from the beginning of the play, Dragojko/Macabre is the first character to head to the footlights to be introduced to the audience by Okica/Gertie. Throughout the play, stage directions indicate certain lines are directed toward the audience, but these are not given in the English translation, depriving the reader and director of an important stylistic feature of the play.

One final note about the presentation of this play in the anthology. In the afterword, Dennis Barnett relays this anecdote: “One of the plays in this collection, Hats Off!, by Aleksandar Popović, was prevented from being produced initially because in Serbian, the title, Kape dole, could also be translated as ‘Down with the Captain’” (704). However, this is contradicted by other sources. The translator himself provides a different explanation—he says that because kape (hats) sounds like the two-letter initialism for the Communist Party, K.P. (pronounced “kah peh,” that is, almost the same as kape, with only a change in the stress of syllables), some people understood his title to mean “down with the Communist Party!” Czerwinski continues, “Popović did not have this in mind when he entitled the play. As a result of the misunderstanding, however, the play was taken off the boards after only three performances. Unfortunately, it has not been produced elsewhere.”[21]

The Traveling Troupe Šopalović

Original title: Putujuće pozorište Šopalović

Playwright: Ljubomir Simović, 1985

Translator: Alan McConnell-Duff (no date given)

Previously published in Jovan Ćirilov, ed., Infinity Contained in Ten Square Yards: An Anthology of Contemporary Serbian Plays, Belgrade: Srpski Pen centar, 2008

Original accessed via Scribd

Note: Might require a program note to provide historical context that a Serbian audience would possess.

About the translator: Alan McConnell-Duff (1942–2012) was a writer, translator, and teacher of foreign languages. From 1966 to 1972, he lived in Yugoslavia, where he began translating.[22] He translated from French, German, Italian, Afrikaans, Finnish, Hungarian, Serbian, and Slovene and wrote The Third Language: Recurrent Problems of Translation into English (New York: Pergamon Press, 1981), and co-authored several books on English as a foreign language in collaboration with Alan Maley, including Drama Techniques in Language Learning (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982).[23] His paper “A foreign country: on the translation of stage plays,” was published in Working with Language: A Multidisciplinary Consideration of Language Use in Work Contexts (Hywel Coleman, ed., New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1989).

The Traveling Troupe Šopalović is a play in ten scenes and two interludes. The script is confusing in that it begins with a title for act I, but there is no act II (in the original as well); however, the first interlude, at the end of scene 5, appears to be intended as a closer to act I, ending as it does with the falling of the proscenium curtain. The main setting is a shared private yard behind two neighboring houses; it consists of a central area for chores, such as washing up, laundry, and chopping wood, and also a shady area with a table and benches for meals, and a grassy slope that leads off to a stream. Other locations include a town square, a street corner, a room in a police station, a stream bank, and a road leading out of town. The play takes place “one hot summer” in the Serbian town of Užice during the German occupation. The script does not elaborate on the significance of the time and place of the setting, but a little research reveals that the occupation of Serbia by German forces began in April 1941 and that Užice was the site of a Partisan uprising in September that year. These two facts would be well-known by a Serbian audience and should probably be provided to a target audience as context; otherwise, meaningful allusions in the script will be missed, and the audience will be playing catch-up throughout the play.

This is a drama in which an itinerant theater company comes to a town and quite inadvertently causes upheaval and change in the lives of the people they encounter. The actors, of course, have their own interpersonal conflicts and problems, including one actor who appears to have lost his ability to distinguish the troupe’s plays from reality. He is always getting them into trouble by breaking into lines from the classics, which, with a war going on, are quite provocative. Although written thirty years ago and set seventy-five years ago, the play holds up well. The plot has a number of twists and the main characters are complex—a lot of humanity is on display here. The theme of life imitating art runs through the play, and theater jokes and bumpy rehearsal scenes provide comic relief.

The translation is playable—it conveys the drama and characterization of the original and reads well in English. The many quotes from classic and imagined dramatic scenes and monologues are rendered believably and seamlessly in English verse. However, a few of McConnell-Duff’s translation choices are odd and his decision to use footnotes is perplexing given that in his essay about play translation mentioned above he says, “(T)he stage has no room for footnotes.”[24] The footnote issue, however, is surmountable; the information given in them can be imparted to the audience by tweaking the dialog or through stage business.

Examples of awkward or problematic translation choices:

  • Jednospratna kuća translated as one-floored house (286)—A one-story house in Serbia is a two-story house in America (the ground floor doesn’t “count” there); this matters because it is a description of the set and much of the action takes place on the second-story veranda of this two-story house.
  • “Mnogo je ona visoko! Ne može da je povali samo ko neće!” translated as “She’s very high-up! The only one who can’t get up her is someone who doesn’t want to!” (330)—In an argument between husband and wife, the husband, besotted by a young actress in the troupe, is defending her from the wife’s insults, saying those insults will not reach the actress. The wife agrees sarcastically about how high the actress is, and says that the only person who can’t knock her down (off her pedestal, perhaps) is someone who doesn’t want to. The phrase “get up her” might be a typo for “get up to her” or might an attempt to allude to sexual intercourse. Either way, the English is awkward.

The translation also contains a number of typos, some of which are very distracting, for instance, “She slits (sits) on Meitzen’s desk and lights a cigarette” (285); “She breaks off at the sound of heal / firing” (stage direction, should be “she is interrupted by loud gunfire”) (292); “Her husband’s drowned his life in the battle (bottle)!” (309); “Found someone to cover with floppers (flowers), did you?” (343). The character list is also formatted poorly, which buries some characters in the middle of lines. For instance, “PHILIP TRNAVAC – the actor with two masks, beneath which there lies perhaps a third woman from the crowd.” A careful reader will realize that “woman from the crowd” should start on a new line. Had the text been proofread, these and many other typographical errors could have been corrected.

Balkan Spy

Original title: Balkanski špijun

Playwright: Dušan Kovačević, 1982

Translator: Dennis Barnett (1997, 2016)

Derivative works: The play was made into a film by the same title in 1984 (IMDb entry: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0086935/)

Original accessed via Scribd (scan of book pages)

Note: Might require a program note to provide historical and sociopolitical context that a Serbian audience would possess

About the translator: Dennis Barnett worked in theater as an actor and director for almost twenty years before pursuing a PhD in theater history and criticism, which he completed in 1997. His primary focus is the theater of the former Yugoslavia and how it intersects with society and culture. He currently teaches at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Edited books include DAH Theatre: A Sourcebook (Lanham, MD: Lexington Press, 2016) and Theatre and Performance in Eastern Europe: The Changing Scene (co-editor with Arthur Skelton; Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2008). In addition to the translation of this play, he is credited with the translation of two others in this volume. He also edited two of the plays included here and he wrote the afterword.[25]

Balkan Spy is a two-act play in ten scenes. The location is Belgrade. The time period is not given, but based on the characters’ ages and other details, I would place this around 1979–1980. All of the action takes place in the home of a middle-aged working-class couple on one floor that includes the main entryway, a kitchen, a sitting room, and the private room of their tenant. The tenant’s room can be accessed through a locked door from the common rooms or through a separate entrance to the street.

Balkan Spy is a dark comedy in which one man’s paranoid fear of the government secret service apparatus is spun out to such extremes that at the end he transforms from tormented to tormentor. A middle-aged couple and their adult daughter, struggling financially in a poor economy where most business is done through political connections and bribery, have let out a room to a Parisian tailor of Serbian descent. The play begins with the husband returning home from an “interview” with an inspector from an unspecified office of the interior; the inspector was asking about the tenant and the husband is now convinced that the tenant is a spy and that he is under suspicion for renting a room to him (the husband is sensitive to police pressure because after WWII, he spent two years in a political prison camp). The husband, already in poor health because of a heart condition, is now convinced that his fate is tied up with that of his tenant. He begins following his tenant in an attempt to catch him in some evil deed, hoping to prove to the authorities that he (the husband) is not an enemy of the state. The husband embarks on increasingly imprudent adventures, which we find out about when he returns home out of breath, covered in dust, limping, bruised, cut, etc., and has to explain how he, for instance, slipped from the roof of the apartment the tenant was visiting or dove into a river in the middle of winter to retrieve a scrap of paper. The husband pieces together the “intelligence” he collects and fashions a tale of espionage involving half the town of Belgrade and the CIA. He eventually ropes his twin brother into the project. Everything comes to a head when the brothers learn that the tenant is planning to leave the country. They feel it is urgent to stop him, and so they capture him, tie him up, and interrogate and beat him in a frighteningly unhinged good-cop/bad-cop routine. The tenant has known that they have been following him for weeks but he has no idea what they are after. At first he humors them, but when they start hitting him, he realizes that they actually might kill him.

The translation reads well. The plot is understandable, the scenes work. I don’t think that a monolingual reader would find fault with this translation. On comparison with the original, however, I get the sense that the translator was unfamiliar with some colloquial Serbian phrases.

  • When asked about his heart, the husband says, “Kuca, da kucnem, translated as “It keeps the beat, so I keep marching” (369)—The meaning is “It is beating, knock on wood”; kucati means to beat or knock (as in knock on a door). To express the sentiment of “knock on wood,” one says, “kuc, kuc” or “da kucnem (u drvo),” and raps a knuckle on a table or other wooden surface.

My biggest complaint about this translation is the proliferation of footnotes—forty of them. Twenty-six of these are pronunciation guides for names that appear in the text, but the pronunciations are inconsistently rendered and in some cases incorrect. Just two examples:

  • Jakovljević, a surname, given as “Ya-koh’-vlee-yeh-veech” (360)—it should be more like Yah-KŌV-lye-vitch (the letter lj is a consonant pronounced similar to the double L in million).
  • Dorćol, a Belgrade neighborhood, given as “Dor’-cho-lah” (376)—there is no “ah” at the end.

In addition to pronunciation notes, the translator comments on translation choices, what it said in the original, why he left some things out, how a scene was staged in the film, and character motivation.

These footnotes are not appropriate for a play script, even one that is meant for reading purposes only. Pronunciations of character names can be placed in the character list in brackets and everything else can be explained in a translator’s note, especially discussion of what has been changed or omitted and why. These days one can and should assume that a reader or dramaturg will look up place names, pronunciations, historical events—everything is available via the Internet. If a point of fact or context is necessary for audience understanding, then that should either be worked into the script (as succinctly as possible) or provided in a translator’s note that can be adapted to a program note if the play is produced. As far as stage directions, I empathize with the translator for wanting to share his vision of how to block a crucial scene, and I think that translators absolutely should try to visualize the action, whether in a play, a short story, or a journalistic account. But in plays, I think we need to translate what is on the page (perhaps adding context, as mentioned above) and leave the job of directing to the director.

Times Have Changed

Original title: Novo je doba

Playwright: Siniša Kovačević, 1986

Translator: Richard Williams (between 1987 and 1991, according to further research)

Previously published in an English-language edition of Scena, Theatre Arts Review (an annual English-language publication of the Sterijino Pozorje Festival, Novi Sad, Serbia), date unknown

Edited by Dennis Barnett (for current anthology, no date given)

Derivative works: Made into a television miniseries, Portret Ilije Pevca (Portrait of Ilija Pevac), 1988 (IMDb entry: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0200366/)

Original accessed via Scribd

Note: Might require a program note to provide historical and sociopolitical context that a Serbian audience would possess

About the translator: Richard Williams translated this play and a number of others for the annual English edition of the theater journal Scena between 1987 and 1991. At that time he was teaching at the University of Novi Sad (1986–1991). He also translated Kapo, a novel by Aleksandar Tišma (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1993). From teaching, he moved into refugee and immigrant affairs and is now an independent consultant specializing in the integration of immigrants and refugees in the U.K.

Times Have Changed has ninety-six scenes, some quite short, and they are not divided into acts. It takes place in a farming village in Srem, a county in western Serbia that shares its eastern border with northeastern Bosnia and eastern Croatia. The time is just after WWII, from July 1945 to July 1946. The action takes place all over the village—in the fields, in barns, in houses and yards, a blacksmith workshop, the local administrative office, a meeting hall, streets, school room, town square, etc. Not only are there a lot of challenges for staging this play (animals, running water, a barn on fire), but there is an epilogue which relates in omniscient third person what eventually happened to everyone in the play (who got married, who was killed, who begat whom, and a final statement that the playwright is the grandson of the protagonist). My thought on reading this was that it was more like a film than a play, and that is what prompted me to check if it had been adapted into a film.

This play is a historical drama about the period right after the end of WWII in Serbia, when the redistribution of land and property and the system of self-management was being implemented in Yugoslavia. It is episodic and comprises many interwoven plots, covering many perspectives. The protagonist is a man from a landowning family who is returning home after having been a soldier and a prisoner of war in Germany. He returns home to find that most of his family’s land has been given away to others in the village, that former hirelings are now Communist Party officials who can intrude in his personal affairs, that his wife is quite independent and active in the Party, and that certain friends of his are being “boycotted” because of their wartime sympathies. Basically, there is a new order, and he chafes under these changes. His reaction is juxtaposed to that of his wartime buddy who returns with him, who accepts the new order. I’m not sure how successful a staging for an American audience would be, but the play itself is valuable for its historical detail and breadth of perspective.

The translation is successful; it captures the plot, characters, and mood, and renders the stage directions accurately, so that a reader can follow the action. Very few lines prompted me to look at the original—only a couple of awkward translations, a couple of “technical” terms that might have benefitted from a word or two of explanation added to the dialog, and one anachronism:

  • “Ide, ide, ko u prija Vide” translated as “It’s hot to trot now” (481)—The Serbian is a jokey rhyming expression meaning that something is running smoothly or going very well, so the translation is fine as far as meaning. But the English phrase seems anachronistic for this play, especially used by a villager who did not have contact with American soldiers during the war.

Caroline Neuber

Original title: Karolina Nojber

Playwright: Nebojša Romčević (further research indicates first publication in 1998)

Translated by Dennis Barnett, from the transcription by Vladislava Felbabov (no date given)

Previously published in Jovan Ćirilov, ed., Infinity Contained in Ten Square Yards: An Anthology of Contemporary Serbian Plays, Belgrade: Srpski Pen centar, 2008

Original accessed via Scribd

About the translator: See under Balkan Spy for information about Dennis Barnett. A note about “translation from the transcription by…”—it was explained upon inquiry that the play had been translated into English for the Serbian premier and that the translation in the present volume was based on that original work.

Caroline Neuber is a full-length play in twenty-six scenes, without act divisions. It takes place “in German lands in the 18th century” and the locations are generally indoors—dressing rooms, rehearsal stages, performance stages, bedrooms, inns/restaurants—but there are also a few scenes in town squares, and one scene on the war-charred remains of a once residential street.

This play is inspired by the career of Friederike Caroline Neuber née Weissenborn, an influential figure in the development of modern German theater, who was active in the first half of the 18th century.[26] Caroline is presented as an idealistic but impetuous “serious” actress rebelling against the coarse broad comedy that defined theatrical entertainments of the time and, in this play, her own father, whom the playwright casts as an actor performing the role of the lascivious clown Hanswurst.[27] The play presents various ups and downs of Caroline Neuber’s career, but unlike her steady upward trajectory in history, this play ends tragically, when the daughter, brought low by fickle audiences, personal choices, and circumstances beyond her control (namely, war), literally steps into her father’s shoes, reduced to performing as Hanswurst herself in the final scene.

This is the one play in the anthology that I had no affinity for at all. This has nothing to do with the translation—I simply did not find the main character, or any characters for that matter, sympathetic. The introduction presents it as “a tragic story about a German actress and her striving to create a reputable theatre” (529), but all I got from it was a story about a spoiled, stubborn, whiny actress who made poor choices and had little consideration for the people who cared most about her. Without knowing the publication date, I would have guessed this play was written in the 1960s or 1970s by a much older playwright. I wondered if it might work as camp, or even if it were intended as camp. My visceral reaction prompted me to look for more information, especially anything that would shed light on the playwright’s intention. I found an interview with Romčević from 1999 (even then he said that he had written the play a long time ago, giving the impression that he might have written it while still at university); this is what he said:

So, Caroline Neuber is about the conflict between two views of culture that exist in society, ours as well, even though the play was written on the basis of one single sentence that I heard from professor Dragan Klaić in the course of my studies: that in Germany, in the 18th century, there lived an actress by that name who fought for a new, reformatory theater and against a cheap, vulgar, populist theater. In writing Caroline Neuber, I wanted, as best I knew how, to ever so subtly emphasize that populism is in fact very closely tied to militarism, nationalism, primitivism, chauvinism—in other words, with all ways in which other people are segregated and placed in opposition to the view of culture as something elevated, noble, and elitist, which the heroine of the piece is persistently fighting for. I even made her a bit fascistic, because she is so single-minded, prepared even to kill to realize her cultural ideal. Of course, the play does not bring any resolution as far as her plan is concerned, and that is because these two models are in constant conflict.[28]

I think that with this quote in mind, especially the idea that Caroline Neuber is not supposed to be faultless, but has, in the words of the playwright, a fascistic streak, I could revisit the play and find appreciation for it.

The translation works, and I think it accurately—linguistically and stylistically—embodies this play. Any time I had a question about the translation and referred to the original, I found that the question stemmed from the play itself and not the translation.

Barbelo, on Dogs and Children

Original title: Barbelo, o psima i deci

Playwright: Biljana Srbljanović, 2006–2007 (conflicting dates found in further research)

Translator: Alice Copple-Tošić, 2006 (date found in further research)

Previously published in Theater 39, no. 3 (January, 2009): 43–89; Jovan Ćirilov, ed., Infinity Contained in Ten Square Yards: An Anthology of Contemporary Serbian Plays, Belgrade: Srpski Pen centar, 2008

Original accessed via online journal Pešćanik[29]

About the translator: Alice Copple-Tošić is a professional literary translator from French, Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian into English. She has been translating from Serbo-Croatian into English since 1978 and has translated nearly one hundred books, including seventeen by Zoran Živković. She taught English language and translation for fifteen years at the University of Belgrade and worked as a translation reviser at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.[30]

Barbelo, on Dogs and Children is a play in eighteen scenes, without an intermission. It takes place in an unspecified city in “transitional” Serbia in the mid-2000s. The city in is in the midst of a public works strike and garbage is piled up everywhere. Outdoor locations include a low wall in front of buildings on a city street, a bench in a cemetery, a bench in a park, and benches in other outdoor settings; indoor locations include the dining room of an upscale apartment, an apartment bedroom decorated for a six-year-old boy in the 1950s, a gynecologist’s examination room, and an empty restaurant.

The play focuses on Milena, a young woman in a relationship with an ambitious and unscrupulous politician whose first wife committed suicide and left him with a young son, Zoza. Milena is sort of floating through life, uninterested in her boyfriend’s career and rather frightened of the son, who acts preternaturally mature for his age and is constantly eating. And yet the son is now Milena’s responsibility, because her boyfriend is fully occupied with his political career. As well, she has visions of the dead wife—they speak to each other. The city is populated by stray dogs and by homeless people accompanied by dogs, and Milena and the boy often find themselves in conversation with them. Milena becomes friendly with a neighbor, an undercover policeman, who worms his way into her confidence in an attempt to get compromising information about her boyfriend. He succeeds, and the relationship falls apart. On the other hand, Milena has gradually come to an understanding with Zoza; she is behaving more as an adult and he is behaving more like the child he is. In contrast to Milena’s isolation and lack of agency at the beginning of the play, by the end, she has asserted herself and there is a hopeful, if bittersweet, understanding between them that despite hardships, “we’re in this together, you and me.”

One notable feature of the play is that the scene descriptions and stage directions are in the playwright’s voice and frequently not only indicate what is happening, but also express an opinion about what is happening or an emotional reaction to what is happening. This is not a translation problem, but it presents an interesting challenge for an eventual director—whether to ignore that voice or to somehow incorporate it in the staging. On the other hand, the playwright writes at the beginning of the play that the stage directions can be ignored. (Note that the term for stage directions in Serbian is didaskalije—from the Greek—and the translator used the term “didascalia” instead of translating that word into English.)

In the introduction to the book, the editor says, “Barbelo presents a view of the history of Christianity, marking the first appearance of God, his origin and background, and the metaphysical space from which everything is created” (viii). The text introducing the play says it is “a contemplative work about Christianity and God” (581). I did not see the history of Christianity in this play, so I went looking for interviews and reviews, and found a quote in which Srbljanović explains the name of the play:

Barbelo is that from which we come and to which many would like to return and hide, and each of us decides where or what that is. (…) Barbelo—that is, Barbello—is a concept that in the history of Christianity represents the first emanation of God. … his ur-origin, ur-intention, ur-principle, a kind of metaphysical space from which all things originate, including us.[31]

Although I disagree with the editors’ framing of the play as a history of Christianity, I agree with their additional comment that the play is about “love, life, death, and human alienation” (viii). I think perhaps the playwright is affirming each character’s choice of his or her own safe space—one finds it in marijuana, another in money, another in solitude, another in a life free of material possessions, etc.

The translation reads well and captures the tone of the play and the voice of the characters. Nursery-rhyme-like songs sung by the dead wife feel authentic. It is definitely playable. One choice caught my attention because it would pose a dilemma for a director:

  • The protagonist’s name is Milena and there is some wordplay between her name and the Serbian word malena, which is an endearment meaning “little one.” The translation retains the word malena but every time it appears, so does the phrase “little one” in brackets. This is not a workable solution for a staged performance, so a director would have to figure out a way to teach the audience the meaning of the word. It could be as simple as having the character repeat the term and its English meaning the first time it is used.

In this play, as in others in this anthology, typographical errors distract and obscure meaning, as where font styles for dialog and stage directions are mixed up.

A Boat for Dolls

Original title: Brod za lutke

Playwright: Milena Marković, 2004

Translator: Dennis Barnett, from original transcriptions by Marija Stojanović, Goran Mimica, and Therese Davies (no date given)

Performed in original language with supertitles at La Mama in New York, November 29–December 2, 2012[32]

Original accessed via Scribd

About the translator: See under Balkan Spy for information about Dennis Barnett. A note about “translation from the transcription by…”—it was explained upon inquiry that the play had been translated into English for the Serbian premier and that the translation in the present volume was based on that original work.

A Boat for Dolls is a full-length play in eight scenes. Scenes are inspired by different fairy tales, with the main character as the lead female role in each (e.g., Snow White, Goldilocks, Thumbelina, a Princess, the Witch in “Hansel and Gretel”). The scenes take place in rooms reflecting the fairy tale exteriors—a forest for Snow White, a cave for Goldilocks, a swamp for Thumbelina, etc.

The play follows an artist through her career, using fairy tale dangers and villains to represent the challenges a woman faces as she makes her way in a predominantly male art world. The play is aggressive and sexual in nature. Most of the aggression is directed toward the artist, but, like little girls and princesses in fairy tales, she is either oblivious to the threats or does not understand the severity of the danger. And like real girls coming of age, as the play progresses, she learns to use her own sexual power to outsmart the beasts leering at her and to vie for what she wants. There is a twist in the middle of the play, in which Thumbelina and the Frog are discussing the artist’s work, which makes it seem as if everything that has come before was actually one of her performance pieces. It is a clarifying moment and has the effect of turning the play in on itself—the word that comes to mind is intussusception.

The translation overall is playable, but it is spotty in places in terms of how it flows and how closely it hews to the original. Most of the differences are minor and do not affect the overall impression, but meaning is obscured or skewed in a few places. I will mention the ones that I think are most important in the hopes that anyone wanting to produce the play in English will benefit from these clarifications.

From the very beginning, the list of characters puts monolingual readers on the wrong foot (emphasis mine):

Print Version Original (from Scribd) PG Proposed Translation
LITTLE SISTER MALA SESTRA LITTLE SISTER
ALICE ALISA ALICE
SNOW WHITE SNEŽANA SNOW WHITE
GOLDILOCKS ZLATOKOSA GOLDILOCKS
THUMBELINA PALČICA THUMBELINA
PRINCESS PRINCEZA PRINCESS
WOMAN ŽENA WOMAN
All seven roles to be played by one actor VESTICA WITCH
WITCH To je jedna ista žena. Igra sve ista glumica osim veštice koju treba da igra starija glumica. This is one and the same woman. The same actress plays all the part except for the witch, who should be played by an older actress
MAMA (of WOMAN) MAJKA MOTHER
BIG SISTER (of WOMAN) Od žene Of woman
VELIKA SESTRA BIG SISTER
Od žene Of woman

Another choice that affected my reading appears in the first scene. The scene, in which the mother is putting the two sisters to bed, is fluently translated, including the mother’s bedtime song. But one choice changed the tone of the scene and reverberated throughout the play:Because of the way the English character list is presented, when I got to the scene with Hansel and Gretel and the Witch, I was at first confused as to whether the artist protagonist was being presented as Gretel (maybe it was a flashback?) or the Witch. A Serbian reader would have had no such dilemma.

  • The mother tells the girls she will leave a light on for them in the hallway, and the Little Sister is scared of the shadow. She says, “Tamo je čika. (…) Stvarno je tamo neki čika, preti mi prstom…” translated as “Daddy’s friend is there. (…) He really is there, threatening me with his finger.” (655)—Translating čika (a child’s word for “man”) as “Daddy’s friend” adds a specificity to the scene and an insinuation of parental/paternal neglect or worse that is not present in the Serbian. Better would be simply, “There’s a man there.” This short exchange colored my understanding of the protagonist’s relationship with her father and, given that we are dealing in fairytales and archetypes, my understanding of her motivation throughout the play.

Conclusion

The editors of this anthology have selected ten Serbian plays that originated in and comment upon moments of significant change in Serbian society. Despite the seventy-year span in which these plays were written, common themes run through them, as does a sense of humor tinged with irony, skepticism, fatalism, and the absurd, combined with empathy for the characters and the situations they find themselves in.

The translators, too, represent different moments in the history of U.S.–Yugoslav and U.S.–Serbian relations and have brought their own history and experience to the task. The translations are of a quality that will allow English readers to enjoy these plays on a number of levels—plot, characterization, symbolism, and style.

As well-chosen as the plays are, the book has a number of flaws, as described above. That said, considering how difficult it is to find Serbian plays (and plays from other former Yugoslav countries) in English translation, this anthology is a welcome contribution. And if it is not clear from my individual synopses, I will state it directly: these are not only good Serbian plays, they are good plays, period.

 

Paula Gordon translates from Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Serbian into English. Her translations have been published in Words without Borders, Copper Nickel, Lunch Ticket, and The St. Petersburg Review (forthcoming). Her translation of the play Otpad (Refuse), by Montenegrin author Ljubomir Đurković, was published by the Montenegrin National Theatre in 2003. She lived in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, from 1996 to 2002, working as a project manager with the American Refugee Committee, various commercial companies, the Sarajevo Film Festival, and other cultural institutions. From 1983 to 1996, she lived in New York City and worked in experimental theater, dance, film, and video as a lighting designer, stage and production manager, technical director, and technician. She also hosted a weekly freeform radio show at WFMU in East Orange, NJ (1990–95), and at Radio Beta in Zenica (1996–97).

 

[1] All page numbers in brackets refer to the book under review. Other sources will be cited in full.

[2] CIA, World Factbook, “Serbia,” page last updated August 02, 2017, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/resources/the-world-factbook/geos/ri.html.

[3] Branislav Nušić, Komedije (Belgrade, Serbia: Print on demand), accessed September 16, 2017, https://www.kupindo.com/Beletristika/32257929_Komedije-Branislav Nusic.

[4] Duška Radosavljević, instructor profile page (The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, London), accessed August 31, 2017, http://www.cssd.ac.uk/staff/duska-radosavljevic-ba-phd-pgche-fhea.

[5] “Duska Radosavljevic wins the TaPRA David Bradby Award,” faculty announcement, 28 April 2015, https://www.kent.ac.uk/arts/newsandevents/?view=869.

[6] Denise L. Montgomery, Ottemiller’s Index to Plays in Collections: An Author and Title Index to Plays Appearing in Collections Published since 1900 (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2011) (accessed via Google Books search).

[7] “Play translated here: ‘Hallelujah’ to premier at Hope,” Hope College Anchor 83, no. 6 (October 19, 1970): 1, http://digitalcommons.hope.edu/anchor_1970/19.

[8] Eileen Verduin, “‘Hallelujah’ translator: Koljevich finds absence of U.S. culture enjoyable,” Hope College Anchor 83, no. 7 (November 4, 1970): 9, http://digitalcommons.hope.edu/anchor_1970/20/.

[9] “Nikola Koljević,” Wikipedia, accessed September 16, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikola_Koljevi%C4%87.

[10] Julian Borger, “Brave New Words: Aleksandar Hemon is being hailed as the ‘new Nabokov,’” Guardian, April 7, 2000, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2000/apr/08/fiction.features.

[11] “Đorđe Lebović,” Wikipedia, accessed September 16, 2017, https://sh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C4%90or%C4%91e_Lebovi%C4%87.

[12] Gerry Swieringa, “Important production, ‘Hallelujah’ achieves merit,” Hope College Anchor 83, no. 7 (November 4, 1970): 5, http://digitalcommons.hope.edu/anchor_1970/20/.

[13] Montgomery, Ottemiller’s.

[14]Belladonna by Daša Drndić” (book promotion and author biography), accessed September 7, https://www.hachette.co.uk/books/detail.page?isbn=9780857054340.

[15] Petra Sapun, “Daša Drndić,” accessed September 7, http://booksa.hr/dossier/dasa-drndic.

[16] “Edward Joseph Czerwinski, American foreign language educator,” biography on Prabook, accessed September 7, 2017, http://prabook.com/web/person-view.html?profileId=589092.

[17] E.J. Czerwinski, “Feasts in Time of the Plague: Polish Theatre and Drama, Post-Solidarity” (abstract), accessed September 8, 2017, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/265704156_Feasts_in_Time_of_the_Plague_Polish_Theatre_and_Drama_Post-Solidarity.

[18] E.J. Czerwinski, “Aleksandar Popovic and Pop-Theater: Beyond the Absurd,” Comparative Drama 3, no. 3 (Fall 1969): 168–175, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41152502. (Referring to Aleksandar Popović on p. 174: “Several of his plays, Hats Off!, Second Door Left, Deadly Motorism, and The Goldwinged Duck, have already been translated into English by E. J. Czerwinski and will be given productions in various American universities next year.”)

[19] Czerwinski, “Aleksandar Popovic,” 174.

[20] See, e.g., this short history of Theater for the New City: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theater_for_the_New_City. My first summer out of college, I stage-managed their 1984 traveling street theater production, “It’s Moider!”

[21] Czerwinski, “Aleksandar Popovic,” 175.

[22] Alan (McConnell) Duff, Autobiography, accessed September 16, 2017, http://sjc1959.pbworks.com/w/page/5749084/Autobiographies (search page for “Duff”).

[23] Michael Swan, “Remembering Alan McConnel Duff, 1942–2012,” Humanising Language Teaching 14, no. 5 (October 2012), http://www.hltmag.co.uk/oct12/mart01.htm.

[24] Alan McConnel-Duff, “A foreign country: on the translation of stage plays,” in Working with Language: A Multidisciplinary Consideration of Language Use in Work Contexts (Hywel Coleman, ed., New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1989), 237.

[25] Biographical information adapted from the translator’s Academia.edu profile, accessed September 15, 2017, http://coe.academia.edu/DennisBarnett.

[26] “Friederike Caroline Neuber,” Wikipedia, accessed September 16, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friederike_Caroline_Neuber.

[27] “Hanswurst,” Wikipedia, accessed September 16, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanswurst.

[28] Jasmina Lekić, “Susreti: Nebojša Romčević, dramski pisac,” NIN, July 8, 1999, http://www.nin.co.rs/arhiva/2532/4.html (“Dakle, ‘Karolina Nojber’ je komad o sukobu dva tipa kulture koji postoje i u nasem drustvu iako je pisan na osnovu jedne jedine recenice koju sam tokom studija cuo od svog profesora Dragana Klaica: da je u Nemackoj, u 18. veku, zivela glumica tog imena koja se borila za novo, reformatorsko pozoriste a protiv onog jeftinog, prostackog, populistickog teatra. Pisuci ‘Karolinu Nojber’, zeleo sam da, koliko umem, upravo podvucem sto suptilnije to da je populizam u stvari vrlo tesno povezan s militarizmom, nacionalizmom, primitivizmom, sovinizmom, dakle sa svim oblicima segregacije drugih ljudi nasuprot kulturnom modelu kao necem uzvisenom, plemenitom i elitistickom za koji se istrajno bori junakinja komada. Ucinio sam je cak pomalo i fasistoidnom zbog toga sto je ona u svom uverenju iskljuciva, spremna cak da ubije za svoj kulturni model. Naravno, komad ne donosi razresenje kada je taj plan u pitanju zato sto su ta dva modela u neprekidnom sukobu.”) (my translation).

[29] “Barbelo, o psima i deci,” http://www.pescanik.net/wp-content/PDF/barbelo.pdf.

[30] Biographical information adapted from the translator’s bio at the Words Without Borders website, accessed October 5, 2017, https://www.wordswithoutborders.org/contributor/alice-copple-tosi.

[31] “O predstavi” (about the production), Gavella theater website, 2009–2011, http://www.gavella.hr/predstave/arhiva_predstava/barbelo_o_psima_i_djeci (“Barbelo je ono odakle dolazimo i gdje bi se mnogi željeli vratiti i sakriti, a svatko neka izabere što je to. … Barbelo – tj. ‘Barbello’ – je pojam kojim se u povijesti kršćanstva označava prva emanacija Boga. …njegovo prapodrijetlo, prauzrok, pranačelo, neki metafizički prostor iz kojeg potiče sve, pa i mi.”) (my translation).

[32] “Podela” (production information), Serbian National Theater website, accessed September 15, 2017, http://www.snp.org.rs/?page_id=741&lang=lat.

One thought on “In Review: Selected Serbian Plays

  1. Pingback: Doing is better than stewing | dba Plan B

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