Translator’s Introduction to Strindberg's plays volume one,
published by Oberon Books

By Gregory Motton

The fashion at the moment is for versions, or neo-translations,
where the aim is to make the text sound as
contemporary, and as English, as possible. It is no accident
perhaps that this comes at a time of particular homogeneity in
contemporary writing itself. We don’t perhaps want to hear
anything different from what we are used to, and we are used
to a narrowing field of variety. How we interpret something
seems to be of more interest to us than the thing itself actually
is. There have probably never been so many different versions
of foreign plays going around. It would be a peculiar coincidence
however if all the plays ever written from Aeschylus
onwards were written in the style of a second-rate British writer
from the early twenty-first century. If we ever want to hear
anything but our own chatter we shall have to go back to
proper translation.

While I do not want to contribute to what I fear is a strong
modern tendency to deconstruct even the possibility of accuracy
in translation of plays, I would like to make the usual disclaimers
of my own translations, emphasising the necessary
imperfections of such work and offering it with the appropriate
modesty and apologies for any errors, which of course I do.
I should also warn that this is of course only Strindberg
rendered into English one hundred years after it was written,
and can only hope to give the audience a flavour of the original.
Also that the language I use is a hybrid: modern English written
in a style intended where possible to resemble the language of
another era and another country. I have not used Edwardian
English for example, since that in itself would never have
reflected very well turn-of-the-century Swedish. Indeed I have
tried to avoid idiomatic English altogether, by which I mean
ready-made phrases, where possible. This is because I think it
gives the wrong feel. (There may be those who think this would
necessarily result in a colourless kind of language; readers
can judge for themselves. Even when writing my own plays
there is a certain kind of idiomatic language that I avoid for
its blandness.) Instead I have tried to favour aspects of our
English that already are similar to Swedish, using vocabulary
of Germanic or Viking origin, instead of Latin or French origin
words. Translators into English have the good fortune to be
able to choose between three rather distinct layers. It is quite
remarkable how often it is possible to use almost exactly the
same formulations and vocabulary as the Swedish. The result
is a rendition of the directness and simplicity of that language,
even when there is a formality in the tone. The Germanic
layers of English have the same qualities of expression. It is
very convenient.

Where there are idioms in the original I generally try to
keep them; that is, I avoid replacing them with a corresponding
English idiom if I can, unless it is very similar. This is because
idioms contain cultural messages and character, and it would
be rather contrary to the intention, to give a particularly English
feel to a phrase just at the very point where it has a particularly
Swedish feel in the original.

I think it is the job of the translator to give the audience
access to the text, not to put himself and his own interpretation
there as an obstacle. As a reader I always feel irritated when a
translator has presumed me incapable of being interested in
or understanding anything that isn’t familiar or even banal;
when he can’t restrict himself to translating the language, but
is compelled to explain the text, or even make it palatable.
This same attitude is taken by theatre managements when they
look for translations. The National Theatre isn’t embarrassed
to serve the audience second-rate popularisations of foreign
classics in which the original is entirely lost – indeed where
there is no intention to keep it. Perhaps the public gets what it
deserves. It is the kind of narrow-minded insular Philistinism
into which we are descending at present and which would shame
us, if we only had sufficient self-consciousness to notice the
pitying eyes of our neighbours upon us.

The customary praise words for translations are ‘vigorous’,
‘startling’, ‘radical’, etc or even simply ‘new’. None of these are
necessarily qualities one should look for in a translation. In
the current climate the real shocker would be ‘accurate’. This
would be shocking because it would sound like ‘dull’ (the worst
crime), but in reality ‘dull’ would of course depend on whether
the original were dull. It is perhaps indicative of the age that
the idea of rendering the voice of the author is not at all exciting
to theatre managements. While the marketing departments of
theatres are apparently aware of the concept of ‘a distinctive
voice’, this has not led them to expect that any great writer
might have a ‘distinctive voice’. Instead, theatres and critics
talk as if there is a kind of modern stage-speak which, if achieved
by a translator, will produce a vital, lively dialogue, and the
opposite of ‘dull’, and that any text rendered into this stagespeak
will benefit from its exciting qualities. Well, they are
right, in that there is a ubiquitous kind of dialogue and it is a
great favourite with second-rate writers and translators alike.
Among the latter it is the (new) academic style, in that it is
used because approved, and applied as a standard in accordance
with distinct rules. Unfortunately, what people think of
generally when they hear the word academic in connection
with a translation (always used disparagingly) is a too strict
adherence to the original, literal accuracy at the expense of
spirit. In fact this style of translation hardly exists. Those who
might have committed these errors in the past now adopt the
current translatorese; a jollied up, chatty, rather loose rendition
of the text into (often ill-chosen) idioms.

It is a fitting irony that these are the same types who despise
or fear ‘datedness’, and who always talk of the importance of
renewing translations every five years, little realising that it is
exactly their favoured style of translation, that is, ‘up to date’,
which dates so quickly. They make it specific to a time (the
wrong time) and specific to a place (the wrong place, England).

The generally accepted notion that translations need
constant renewing is to some extent absurd, considering that a
piece is written at one particular time and is not renewed. So
the original will ‘date’ in that it belongs to some extent to a
particular place and time. We may say that anything may ‘date’
more or less, but just how much and in what way will depend
on its quality. Shakespeare doesn’t really date very much
although its language is old-fashioned. John Buchan however
can be said to date. Anything, a work or a translation, will
date in direct ratio to its tendency to express itself in terms
which lack genuine expressive power but which are instead
current and familiar. This is why fashionable things date
quicker than unfashionable ones. The datedness of a translation
depends partly on the datedness of the original, that is, the
way it is interesting or expressive only at the time of its making.
A good translation of a poor work will date at the same rate as
the original. A bad translation of a good work will date quicker
than the original.

Another reason for the ‘dating’ phenomenon is the idea
that a translation should help a work to seem ‘relevant’. This
is supposed to be achieved by sweeping away traces in the
language of attitudes that are out of keeping with our own,
and by emphasising that which is familiar. In short, a good
translation is supposed to be one which makes it seem as if the
play were written in England, today. But this gives a distortion
not a translation. Some are willing to have the distortion instead.
But they should beware because what is universal and true can
be quite at odds with what is contemporary and fashionable.
It is perhaps a measure of the narrow-mindedness of a culture
that feels itself incapable of understanding something from an
alien time or place, and instead converts everything into
recognisable terms. The result is of course to reinforce its own
values and to learn nothing. We fall deeper into our folly, and
brook no contradiction. We still perhaps feel uncomfortable
with the way Hollywood remakes European films, distorting
them beyond recognition to make them palatable to the isolated
Midwest rednecks. But unfortunately our theatre is of a similar
stamp, to the degree at which we think we are making Titus
Andronicus more interesting by claiming that it resembles
Tarantino. Watching European classics in Britain is often like
reading the Victorians’ moralised versions of Aesop’s fables.

In recent years theatres have developed the habit of
commissioning ‘versions’ of great foreign plays. We cannot
understand anything unless it is native or has the appearance
of being so. We can hear Strindberg if he sounds like John
Osborne, or if we can place him in a category and make him
a good friend to us and all we stand for. Theatres are
preoccupied with being ‘relevant’ and we have a ludicrously
narrow view of what this is, and in fact it is now beginning to
mean nothing more than familiar. We think we are iconoclasts
but really we seek constant confirmations of our current values.
In short we are Philistines, blind and bigoted. We are not
only insular geographically but temporally. Today is more
significant to us than yesterday, like children we presume the
present is the best of all possible times, and we see the future
as the product of our temporary present and are quite
inexplicably pleased with that. Theatres regularly announce
their ‘new version’ of this or that classic foreign play, on the
presumption that, having been executed today, it is better and
more ‘relevant’ than an already existing translation. The
question of merit doesn’t come into it. It is hard to see this
kind of fetish with renewal as anything but the result of
consumerism’s brainwashing.

The ubiquitous chatter and babble that is contemporary
stage-speak is the real dullness in theatre, and the addiction to
it is an impediment to good translation. For if there is a
preconceived idea of what good dialogue should sound like,
this will prevent anything else from being heard. Contemporary
writers will either imitate it or be excluded, and audiences
will find all foreign writers, old and new, rendered into it.
Increasingly actors will find it impossible to speak other kinds
of dialogue. ‘I can’t say that, it’s not natural,’ they say (or the
director says it for them to justify liberties being taken with a
text, by a room full of self-styled experts). But, as Beckett
replied, ‘You say it every day.’ What they all mean of course is
that no one says it on TV / the stage etc. But when an actor
forces himself to stick to the apparently awkward line of a
good writer, the sense of it will reveal itself to him, and will be

Naturally with a translation the actor faced with difficult
dialogue has to wonder if the source of it is the original text or
some quirk or inexpertise on the part of the translator. It is
largely a matter of trust, unless he cares to check with the
original (not in itself a bad idea, and I recommend it). What I
do advise is that actors, and directors, should avoid having
their expectations lowered by the general idea of ‘naturalness’
in dialogue, and remember that it is a passing prejudice, promoted
by those with a vested interest in mediocrity, and to
bear in mind that a great writer is likely to have a distinctive
voice. Otherwise how would it be that we can recognise a
page of Wycherly, Wilde, O’Neill or Ayckbourn at first sight.
No one would say Pinter’s dialogue was unnatural. Good
writing, like good music, can sometimes be difficult to perform
but no one would insist that symphonies should sound like
muzak. I have always found that the more experienced or
talented an actor is, the more he will doggedly bend himself
to the line until its logic reveals itself to him, rather than
trying to bend the line.

Other translations
The late Michael Meyer translated nearly all of Strindberg’s
and Ibsen’s plays, and it is through these that most of us, myself
included, first encountered these playwrights, and we should
be grateful that his translations are generally of a good standard
of accuracy, that he is good at finding the right word and
doesn’t make many mistakes. His weakness is the tone. Meyer
shares the generalised notion of what dialogue should sound
like, and so translates Strindberg into Translatorese. It is the
same language he uses for Ibsen, a very different writer. The
style is a bit too much that of the English drawing-room piece,
and as such it carries some of the English class system along
with it, which is not of course the same as the Swedish one.
The voice is one of easy-going fluency rather than Strindberg’s
rather less comfortable form of loquacity, stilted and passionate
at the same time.

Meyer uses English idioms liberally. He makes little
attempt to retain the Nordic flavour of the language and uses
French origin words where he might use Germanic words. He
sometimes uses metaphors where the original is plain, and he
extends lines to ‘explain’ them when he feels they are obscure
or difficult. He also has the unfortunate habit of intervening
just when Strindberg is most characteristic. When a character
in Creditors ‘looks at a woman underneath her eyelids to see
what she’s like behind them’, he gives us ‘squinting at her to
see what you’re like behind that pretty face’. The last three
words of that sentence being impossibly glib for Strindberg,
and having a very English feel to them. When you translate it
back into Swedish, it sounds, in a Swedish context, as if the
character is insane, or at least horribly inane. Meyer uses the
expression because he judged that eyelids was a synecdoche
for beauty, and so wanted to indicate this. His mistake, in my
opinion is, that he ends up explaining the line unnecessarily,
and inadvertently alters the whole tone of it in doing so.
Leaving eyelids there, as I have done, retains the rather
horrible and also comic aspect of scrutiny, whilst also
conveying, through the image of the half-closed female eyelid,
the personal beauty aspect of the line, but in a way that is not
a ready-made phrase that would sit typically in the mouth of
an English bore, but one that suits this rather dry character in
Creditors. It is also the phrase Strindberg used, presumably for
the same reason.

Also, Meyer inexplicably replaces Scandinavian cultural
references with French ones. Karin Månesdotter becomes Joan
of Arc, and ‘it was shit as they say in Denmark’ becomes ‘it
was what the French call merde’, and so on. This happens
often enough for one to get the impression that Strindberg
was either French or English.

Meyer seems to believe that Strindberg would have liked
to conform to the norms of British theatre and so he helps him
by removing his idiosyncrasies, and gives him a style more
easily digestible to a British audience. But Strindberg has never
been easily digestible, even to a Swedish audience, he has never
been a decent chap, and had very little distance from his writing.
For me, Meyer removes Strindberg’s personality and in doing
so makes it ultimately harder to understand some of the strange
things contained in these plays.

It is fashionable to consider that Meyer’s translations are
dated, and any theatre that can afford it likes to commission a
new one. This has spawned a frightening selection of frankly
Philistine, substandard ‘versions’ or poor translations. It is worth
noting that Meyer is only dated insofar as he tried to update
or anglicise Strindberg, and impose a generic ‘good dialogue’
style upon him. But in this Meyer is the least of all offenders.

The late Kenneth McLeish opts for a wild paraphrasing
and completely alters Strindberg’s style. His rule of thumb is
to use as few words as possible, and he sacrifices everything to
brevity and briskness, which gives a peculiar sensation of
inexplicable haste to each speech, as well as an admixture of
crudeness, even clumsiness, altogether alien to Strindberg.
These translations clearly aim to satisfy the modern presumptions
of what dialogue should be, rather than being any attempt
to render Strindberg into English. Strindberg was generally
direct, but he took his time to say what he wanted to say. He
savoured his phrases and didn’t have the lesser writer’s fear of
prolixity. Here he finds himself at odds with modern
translatorese, and the confusion of vulgarity or briskness with

Peter Watts’ translations from the 1930s are not at all bad
but far less accurate than Michael Meyer’s, which in general
are a vast improvement in style also. Watts does have his
moments however and makes a useful comparison, but he
sometimes makes obvious mistakes.
These are the translators; the version writers are many.
Essentially they work from literal translations, or crib from

Meyer perhaps, and then take their own particular shot in the
dark, not caring about the target in any case, creating, as they
do, something after their own mind.

Most of Strindberg’s plays are not written in anything that
could be called a naturalistic style, although the dialogue is
psychologically consistent with the characters which are usually
convincingly drawn. Even in plays where he is most controlled
by his misogynist demon, Strindberg manages surprisingly
well to get inside the female characters, even while he
manipulates them wildly to confirm his thesis.

It is a shame that audiences are not very well acquainted
with the strange atmosphere in much of Strindberg’s writing
as this is perhaps what is most attractive about it. Theatres
tend to see him as a revolutionary hero, a role made problematic
by his misogyny, and as a reformer of dramatic writing,
although it is mostly his reform in the direction of naturalism
which gets attention in this country. The rest of his contribution,
in the other direction, can be seen here in these, the Chamber
Plays. At any rate some translators try to give him the brisk
style a revolutionary should have.

Strindberg’s idiosyncrasies are of a far different nature. For
a start he tended to write quickly and hated revising or even
reading over what he had written. One can feel with him that
indeed once he began to correct his excesses the whole thing
would unravel. So he leaves it. Sometimes, as with The Father,
he was surprised and horrified himself when he saw it on the
stage. We might as well accept it warts and all. There are errors
or repetitions and inconsistencies. Some translators have
removed these (perhaps feeling they may get the blame). He
writes confidently and fluently, inventing some words, taking
liberties with grammar, using, in short the language as it suits
him. He has a wide and sometimes quaint vocabulary which
can be surprising and funny. He doesn’t write the kind of
dialogue we have learnt from the TV and we shouldn’t try to
make it fit our expectations

It may be worth noting that his style is very different from
Ibsen’s, whose actual speeches tend to be plainer and simpler,
and to have a more everyday feel. Ibsen is essentially poetical
in his technique, and the beauty of his plays is how the splitting
of doom reverberates through his characters’ words and actions,
a lyrical deus ex machina. In Strindberg the characters themselves
take a very active role in presenting the concerns of the play;
they argue, accuse, and describe their experience and
interpretations of life. This gives the dialogue an almost constant
dialectical, rather anguished tone. The language itself has a
consequent hard formality. The anger is of the kind that needs
to prove its point and that aggravates itself whilst doing so,
bewildered by the success of its self-justification. At its most
vigorous it verges on pomposity which sometimes manifests
itself in rather stiff formulations. Translators shy away from
this – it seems ungracious and doesn’t resemble the smooth
flowing modern dialogue we have learned to expect. But it is
nevertheless part of the way Strindberg writes.

A little detour: Translating and writing in an
era of director-controlled theatres.
Sometimes when I am translating Strindberg I am aware that
certain turns of phrase Strindberg used are not going to be
very popular with directors; and as I translate as best I can
what Strindberg has written I know that most likely directors
will chose another phrase (possibly from another translation),
one which rolls off the tongue more easily, one which isn’t
awkward or perplexing or odd-sounding. I have come to accept
this as inevitable, given the current way of thinking, and I can
only hope that in the future more people may find use once
again, for another kind of translation. But I would say this to
our current masters, that they ask themselves if they are willing
to allow the writer, even a dead one, to choose his style or
not; I suspect at the moment that the answer may often be not.

Not content with being the self-appointed autocracy that
chooses the plays which get done (rather than writers and
actors choosing amongst themselves, an idea the power-holders
have convinced everyone is impossible, as impossible as
democracy seemed in the nineteenth century), theatre
producers and directors are trying to influence what gets
written as well. Witness the plethora of ‘help’ groups for writers,
and theatres’ doctrine of developing young writers (ones they
can discover and control). Believe it or not, this goes so far as
to include developing sets of ‘rules’ by which play writing
ought to be governed. If this sounds like something from a
long-forgotten past let me tell you I have seen these rules
written on a whiteboard at the Young Writers group at the
prominent London theatre that dubs itself ‘The Writers’
Theatre’ (run by directors of course). It is the same theatre
that sends staff around the world from India to Brazil and
Siberia, teaching the said rules, and I have met the writers
from five continents that have been taught these rules.

If you want to know what the rules are just imagine Stanislavsky’s
guidelines to actors turned into rules for writing. For example
each character must have an ‘intention’ for each line, each
scene (albeit a scene is a random division of time not known
to the character), and he must also have a life-intention. What
single-minded, goal-motivated characters must populate our
stages, no wonder they all speak in that mannered way, which
we now take for granted, and stand with their legs apart, hands
on hips. In other words young writers are encouraged only to
write scenes or even plays where the characters know what
they want. (All this comes from is the common sense practice
in directing of always trying to establish why a character is
doing something.) This would be like hospitals refusing to
admit patients unless they suffer from easily curable illnesses.
It’s easy to see which group this suits — plays must be very
easy to direct if they are written according to the rules of
directing. And it is giving us theatre with a view of the world
that conveniently flatters the dominant way of thinking and
living, where each life is a project, each person and country a
PLC, and fortune serves those who know what they want –
and take it. If theatre managements, by definition a powerful
group of people, are not willing to let a writer’s style develop
randomly, or more rightly, according to what he needs to
express, but try to impose their own notion of what it ought to
be, then we must expect writing styles that fail to serve what
is being expressed.

At any rate, given that managements are not generally
willing to allow contemporary writers or young writers to
develop their own styles, then it isn’t perhaps surprising that
they also try to impose their notions of style, and through it,
their world view, upon translations, largely because it is seen
as fair game; it’s a soft target since no one, they might argue,
can say what a foreign writer’s style really is, far less render it
into English. It is indeed the fashion these days to emphasise
the difficulties (impossibilities) of translation to deconstruct
any remaining notion of faithful rendering of a text by pointing
out that each epoch has its own view of a text which will
always determine the translation, like it or not. The truth in
this argument is used to try to justify a free-for-all. As if the
difficulties involved in catching thieves should mean that we
should all just take what we want. And like other deconstructions
of texts, it leaves a convenient power vacuum, in the absence
of the departed text, to be filled by the nearest professional,
the academic, the teacher, the theatre director, etc. In the theatre
it gives us productions of texts from other times and places
which are distorted into serving as confirmations of all our
favourite errors and biases (we don’t have beliefs anymore,
but we have preserved our blind presumptions). Literature
throughout the ages becomes nothing but a jolly pageant (in
modern dress or a kind of temporal cross-dressing orgy) of
familiar faces looking just like our own, speaking just like us,
waving encouragement to us because all they ever wanted,
those folk from olden times, was that everything would turn
out exactly as it has turned out. Our so-called ‘takes’ on this or
that grow into a mile-high pile that silences the past. And
these ‘takes’ grow more conservative and self-congratulatory,
in that they confirm the status quo, rather than contradict or
criticise; this kind of conservatism, is especially easy to get
away with when the more you ‘modernise’ something in this
way, the more ‘radical’ you are perceived as being.

In the light of this, I must say that one of the consolations
of translating Strindberg who is rather uneven in terms of
quality, who is sometimes crude, far-fetched, slapdash and
paranoid, and who often lacks the artistic grace of Ibsen’s best
work, is that at least I know how heartily he would despise the
current age, more even than he did his own; if you see a
production of one of his plays that seems to suggest otherwise,
my personal advice is to treat it with suspicion.
Gregory Motton-August Strindberg self portrait
Gregory Motton-August Strindberg
Gregory Motton-August Strindberg self portrait with guitar
Gregory Motton-August Strindberg self portrait at window
Gregory Motton-August Strindberg self portrait at desk 1
Gregory Motton-August Strindberg self portrait nordiska museet
Gregory Motton-August Strindberg self portrait bla tornet
Gregory Motton-August Strindberg self portrait at desk, kunglika bibloteket
Gregory Motton-August Strindberg last photo in the snow, Drottninggatan
Gregory Motton-August Strindberg self portrait 4
Gregory Motton-August Strindberg self portrait with his children
Gregory Motton-August Strindberg funeral cortege
Strindberg's Funeral cortege. Note
the crowds lining even the hilltop far
The last photograph of Strindberg
Strindberg had an interest in
photography. Most of the pictures
below are self portraits.