Phillip Breen: 'Our translation exists between the words'

Blog | 07 Dec 2017

Phillip Breen: 'Our translation exists between the words'

In his latest blog, director Phillip Breen (pictured) explores the challenges of working in another language. His production of A Streetcar Named Desire is at the Bunkamura theatre in Tokyo from 8-28 December.

A Streetcar Named Desire has a rich stage history in Japan - almost as much as it does in the UK. There is a received idea about the play, the characters and how it should be done. 

Our Blanche, the great Otake Shinobu - a sort of Japanese Barbra Streisand / Helen Mirren* - played the role for the first time for Yukio Ninagawa in 2002. The Japan Times thought that she looked "younger than her sister", Stella. 

However the Japanese Streetcar is dominated by one name alone, Haruko Sugimura, who played the role on the Japanese stage for the Bungakuza Theatre Company for 600-odd performances over 34 years (Blanche's stated age). She played the role for the last time well in to her 80s. 

Most of the cast can do passable impressions of her Blanche, which have them donning feather boas, running headlong from any light source and fainting on to a bed in Judith Bliss style paroxysms of hysteria. This Blanche was as much a Tokyo landmark as neon advertising.

So there's a whole other text for the Japanese Streetcar even before we get to the actual text. Ours is translated by Koshi Odashima of Wasdea University, it was done for Ninagawa in '02 and it's in many ways canonical. At first glance you notice that it's big. Longer than the English version, in word count by maybe 15%, and anyone who's directed A Streetcar Named Desire in English will know the exquisite fear experienced by glancing at your stopwatch after a one hour 45 minute first stagger through of act one.

The length in Japanese is down to the fact that a lot of the play is about class, and the Japanese have a vast linguistic structure around addressing another person and designating status. For example 'Hajimamishite' is a word used only on meeting somebody for the first time; it means, roughly "and so it has begun"** accompanied by the angle appropriate bow. The Japanese attitude to others is encoded in the fabric of their language and there are attitudes and subtleties, very obvious to a Japanese sensibility, about how to approach social status.

It's not too foreign a concept to the British. Try explaining to a Japanese person that when a ticket inspector on a train in England calls you 'sir'; firstly you must pay attention to the heavy, toxic exhalation before the word, and that he doesn't mean 'sir', he means something like 'arsehole'.

So in our Streetcar we are witnessing the linguistic codification of a way of life that the Japanese have no other way of expressing, abutting against the mores of the southern American aristocracy, being directed by an English director not natively accustomed to the sultry New Orleans temperatures.

As Williams, through Blanche, tells us: "life is so full of evasions and ambiguities". The play is language games, it's practically all evasion and ambiguity. So our translator has to judge where or where not to help his audience understand the drift of each character. Part of the word count is taken up in making explicit where this male translator in his 50s thinks his audience need help with what is implied. 

Which brings us back to age.

In A Streetcar Named Desire Blanche DuBois tries to hide her age. More specifically, a major plot point revolves around the fact that Blanche pretends to be her sister Stella's younger sister. Only problem is, Japanese doesn't have a word for sister. Not an age neutral word like 'sister'. There are two words - 'imoto' meaning 'younger sister' and 'oneesan' meaning 'older sister'. I ask what the Japanese do with twins - of course there is a word for 'twin', which isn't helpful. Stella introduces Blanche to Mitch thus:

"Oneesan, Mitchell-san, Hubbel-san, Gonzales-san desu"

or literally...

"Older sister, the honourable Mr. Mitchell, the honourable Mr. Hubbel, the honourable Mr. Gonzales this is."

The plot revolves around Mitch discovering that Blanche has lied to him about her age. She tells him later in the scene that she is Stella's younger sister. God knows how this exchange played in Sugimura-san's twilight performances.

This puts me in mind of an account Arthur Miller gave after going to see A View From The Bridge in China, where, on the first entrance of Catherine, Eddie Carbone walked downstage and said to the audience "I am in love with her...".

I know nothing of Japan. Our Irish composer (and fierce Japanologist) Paddy Cunneen observes that public life here is a dance. Extravagant gesture everywhere, from the bow to the punctuated nod when someone else is speaking***, to traffic cops, to the station master at Kyoto-station beckoning in the bullet train and pointing it up to the heavens. And he's right. This ability to grade meaning by gesture has helped us access some of Williams' exquisite ambiguities, perhaps uniquely. 

Our translation exists somewhere between the words. Somewhere between the UK, Tokyo and the mind of our playwright, but definitely not wholly in either. Mitch's bow to Blanche in scene 5 is beautiful, liberated when the actor realised that we could utilise the Japanese understanding of the bow in this moment. The young collector bobs his head continuously as Blanche speaks, but never taking his eyes of her; it's very subversive, and very sexy.

Now I get back to the bit about directing that I always forget, but is always there, like death and taxes. Panicking about the running time of act one. It's December. It's cold. I look through my notes from yesterday and I kick myself, one word dominates. Heat. Heat. Heat...

- Phillip Breen

* Her latest album is advertised on giant billboards outside Tower Records in Shibuya  
** I've always thought that to be very cool.
*** This is known as 'Izuchi' or 'counter hammer, taken from the fact that two craftsmen with a hammer each are required to strike one after the other to temper the steel of a newly fashioned samurai sword.

Are you a theatre professional? Join Curtain Call for FREE

Back to news