Translating the Architecture of Desire: An Interview with Wallace Shawn

Well over a dozen years in the making, Wallace Shawn’s theatrical collaboration with André Gregory on Henrik Ibsen’s 1892 play A Master Builder opened this summer in New York theaters—movie theaters ...

Well over a dozen years in the making, Wallace Shawn’s theatrical collaboration with André Gregory on Henrik Ibsen’s 1892 play A Master Builder opened this summer in New York theaters—movie theaters, that is, as a film directed by Jonathan Demme. Much like Vanya on 42nd Street, Louis Malle’s 1994 film based on an earlier Gregory/Shawn project, Demme’s A Master Builder offers an intimate view of performances honed over many years of exploration and rehearsal. The result is spectacular, with the lead actors (Shawn and Gregory are joined by Julie Hagerty, Larry Pine, and Lisa Joyce) embodying their roles with uncanny precision.

A Master Builder,1 one of Ibsen’s dark late plays, centers on the life of a successful “builder” (a Norwegian profession that combines the roles of architect and contractor). Of the many things Halvard Solness has built, none is more impressive than his career itself, which rose out of the ashes of his wife’s family home to produce such an empire that his former mentor and employer, Knut Brovik, became his employee. Now Brovik’s son works for Solness as well, and as the young man seeks professional advancement, Solness carefully squelches his ambition, assigning him only mechanical tasks and even seducing his fiancée.

In Ibsen’s play, Solness is visited by a fetching young woman, Hilde Wangel, who invites him to remember his moment of glory as a successful builder in his prime when he constructed an enormous new tower on an old church and then climbed to the top of it to crown his creation with a wreath. The image of the tower with its intimations of phallic grandeur combines with the overt sexuality of the young visitor to transport Solness into frenzied reveries. Demme takes the image of the tower as the defining metaphor for the story, framing the play and its scenes with traveling shots of rooftops (including an ominously recurring church tower).

Wallace Shawn’s bold new translation of Ibsen’s play clarifies and highlights the self-regarding aspect of Solness’s life and career. With a pair of incisive linked interventions (placing Solness on a sickbed in the play’s opening scene and inviting us to view Miss Wangel as a figment of the master builder’s feverish imagination), Shawn emphasizes the play’s psychological underpinnings—shifting it, as it were, slightly forward in time, from just before Sigmund Freud to just after. Speaking Shawn’s dialogue, Ibsen’s characters move in a nebulous in-between time that is neither fustian, a product of the turn of the 20th century, nor contemporary, belonging to our own time. And so these timeless conflicts (fear of being kept down by the older generation, fear of not finding love, or of losing it once one has it, fear of being overtaken by the younger generation, fear of eventual irrelevance and death) play out in a world that, while dream-like, still seems solidly constructed. Shawn’s translation gives these characters and their lines a vividness that makes Ibsen’s universe feel like a place closely connected to ours. I asked him to speak with me about how he did it.

Susan Bernofsky: Thank you for schlepping up to Columbia to speak with me at my convenience. Especially with such a large load [points to Shawn’s enormous duffle bag].


Wallace Shawn: Very convenient for me, but I may have nothing to say.


SB: I wanted to talk with you about translation because I’m fascinated by your approach to it. When I teach translation, I am always trying to get my students to stop being dutiful, to not just look up words in the dictionary, but also remember to do the part that’s writing, and you are so clearly still a writer when you translate. With translators who practice more traditional forms of translation, their artistry can become invisible, while your taking more liberties makes your artistry more obvious. So I think you’re a model translator, even if you’re out of the mainstream in this respect.


WS: I am out of the mainstream because of my ignorance. I am out of the mainstream because I can’t possibly do it any other way. I mean obviously I too start by writing—but wait, that’s not even true. I usually start by writing down a sentence that isn’t necessarily writing. With The Threepenny Opera, I had the text, I had the dictionary, and I would say about half of the time I wrote down something that in English was ridiculous, I mean as a very first scribbling in the notebook. But then maybe half the time, I sort of thought: I know what that must be, and I wrote down a sentence that maybe stayed through all the drafts. But as for my understanding of the subtleties of the language—I don’t have any understanding.


SB: Well, you know German.


WS: Well, I don’t really know German.


SB: You could have fooled me.


WS: But with Brecht I feel the other translations that I’ve seen are bad. I know that. When I say bad, I mean that obviously the first thing a translation has to be is great in the language that it’s in. I mean, if you are translating into English, it’s got to be a great piece of writing in English. So I know, for instance—and anybody would know, looking at the Brecht—that it’s supposed to be funny. And there are certain lines that are clearly supposed to be funny. So I know if what the other translator has written is completely unfunny, that’s not a good translation. And I know—I think I know—what Brecht is saying, politically, and socially, although it’s completely outrageous and even criminally amoral. I felt that I understood that he’s expressing a kind of Bin Laden, nihilistic point of view, and I don’t see that in this translation, and I don’t see that in this [other] translation. So I mean I did look. I read a little bit of a couple of other translations. [Sotto voce] I won’t say which ones. I felt sure I had the spirit of this more than they do. Maybe I am wrong! But I felt sure, I am sure that I do.


SB: Are you still prevented from publishing that translation because of copyright restrictions?


WS: I devoted three years of my life to that translation, and I believe in it. But it is not allowed to be seen by other human beings, and I think that it’s better than the others, and that upsets me partly because I know that it will die after a certain number of years. It’s not like with a play. Okay, it’s sad if a play is not appreciated and you sort of have to say: well, people will have to enjoy it after I am dead. But a translation—not always but usually—does have a sell-by date on it. Take The Master Builder, say—it doesn’t have much or any slang in it, but I don’t want people to know that as they’re looking at it, I want them to feel that this is like contemporary talk, the way people are speaking. So you’re always aiming for that, or I am, and that makes it more likely that it’s going to be outdated at a certain point, so that’s why I feel that errr
about not being able to publish the Brecht.


SB: So, about the way people talk in Ibsen …


WS: Ibsen is not just smart, he’s a genius, and I know that it’s not supposed to be a bunch of wooden, heavy, sort of fat snowmen talking to each other, these are living people who are particularly intense and passionate. You know, why would Mrs. Solness be stupid? Really, what she is saying is not stupid, so why should she sound stupid? So when I read the other translations and I see that these people sort of seem not smart, and Ibsen himself seems not very smart, I know that those translations are not that good. There is a translation of Ibsen that I do sort of love, by Eva Le Gallienne, an actress and sort of a famous personality of her time. Not to claim great knowledge of her, but I do sort of love her translations, I think they’re kind of great, and there are modern ones, I guess, that they do in England, because they do these plays every year, and I’ve read some of those, I’ve read one modern one of The Master Builder, and it didn’t say a great deal to me.


SB: You must have started with reading the play in someone else’s translation to begin your work on it.


WS: I read Eva Le Gallienne’s translation and then I forgot about it. I tell the little story of how it happened in my afterword to the book. André said, let’s do The Master Builder, I think I’d never read it before, so I read Eva Le Gallienne’s version, and I thought, oh, this will be absolutely wonderful. But there were probably a few months between reading that and doing the translation. Sometimes it’s obvious whether a line is ironic or completely unironic and straight, but not always, and of course he has a lot of stage directions, so he is constantly telling you what emotion he thinks is happening in the character’s soul. Most of the time I just sort of think: I know what this must mean. I did bring in my bag a couple of pages of what I was working from. Do you want to see?


SB: Yes!

A blown-up photocopy of Ibsens Norwegian text with handwritten glosses accompanying each word, plus marginalia. The thumb is Mr. Shawns.

A blown-up photocopy of Ibsens Norwegian text with handwritten glosses accompanying each word, plus marginalia. The thumb is Mr. Shawns.

SB: What a fascinating method. I can see, that’s how to go about it if you don’t really know the language. Just beautiful!

WS: This is the very nice Aline Solness. And you can see, if you can read German, you can figure out what the Norwegian says, almost without the notes.


SB: It’s so much like German!


WS: And there is almost nothing that is puzzling, really there isn’t.


SB: Except all those other things, like tone of voice.


WS: Yes, yes, yes, that’s what I am saying. I don’t know the tone of voice. Except when you do the whole scene, then it goes somewhere, so the tone of voice has got to be appropriate to the scene that you know is there, I mean the story that you know, so that’s a bit of guidance. But for instance, this scene—which is sort of my favorite scene—this is Hilde and Mrs. Solness when they’re alone. And which is such an incredible idea on Ibsen’s part—to even think of that, it’s so amazing, to put it in such a crucial place, it’s my favorite.

But I have her speaking in a kind of quite graceful way, Mrs. Solness, and she sort of—well, I mean, it’s in the plot that she totally blows Hilde’s mind, that Hilde is totally undone by this conversation. Whether you take Hilde to be a real girl or a spirit, or whatever you take her to be, she’s undone by this conversation, she’s like totally shocked! She never dreamed that Mrs. Solness would be like this. She doesn’t quite say that, she says to the husband, “Well, I can’t do something so wrong as to have a love affair with you and hurt somebody that I know, that I’ve come to know.” She doesn’t exactly say, “She’s not the way I thought she would be,” but when you think about it, what happens in the conversation is that she is not the way Hilde expected her to be.

That phrase, “I got to know somebody,” means: I saw things about them that I would never have imagined from the conversations we previously had! So, it seemed right that Mrs. Solness would somehow be revealing her intelligence. She is revealing that what might have seemed to Hilde like an ignorant choice about how to live is actually a very conscious choice, if you will, an intelligent choice. Maybe not the one that is right, but she’s really thought it all through. And when she says she lives for obligation, it’s not because she’s never heard of anything else because she’s a dope, it’s because she really believes in it, and she understands what that means, and she understands the alternatives. So Hilde is kind of blown away. So it seems right that Mrs. Solness would speak in this rather graceful way.

SB: It wouldn’t work at all, otherwise. If she were dumb, it wouldn’t be moving, and this way it is. And on the reading of the play that sees Hilde as a figment of Solness’s imagination, it’s even more interesting for Hilde to be going through this transformation.


WS: Yes, of course, because Solness knows this. He knows, and if it’s a dream, then in his dream he is reminding himself of what a kind of fantastic person his wife is. We then acted that a little bit. That’s how emphasizing that, in the translation, led us, obviously, to perform it that way.


SB: Did those scenes, and the lines that carry this information, change with rehearsal, too? Or did you have the translation, and that was then it?


WS: The translation didn’t change very much except that the frame was invented quite near the end of the process—in other words putting Solness in the bed. We started rehearsing in ’97, and that probably didn’t happen till the 21st century, maybe 2009. And there was a certain point after we’d done the play for a dozen years or something where I really did feel I had the right to do certain things. I don’t say that’s true, but I felt that way. I used many, many more words than Ibsen, and then the whole thing was four hours long, so then I cut—quite brutally cut it. It was too long. And the repetitions are maybe more believable in a slightly less intimate production. I mean, we did this for, you know, 25 people, and if you want to interpret the movie as being like a play, that would be a performance for three people. The style of the movie makes it that much more intimate. In other words, 25 people is actually quite a few if you have to project your voice to reach them, and they are a certain number of yards away from you, whereas with the film, the camera was only, you know, three feet away, or sometimes only one foot …


SB: It’s almost all close-ups.


WS: So that’s the equivalent, say, of doing the play for three people, and the repetitions are not as credible. And also the translation style is contemporary, and you can only go so far with sort of saying: “He was my uncle!” “Your uncle! He was?” “Yes, he was, my uncle.” “Really!?” Well, you can only do that to a certain extent, and it has a sort of hypnotic musical quality. That’s how he wrote. But we cut out a lot of that. And then I took some liberties, you know. I’ve stitched together things, and I’ve taken out things that took me out of the play, that were just so alien that it was like walking along a path and then there is a great big ditch that you fall into. I took out some of those ditches.


SB: Doesn’t someone’s voice sound like heavenly bells in the original?


WS: Someone speaks, and it sounds like there is a harp playing, when he is standing on top of the tower. He speaks, and it sounds like a harp playing. I don’t know what to say. You have to balance—that’s what he wrote, and is it essential? To me there was no question that when Solness speaks of palaces that stand firmly right in the middle of the sky, this is one of the most important points in the play. He’s making a claim. He says: I used to build churches and I gave that up because I hated building churches, and I thought it was important to build houses for people, and then I realized that that’s ridiculous, and then I realized that the only things that can bring people happiness really are these palaces that stand in the middle of the sky. He’s saying something like: the only way to achieve ecstasy in life, or joy, is to strive to do something that is absolutely impossible to do. I don’t know. Am I glad that that is the turn that the play took, that he says that? Do I fully understand what he said?


SB: Were you tempted to change that bit, too?


WS: No. If it were me writing the play, I wouldn’t say that, because I don’t really fully understand it. It expressed something very, very real, to him, but it’s impossible to perform. If it were me, it wouldn’t be in my play, but you know, a lot of people would say, Wally, you’re a nice guy, maybe, but, you know, you’re a trivial and shallow person compared to Ibsen! And naturally, your plays would be trivial and shallow compared to his plays, and you know, you would take it out, and he would leave it in. And that is why you are the pitiful guy that you are, and he is the great guy that he is. But! It had to be in there. Anyway, it didn’t occur to me that I could take that out, because the whole play is going there.


SB: It’s all about building. What greater thing could you build than a castle in the middle of the air?


WS: Yes. What greater thing could you build? And of course he’s saying this. His situation is impossible. He can’t come down and run off with Hilde, because he would never do that, he would never leave his wife, but on the other hand he can’t stay with his wife, and now he’s in love with the girl. The only thing to do is to fall off the tower—


SB: It solves everything.


WS: It solves everything. That’s the only thing he can do, and it is what he must do. And so, when he’s talking about doing something impossible, that’s the context. And when he is talking about building a castle in the air, he’s saying, yes, Hilde and I are going to live in the most beautiful castle, but unfortunately, it’s impossible. And I am going to try to reach ecstasy, and I am going to try to leave the trivial aspects of my life behind, but in fact it’s impossible. So you know, it’s got to be in there. Whereas the harps—the fact that his voice sounds like harps, in the air—is that crucial to the whole play? I don’t think so. I thought, I can take that out and more will be gained by not having that big hole in the road.


SB: It does do something to the overall plausibility—


WS: It’s not believable! Everybody in the audience, the entire audience, is going to sit there and think, “That’s ridiculous. That is just ridiculous.”


SB: You know, overall I think that all the different sorts of changes you’ve made—seen in total—make the play feel more psychologically substantial. Ibsen was working in a sort of symbolic universe that maybe doesn’t read so well to us nowadays. It seems fanciful. And I really like your psychological reading of the play. By putting Solness on his deathbed the entire time—or in a state of being ill while everything else is happening—it makes the power struggles much more acute, it makes the fantasy much more poignant. I think there’s a layer of richness that is of our time that comes out in the decisions that you made.


WS: I mean, to me, it makes sense of Hilde, and it makes sense of the whole play, whereas otherwise for a literal-minded and trivial person like myself, the play is not particularly credible or believable.


SB: It’s pre-Freudian, and it’s all innocence. You know, for it to be that naive now, I would be almost embarrassed for Ibsen. Because we’re post-Freudian. Talk to us about towers, and the fantasy creature, the perfect, hysterically laughing fantasy, and …


WS: Ibsen’s on the cusp. Freud is just about to be discovered.


SB: And it’s nice that you helped put the play just on the other side of Freud. Otherwise it’s wish fulfillment without ownership. And in your translation, Solness is the owner of these fantasies. And they make sense. I think I like the play in your translation more than I like the original in some strange sense. The play is old-fashioned, and you sort of just tweaked it a little bit, and it doesn’t feel old-fashioned anymore.


WS: Of course, but anybody putting on the play has got to make some adjustments. If you imagine a naive person who has somehow been assigned this play to direct, and he’s doing it quickly, if he started doing it as a realistic drama, like A Doll’s House, wow. You’d run up against some big problems. The actress playing Hilde would say: Wait a minute, I don’t understand. Why am I here? Am I coming here to kill the guy? What am I doing? And who am I? Would this really happen in 36 hours? All of this would go on? What is he talking about? When he says he’s going to build palaces in the air, is he mentally disturbed? Has he gone insane? And if he’s insane, why are we watching this, it’s pretty boring. You know, you’re going to have to come up with some solutions somehow. And the death can seem tacked on or ridiculous even. Or possibly funny. With the big dummy falling from the top of the stage.


SB: The first funny moment of the play. Of course, everyone knows people transform plays all the time to put them on. They cut them. In the translation world we get worried about cutting things, but in the theater you have no choice but to cut plays that are too long to stage.


WS: Shakespeare is always cut. And I don’t know if I mentioned this—I don’t think I did. If you go to the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm, which was Ingmar Bergman’s theater—though when I went he was still alive so maybe they don’t still do this—in the bookstore in the lobby, you could buy the text of Ibsen, or Strindberg, or Shakespeare, with Bergman’s cuts! With the line drawn through the parts that he cut. And let me tell you, he cut a lot! And they weren’t ashamed of it; they sold that in the bookstore.


SB: Were Shakespeare’s plays put on full-length at four and a half or five hours in his time?


WS: I guess.


SB: They just had a different audience, I guess.


WS: I don’t know if they wandered in and out a bit?


SB: Or took a nap?


WS: I think it was a more informal situation. But I guess they were very long. And I don’t know—I mean it’s sad. I will probably die without knowing anything about theater. I am not really sure. But the question that I am curious about and that I don’t know the answer to—and that you could probably find out with your advanced research skills—is how many people in the audience of Shakespeare went frequently to plays, and how many had never been to a play, and how many went once a year or something? But I am guessing that it was a pretty special experience and that it was the most amazing thing that you could do, I suppose, at that time. You couldn’t go to a movie, so I am guessing that they were not bored at the theater.


SB: That’s probably right. And they probably packed lunches.


WS: That I am sure they did. They did eat during the play, I am pretty sure.


SB: That’s kind of nice.


WS: Obviously the Greeks did a lot of eating.


SB: You fed people in the intermission for Grasses of a Thousand Colors. That was nice!


WS: Absolutely!


SB: In Grasses, you’ve also got that 18th-century fairy tale spliced in there. Did you swipe actual lines from Madame d’Aulnoy, or was it just inspiration?


WS: It’s just, when I was working on the play, suddenly that fairy tale, “The White Cat, came into my mind from my childhood, and I thought, oh my God. I want to go and read that. And then I stole some details from it.


SB: I won’t tell.


WS: No, I admit it in the book, I admit that I did. I mean I stole—the cat’s kingdom really, from that fairy tale. And the arrival of the protagonist at the castle and the fact that they served mice. But in the fairy tale he says, I can’t eat mice. And she says, well, then we will prepare something special for you in the kitchen. And in my play, he eats the mice. And it’s quite important that he does.


SB: The white cat is kind of like Hilde, you know. The otherworldly visitor.

Illustration for Madame dAulnoys <i>The White Cat</i>

Illustration for Madame dAulnoys The White Cat

WS: Yes! I didn’t think of that—that’s absolutely right.

SB: Translating Brecht must have been a different process for you than Ibsen, since I do think you know some German.


WS: Debbie [Shawn’s longtime partner, author Deborah Eisenberg] and I spent six months in Germany, in Berlin. And we even had a few German lessons. And I’ve always followed the libretto of operas, listening to the CD—so I am fairly familiar with the words, let’s say, in The Magic Flute. And even in some Wagner operas. So, you know, obviously, when we were living over there, one had some exchanges, speaking a little bit with people who didn’t know English, but if I were to be given any kind of a test, I would fail.


SB: The Brecht is amazing, though, it’s so spot-on. It looks like it was written by someone who can write really well and knows German perfectly. I don’t know how you did that.


WS: I did an earlier translation, too, of Machiavelli, The Mandrake.


SB: I didn’t know about that.


WS: Yes, that was when I was quite young.


SB: Has that one been performed?


WS: Yes, I did it for a guy who was going to put it on. I went to an expert on the language who went over every line. I did this with both the Ibsen and the Brecht. They checked me out, to be sure not necessarily that they liked my translations of each line, but that I had not misunderstood what Brecht or Ibsen or Machiavelli was literally saying in that line. So I don’t think there are any ridiculous mistakes, or maybe someone would say I made quite a few, but I don’t think I did actually. There was one huge one in the Brecht, but now I am not remembering what it was—I am remembering when it was but not quite what it was. It’s in the beautiful scene when Jenny reads Mac’s palm and predicts that he’s going to be betrayed by a woman. And there is a word in there that I totally thought was the wrong word, and I was wrong. And so the person going through it said, “What have you done? This is insane!” And that was before obviously I made any cuts or anything like that. I feel pretty confident that I didn’t make any of that kind of a mistake in the final version.


SB: Do you have another translation that you are secretly waiting for the opportunity to work on, some beloved play?


WS: I have considered others over the years, but it’s always taken so much longer than I expected. I mean the Brecht, obviously, because of the rhymes. It was almost nightmarish the amount of time it took. Because I just didn’t want to use any stupid rhymes, and I have a pretty good ear by now for when the translator of the rhymes has given up, and has sort of said: well, fuck it, I will just sort of put in some stupid rhyme.


SB: There’s a lot of really unfortunate rhymes out there.


WS: Because I just can’t think of a good one, I can’t sit here anymore trying to think of a good rhyme, I will just do an awful one. So, yes! There are others. Oh, if I weren’t going to die, if I were going to live for a long time—


SB: Yes, say you had another hundred years.


WS: Oh, yes, well, then I would, definitely. Yeah. Maybe I will live another hundred years, and maybe I will do another translation. Well, I love doing it. I mean, it’s almost outrageously fun, and it is actually, it’s unfair but it’s true—I am still writing plays, so you know, translating Ibsen’s play is like having a tutorial on playwriting with Ibsen. It’s like, you know, learning a tremendous amount about how he put this play together and what it is. So that’s something you can’t put a price on. But even if I didn’t write plays, it would be a thrilling thing to learn all that you can learn from that, about the text.


SB: That’s how I feel about it. You take apart the watch and see how it ticks and try to put it back together again.


WS: It’s priceless. It’s a very intimate relationship that you can have with a writer that you couldn’t have another way. The writer is not going to invite you into their workroom while they’re writing, it’s not going to be done. They wouldn’t be able to write. And they’re very unlikely to talk through the whole piece with you in that intimate way. And yet really, that’s available. I mean, I’m not a scholarly person, apparently, judging by my behavior.


SB: There’s evidence to the contrary lying on the table.


WS: But I don’t know many subjects well at all. I used to read the New York Post very religiously, and I used to know about the gossip of the day, but I haven’t done that in 15 years. There is nothing I know well. But these three plays I know well. And I would be embarrassed to have a conversation with any of the people of this campus touching on the subjects that they know about. But if you said, let’s discuss The Master Builder of Ibsen, I would not feel that way. Or The Threepenny Opera. I would not be afraid of that. I have my own opinion about each of those scenes and I do love that feeling that I sort of know these three works of literature quite well.

SB: You earned that by hard study, after all.


WS: So yes, if you said, well, Wally, you’re going to live another 30 years with your faculties intact, I would definitely leap into the next one.


SB: That’s such a plausible scenario. I look forward to the next one.

WS: It could happen, but see, it’s the guarantee, that’s the part that no one can give you. You have to figure the odds, and I don’t know how to do that. There is no way to do that after, and actually once you reach a certain age, the odds are kind of out the window, I mean even for a doctor it’s hard to predict.


SB: Did you learn any other languages in school?


WS: Latin. I mean, I studied it. My education was very, well, it was strong on self-esteem, which is the main ingredient of my translations, you know, self-confidence.


SB: But that’s important.


WS: But it was weak on languages. If I had it all to do over again, I would start learning some languages when I was young. And you know, I don’t speak anything well. I can speak Spanish or French under some kind of duress, in front of people who wouldn’t make fun of me or laugh at me. I can express myself very painstakingly, slowly. So I studied French in a way. I should have been studying from a much, much earlier age. The first time I studied a language, it was French, I was 12, and our teacher had an extremely fanatical approach. I don’t know what to say. She had us memorize records of fairy tales. And they were for French children. So they were at speed, they were at great speed. Memorize them, and recite them. Now, at some late, late stage, she brought out the text and gave it to us. But without ever really, well, never exactly translating it. So we could in a way recite it, but with mistakes that didn’t make any sense, and we didn’t know quite which word meant what! I am serious! And she would act it all out, and explain it, in French.


SB: Which might be pedagogically very progressive, but she doesn’t seem to have gone about it very well.


WS: Well, she was great in a way. She was an amazing person. An astounding person. But of course her religion was never use English! Ever. And you know, certain things I understood. But certain things you could never understand because they were impossible to understand unless explained. In French, particularly, with those contractions. I had a great accent until my voice changed. We did a play, Le petit poucet—Tom Thumb, basically—and I think I had a perfect French accent. But then when I was 14, or 13, my voice changed, and my accent became like every other American. And my understanding of what was going on was confused. But in high school, I had a profound Latin teacher who influenced me as a person as well as, you know, academically. My first year of Latin, I not only didn’t love it, but I tried to convince all the other kids not to take it. I didn’t like the teacher at all, but then I sort of changed, and loved the teacher, adored him. And I sort of had two very happy years with him. And then I took one course on Catullus in college, and then—because for weird reasons I taught in an unbelievably strange school where they allowed me to teach anything I wanted—I actually taught Latin, without being qualified.


SB: That must have been a fun class. I would have liked to be in your Latin class.


WS: Well, the school was so chaotic, and the classes were so chaotic, and the kids were so unruly, that I said, “Anyone who wants to study Latin, it’s all going to be one on one.” I took the kids one at a time.


SB: With explanations in Latin only?


WS: I didn’t do it that way. And because the school was very, very undisciplined and wild, there were certain kids who unbelievably found Latin a safe harbor for them. They loved Latin. They were probably some of the more fanatical Latin students in New York City, studying at my school, because they simply would do ten chapters a night in the book, because they loved it. It was really fun for them. So yes, I loved teaching Latin, it was great. But no ordinary school would have allowed me to teach Latin.


SB: So was Le petit poucet your first acting role?


WS: No, no, I acted in English before that. My first time on stage was when I was 9.


SB: So you were a veteran by the time the French play came along.


WS: Oh yes, absolutely.


SB: I’d like to ask you about certain word choices in your Ibsen translation that I found interesting. Like the phrase, “mentally sick.” It sticks out because we’re used to thinking about “mentally ill,” or “mentally impaired,” or what have you. But something about that unusual combination of words, “mentally” plus “sick,” makes it memorable, and I am thinking it’s you and not Ibsen, because I bet in Norwegian the expression is ordinary, as in German, where “ill” and “sick” are the same word (krank). I am just curious whether you were thinking of words that would be not the usual.


WS: Well, translating is exactly like writing, you write down a cliché and then when you read it back, you sort of think, does it have to be that? I mean, because a cliché is kind of lifeless, there is something dead about a cliché. And for instance, the phrase “mentally ill” is really so of our time, so that the audience is going to be thinking, Ibsen didn’t really say “mentally ill” because that’s of our time, that translation is somehow modernizing what the playwright wrote. They’re going to be thinking that, so “mentally sick” is a little bit odd and it doesn’t seem like it would be impossible that Ibsen wrote that.


SB: How much are you aware of language changing from decade to decade? Can you look at a line in English that a character is speaking and think, okay, 1920, or 1960?


WS: Most translators actually use slang from England in 1890, or something. I can’t always place the decade, but I certainly know if it’s not something that we say. So out of sheer vanity, I do try to avoid slang. I mean, I try—sometimes you sort of can’t get away from it and there are some things that I did use that would maybe make somebody say, oh boy, I bet he wrote that in 2014 in New York—but I tried to avoid slang. I try to avoid things that five years from now or 10 years from now or 20 years even would seem ridiculous. That being said, I know that for plays, after a very short period of time, the translations seem old fashioned, which is one reason for my rage and bitterness and state of hysteria about the Brecht.


SB: As an actor, are you tempted to revise lines translated by someone else when you perform them?


WS: I write, so, naturally, there are lines when I think, well, I don’t know why they said that, I would put it differently, like this, but the rule of the game is that you follow, you do what the writer wrote. It’s different in film and television.


SB: In what way?


WS: Well, to be honest, people are often quite agreeable about letting you change your line a bit so that it sounds better when you’re acting it. And Woody Allen says—he tells everybody, I think—well, this is not written in stone. You can, say, if it’s more comfortable for you to put it slightly differently, try it. And some people take advantage of that, and then he has to sort of say, you’re going a little too far with what I said. And in some television programs or films, honestly, there is nobody who cares that much if you can make it better by saying it slightly differently. Nobody may even know that you did. I mean, the writer is not sitting there saying, my god, I can’t believe he changed that phrase! Because they’re not thinking of it that way. And then some other programs, you know, they’re tough! Don’t try to change your lines in Star Trek—those guys will go berserk! But that’s because it’s very, very carefully written, and I honestly was never tempted to change any of the lines, and Gossip Girl, if you ever saw that, pretty carefully written. So if you did get a line wrong, a rather serious-looking young man would appear and say, well, uh, Wally, it’s actually …

With the Mamet translation of Uncle Vanya that we used in Vanya on 42nd Street, I just accepted it as if it was a play, and it’s a wonderfully intelligent and pleasing translation. There were a few things that were just eccentric, an occasionally very odd idiom or something I just am not familiar with. But yes, I just did that like any play. The discipline of the actor is to just kind of do the lines that are there, and to make that line believable. That’s your job, and that’s sometimes very hard to do. It might even seem impossible. But if you do it enough, you know the line well enough, you can often find a way to say it that sounds real. Maybe you put in a pause at a certain odd moment, maybe you emphasize a certain word in the sentence that isn’t the one that you originally thought of. There are often ways to make a line that seems very un-lifelike seem believable. I mean most of the time you do it unconsciously, obviously, because there’s not that much rehearsal time.

Wallace Shawn as Grand Nagus Zek in <i>Star Trek: Deep Space Nine</i> (1993)

Wallace Shawn as Grand Nagus Zek in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993)

SB: Maybe you do it unconsciously; some probably couldn’t get away with that. I remember asking you about this some years ago, apropos of Vanya, because in that entire production you have the sense that all these lines really belong to the people who are saying them. And in Master Builder, too, everybody is just embodying these parts to almost a frightening degree—it’s a tour de force. I think it’s just spectacular.

WS: By the time we made that movie, it honestly was not about lines. The other person says something, and you answer them. You’re not thinking, oh, can I remember that line, you’re answering them as if you were yourself, it’s as if you don’t need to memorize anything, except that by coincidence it’s the line that was written in the script.


SB: The advantages of a dozen years of rehearsal.


WS: That’s what happens. Whereas if you’ve only recently learned something, at least in my case, there is that nervousness. You’re thinking, “Oh, it will be my turn to talk quite soon, and I am supposed to say, ‘Oh, that’s right, Bob! I agree with your idea entirely.’”


SB: And make it sound plausible.


WS: And make it sound plausible.


SB: I’m guessing that your experience and training as an actor has helped with this whole translation business, too: the ability to imagine what something sounds like.


WS: Oh, yes, that’s translation, or writing a play.


SB: It’s not that different, in that sense.


WS: It’s not at all different. They’re both about, you know, trying to write something that somebody might say. And you want to write something that people can stand to repeat again and again. That a roomful of people are going to sit there and hear it is a heavy burden. It better be good. All those people are going to be sitting there, maybe.


SB: That’s a perfect last line. icon

  1. The play’s original Norwegian title, Bygmester Solness, lacks an article; previous translations into English have rendered it as The Master Builder.
Featured image: Lisa Joyce as Hilde and Julie Hagerty as Mrs. Solness in the Jonathan Demme film, A Master Builder