Questions for Birgit Schreyer Duarte: translator of Liv Stein

I was fortunate to encounter the work of Birgit Schreyer Duarte while she was still a student at the University of Toronto, over a decade ago. While one may sometimes see remarkable talents among a student population, she was at another level entirely, already a significent ambassador for German culture in her directing & translating. She directed Mein Kampf by George Tabori, translated Schimmelpfennig’s Auf der Greifswalder strasse, and more, all while simultaneously working on her PhD.


Birgit Schreyer Duarte: translator, director, dramaturg, cultural ambassador

Fast forward to her busy life as a dramaturg, director, and translator, often with Canadian Stage. You can see her portfolio, including pictures and more at her website. Last winter Canadian Stage presented Das Ding, directed by Ashlie Corcoran in Schreyer Duarte’s new translation, and this past summer she directed Hamlet for the Dream in High Park. Her latest translation is Liv Stein, opening on January 26th for Canadian Stage directed by their Artistic Director Matthew Jocelyn. I had the delightful opportunity to ask her questions in anticipation of Liv Stein.

1-Are you more like your father or your mother?

I have an identical twin sister, so being compared is something that has happened to us all our lives. The question of who resembles which parent more has been put to us many times as well. Funnily enough, visually, I resemble my mother a bit more than my father, while my sister has more of my father’s visual traits. Sounds unlikely, I know, but it’s true—there are some pictures where it’s totally obvious, but when people hear this they always think we make this up! But in terms of other influences, I am really a mix of both my parents I think. I get my musicality from my dad who’s a musician, for sure, and my affinity for the imagistic/visual arts from my mom, who taught us kids photography. Both are interested and talented in languages, both are well travelled, and extremely loyal people. A healthy portion of pragmatism, as well as empathy—that’s what I probably get from my mother. It’s my dad who is more comfortable approaching new people and speaking in public. He can be very detail-oriented in fulfilling tasks, but it’s my mother who’s extremely perceptive of her surroundings.


The twins: (l-r) Annette and Birgit

2-What is the best thing or worst thing about what you do?

It never gets boring, since I have the great fortune that I get to work in a number of capacities throughout the year—both at Canadian Stage where I work part-time and as a freelancer. In my happiest years, as 2016 was, I get a healthy balance of my three favourite occupations: I work continuously in season planning with Artistic and General Director Matthew Jocelyn and Executive Producer Sherrie Johnson; I translate plays from German to English and see them staged (Ashlie Corcoran’s production of Das Ding (The Thing) by Philipp Löhle was seen at the Berkeley Street Theatre as part of Canadian Stage’s and Theatre Smash’s season, as well as at the Thousand Islands Playhouse); and I get to direct plays I love (an indie production of Taking Care of Baby by Dennis Kelly and Hamlet Shakespeare in High Park). I truly believe practicing each of these professions make me better in the other two.


Rehearsing Hamlet in 2016

The “worst” thing about being a dramaturg, or, more specifically in my case, of working in season planning, is that one is virtually never done working. You could always read more, research more, go see more, make a greater effort to be the one to discover the next great voice in play-writing. I had to learn over time to set myself limits, when to close my laptop, to plan a weekend without reading yet another script, etc.

3-Who do you like to listen to or watch?

At this very moment I’m listening to Sia’s current album “This is Acting” (no idea where this falls in terms of a “cool factor” these days!). On other days, it could be anything from Handel arias, Monteverdi operas, danceable music like Rihanna and Lady Gaga, to my father’s Bavarian folk music recordings, Top 40 hits, or sacred choral music. The last album I actually bought was Canadian singer-songwriter Lisa LeBlanc’s, after I saw her live in concert.

I have been sucked into the Netflix binge watching craze only fairly recently, but if I am hooked, I am hooked hard-core: anything mainstream from 24, Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, House of Cards, to The Good Wife—I reluctantly admire these shows’ ability to create this perfect bubble for the viewer where nothing else exists and the characters become more real than the people around you (Spoiler Alert: I took days to recover from the untimely death of the male protagonist in Good Wife!). I also find them somewhat educational, to be honest: their milieus are so specific that I always feel like I learned something about their particular period in time and their worlds. Otherwise, I love German artsy films, Atom Egoyan’s work and epic, sophisticated actor-driven mainstream movies (Tree of Life or Manchester by the Sea come to my mind immediately); but I was also crazy about the Bridget Jones movies and was genuinely excited to see the “grown-up” version of Bridget recently in “Bridget Jones’ Baby”! More and more, I’ve come to appreciate a good comedy—perhaps because the plays I get to watch or read are more often than not problematic or tragic and it’s very, very hard to find good comedies.

4-What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

Beaming myself to any place I want and back. I still haven’t given up hope that humanity will master this skill during my lifetime! I would go back and forth between the places I love and where I have family and good friends much more often and with more ease

5-When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?

I have a few! Hanging out with my sister: just talking non-stop, or shopping for shoes, or going to the opera, or reading novels side by side. Biking around the Bavarian countryside with my husband. Spending the day in a swimming pool-spa with my best friends in Germany. Philosophizing with my theatre friends in a Toronto coffee shop.


More questions about translating Liv Stein

1-Please talk about Nino Haratischwili.

Nino is from Tiflis, Georgia, but now lives in Hamburg, and I haven’t yet met her in person.

However, the theatre world is a small village, as we know, and my good friend Maria Milisavljevic from Germany, the former Tarragon Theatre writer-in-residence of Abyss and Peace River Country, got to know her several years ago in a professional context in Germany, plus I am now Facebook friends with her, and we’ve communicated several times about Liv Stein (I just finished translating my interview with her that will be published in our Canadian Stage’s programme book for Liv Stein).


Novelist & playwright Nino Haratischwili

So it feels a bit like we do know each other. She’s in her early 30s and has written no less than 20 plays and several novels, the last of which is a 1000 page epic family history in Georgia, called Das Achte Leben (The Eighth Life). I just ordered it for myself. I am curious how her writing style comes out in her fiction. In her plays, I particularly enjoy her directness—the characters say out loud what they think, they are much more unmediated than many Canadian playwrights’ characters I know. In that way she reminds me of another favourite playwright of mine, Simon Stephens from the UK, although she is of course less of a veteran than he is, and he’s extremely economic as a writer, maybe more than anyone I know at this point. But I also love Nino’s pathos and the boldness in her images and themes; they are pretty operatic. She has a great love for Greek mythology and that’s clearly present in Liv Stein. She wrote Liv Stein at the age of 25 or 26, and most people’s first reaction to the piece is to think she must have been a mature woman to be able to write so insightfully about the extreme situations her characters find themselves in, and to create a couple in their mid-fifties as her protagonists. Her latest play, Schönheit (Beauty), just opened last month in Nuremberg, Germany. She has received a total of 11 prizes for her writing.

2-Tell us about the Canadian Stage Production of Liv Stein that you’ve translated for its premiere in English.

The script of Liv Stein came to Canadian Stage through a trusted fellow artist, actor Alon Nashman. He had seen the play in Tiflis at the Georgian Theatre Showcase, and was quite taken by its poetical force, so he sent it to Matthew in a preliminary English translation from the UK that he had acquired, as something he thought we might consider for Canadian Stage’s future programming. Matthew shared it with me, as I normally have more time to read through the piles of scripts that land on our virtual desks. We had never heard of Nino as a writer.


Liv Stein: Geraint Wyn Davies & Sheila Ingabire-Isaro

When I eventually got to it—this was probably about two and a half years ago—I was immediately intrigued: by its setting in the world of a musical virtuoso, its crime thriller-like feel, its heightened, larger-than-life characters, and by its core issues: the effects of obsession (artistic and otherwise), the question of whether our quest for “truth” should trump our need for happiness, the value of success in art vs. success in leading a fulfilled life.

The play stood out to me in so many ways, so I urged Matthew, and later the rest of our artistic team, to read it too. In our internal reading rounds it soon became a priority play that we hoped to find a spot for in the coming seasons. We all loved the strong, complex female protagonist who would make a fabulous role for a strong middle-aged actress.


Liv Stein: Caroline Gillis & Leslie Hope

However, we all found that some aspects of the English version didn’t sit well with our Canadian ears. Some phrases sounded belaboured or even a little dated to us, or simply too British, so that we suspected the translation risked making the already pathos-laden script even more artificial and precious. That’s when I realized I should read the German original next to see if the problems for our sensibilities as Canadian theatre-makers (and -goers) lay in the play or in the translation. I remember being even more enthusiastic about the play after reading it in German, the language Nino had first written it in. Her language was direct, witty, poignant, and atmospherically dense and full of surprises. We decided to give it a try and create our own English version of the text.

3-Please talk about the art of translation, and your experience as a translator and what’s involved.

The process of translating for the stage is really ongoing; the work will literally be “done” only at the moment of its premiere. I take about four weeks off and on to translate a full-length play in its first draft. Then the many discussions (with the director, the original writer, actors, designers) begin, and the many rewrites. That continues throughout the rehearsal process, at least in my experience. It gets more complicated when another writer is part of the project, a playwright who was commissioned to adapt the play further after the translation is done. Such was the case in my translation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists, which was staged in 2015 at Stratford by Miles Potter, for which Michael Healey was hired to write an updated Canadian adaptation. With Michael, the collaboration went very smoothly. We had a number of in-person and online conversations about the tone and style of the play, especially its dark humor, and the biographical and socio-political context of Dürrenmatt. I was invited to the rehearsals in Stratford. If this kind of collaboration isn’t working well and the adaptor has no interest in consulting with the person who has access to the original text, it can be frustrating and ultimately artistically unsatisfying. I’ve only had a couple of experiences like that. Most of the time the directors and writers, if there are any involved, are very happy to have the foreign-language speaker by their side in the process.

I started translating for the stage when I was still in University and realized quickly that there aren’t too many German-English translators in Toronto who are also trained in theatre-making. I enjoyed the process immensely and excitedly took on any translation job I could, and also started choosing German plays I wanted to direct that needed to be translated first. So I almost learned how to translate plays for the stage simultaneously with directing them. I did that with Roland Schimmelpfennig’s post-dramatic extravaganza Boulevard of the Brave (Auf der GreifswalderStraβe), Pascal Mercier’s novel The Piano Tuner (Der Klavierstimmer, which I adapted into a stage play), Felicia Zeller’s social worker drama Kaspar & the Sea of Houses (KasparHäuser Meer), and Marie luise Fleiβer’s seminal early 20th century drama Purgatory in Ingleton (Fegefeuer in Ingolstadt). In other cases, I proposed plays to directors and was commissioned to translate them for their productions, such as for Das Ding (The Thing), or I was approached by directors who had read a play in an older translation or another language and wanted a new English translation for their own productions, as was the case for Brecht’s Life of Galileo (Leben des Galileo) for Jacob Zimmer’s Small Wooden Shoe company or Lukas Bärfuss’s The Test (Die Probe) for Philip Riccio’s Company Theatre production. Occasionally, I also translate a play on my own time that I personally am drawn to, in the hopes it will get a staging someday…

Overall, every translation, whether of literature or for the stage, exists somewhere on the continuum between these two demands: literary quality vs. functionality. There’s an image I like that helps explain the dilemma of the translator’s task (something I heard at a translation conference once): that of the “unfaithful beauty”. Some translators compare their struggle of choosing between a faithful and an unfaithful translation to choosing between a faithful and an unfaithful lover, of which, unfortunately, the unfaithful one often turns out to be the more beautiful one… As a translator we frequently get caught between our desire for each of the two: the desire to create the most theatrically rich and evocative translation of the original text (the beautiful but unfaithful translation) and, at the same time, to retain as much as possible of the original text’s “vision” (i.e., going with the faithful, but maybe “duller” translation). On top of creating something “beautiful”, a translator’s task is to remain “invisible” to the target audience—after all, the translated play should never sound like a translation, but just like a foreign play in a language we understand. Also, as a translator of a play from a language that’s foreign within the receiving culture, one is almost automatically taking on the tasks of the dramaturg: that is, researching the cultural context of the source text, verifying facts and meanings of specific expressions and terms, searching for historical context that might explain vocabulary and determine your translation choices.


Liv Stein: Nicola Correia Damude, Caroline Gillis, Leslie Hope

I have found that there are two sets of challenges in translating plays for a foreign audience: first, conveying the stylistic/linguistic qualities of the original language, and second, communicating the cultural specificities of the world of the play. Another great image I have heard translators use is that of the iceberg: the visible tip of the iceberg is the textual translation of a play; what’s underneath the surface is the “cultural underbelly” that needs to be moved as well—moved into the target culture in this case. To get even more specific, I would define the different levels of translating for the stage as the following six categories: grammatical specificities; tone; puns, idioms, neologisms; sound and rhythm (which mostly comes down to the ratio between vowels, consonants and syllables); performative solutions; and social/cultural connotations.

You have to investigate: Are the characters speaking in an ironic tone, with dry humor, very colloquial, or very flowery? To what effect, dramaturgically? How do they differ amongst each other? How important is that for the storytelling? Since a lot of the syntax and rhythm is different in German and English a translator has to find different tools in the English language to recreate the original’s tone and emotional impact. Often, a sentence, even a whole speech, have to be re-organized and in part re-written in English to aim at the original’s effect, or to recreate the qualities the characters display in their original language.

Similarly, the world of a play is in part constructed by the specific cultural markers of the play’s origin: those might be places, names of public personalities, historical references, idioms, even certain foods, musical references or architectural details. In a German play, these may have meaning for a German audience but may be largely unknown to a Canadian audience. In such cases, it is up to both translator and director to decide which of these references are necessary for an understanding of the play. Those that are necessary should therefore either be replaced by equivalents found in Canadian culture, or explained by additional information inserted in the translation. If it is essential to keep the geographic and cultural world of the play intact, the translator retains the original’s “exoticisms” but runs the risk of having some audiences guessing about the meaning of certain details in the play—which could potentially make us lose the audience’s attention.

4- Please speak about your objectives with your translation of Liv Stein.

The world of Liv Stein is contemporary. To premiere it in Toronto, our overall goal was to make the play accessible in its language (as mentioned before, we wanted the hint of artificiality in the characters to be kept at a minimum) so that audiences are intrigued but willing to follow the slightly eccentric story and its larger-than-life personnel and take their issues seriously. We also decided to keep the geographical and cultural context vague; this was possible without changing any specific names or places or other markers of culture and place (which is rather rare, in my experience). In other words: The setting in the original is a large urban centre in Germany, we assumed it was Berlin, but only once the name of a concrete address is mentioned, in the very last scene. The conservatory is mentioned and concert venues but none of them needs to be in a specific city, nor even necessarily in Germany. What’s important in the play is that the characters move with ease within an old, Western culture, an upper middle class world where classical music is part of the fabric of their upbringing and education, and where boarding schools are the elite’s option of the school system. We didn’t employ any dialects or local coloring at all—it’s like we’re watching characters in an unspecified Western city speaking in a Canadian English. I do believe the European roots of this story are pretty obvious, partly because of the natural relationship with the classical music genre that the characters demonstrate. But we don’t point them out in any design or language details.

The process of finalizing the translation contained many steps: I first delivered my own first draft to Matthew several months ago, based on my own understanding of Nino’s original text, in terms of humor, style, rhythm, atmosphere. Then we sat down together over several sessions and discussed anything Matthew challenged me on, and tried to find out what it was that suited both our perceptions of a given scene or moment best. That way a large part of dramaturgical investigation gets done as well—the digging for meaning and motivation, the analysis of dramatic tension and structure, etc. We also had a few questions for Nino to make sure we understood some details correctly.
With this preliminary “final” draft we then started the rehearsal process. During the following weeks, many little changes and edits and refinements were made in collaboration with the cast, while on their feet. There are things that only become clear once you see the story played out live in front of you. You really have to let go of the claim that it’s “your” work, your words—the translation quite literally becomes the work of the cast once they speak the words.

5–Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?

Yes, there are several. Curiously, as a translator I have worked and practiced mostly on my own and have no direct role models to refer to. But I was very lucky and had almost exclusively bright, dedicated professors during my formal education, both at Munich University,where I studied Dramaturgy, and at the University of Toronto. I think very fondly of these formative first years in Toronto as a PhD student in Drama; I was given a lot of freedom to follow my interests, both academically and practically. That’s where I also tried out directing and translating for the first time; I haven’t undergone formal training in either. Then I continued to learn from theatre-makers across the country and abroad: Electric Company’s Kim Collier, as well as Stockholm’s Riksteatern’s Josette Bushell-Mingo, both brilliant creators, were the two first female directors whose work encouraged me to think truly big and bold, who love imagistic theatre and don’t shy away from technical challenges. Josette is also a gifted dramaturg and a political force, at home in many cultures, innovative and fierce. Peter Hinton’s views on directing, especially on directing Shakespeare, have also strongly shaped my thinking about the craft. He’s someone I can listen to for hours on end and be inspired and learn from. And of course, Stratford Festival’s Antoni Cimolino and Canadian Stage’s Matthew Jocelyn, both of whom I have worked withover the past six or so years, are artists and leaders I highly respect as colleagues, and who I’ve regarded as mentors for years now.


Matthew Jocelyn


Canadian Stage presents Liv Stein by Nino Haratischwili, from January 26 – February 12.

This entry was posted in Dance, theatre & musicals, Interviews. Bookmark the permalink.

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