Just after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, my aunt kept phoning my mother, who, having grown up in Prague, had been stranded in London in August 1968 after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. “You missed the invasion,” my aunt kept saying, “come for the Revolution!” We did, and arrived in Prague the day before Václav Havel was elected President, in December 1989; the playwright had started out the year in prison after a peaceful commemoration of Jan Palach’s self-immolation in 1969.
The following spring, in celebration of the Velvet Revolution, the BBC showed a series of Czech films and TV versions of some Havel plays, made in the late 1970s. The bell-bottoms, rickety sets, and some equally cardboard acting, seemed to solidify the aura of outdatedness – these dissident plays suddenly outmoded by the unbelievable overnight disappearance of the Cold War.
As David Remnick suggested in 2003, the plays were now apparently irrelevant, Cold War “emblems,” unimportant in comparison to Havel’s political impact. Havel’s obituaries, after his death five months ago, compounded the picture of Havel as primarily a political being, one of the great human rights figures of the twentieth century. But not quite as great a playwright.
Are the translations to blame? This question is at the heart of my new book, Censoring Translation. Certainly, Havel’s translator for twenty years, Vera Blackwell, was castigated for the plays’ lack of success on the English-language stage (though not by Havel). Her insistence that not a word of her translations be changed was seen as obstructive and damaging to Havel; she did not seem to understand that translations and scripts were necessarily changed by directors and in rehearsal for reasons of speakability and inevitable domestication.
Havel’s plays, in the eyes of English and American theatre practitioners, were too prolix, repetitive, obvious in their political message. Anglo-American directors felt that their audiences got the plays without all the extraneous language. Despite Blackwell’s protests, the plays were pruned to emphasize the presumed political content: they became dissident plays, produced when Havel was in the news as a prominent dissident.
But in his letters from prison, Havel explicitly rejected the idea of political theatre, especially plays centered on didactic or allegorical political messages. In notes smuggled out to the West by hand, he asked directors not to read his plays politically and not to associate them with his or Czechoslovakia’s political situation. He also asked them not to edit the plays; that they were very tightly constructed even if they seemed at times to be “boring.”
Because “boring” was part of the point. From his very first play, The Garden Party, Havel was interested in provoking, and not preaching to, his audience. Language, and not the Communist regime, was the “Villain” of his plays. His characters lie to others and themselves through language, it constructs their illusions and also lays them bare. The characters’ repetitions, misuse of idioms, lengthy monologues, show this happening, but also annoy and provoke the audience. His plays weren’t a mirror of the regime and its empty language; they were a mirror reflecting the audience and their complicity in censorship and self-censorship. It wasn’t an East / West thing. Havel’s response to how the regime worked was on a metaphysical and not a political level – he was interested in how people lie to themselves.
Havel’s fear – and it proved prescient – was that Western audiences would go expecting, and see, a worthy and newsworthy play about the horrors over there, and leave the theatre without turning the mirror on themselves. But Havel’s work, banned in his homeland for twenty years, relied on foreign audiences and the plays were being produced and reviewed largely because of their political relevance in the Cold War narrative. He was lucky that they were produced in English translation at all (only 8-10% of plays produced in UK and US mainstream theatres are translations and the majority of these are classic plays).
The question is, did we ever get Havel’s plays? Not because of translation errors or inaccuracies – but because of expectations we had before the plays were translated, when they were being produced, and when they were being watched. We wanted political, dissident plays, and this is what they became. And yet, what is most provocative and still relevant about them today – Havel’s insights about how we misuse language and how language misuses us – was consistently edited and misunderstood.
Can we call this censorship? In his plays, Havel located the place of censorship not in one particular regime or other, but in us, the audience. It is always easy, the plays suggest, to identify censorship practices anywhere but in our constant tiny self-delusions, our knitting together of our selves through a language that is not necessarily human, our constant refusal to really understand others.
The translation history of his plays, troubled and difficult, opens up questions of what censorship is and where it really begins.
Censoring Translation is available now in North America and will publish elsewhere in July.
"Censoring Translation, by Michelle Woods, offers an insightful, provocative, and often amusing investigation of the translation of Vaclav’s Havel’s plays into English. Woods’s sophisticated treatment of the subject moves far beyond the question of overt repression, offering a more complex understanding of censorial power, one that recognizes the enormous influence of market forces, gender, and Cold War politics—on both sides of the Iron Curtain—in shaping the selection of texts for translation, the choice of a translator, and the overall translation approach taken. Woods reveals economic censorship to be often more severe and distorting than the traditional political variety and especially effective in framing and silencing the voices of “minor” nations and of female translators. This book will fundamentally change the way you think about censorship and translation." — Brian James Baer, Professor of Russian and Translation Studies, Kent State University, Founding Editor of Translation and Interpreting Studies (TIS).
"This fascinating book traces the complexities of translating and staging the work of one Czech playwright, the late, great Vaclav Havel for English and American audiences. Woods raises important questions about the politics of translation and exposes just how forms of censorship can operate in both totalitarian and commercially-driven environments." — Susan Bassnett is Professor of Comparative Literature in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies, University of Warwick, UK
"Censoring Translation is a testimony to the vigor of translation studies as the new interdiscipline that emerged in recent decades and has radically changed the ways in which we view translations and translators. As one of the promising scholars of her generation, Michelle Woods gives us a very readable, well-informed, insightful discussion on Vaclav Havel's work as a playwright and the politics involved in the dissemination of his work in the Anglo-American context, with particular emphasis on the fundamental role played by one of his main translators, Vera Blackwell." — Rosemary Arrojo, Professor of Comparative Literature and Director of Undergraduate Studies, Binghamton University, State University of New York, USA
"This book is an important contribution to research on socio-economic and political constraints on translation, in general, and a thought-provoking, well-informed study on theatre censorship, in particular. Through her incisive comparison of Vaclav Havel's confrontations with official censors in his native Czechoslavakia and the market pressures on English-language translators of his plays, Woods further nuances the critical vocabulary of translation censorship." — Denise Merkle, Professeure titulaire, Université de Moncton, Canada, and co-editor of The Power of the Pen. Translation and Censorship in Nineteenth-century Europe.