Making sure nothing is lost in translation

by Nobuko Tanaka

“The Coast of Utopia” a 10-hour-long trilogy of plays — comprising “Voyage,” “Shipwreck” and “Salvage” — was originally written in 2002 by Tom Stoppard for the National Theatre in London. An award-winning English playwright, Stoppard first shot to fame with “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead” in 1966 and was knighted for his accomplishments in 1997.

Now age 72, Stoppard teams with Japan’s leading director, Yukio Ninagawa, to bring “The Coast of Utopia” to Japan. To begin this epic staging, Ninagawa, 73, reflects today’s zeitgeist by giving the play a contemporary context. The cast, wearing their rehearsal clothing, sit at a table listening to speeches by U.S. President Barack Obama and Japan’s new leader, Yukio Hatoyama, as the sounds of bombing assail the audience’s ears.

Then the play proper opens and plunges us into the world of high-level chattering classes in a strife-torn Russia of the 1830s to 1860s. We meet “the father of Russian socialism” Alexander Herzen (Hiroshi Abe), the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin (Masnobu Katsumura) and the novelist Ivan Turgenev (Tetsuya Bessho).

One of the key players of this ambitious production, however, remains unseen. To make a play work in another language it needs a remarkable translator, one skilled at interpreting not just words but nuances. Atsuro Hirota, a 39-year-old Tottori-born English-language and literature graduate of the prestigious Kyoto University, is one such translator.

Last week, a few days after opening night, Hirota, a man so modest he preferred not to have his photograph featured with this article, spoke to The Japan Times about his remarkable work on “The Coast of Utopia.”

When did you realize that you wanted to translate plays? Just before I graduated I saw Theatre Project Tokyo’s production of (Henrik) Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” in Osaka, directed by the Englishman, David Leveaux. It was a life-changing experience. It made me realize that theater has unlimited possibilities. Afterward, I decided to devote my career to theater and I was lucky enough to be able to join TPT and I started to translate plays for them.

I was also shocked by the plays that I later saw in London. Even though I couldn’t understand all the words, I was immensely moved. I was astonished at how high-quality theater could be so inspiring.

As a translator, how much authority do you think you should have over the final script? That’s a very sensitive matter, and I would have to consider each case individually.

“The Coast of Utopia” had lots of problematic issues because most Japanese are not familiar with Russian history or the names associated with it.

For example, I changed my translation after the actors argued that it didn’t make sense for Turgenev to remind literary critic Vissaron Belinsky (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) that he had said “Fenimore Cooper was as great as Shakespeare,” when Cooper isn’t well-known outside of Western countries. So Cooper was changed to “second-rate novelist” and, surprisingly to me, a lot of people laugh at that line.

But even though I had been working on this translation for many years, I was happy to discuss any problems with the actors or the director when they didn’t feel comfortable with something.

Do you think Japanese audiences need pointers to enjoy this complicated drama? Well, there is a two-page-long speech by a young philosopher named Nicholas Stankevich (Hiroki Hasegawa) that goes on and on about the German philosopher Emmanuel Kant. Of course audiences don’t come along to study Kant’s theories — but I’m sure they want to discover why that young man is so enthusiastic about them. Also, they are likely be interested in the contradiction between Stankevich’s lofty speech and his lazy daily life.

Once a script becomes an actual performance by living actors, it helps an audience understand the work — actors in a way fill the spaces between the lines of text. That is a genuine delight of theater.

Audiences may be fascinated to see how the characters, who strongly believe in the power of words and intellectual theories, believe history progresses according to their theories. But then, as they experience more of the harsh realities of life, they gradually learn that things work differently in the real world. The main character, Herzen, declares that, “History has no purpose! History knocks at a thousand gates at every moment, and the gatekeeper is chance.” This one of the key points to the play.

The characters also talk a lot about whether Russia should join Europe or not. I think this is similar to debates in Japan about the country’s relationship with the West or the rest of Asia. In a way, I think Japanese audiences can more easily understand this play than English or American ones.

What other connections do you think there are between this 19th-century Russian play and the lives of today’s Japanese? There is no revolutionary movement in Japan today, of course. But most people in Japan accept the war in Iraq as being “right” and that is close to some arguments found in the play.

Also, most of the play’s characters are aristocrats who love the arts, literature and culture, while the younger revolutionaries have no time for such things. In a way that’s similar to today’s efficiency-driven, busy and materialistic world, within which some people also regard those things as superfluous. How did you feel when you saw your translation of “The Coast of Utopia” staged for the first time? Besides this production, I have only seen the play staged in New York. This production seems very passionate, which is interesting because Japanese people don’t appear to have a very passionate nature. It may sound peculiar, but the Japanese cast are so convincing that it’s as though the real Russian intellectuals are on stage. Herzen may not have believed in gods, but I think the god of drama had a hand in casting this play.

“The Coast of Utopia” runs till Oct. 4 at the Theatre Cocoon in Shibuya, Tokyo. For more details, call the Theatre Cocoon at (03) 3477-3244 or visit www.bunkamura.co.jp