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Sarah Vermande
© DR
A face to face talk | An interview with
Sarah Vermande, by Sabine Bossan



Tuesdays at Tesco's
© Nick Hern Books

Sabine Bossan Emmanuel Darley’s Le Mardi à Monoprix was produced in English, which is rare. Can you tell us about that adventure?

Sarah Vermande It's even more of a pleasure telling you about it because it was so delightful that it worked out in the end.
Over a year and a half ago, when the show was first staged by Michel Didym, I was there at the Théâtre Ouvert on a translation residency. Théâtre Ouvert had organized an exchange with the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in partnership with the Maison Antoine-Vitez. The previous year two Frenchmen, François Bégaudeau and Lancelot Hamelin, had been invited to the Traverse where one of their plays was to be translated and read. So it was the follow-up to that, and two other female Scottish playwrights were also to be translated into French. Linda McLean had translated François Bégaudeau, and Blandine Pélissier and I were translating one of her plays. Since we were working at the Théâtre Ouvert, it would have been rude not to go to the performance!
It was a total revelation. I was really shaken up by it. So was Linda, although she didn't understand French very well - but it was one of the finest performances by an actor she'd ever seen. The text was magnificent, Jean-Claude Dreyfus's performance was very polished, and the musical coordination was also very well done. I had this immediate desire to translate it into English - although I normally only translate from English to French because you always translate into your native tongue. I knew who could act in it in the U.K. and who could translate it with me. There was an obvious triad that seemed perfect and feasible.
I had translated from English to French before - surtitles for Avignon, working with the British playwright Matthew Hurt, whom I know quite well. I would do a first draft, flushing out the text into English, explaining the difficulties, subtleties and issues involved so that he could put it into more polished English. I knew that Emmanuel Darley's writing and the play's theme were a great fit for this playwright, who has written lots of monologues.
As it happens, Matthew and I went to the same acting school in England, and one of the school's better-known students - from a previous generation - happens to be Simon Callow. He may not be that well-known in France, except for his role in Four Weddings and a Funeral; but in the U.K. Simon Callow is a legend, an institution, a great stage and film actor as well as a very erudite person. The man's workload capacity is awesome. He can perform in a play, shoot a film and write a biography of Orson Welles or Charles Laughton while writing a daily column for a major British newspaper. I suspect him of hiding a twin somewhere. I was sure he would be very enthusiastic about the play, particularly since he'd never played a part like that.
It all has to do with networking and the people you know. I had a personal connection with the actor. If I had thought of William Hurt for the role, an actor I don't know personally, I wouldn't have known how to reach him and would have had to go through his agent, who probably wouldn't have answered me. In this case it was feasible in both artistic and concrete terms.
But it still took time.


SB What year was that?

SV December 2009. I contacted Emmanuel Darley, whom I didn't know at all, and said: I'm no one, I can promise you nothing, I have no production in progress, but I really want to translate your play. He answered me right away: if you can, whenever you can, go for it. It was a real gift on his part.
The play sat on my desk, and I would tell Matthew on a regular basis that we absolutely had to find a bit of time to work on the play together because it was wonderful, he was going to love it and it would be perfect for Simon Callow. I made little overtures every month, but nothing happened. In April 2011 I had a message from Matthew asking me to call him right away because Simon was looking for a play for the Edinburgh Festival. Luckily Simon reads French very well, had staged French operas and could read Emmanuel Darley's play in the original. It was love at first sight. This was the play he wanted to act in, but we only had a week before making the final decisions about the festival program and requesting the rights and all those procedures which generally take more time. The rights were granted and negotiated in five days.


SB But you had to come up with the English title before printing the programs.

SV Yes we had to at least have the title. It was five days of madness. In the very first email I sent Emmanuel Darley, I called it Tuesdays at Waitrose, but very quickly in my exchanges with Matthew, it turned into Tuesdays at Tesco's for the obvious alliteration. We tried scads of titles before ultimately coming back to that one, which had popped up almost spontaneously.
The issue which subsequently arose - and we wished we'd had a lot more time to solve it - was whether to stick with a strict translation, with the story based in France and rooted in French culture, or to transplant it into British culture (acculturation).
In the British tradition, translations are almost always adaptations. And the producers immediately leaned towards acculturation. Simon wanted to go more deeply into the question, because he loves France and would have liked to explore the character's "Frenchness." But the producers felt it would be much more appealing if it were located in the U.K..


SB I just re-read the text. It's not all that "typically French."

SV No, but there are little details. Choosing a supermarket like Monoprix, talking about coffee - not what people drink in the U.K. in the morning, and they stop off at a pub not a café -, and kissing on the cheek is charged with a lot more meaning in an British context than it is for us. Even the fact that the characters live in a apartment. Most British people live in little houses, especially in a small-town context. They're just details, but they say a lot about historical roots. At that point we had to make a lot of very radical decisions in a very short time.


SB How much time?

SV Less than a week.


SB To get the rights and write a little blurb for the program.

SV And the decision to go for acculturation or not. We started the translation process very quickly. Meanwhile Simon was also acting in a one-man play based on Shakespeare, which had him quite occupied. He wasn't going to be able to begin working on our translation before mid-June, which left us a bit of time. This is how we proceeded: I wrote a first draft, with little notes explaining the particularities of Emmanuel's play, recurrences in the text, and wherever I was stumped at finding the right expression I would explain why. Matthew sent me a second version with suggestions for whatever problems I had, and how to make it more polished. I answered, explaining where I thought he had smoothed it out too much.


SB Long live the Internet!

SV Absolutely! There were five or six back-and-forths like that. Matthew came to Paris and we reworked everything together to really polish it up. And we had the good fortune to meet Emmanuel Darley.


SB Who speaks a bit of English, right?

SV Yes, and he had already experienced one of his plays being translated - into Portuguese. I think he had to face some issues about transposing things.
In the end when we saw Emmanuel we had relatively few questions to ask him, because they had already been resolved. It was more about submitting our solutions for his approval. With the understanding that after the show opened Simon would add some changes and little personal touches of his own.


SB Were there many changes once the text was given to the actor?

SV No, not many. At that stage Matthew Hurt took over since he was there and could attend the readings. The transition to a spoken text was more a confirmation of our choices than anything else. Ultimately there were very few changes. I think we had to change "high heels" to "heels" because Simon just couldn't manage to walk around in high heels. It was at that level.
Nevertheless, the question of accent did come up, but it didn't affect the text in any fundamental way. Accents are far more important in the U.K. than in France. They tell a great deal about a person's geographical and social origins. At first we were for Simon having an accent from the North of England, to give it a small-town feeling and also because Simon is well-educated and rather posh. He wanted to stick as close as possible to how he is naturally, and just chose a rather working-class accent for the father. That contrast between the main character, who spoke with a rather posh accent, and the father, who spoke with a working-class accent, worked well in conveying the character's aspirations to rise above his condition. It's important in the U.K., where class consciousness is even more enduring than it is here. I think it spoke to audiences and worked well.
In terms of translation problems, there was a question about the ending of the play which is very radical. I knew that Emmanuel had written the entire play without knowing the ending. Then he read in a newspaper that a transexual had been murdered and he added that ending to his play because there was meaning in it for him.
Matthew, who is a playwright, naturally had a rather different relationship to the text. The ending bothered him and he wanted to ask Emmanuel to change it. I said that it would be over my dead body, that if he wanted to ask him he could go ahead without me and that I would never act as a go-between for such a thing! Respecting a playwright is something fundamental to me. Here you can see two very different cultures. The British have no qualms about changing a text. There was a big scandal in the summer of 2010 when a well-known British playwright translated The Prince of Homburg and changed the ending. For purists it was total heresy, but the translator said that if the play had been written today it would have had that ending. I'm a translator, but I don't write - even if translating is writing. But of course it would be totally impossible for me to meddle with a text like that. This lively debate was eventually settled by Simon, for whom the ending was just as it ought to be.


SB Marie-Pierre is translated as Pauline in the English text. Hyphenated first names seem to be rare in the U.K.

SV They are, and they wouldn't work here. We chose Paul and Pauline for a variety of reasons. First Pauline is a rather outdated name in Britain, so it gives an idea of her generation. It also rhymed with an expression that comes up frequently, wordplay that fit in well with Emmanuel's text. And there was also a "private joke": Simon did the first staging of Willy Russell's Shirley Valentine, which was a big hit. The actress who played Shirley (and also played the part in the film) was named Pauline [Collins]. Paul & Pauline - it worked well and seemed to be the right equivalents for Jean-Pierre and Marie-Pierre in terms of age and class.
There was also the issue of Emmanuel's writing: the lack of punctuation, the repetition and inversions, which give an impression of very polished yet fluid writing, somewhat working-class yet refined. For Matthew the writing without punctuation was complicated, because he was working from a standpoint of effective stagecraft and said you had to help the actor so he wouldn't have to spend so much time deciphering the text. I replied that we were working with one of the best actors around, that we should have faith in him, and that the writing was so beautiful precisely because it left so many possibilities open, and that the breathing was meant to be found in a different way. I also reminded him that in our acting training we were always asked to start by taking out all the punctuation.
It was another battle, but Matthew ended up embracing the idea so totally that after the text was published he was the first to be outraged when the publisher added a lot of punctuation everywhere. That was the second round of the battle.


SB Who published the play?

SV Nick Hern, who is also Simon Callow's publisher. Simon suggested it to him and he loved it too! Nick Hern knows that monologues don't sell well, but he did what was most gratifying for himself as a publisher and he was right. I think the book will do well. The only reason the show wasn't revived immediately is due to Simon's heavy schedule.


SB How did audiences react?

SV Audiences were very receptive. The theater was full for the entire run, and it was in a large, 700-seat house. Audiences were quite unanimously enthusiastic over the three-week run.


SB Which theater was it?

SV The Assembly Rooms, one of the major theaters in the Edinburgh Off Festival. People came to see Simon Callow, so there were a lot of his fans. He frequently does one-man plays, so there are masses of people who would come just to hear him read the phone book. Audiences could have been thrown off by the play, since Simon Callow's stock in trade is more along the lines of Shakespeare and Dickens. But they were totally behind it. The critics were more divided, some of them regarding the text itself, others about the interpretation; but overall the reviews were good and the production was awarded two prestigious prizes in the Off festival. It was a great experience.
Emmanuel Darley saw the show and I think he was very pleased. Simon told me about their meeting and how Emmanuel left with a twinkle in his eye, hugging the prize.
It's quite wonderful when you have an idea of something that seems a given and then it works out. Without knowing me or having any guarantees from me, Emmanuel generously emailed me his play - to make it easier to work on - when he could just as well have replied that it was in print and I should go buy a copy. I'm convinced that it's always in a playwright's interest for his work to circulate one way or another. It's hard for me as a translator to understand why a British playwright, or his agent, would throw a spanner in the works when I ask for a play to read or pass around among people at the Maison Antoine-Vitez. There are probably good reasons for it, but to this day I can't grasp what they are. What's the point in keeping a play under lock and key? I'm not sure that acting that way is doing a favor to anyone, unless there's money on the table from a producer. Afterwards it's only natural that the translation might be approved or not. I'm asking for the right to translate it, not buying the rights. I'm taking a risk that in the meantime a producer might take an interest in it and buy the rights. I'm taking that risk and assuming full responsibility for it.


SB Who produced the show?

SV The producer was the owner of the venue, The Assembly Rooms. He's an important producer who also owns the Riverside Studios in London. He was the one who told Simon in the beginning that they had a key slot open for the festival. The director, Simon Stokes, is an old friend of Simon Callow; he has done a lot to champion contemporary playwriting and was for a long time the director of the Bush Theatre in London.


SB Were the French and British productions very different?

SV Yes and no. No because in any case the play is centered around the sole character and because it's a narrative. The décor was very different, but it was also due to the constraints of the festival, where sets have to be mounted and struck in record time. It had to be something basic in a space which is imposing, with wood panelling on the walls, and was originally designed for music rather than for theater. It had to be something that could offset the venue's outdated look.
Robin Don designed a décor that was very discreet but was surrounded by a ring of light, which gave it a very contemporary feeling and situated the production in an unspecified place. There was also a tree.
The part that worked least well for me was the relationship to the music. In Michel Didym's staging there was a real bond between the bassist and the actor. Simon brought in an enormously talented composer and pianist, but naturally a piano and a bass don't tell the same story. In fact the music didn't add very much, except for accompanying little dance interludes, rehearsed with a choreographer, which were quite striking. The first was inspired by flamenco, another by classical ballet in a total mockery, and it was a way of letting off steam. This character, who is always so sweet and gentle to his father and has all these things he can't say to him, would express all that pent-up anger in the dances. It was very funny and moving. So yes the productions were very different, but each one was showing off the performer in his best light.


SB So there's no revival in the offing, but could you tell whether or not the performances sparked any desire, curiosity or interest in these young, contemporary French playwrights, or was it just a one-time thing?

SV I'd like to say it sparked a desire. I hope it might set a precedent at any rate. Emmanuel Darley's play was a commercial hit, so why not another? But I'm not sure it's enough to trigger a whole movement. There's such a full and lively theater scene in the U.K., with so many playwrights, so they're not that curious about what's going on abroad. The press highlighted that it was a French play, though, and even quoted the French title in certain cases. I was struck by how they took up that bit of information and hammered away at it. I was pleasantly surprised because as a translator I always pay attention to whatever is mentioned about a play's origins. It was so exotic for them in this instance that they did it spontaneously. So much the better!


SB Do you often work with others or is it a constraint?

SV It is a constraint, but I think it's healthy, and coming back to it from time to time is a good exercise. I'm more inclined to work alone by nature, in order to feel free and justify my choices just through my intimate convictions; but you have to admit that sometimes it's a really good idea to work with someone else, to be confronted with different ways of operating, different demands and habits. Some plays lend themselves to it more readily and you can find ways of working that fit well with other translators. Translators are generally fond of working with others. It's a breath of fresh air in a profession that's usually quite solitary. Translating with others provides mutual support, but it also involves constant negotiation, and you have to remain humble.

 
An interview with Sarah Vermande,
September 1, 2011
www.sarahvermande.com

 
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