Play on! Q&A: Lillian Groag on translating ‘Troilus and Cressida’

Lillian GroagOver the next few months, the Folger is doing a series of Q&As with some of the playwrights and dramaturgs involved with Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play on! project to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English.

This month’s Q&A is with Lillian Groag, the playwright who translated Troilus and Cressida for the Play on! project. Her translation was used in an April 2018 production by Prague Shakespeare Company.

⇒ Read an introduction to the Play on! project by Lue Douthit, the project director at OSF

Read previous Q&As in the series:

⇒ Q&A with Ellen McLaughlin about translating Pericles

⇒ Q&A with Migdalia Cruz about translating Macbeth

⇒ Q&A with Kenneth Cavander about translating Timon of Athens

⇒ Q&A with Caridad Svich about translating Henry VIII

⇒ Q&A with Elise Thoron and Julie Felise Dubiner about translating The Merchant of Venice

Troilus and Cressida
The Trojan War: Troilus and Cressida and The Trojan Women. Two Plays Performed in One Evening. Prague Shakespeare Company. April 2018.

What made you pick the Shakespeare play that you translated? What were your first impressions of Troilus and Cressida?

It’s always been a favorite. I like difficult plays. I like non-sentimental plays. I like dark humor, biting satire, the cynical approach to the Iliad, the tremendous disappointment in what we like to call “human nature”. I can’t articulately remember what my first impressions on Troilus and Cressida were. I’ve known it since school. I played Cressida!

What did you learn about Troilus and Cressida through the translation process? Do you see it differently now?

It’s a far more complicated play than I had hitherto gathered, and I thought it was complicated enough to begin with. Which is why I liked it. We had a production in Prague this past spring, where the actors came to me afterwards and told me they couldn’t make heads or tails of a good part of the original text. I told them they were in good company. Neither did the 8 editions I consulted, plus the 1953 edition of the Troilus and Cressida variorum! It’s also a far more savage piece than I first imagined, and ultimately – possibly? – the most “modern” in his canon. Who else but Will would turn THE most famous duel in literary history into a mugging?

What is your favorite line (or set of lines) from Troilus and Cressida you translated?

“ … I would not dispraise your sister Cassandra’s wit, but-–“

“now she [Cressida] doesn’t have your sister Cassandra’s sense of humor but –“

This line appeals to my – admittedly, very dark – sense of humor. However, it depends on the audience’s familiarity with Cassandra, one of the most notorious raving lunatics in classical literature (not her fault, poor dear, Apollo’s, but that’s another conversation). The thought of saying “Cassandra” and “humor” in the same sentence is hilarious to me. I changed Shakespeare’s “wit” for “sense of humor” (because “wit” is one of those words that don’t “travel” well to the back of the house, especially these days, when final consonants have fallen into disrepute) to give the comic thought a bit more of a chance.

Can you describe your process for translating the play?

Word for word, pesky line by pesky line, maddening paragraph by maddening paragraph…and champagne…There were speeches (notably in the Councils, both Greek and Trojan) which took days to decipher; the train of thought being convoluted at best, the arguments that support the values (especially for Hector in the First Trojan Council) obstructively obscure now, and then there are lines like:

“If you love an addle egg as well as you love an idle head, you would eat chickens i’the shell.”

Which can easily send editors (and “translators”) screaming into the sunset.

What has been one of the most challenging aspects of translating Troilus and Cressida?

All the above. The fact that there are entire passages the meaning and import of which goes from murky to indecipherable – some most likely due to lost text, others because they reference topical events which are now long forgotten (for example, inferences that the messy Trojan War was code for Queen Elizabeth’s Irish Wars, and Achilles an unflattering reference to Essex, Nestor to Cecil Sr., etc.) This is also perhaps the reason why the Elizabethan production history on the play is patchy, with some thinking that there was never a showing for the general public as it was a potential minefield of explosive subjects. Another challenging aspect was the rhetorical devices that are now out of use. Very often Shakespeare says the very opposite of what he means. We do “get it”. Eventually. But it is a pesky habit. And the playgoer doesn’t have that kind of time as the lines keep coming like a tsunami.

This was a deep dive into Shakespeare’s text. How do you think it’s affected you as a playwright?

It’s made me a better writer. I think anyone who spends months wrestling with the iambic pentameter, rhyming couplets, unexpected metaphor, shocking “vulgarity” (check some of Thersites’ choicest vituperations – and I have spared no dainty feelings), and soul-drying cynicism right up against throat-catching lyricism, has got to end up a better writer. Don’t you?

How did you feel about Play on! at the start, and now?

I tend to react negatively to “helping” audiences “understand”. I would be one of those people saying “pay attention, or stay home watching TV!” But in this case, where I would find myself totally at sea by long stretches of text when heard for the first time, I thought of all those audience members who only get that one shot at hearing the play, and, not being able to come to the theatre with a glossary and a flashlight, I thought, ”What do they take home? And I wondered whether the next time they hear T&C in the original (and they should!) they might understand it better. And that’s a good thing.

Can you give us an example of a speech that you’ve translated in a way that makes it noticeably different from Shakespeare’s original language?

Check out both versions of Agamemnon’s first speech (I, 3). This is not indecipherable (so the comparison is easy) but tortuous enough that it will present problems to an audience that has to catch it on the fly.

What grief hath set the jaundice on your cheeks?
The ample proposition that hope makes
In all designs begun on earth below
Fails in the promised largeness. Checks and disasters
Grow in the veins of actions highest reared,
As knots, by the conflux of meeting sap,
Infects the sound pine and diverts his grain
Tortive and errant from his course of growth.
Nor, princes, is it matter new to us –
That we come short of our suppose so far
That after seven years’ siege yet Troy walls stand,
Sith every action that hath gone before,
Whereof we have record, trial did draw
Bias and thwart, not answering the aim
And that unbodied figure of the thought
That gave’t surmised shape. Why then, you princes,
Do you with cheeks abashed behold our works
And think them shames, which are indeed naught else
But the protractive trials of great Jove
To find persistive constancy in men?
The fineness of which metal is not found
in Fortune’s love; for then the bold and coward,
The wise and fool, the artist and unread,
The hard and soft, seem all affined and kin.
But in the wind and tempest of her frown,
Distinction, with a broad and powerful fan,
Puffing at all, winnows the light away,
And what hath mass or matter by itself
Lies rich in virtue and unmingled.

Princes, why so downcast and forlorn?
Surely it is not new to us that plans
Can fall short of point. The unforeseen
Accidents of war are part and parcel
Of all great action. The unexpected is expected,
As wood-knots in the trunks of growing pines
Affect the tree’s up-thrust, divert its course,
Twisting and bending a straight and forward growth.
Nor, princes, is it matter new to us
That after seven years’ siege Troy stands,
Since all our actions that have gone before,
Are only protracted trials from our gods
To find truehearted constancy in men,
The fineness of which mettle is not found
When things go well; for then the bold and coward,
The wise and fool, the artist and unread,
The hard and soft, would seem all one and kin.
But in the wind and tempest of Bad Luck
Distinction, with a broad and sweeping fan,
Blows hard at all, thinning out the chaff
To keep true grain, which having mass and matter
In itself, sets itself apart.