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Theater 34.1 (2004) 60-65

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Faithfulness to the Playfulness

David Herskovits and Douglas Langworthy, Interviewed by Tom Sellar

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Figure 1
Reconstructions (c. 1849) of a classical Amazon statue. Illustration: F. M. de Clarac

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TOM SELLAR Heinrich von Kleist's nineteenth-century dramas are rarely read in the United States today—and even more rarely produced. What drew you to Penthesilea and why did you undertake a new translation?

DAVID HERSKOVITS Tiny Mythic, a New York company, had just moved into a new performance space, and they invited me and a lot of people from my own company, Target Margin Theater, to come and do a project with them in 1993 or 1994. They asked me to suggest an interesting play with good parts for women, and this was one of a few plays I recommended to them. Doug and I had already talked about how wonderful it would be to work on this.

DOUGLAS LANGWORTHY I had studied Kleist when I went to graduate school for a year in Princeton's PhD program in German literature. We read The Prince of Homburg, and I was completely swept away. Several years later—after David and I had met and got to know each other working on a version of Wedekind's Spring Awakening—David had an opportunity to direct The Prince of Homburg at Jean Cocteau Repertory. He called and asked me if I wanted to translate it—a play I considered one of the greatest in German literature. It was early in my translation career: I had done Spring Awakening and not a whole lot else. So I felt incredibly overwhelmed and intimidated and in awe of this writer. But we decided to just start trying and see how far we could get. If it didn't work out, there were other translations out there. While translating The Prince of Homburg, I absolutely fell in love with this writer and realized that he needed fresh, new translations, that I had something to offer, and that I could do it.

What did you set out to do differently with respect to the other translations?

LANGWORTHY When you line them up and take a look at them, most of them have a certain nonperformative quality about them. I think that was my initial feeling. I love to read the translations and then go back and read the original: not so much to compare them on a line-by-line, word-by-word basis, but just to get a sense of whether a certain translation captures the heart and soul of the original language. Kleist has a really particular voice. It's very alive. He's constantly moving everything forward. There's nothing static about his plays. And that's really what I wanted to capture: that sense of the constant flow of words, how everything is always progressing.

Do you have any particular philosophy or principle behind your translation work?

LANGWORTHY I'm not a particularly theoretical person. I try to go back to the original text and immerse myself in it as much as possible. I try to give myself over as the interpreter and [End Page 61] figure out how to carry the author's voice over into my language. Sometimes that means going far afield, sometimes that means staying very close. But I have a certain sense of loyalty to the original: its spirit, its intent, its tone, its rhythm. These are the things that transfer in a theatrical performance. I want as many of those elements to be in operation as possible.

HERSKOVITS From my perspective, that's the salient joy about working with Doug as a translator—the combination of playability and fidelity to a complex source.

LANGWORTHY I think another thing that a new translation always does is that it allows me and the director a sort of intimacy with the text that you would never have otherwise. Working on both The Prince of Homburg and Penthesilea, David and I spent many hours hashing through the translation and talking about...


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pp. 60-65
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Archived 2005
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