The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
Greek tragedy that rings true with young Japanese audiences An interview with translator Harue Yamagata
Oedipus Rex
Oedipus Rex
Oedipus Rex
Oedipus Rex
Premiered in June. 2002 at Bunkamura Theatre Cocoon, re-staged in Tokyo and Athens in 2004
Playwright: Sophocles
Translation: Harue Yamagata
Director: Yukio Ninagawa
Cast: Mansai Nomura, Rei Asami, Kotaro Yoshida, etc.
Photo: Masahiko Yakou
(c) Bunkamura Theatre Cocoon
September. 2003 at Bunkamura Theatre Cocoon
Playwright: Sophokles
Translation: Harue Yamagata
Director: Yukio Ninagawa
Cast: Shinobu Otake, Jun'ichi Okada, Kuriko Namino, etc.
Photo: Shinji Hosono
(c) Bunkamura Theatre Cocoon
Yukio Ninagawa has created very successful productions of Oedipus Rex using the Kabuki actor Somegoro Ichikawa VI (presently Koshiro Matsumoto IX) and Medea starring Mikijiro Hira (adaptation by the poet Mutsuo Takahashi). The first time you worked with Ninagawa using your own translation of a Greek tragedy was the 2002 production of Oedipus Rex. How was it that you came to do this translation from the Modern Greek?
I was a researcher in the field of Greek drama but I had never actually translated any plays when Mr. Ninagawa asked me to do a translation, saying that there were already translations but it was difficult to understand what they were saying and impossible to stage a play from because they weren’t stage scripts. When I told him that I only knew modern Greek, he said that a translation of a modern Greek stage script would be fine. So, I decided to accept the request. The new translation had only a single aim: to communicate the atmosphere of the plays as the Greeks enjoy them today.

What was the actual translation process like?
First of all, with Oedipus Rex I had intended to use the stage script actually used by the National Theatre of Greece as my basic text, but there turned out to be a copyright problem, so in the end I had to use a combination of several contemporary Greek texts.
In addition to the script used by the National Theatre of Greece, I chose two more scripts that were said to be the most modernized and simple modern Greek translations. The interpretations found in these scripts are basically the same but there are still some places where they differ. When I was uncertain about the correct nuance for these differing parts, I would refer back to the ancient Greek text. Still, I found that the more modern translations I looked at, the farther I seemed to be getting away from the essence of the original, so I tried to restrict my reference material to a few sources I thought most reliable.
As for the translation process, I first do a complete translation as a first draft. Then I read it back simply as Japanese and polish the words that I think would not make good lines for a play. That becomes the second draft. At that stage I go to authoritative Japanese translations from the ancient Greek that have been published by the Iwanami Shoten publishing house and compared them to my text. When I found the parts that turn up different which I considered to be possible mistranslations on my part I go back to the modern Greek translations to verify them. If there are important parts where there definitely appears to be a difference in interpretation, I go back to the ancient Greek to check it once again. The text I have at the end of this stage is my third draft. Finally, I read it aloud to myself and see how it sounds and modify it again to get my fourth and final draft. For the first three plays I translated, I got an actor friend to read it aloud and this became the final draft.
Once the rehearsals began I would take the original Greek texts to the studio and, if the actors kept mistaking their lines at the same places, I would try to find out when necessary if it was because my translation was bad or if the actors had simply misread. If it was simply a case of misreading I would have them use the translation as it was.

Since actors have a tendency to chang the words in the direction of their own interpretation, it can be important to get them to go back to the original text, can’t it?
It was fortunate for me that Oedipus Rex was re-staged in 2004, because at the time of the premiere (2002) I still didn’t have any idea of what the job of the translator really involved , how I should act as translator and what kind of distance I should maintain with the director and actors. By the time of the second staging in 2004 I had learned quite a bit more about the actual workings of the theatre and I was able to go about the work of reducing the 2 hour 20 minute play into one of under 2 hours as would be required for the planned Athens performances in 2004.

Were there any words or expressions that couldn’t be translated into Japanese?
The problem of person is considerable I believe. In Japanese there are different manners of speech depending on the age, position or the person you are talking to, and a lot of time subjects are abbreviated out of the conversation. In the case of Oedipus Rex, for example, I used the Japanese watashi for “I” when it was spoken in public situations and ore in private situations. In the case of the queen Jocasta, who was more than a dozen years older, I had her use anata for “you” in most cases when talking to her husband Oedipus, but there was only one place where I had her use omae (like a mother call for a son). I was surprised to see how that difference alone made her posture seem to change from that of wife to that of his mother. This changed the way the actress playing the part of the queen acted. She immediately appeared the mother when she spoke the word omae. When I saw the second staging of the play I realized that this choice of word had been the right one.
The problem of male and female expressions at the ends of sentences also comes into play. Mostly male translators prefer to use …yo or …da-wa or …ne if it is a woman, and as long as I was being faithful to the image of the character in my translation I wouldn’t worry about it.

Were there problems of rhythm or meter?
There is meter in the original ancient Greek script, but it is gone in the modern Greek script. However, since there is a rhythm that I feel in the lines of the modern Greek script, I have to include that in the Japanese translation. So, I wrote the rhythm I wanted to read and hear into the Japanese lines.

I would imagine that the translation of the Chorus parts would be quite difficult.
Right. That is the part that required the greatest effort. When I first translated Oedipus Rex the plans were already set that it would be directed by Ninagawa with starring Mansai Nomura and there would be an Athens performance, so I worked hard to make it a translation that no one could find fault with. I worked especially hard to make the translation of the chorus sections faithful to the original. But the actors in the chorus were all real individuals and they all used different phrasing and breathed at different times when they recited the lines, so it sounded out of unison when they all recited the chorus lines together. To correct that for the second staging in 2004 I re-translated the chorus lines in a calculated way with care for meter and intonation so that anyone who recited them would breathe at the same time and phrase in the same way. You might think in the case of Japanese that there would be no problem if you reduced everything to a 7-syllable and 5-syllable meter like haiku, but if you do that in fact it becomes too patterned and the words fail to project. It seems that Ninagawa dislikes the 7-5 syllable pattern too, and he will say something like, “Say it till it becomes suffocating, even if you have to remove all the punctuation.” (laughs)

With productions of four plays now since 2002, what do you think of Ninagawa’s Greek tragedies?
I like the fact that he has used young actors. Because the Japanese tend to have an image of Greek tragedy as something old where honorable old actors speak lofty lines. If the plays are staged with those kinds of preconceptions, in the case of Oedipus and Jocasta, who is his wife but also his mother, it would be hard to imagine that they are a married couple with a sex life if the play is casted with actors who are too old (laughs). All the actors and actresses in Ninagawa’s productions are young and energetic. The Greek tragedies are dark and heavy stories but the stage image is actually quite bright and I think that is successfully portrayed in Ninagawa’s productions.
Regarding the question of what I think of the Greek tragedies of Ninagawa, I am the one who reads all the questionnaires that audiences fill out after the performances, and I see young people writing that they came to the theatre for the first time because they are fans Junichi Okada of the Johnnys talent office’s popular group V6 who appeared in Electra, or Tatsuya Fujiwara who starred in Orestes. This is amazing that the first theatre these young girls are seeing is Greek tragedy! (laughs) So, I think it is good that Greek tragedy is now being seen not as classical theatre but as just another genre like contemporary theatre.
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