Translating classic Spanish drama into English: work in progress yet

Eric Bentley, critic and editor, and Roy Campbell, poet and translator

Eric Bentley, born in September 14, 1916, is a British-born American critic, playwright, singer, editor and translator. He is still one of the most respected theatre critic in America, and is also recognized by his role as having introduced the English-speaking theatre to the works of Bertolt Brech and other classic writers from Italy, Germany, Spain, and France.

The Classic Theatre serie was started in 1958 and planned in four volumes: v. 1. Six Italian plays. – v. 2. Five German plays. – v. 3. Six Spanish plays. – v. 4. Six French plays.

Volume 3 of the Classic theatre under title Six Spanish plays was published in 1959 with six plays of the ‘Spanish drama of the golden age’ translated into English by Roy Campbell for BBC: The siege of Numantia / Miguel de Cervantes – Fuente Ovejuna / Lope de Vega – The trickster of Seville and his guest of stone / Tirso de Molina – Life is a dream / Calderón de la Barca – Celestina / Fernando de Rojas – Love after death / Calderón de la Barca.

In 1985 a new edition was published under the title: Life Is a Dream and Other Spanish Classics (1985)– last two plays of the 1959 edition were not included.

Very unfortunately, Roy Campbell died in a car accident near Setúbal, Portugal, on Easter Monday, 1957, when a car driven by his wife hit a tree. At the time of his death, he was 55 years old and was working upon translations of 16th- and 17th-century Spanish plays. Although only the rough drafts were completed, Campbell’s work was posthumously edited for publication by Eric Bentley in 1959.

Roy Campbell was a real character of his own: a poet who counted George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, T S Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis among his friends. He was Afrikaner, British, catholic, pro-Franco, translator of Spanish drama and poetry (Lorca, Cervantes, Lope, Calderón, St John of the Cross…) into English, sergeant during the Second World War, BBC journalist for many years. His live reflects a personal scale version of shaken twenty century. It is highly recommendable to know more of his biography here.

To approach Roy Campbell’s translator spirit, it is worth to have a look at Campbell’s verse commemorating Lorca’s death. He wrote:

Not only did he lose his life
By shots assassinated:
But with a hammer and a knife
Was after that—translated.

ca. 1946, UK — The South African poet, journalist and producer, Roy Campbell (1901-1957), ca. 1946. — Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

This same warning on literature translations is identified in Bentley’s edition of Campbell’s plays. In the foreword of the 1959 edition, Bentley revels  something really surprising: the Spanish Golden Age plays have been awfully translated into English. He says:

“Probably there is no body of World Literature so little known to the world as the classic Spanish drama. This is not entirely the world’s fault, for few of the translations are readable, let alone impressive. The only collection of Lope de Vega ever published in English it, it seems, Four Plays, in English versions by John Garret Underhill. I defy anyone to read it through. In the nineteenth century Denis Florence MacCarthy spent many years of his life translating Calderón. In trying to reproduce the sound of the Spanish, he effectively prevented himself from writing English. Edward Fitzgerald had much greater success with Calderón, but went to the other extreme of excessive freedom. For a while the effect must have seemed to be one of brilliance: today one is depressed by the persistent feeling that one is reading Victorian poetry of the second class. In ranging pretty widely over the field of Spanish classics in English, I found most enjoyable a volume entitled Three Comedies from the Spanish, published anonymously in London in 1807 and known to be the work of Lord Holland. Unfortunately, Lord Holland did not choose to include a single major play.

What was needed, I thought, was fresh air, such as flooded into the translated Greek drama a generation ago when Cocteau and Yeats applied themselves to it. I got hold of some translations which Roy Campbell had recently made for the B.B.C. Third Programme. Fuente Ovejuna and The Trickster of Seville, flat and even absurd in the earlier translations I had read, came alive. Campbell was in love with old Spain and was one of the few poets writing English in our day who had a touch of bravado, a vein of bravura. Even qualities I had disliked in certain poems of his own were turned to account in the translations. And he also had a straightforward lyrical gift, invaluable for the rendering of Lope’s tenderness and charm. When Roy Campbell came to America for a lecture tour in the autumn of 1955, Jason Epstein and I arranged with him to bring out the B.B.C. translations—plus a couple we ourselves commissioned—in this country.

Campbell was killed, with all the sudden, sprawling violence of Spanish life and literature, some 18 months later. The translations were done, but, as they were not revised, let alone polished and fully prepared for the press, the responsibility devolved upon me of editing manuscripts without being able to consult their author. Should research students ever compare the manuscripts with the texts here published, some of them will wish, I imagine, that I had meddled more, others will conclude that I have already meddled too much. The task being impossible, the solutions found were at best partial and questionable. But in human affairs this is not an unusual situation.

The book remains largely Roy Campbell’s, but it is rounded out by a version of one of the few Spanish classics that has received a truly classic translation into English. In the circumstances under which this volume was prepared, I would not have wished to mix Campbell’s work with that of other moderns, but I think he would have enjoyed proximity to the Mabbe version of La Celestina. “As Greek tragedy,” says Moratín, “was composed from the crumbs that fell from Homer’s table, so the Spanish drama owed its earliest forms to La Celestina.” James Mabbe’s work, in turn, rendering Rojas in the English of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, stands as a model and a challenge to all subsequent translators of the Spanish classics.

The volumes of the present series represent only a small selection from an enormous repertoire. There will always be a case against the particular selection made, and there will always be a case against the particular translations used. I am very willing to concede that such a volume as the present one is only a beginning, if my critics will grant that it is a beginning. “Spanish drama of the golden age” has been a phrase only, referring to we knew not what. If this volume communicates something of the spirit of that drama to modem readers (and, who knows? also to theatre audiences) it will have succeeded where many worthy efforts in the past have failed. In any event I shall not be ashamed to have played even a modest part in the enterprise.”

In 2016, Eric Bentley was interviewed by Rob Weinert-Kendt, the editor-in-chief of American TheatreHere is the introduction to the mentioned article. (Read the full article)

Eric Bentley has not gone soft. But at age 99, the British-born critic who wrote The Playwright as Thinker and introduced the English-speaking theatre to the works of Bertolt Brecht—among an eventful career’s worth of noteworthy achievements—has well earned the right to be circumspect about his body of work, about the art form he greatly influenced if never personally mastered, and about the cultural health of the nation he’s called home since becoming a citizen in 1948. And so, as he sat in a plush leather chair for an interview last December in the study of his home on Riverside Dr., with a view of a Joan of Arc memorial statue that one of his idols, George Bernard Shaw, might have appreciated, Bentley alternated between dispatching ready answers to questions he’s been asked hundreds of times and taking the time to think through philosophical and aesthetic quandaries he’s still, after all these years, wrestling with.

It is that wrestling—his rancor-free but nevertheless uncompromising lifelong tangle with ideas, both as expressed through the theatre and outside it—that keeps a reader returning with interest and pleasure to Bentley’s work. Though he was only a proper critic, in the sense of being employed to review current theatrical offerings on a regular deadline, for a handful of years in the late 1940s and early ’50s (for The New Republic and The Nation), in his major books and essays he brought a sharp, systematic mind and exacting if wide-ranging taste to a task few had taken up before him, and nearly none have since, outside the halls of academia: fashioning a long-viewed yet fine-grained critical history of Western drama up to the present day.

Alas, that “present day” more or less stopped at mid-century; though he considered himself an ally of many ’60s liberation movements, in particular gay rights (he himself came out near the end of that decade), he wrote precious little about the theatre of that time, let alone after. His health currently renders him unable to travel outside his home; even so, there remain intervening decades of substantive theatre (Shepard, Sondheim, Churchill, Kane, Kushner, assorted Wilsons, Mamet, Vogel, Nottage, etc.) about which he has been effectively silent. He has spent some of the intervening decades teaching, as well as writing his own plays, which include Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?, Lord Alfred’s Lover, and Round Two.

Still, the shadow of his seminal collections—which include What Is Theatre?, In Search of Theatre, and The Life of the Drama—continues to hang over what passes for critical discourse today, and it would be a grave mistake to consign his books to history, or to the timeworn aesthetic and political arguments from which they sprung. As with the greatest critics, it is not Bentley’s judgments but his insights that make him most valuable, though these can be hard to untangle, of course. And it is probably the case that without his peremptorily contrarian temperament, which put him so regularly at odds with major figures of his day, Bentley might never have teased out the contradictions and complexities of playwrights he admired as well as the ones he didn’t.

He lionized Pirandello, for instance, and championed Ibsen, but few of their admirers have ever written so frankly or comprehensively about those dramatists’ shortcomings as well. Bentley brought a similarly rounded view to writers that interested him but he mostly didn’t care for, including Miller and O’Neill.

Nothing demonstrates what might be thought of as Bentley’s critical integrity so well as his dealings with Brecht. This was the one figure, apart from Shaw, that Bentley most admired and on which he pinned his hopes for the future of the theatre, and the admiration was reportedly mutual. But when Brecht rather hamfistedly insisted on Bentley’s political fealty to his brand of Eastern bloc Communism, Bentley bluntly declined. As an anti-Soviet leftist with seemingly equal disdain for hardline Marxists and softheaded Western liberals, Bentley quite literally made enemies right and left—but mostly left.

The occasion for our meeting was the aftermath of a centennial celebration at Town Hall, organized by soprano Karyn Levitt, who recently released the album Eric Bentley’s Brecht-Eisler Songbook. Bentley had watched the event—which was hosted by a former mentee and housemate, Michael Riedel (yes, that Michael Riedel), and featured tributes from various luminaries (including Kushner)—from home via livestream. Below are excerts from our conversation.

(Read the full article)

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