Last weekend I went to see The Threepenny Opera at Boston College. I was in the show my senior year at UConn. The most well known song from the show is "Mack the Knife" famously recorded and made popular by Louis Armstrong and then Bobby Darin. It's a classic. And there are many theatre (and opera) people who consider the show to be a classic. It's a musical satire about societal norms concerning the middle class and their morals and sense of justice written by Brecht and Kurt Weill. It's dark, gritty, and a little twisted, but watchable, although it can also be considered an acquired taste. It was written in German and there are numerous translations in English. The most popular and produced is the translation I was in (which was first produced at Brandeis in the 1950's under the direction of Leonard Bernstein) by Marc Blitzstein.
This is NOT the translation I saw at BC.
Before I continue, let me say the cast did a solid job presenting what they had to work with. I give them kudos for energy, effort, and not giving up on the show. Which I'm sure took a lot of focus and dedication.
That said, in my opinion this modern British translation by someone who is uncredited in the program is one of the worst adaptive hack jobs I have ever seen. The script was filled with very modern Bristish colloquialisms and the way in which the translation was worded and arranged changed the focus of the show from the original satirical theme about hypocrisy of the middle class to the originally very secondary inane love triangle created by the main character Macheath and his lovers.
Brecht is rolling over.
The songs were redistributed to different characters, re-ordered within the show, and re-translated into a kind of modern overly thought out kind of pop musical, rendering the original cabaret style of the music useless and making the lyrics almost indiscernible. I mean they changed "Mack the Knife" to "The Flip-Knife Song"...who does that?
Weill is rolling over.
This begs the question: how much of any play/musical or novel for that matter is lost in translation? When you don't speak the original language, how can you know what is the true intention behind something and what has been altered to fit the translator's vision? I read up on Threepenny when I was in it, and feel that the research gave me a good handle on Brecht & Weill's original intentions, but how do I know? How do I know this horrendously overproduced version isn't closer to the original? What makes a good translation, and what makes one that doesn't work so well?
I clearly don't have the answers to these questions. And I hope that what I saw last weekend was just as simple as a really uninformed and poor translation. But it's a question I hadn't considered before in watching and more importantly performing translated work. It's an added layer and challenge to approaching the text. To take into consideration the different nuances and connotations and syntaxes of the language and to consider that it once was something different. Ultimately I believe it's the director's job to find the intention of the play (which the director for BC's show clearly completely missed) but as an actor the words come out of my mouth, so I should be doing lip-service to the person who wrote it.
Happy ending, nice and tidy
It's a rule I learned in school
Get your money every Friday,
Happy endings are the rule.
So divide up those in darkness
From the ones who walk in light
Light 'em up boys, there's your picture
Drop the shadows out of sight.
- "Ballad of Mack the Knife, Reprise"
by: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill as Translated by Marc Blitzstein