How Richard Nelson’s ‘Our Life in Art’ Was Translated, Twice

As the play lay dormant, Mnouchkine, who had seen Nelson’s work in New York, approached him about creating something for Théâtre du Soleil. He told her that he happened to have a show about an acting company, and sent it to her. She read “Our Life in Art” overnight and decided to mount it, with him directing, as he often does with productions of his plays in the United States.

Mnouchkine translated the text quickly, she said, “while he was already rehearsing” with her actors, over a luxuriously long 10 weeks last spring. “I had to go quite fast, but I needed to have this very high-standard, delicate easiness, which seems easy to say but is not easy. And I wanted to have the same rhythm as Richard.”

The translation was not without its complications. Nelson doesn’t speak French, and not everyone in the Théâtre du Soleil company speaks English. A translator was an essential intermediary. He would tell the actors what was happening in a scene, and if they responded, “That’s not quite what’s here in the text,” they would together work toward a more accurate turn of phrase. They talked through complicated idioms, untranslated figures of speech and, most difficult, the difference between pronouns, a nonissue in English: When should characters who are close but still colleagues address each another as the informal “tu” or the formal “vous”?

It helps that, after more rehearsals this fall, Nelson had 14 weeks with the actors, and spent that time living in the company’s home, La Cartoucherie, in the bucolic Bois de Vincennes on the outskirts of Paris, seeing them behave as a true company. “There are no stage managers, there are no real designers,” he said. “The actors do everything: They clean toilets, they move furniture around. This is their home, and they own this.”

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