Edinburgh festival Day 16: Know what I mean?: Meredith Oakes reads one thing, then writes another and hopes that nothing is lost in translation

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'LOVELY,' said my colour-blind friend when I gave him a bunch of red carnations because they smelled good: 'grey flowers'. The strange thing is that we laughed without either of us doubting that the other knew what 'grey' was. Lifetimes spent falling in love with the wrong people and getting the wrong haircut do surprisingly little to dent our belief that we know what people mean by what they say.

Being a translator means imagining one knows what other people mean even when they're speaking a foreign language. Yet one's sense of recognition, reading the words of a stranger from another land and perhaps another century, is self-referential. I can only recognise what I have personally experienced. Things that fall outside my experience are unconsciously excluded, or altered to fit.

This insidious process goes on all the time, only becoming visible through odd little mistakes. Horvath's play Judgment Day, translated by Renata Esslin, contains a line something like, 'Why don't we eat in the room?' When the play was being staged, the line seemed a bit floaty and unspecific, and the German text had an extra preposition, so I suggested changing to 'Why don't we eat in the room upstairs?' (im Zimmer droben). Fine, until Esslin showed me that the word in the text was druben (over there), not droben (above). The scene was set in a shop, and German shops, she said, sometimes have a room across a yard at the back. Since I had been thinking of an English shop, with rooms over it, my brain had done away with the inconvenient vowel and substituted one that would suit my architectural assumptions.

When I was working on The New Menoza (which forms part of the Jakob Lenz season at the Royal Lyceum theatre on Thursday), the interesting question was whether to go into modern English or stay in the 1770s. The play seemed at once so steeped in the conventions of its time, and so revolutionary in the context of those conventions, that I chose to make the text demonstrably the product of an 18th-century mind. Besides, some of the effusive speeches, would have been difficult to render into modern English without either changing every word or making the characters look soppy. Try this (following the German word-for-word):

'You stars] Which happily over my pain along dance] You alone, sympathetic moon - pity me not. I suffer willingly. I was never so happy as in this torment. You endless vault of the heavens] You must my cover this night be. Still too tight for my anxious heart.'

In modern English, this comes out something like: 'You stars] Dancing up there above this pain of mine] Only the moon feels sorry - don't pity me. I'll gladly suffer. I've never been so happy as now in this agony. Unending skies] Be my roof tonight. Still not wide enough to hold my beating heart.'

Rather than leave the dramatist sounding like the librettist of The Student Prince, I stayed with the gently comic formality of the 18th century, like this:

'You stars] Dancing in your joyful course over my torment] Only you, kind moon - but don't pity me. I suffer willingly. Never have I been so happy as now in this agony. Infinite vault of the heavens] You must be my roof tonight. And still too confining for my restless heart.'

Although accurate translation is, philosophically speaking, impossible, the desire for it is like hunger. To translate without satisfying that instinct would be like eating sawdust.

I like to remain as close to the literal text as possible. I like the pioneering aspect of foreign languages, the sense of venturing into new mental regions. My response to a play in its original form is the basis of any excitement I can generate by translating it. I wouldn't work from someone else's literal translation of a language I didn't know. Nor would I normally transpose a play in translation to another time or place. But this is personal; these things are successfully done. If characters live, plays live. They lived once through the playwright; they must find a way to live through the translator, and whatever makes such a reincarnation possible is that translator's only option.

You set off without much idea of who the characters are. After you've travelled with them for a while, writing the twists of the dialogue, they rise up before you whole (assuming the playwright is good). Then you probably have to go back and review all the lines you've given them, because now, for the first time, you can hear within you how they speak.

The central monologuist in Thomas Bernhard's Elisabeth II, which I translated last year for David Fielding at the Gate, is a dreadful old man with whom I quickly fell in love. Lines like 'Do you really think Altaussee will do me good? I've always hated Altaussee,' so rich in coquetry and blame, gave access to a Firbankian English world. Each line confirmed my delight at being so perfectly on the track of this character: I was correctly predicting what he would say next. We sent off some draft pages to the Bernhard Estate, represented by the publishers Suhrkamp. They replied: 'This is not the language of Thomas Bernhard' and refused to OK the performance.

After negotiations and compromises, Elisabeth II was put on, and became London's first Bernhard success. Suhrkamp's stipulations turned out to be mostly like this: 'Witzbold is not the same as 'comedian'. A Witzbold is a joker or witty fellow'. In other words, the problem was related to their perception of English. But I shan't forget the terror that seized me. Because it was a German text, and these were Germans, and how could I be sure I wasn't missing some dimension visible to them? Other Germans have assured me that the translation is fine, but who is to arbitrate between them and the Bernhard Estate, who clearly felt it wasn't? The essence of language is blind faith, and probably the only moral a translator can draw is to stick to playwrights who are well dead and out of copyright.

Meredith's Oakes's translation, 'The New Menoza' can be seen at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay St, 2 Sept 2.30pm. 'The Soldiers' plays to 4 Sept at 7.30pm; 'The Tutor' plays on 3 Sept, 2.30pm.

(Photograph omitted)