Sounding Crimp’s Verbal Stage: The Translator’s Challenge

Elisabeth Angel-Perez has translated and published extensively on Martin Crimp, Sarah Kane, Caryl Churchill and Howard Barker. This contribution is a short reflection on the challenge of translating Crimp, framed specifically as a problem for the ear. While all translation for theatre necessarily contends with the aural, Angel-Perez argues that the worlds which unfold in Crimp’s plays are often located ‘nowhere on the stage’, but are instead scenes of language and sound which a translator must take particular care in reproducing. In approaching the ‘sounding materiality’ of this work, the translator takes on an active, even critical, position. Angel-Perez here considers some of her own decisions as a translator of Crimp in response to this sonic challenge.

This short piece relates to, and augments, Angel-Perez’s longer article in Contemporary Theatre Review 24.3, which attends to the ‘nomadic voices’ in Crimp’s plays, or the way his characters’ (self-) identities are produced and confirmed through the language of others. The question of translation adds another dimension to this nomadism, as readers can consider how texts themselves travel, and the interlocutors who pave the way. The piece may also be read with interest in connection to materials elsewhere on this site, particularly Crimp’s discussion with composer George Benjamin on their collaboration Written on Skin.

– Johanna Linsley

Sounding Crimp’s verbal stage: the translator’s challenge

Elisabeth Angel-Perez

In a number of Crimp’s plays, the scene of action is nowhere on the stage. The only ‘drama’ that takes place onstage is that of speaking. Crimp’s universe is one of language and the décor he invents is made of the words – at times round and fleshy, at times dry and sharp – that people his mind. Instead of a concrete, visible action taking place in front of the audience, acts of language are all there is to ‘see’: they both tell us something of the enunciator’s hic et nunc and of the nature of the narrated ‘drama’. Building a scene with words as his only material is what Crimp does in his most inspiring works. A translator of many a French and German playwright (from Molière to Ionesco and from Botho Strauss to Koltès), Crimp’s playwriting activity also consists in translating action into words and sounds. His translator enthusiastically engages in a literary and musical activity in order to render the ringing quality of the texts: the rhythm, the sounding richness of the lexicon, the enticing and disquieting effect the association of all these ingredients has on the spectator.

Translating a play by Martin Crimp, or any text by him, requires being a good dancer. One needs to tap the rhythm and to read the text with one’s feet as it were, before one starts translating. Crimp’s texts reveal the musician he is and what strikes the translator at first sight is the musicality of his compositions: his plays read like musical scores. Often quick-paced, Crimp’s language is syncopated, both fluid and jerky, both sensuous and sharp.

A virtuoso of stichomythia, Crimp often opts for a regime of quick moving lines as the general economy of his plays. The incipit of The Treatment is a good illustration of this quasi-systematic rhetoric. It is composed of a dialogue of short descriptive cues, the line of one character being taken up again by the second character, very much in the manner of a musical duet.

Jen. So he comes right over to you

Anne. He comes right over to me.

Jen. He comes over to you. I see.1

The opening catch-phrase, in medias res, immerses the spectator in a detailed description of a drama taking place behind the wings in an off-stage that remains hidden to the spectator’s eyes. Language therefore has the mission to reconstruct a visuality made of words. Hypotyposis, that is a vivid description of the scene aiming at dramatizing the narrative, is the technique chosen by Crimp and one of the translator’s challenges lies in its rendition. In order to make this ‘invisible visible’, the translator, like the author, must rely on the sounding materiality of the language: in the original version, the rhythmic climax of the line is reached with the spondee “right over” and the line arranges itself on both side of this peak. The utter violence of the aggression is therefore made palpable by the apex that sounds like a blow, what non-accentuated French metrics cannot do. The translator has to think of other modes of aggression that fit the syllabic system of French prosody. Alliteration is one of the best-suited ones, here alliteration in (d):

Jennifer. Donc il se dirige droit sur vous

Anne. Il se dirige droit sur moi.

Jennifer. Il se dirige sur vous. Je vois.2


Stichomythia – which aims at exposing Jennifer’s capacity to dispossess Anne from her own language, from her own story, therefore from her own life – is here reinforced by the rhyming pattern ‘me/see’ which has been maintained in French (‘moi/vois’). Crimp, by imagining such a signifier-based poetics, imports the synthetic and rhythmic visuality proper to the poem into everyday language. He imagines a prosody of his own, at times served by relatively traditional metrics (see his frequent use of iambic pentameter, as for instance in ‘Anne. To silence me. He wants to silence me.’3), however based on demotic language.

The same attention is paid to an internal rhyming network, most of the time for comic purposes. Here, Anne explains what the sticky tape her husband puts on her mouth is like:

Anne. The kind with a silver back. Sometimes silver,/Sometimes it’s black4

It seemed to me as a translator that the punching effect of this line is due to its rhythm and I therefore decided to swop the unimportant colour black to the profit of a rhyme:

Anne. L’adhésif argenté. Des fois argenté, des fois marron foncé.5

The nursery-rhyme effect of the text stands very much in contrast with the horror of the depicted scene: a scene of woman-bullying and sequestration.

Crimp’s eminently recognizable prosody pervades the plays no matter the identity of the characters who speak it and creates a genuine organicity in Crimp’s writings. This organicity is nowhere more visible than in the collective construction of a scenario which constitutes the sole action (drama) of plays such as the Fewer Emergencies trilogy or Attempts on her Life. In these texts in which the unnamed (or at best numbered) characters are busy elaborating/remembering a new script, the organic effect of stichomythia is reinforced by the frequent use of the dash (/) which ‘indicates a point of overlap in overlapping dialogue’.

1. …—they don’t understand—nothing like this has ever / happened before.

3. Nothing like this has ever happened before—but they do understand—of course they understand—6

1. … – ils ne comprennent pas – rien de semblable n’est jamais / arrivé avant.

3. Rien de semblable n’est jamais arrivé avant – mais ils comprennent –7

The superimposition of these two fragments of sentences produces the effect of a canon in music and the contrapuntal structure of the composition somehow gives a shape to the conflict (or agôn) that never takes place on stage for real. Ironically enough the leader’s utterance – ‘happened before’ – which is supposed to confirm his/her place as a leader is blurred by the follower’s theme. The hierarchical positioning of the characters is jeopardized by the very form of the composition supposed to confirm it. The French version with the verb ‘arrivé’ makes this even clearer, as the phrase ‘arrivé avant’ actually means ‘to get there first’. The repetition, however and paradoxically, also allows the symphony to emerge from the initial structural rhapsody: the play reads as a series of fragments sewn together (rhapsein, means to sew in Greek). The integrity or organicity of the texture thereby woven becomes even more visible by the chiasmic chiming of ‘they understand’.

Just as Crimp’s rhythmic plays thrive on ruptures of tone and bring together traditional prosodic patterns and everyday almost realistic intonation, the same effects of discontinuity can be found at the lexical level. Crimp’s texts oscillate between everyday common sense language and the precision of a technical jargon that systematically invites itself on the sound-stage of language. Sharp and meticulous, Crimp’s writing exposes the meaning of words almost in the photographic sense. Hence, the sticky tape applied on Anne’s mouth is the object of an incremental definition since the text gets more and more specific as it develops. The tape becomes ‘sticky tape’ and then opens onto a long descriptive definition in some sort of epanorthotic process:

Anne. Sticky tape. The kind of sticky tape you use for securing cables. …

The kind with a silver back. Sometimes silver, sometimes it’s black.8

This lexical discontinuity is one of the hallmarks of Crimp’s poetics. It contributes to making his texts both so close to us though so uncanny.

In Face to the Wall (Fewer Emergencies trilogy), the lexical peregrination between everyday demotic language and high-technicity level allows for incongruous pairings not unlike the traditional art of conceit or of wit:

1. (…) — unless it’s someone who loves you—a loved one— (…)whole afternoons for example spent simply feeling the spaces between each other’s fingers—or looking into the loved one’s eyes—the thick rings of colour in the loved one’s eyes— which are like something­—what is it ?— don’t help me—the precipitate—the precipitate in a test tube— (…)

1. (…) ­— sauf si c’est quelqu’un qui t’aime — un être aimé — (…) des après-midi entières par exemple passées à simplement explorer les espaces entre les doigts de l’autre — ou à regarder au fond des yeux de l’être aimé — les larges anneaux de couleur dans les yeux de l’être aimé — qui ressemblent à quelque chose — à quoi déjà ? — ne m’aidez pas — au précipité — au précipité au fond d’une éprouvette — (…)9

The ‘precipitate’ introduces technical jargon into an otherwise quite lyrical evocation of the ‘loved one’ and jars with the overall romantic tonality of the cue. The word, however, is not simply chosen for the technical meaning it has in chemistry but also, and perhaps above all, for the image of fall and insecurity signalled by the other more common uses of the word. The French ‘précipité’ allows for the same image and inscribes tragedy at the heart of the idyll in a comparable manner. This is confirmation that Crimp uses words like a poet, for their vocal quality and polysemic richness, and this is what makes the translator’s work such a fascinating enterprise. The paragon (and paroxystic version) of Crimp’s style is to be found in the long purple patch spoken by number I in Fewer Emergencies when Bobby’s cupboards are described as containing a whole verbal paraphernalia ranging from “candles” to “harpsichords” and “life-size Parthenons”.10

A talented translator himself, Crimp values translation as a category of authorship. His Claire, in The City, a translator and possibly the author of the whole story, blurs the contours of these literary activities and mirrors his own practise. Crimp’s demanding and meticulous rhetoric tolerates no approximation, no indecision, no gap. A chiseller of language, Crimp turns the page into another stage and one of the most original one too. Translating the poet he is, someone aware of the deep vertical richness of language and sensitive to its immediate impact as a sound object, is an efficient critical prism and premise for analysis and well-informed relish.


Elisabeth Angel-Perez is Professor of English Literature at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, France. Her publications include Voyages au bout du possible: Les théâtres du traumatisme de Samuel Beckett à Sarah Kane (2006); and, with Alexandra Poulain, Endgame: Le théâtre mis en pièces (2009). She has edited many volumes, translated and published extensively on Martin Crimp, Sarah Kane, Caryl Churchill and Howard Barker.

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  1. Martin Crimp, The Treatment (London: Faber and Faber, 1993), p. 1.
  2. Martin Crimp. Le Traitement, trans. by É. Angel-Perez (Paris: L’Arche, 2002), p. 1.
  3. Martin Crimp, The Treatment, p. 1.
  4. Martin Crimp, The Treatment, p. 1.
  5. Martin Crimp, Le Traitement, p. 1.
  6. Martin Crimp, Face to the Wall and Fewer Emergencies (London: Faber, 2002), p. 2.
  7. Martin Crimp, Tout va mieux (Face au mur et Tout va mieux), trans. by E. Angel-Perez (Paris: L’Arche, 2003), p. 2.
  8. Martin Crimp, The Treatment, p. 1.
  9. Martin Crimp, Face au mur, in Tout va mieux.
  10. Fewer Emergencies in Face to the Wall and Fewer Emergencies, p. 29.

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