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Found in Translation: Ibsen/ Fosse at 59E59

As the producer/ director Sarah Cameron Sunde puts it, Norweigian playwright Jon Fosse believes that all theatre is a perpetual dialogue, forever in translation. A vision is born in the mind of the playwright, the playwright slaps that vision down on paper (already something is lost) which is then read by others (something is gained as the work passes through the filter of a new perspective), and eventually staged by a director, the words now spilling out of the actor’s mouths, tumbling through the air, the entire Event entering the eyes and ears of the individual audience members (something lost? something gained?) and working its way to their brains where it is processed and added to their distinctive experience, their singular understanding of the world.

When looked at in that manner, the whole experience of theatre seems a delicate manner. As an artist—or just as a human being—it’s very easy to find oneself misunderstood. Add actual linguistic translation into the mix, and the potential for misunderstanding is greater than ever.

Photography by Kristine Nyborg

For Sunde and her producing partner, Anna Guttormsgaard, the translation process is a volatile but thrilling abyss into which one must bring an unbridled passion and a willingness to sweat for years in order to mine the nuances of language. Both women grow ardent when talking about the translation process. While they respect any attempt at translation, they tend to have little love for the stiff versions of Ibsen that have become so ubiquitous in the English language.

“Ibsen wrote…grammatically incorrect[ly],” says Guttormsgaard. “I mean, like—the structure of sentences, he wrote the way you talk instead of the way you write. So what often happens in translation is that the energy in the dialogue gets lost. Because someone is given a literal translation, like an American or English writer, and they’ll look at it and think, ‘Oh, this can’t be right, this guy is supposed to be a genius, he’s a so-called ‘classical playwright,’ he can’t be writing like this,’ and they’ll assume they’re looking at a translation folly and so they’ll, you know, they’ll ‘fix’ it, and in ‘fixing’ it, they sort of ruin some of the life in the dialogue.”

Sunde and Guttormsgaard—the former, a first-generation American of Norwegian descent, the latter Norwegian by birth—have made it their mission to roll up their sleeves, dig into the text, and emerge ready to present vital, engaging translations of Norwegian plays that fully resonate in the modern American idiom. Having already produced the U.S. premier of Jon Fosse’s Night Sings Its Songs to acclaim, they’re now ready to present both Ibsen’s Rosmersholm and Jon Fosse’s deathvariations in repertory this summer at the 59E59 Theatres under the banner “Ibsen/ Fosse 2006.”

I ask Guttormsgaard if their upcoming version of Rosmersholm (on which she has worked with playwright Bridgette Wimberly) is a translation or an adaptation. “Both,” she answers without hesitation. “It’s a modern translation and it’s set in the U.S. today, so… you know, in that sense, it’s an adaptation.” And why Rosmersholm? “The world of Rosmersholm is a polarized world, and there’s no right and wrong, it’s just, like, two different camps and the destructive dangers that arise when both sides are so determined they’re right,” Sunde told me. “[The play is about] the dangers pf seeing things as just black and white.”

Photograph by Kristine Nyborg. Henrik Ibsen,
Photograph by Kristine Nyborg. Henrik Ibsen, "Rosmersholm" directed by Timothy Douglas. Photo with Lizann Mitchell, Anna Gutto, and Charles Parnell

And what of Jon Fosse and his deathvariations? Sunde is obsessed with Fosse’s word (her word). Fosse has been translated into over 40 languages and seen production worldwide; except here in America, where only Night Sings It Songs (courtesy of Oslo Elsewhere, The Unbound Theatre, and Spring Theatreworks) and Someone Is Going to Come (produced by the Tyst Theatre Company in Ohio) have seen production. This astounds Sunde. I ask here if she thinks American Theatre is somewhat xenophobic when it comes to importing contemporary playwrights. “Yes!” she responds, slamming her hands on the table. For a brief moment, we float this possibility: Perhaps since so many artists are competing for the stage both figuratively and literally, there’s a hesitancy to add global writers into the mix. We laugh about the current immigration “debate.” Guttormsgaard does her best Am-URH-ican: “I don’t want no damn foreigner taking my stage!” Of course, one might argue that America’s theatre institutions are only marginally more interested in new plays from American writers, but that’s a discussion for another time.

In her Village Voice review for Oslo Elsewhere’s co-production of Night Sings Its Songs, Alexis Soloski wrote: “Writing spare, elliptical prose—his subject-verb-predicate sentences rarely, indulge in an adjective, adverb, or additional clause—Fosse has enjoyed comparisons with Beckett and Pinter.” This terse and focused minimalism seems to be what draws Sunde to Fosse’s work. When talking about the explosive space between his words, the unspoken nuance and the dense theatrical layers hidden within his text, Sunde is wide-eyed and enthusiastic, evoking a different vision of Fosse. “He says so little, but so much!” she proclaims. “His writing is like nothing else! And if I do my job right, it’ll be one of the most intense theatrical experiences of your LIFE!”

Ibsen/ Fosse will open in August at 59E59 theatres. For tickets, and more information on Oslo Elsewhere, visit


Barton Bishop

Barton Bishop writes plays and turns Japanese cartoons into American cartoons.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2006

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