Neil Blackadder’s choice: multiplayer translation

Written by
Danielle Ranucci '23
Feb. 24, 2023

Princeton University Translator-in-Residence Neil Blackadder does not play video games, but chose to title his upcoming talk, “Translation as a Multiplayer Game.”

“The standard model [of translation] that one thinks of is that there’s a lonely translator who sits in their studio with their computer and translates the text,” he said. “I’m interested in a context in which my translation gets fine-tuned and changed in interesting ways through collaboration with a much more complicated model.”

On a basic level, this “multiplayer model” can involve discussions with the author of the original text, he explained. Yet even working with a single author could have unforeseen complications.

Blackadder recently won a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in support of his ongoing translation of “Motherland” by Anne Weber. The German-language book is about Weber’s great-grandfather, a significant cultural figure in Prussia, as contrasted with her grandfather who was a Nazi. Translating “Motherland” became complicated because Weber, who is also a translator, decided to write the book in German and translate it into French.

“In some ways it would be less interesting if [Weber’s] translation was more straightforward, but she actually quite often reworks things in the French version,” Blackadder said. “It’s almost more like a German original and a French original, and I’m making translation choices based on both of those.”

In translating Weber, Blackadder encountered words in French or German that didn’t have English equivalents. He grew frustrated. Then he found an unexpected source of solace.

“In my experience, authors are less uptight or preoccupied with exactitude than translators tend to be,” he said. “Observing [Weber] translating herself, there have been points where I’ve emailed her, ‘I notice that you didn’t translate this part into the French,’ and she said, ‘I decided I didn’t need it.’ I would never dare to be so laissez-faire about what’s happening, but if it’s her text she can.”

In this case, “multiplayer translation” simplified matters — Blackadder stopped worrying as much about rigid exactitude and started translating a bit more freely. Other situations are more complicated. Blackadder also translates plays, and his process involves working with actors and directors on theater productions. While rehearsing with actors, Blackadder frequently alters his translation based on their interpretations of his text, literally turning his process into a “multiplayer” endeavor.

“I embrace the idea of fine-tuning [my] text when I hear it in the mouths of actors,” he said. “What often happens is that actors will instinctively reword things.”

On February 15, Blackadder directed Princeton students in a staged reading of his translation of “Villa Dolorosa (Three Botched Birthdays)” by the German playwright Rebekka Kricheldorf.

 “When I was talking to [the students] in rehearsal I said, ‘You changed this word. Please pay attention because I want it to be this word and not that word.’ Sometimes they were changing the meaning,” he said. “But other times they were making it sound more fluent, like the person in the situation probably would have said it.”

Ultimately, Blackadder’s choice to embrace a more complicated-seeming multiplayer (and multidisciplinary) translation approach has given him rich insights into translation’s many possibilities.

“All these different things that I’ve done feed into each other,” he said. “I think I’m a better director because I’m a translator, and I’m a better translator because I’m a director. There’s a lot of talk in theater about the choices that you make in designing a production. And obviously translation is also about choices.”

Translation as a Multiplayer Game” will be held on Monday, February 27 from 12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. in Louis A. Simpson, 144. This event is sponsored by the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication.