Translator’s Note: Václav Havel’s Hunt for a Pig
This is not a play, exactly. Nor is it an operetta, exactly. It is a collage. An adaptation of an adaptation. A multimedia and multidisciplinary work culled from two different cultures and three centuries.
Originally a short dialogue from 1987 and printed in a samizdat or underground magazine (often photocopies of photocopies), the piece is a shaggy-dog tale at heart; a comic (and true) story of Havel’s efforts to hold a pig roast for his friends.
In 2010, Czech director Vladimír Morávek, of Theater Goose on the String, rediscovered the dialogue and decided to stage it. He began by giving lines to characters only mentioned in passing, but then made a more radical choice: he added sections from of one of the most beloved Czech works, The Bartered Bride. This new version was the centerpiece of a theater festival in Brno last June.
I was invited to attend the festival yet knew nothing about the piece before I arrived. Like many of Havel’s plays, I see it as a veiled critique of the Communist system; however, The Bartered Bride adds another layer to the story. The operetta was written at a time (the 1860’s) when the act of speaking Czech was, in itself, a nationalistic gesture. Spoken Czech had died out and Smetana, among others, wanted to restore it as a living language (and gain independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire). In the context of The Pig, the celebratory music foreshadows the Velvet Revolution, the overthrow of Communism, and Havel’s election to the presidency.
Indeed, near the end of the piece, Morávek slips the words “truth and love” into the lyrics; a reference to Havel’s most famous quote, “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred.” Upon seeing the production, I asked whether I could translate The Pig for a production here in New York.
I cannot speak Czech. I have taken classes and done my best to learn it, but Czech, especially spoken Czech, eludes me. The sounds are very difficult for my ear, and I’m sure when I speak it my accent is terrible. And so the title of translator seems a little suspicious to me.
But what I did was this: I worked with a native speaker, Katerina Lu, until I understood every nuance of the original. I took my notes and found ways to convey not only the meaning of the lines but also Havel’s rhythms and wry humor.
I then started writing my own dialogue, particularly for the Journalist. The character’s lines are in “English” in the original, but I altered the (technically correct) lines to sound natural to an American. And as I worked, I realized that common references for Czechs—the plot of The Bartered Bride or events of the Velvet Revolution—would be lost on most Americans.
I began adding lines to set up the play for a New York audience. Then, working with the director, Henry Akona, I added silent characters, partly to utilize 3LD’s video capabilities, and partly to echo the silent characters in many of Havel’s other plays ... and then I played with the placement of choruses ... and added a few more lines, and …
In the end, this production takes the Brno script and augments it with our own creative imaginings, just as Havel’s original was augmented by Morávek. To me, it has become something of a cross-cultural dialogue. What better way to work on a piece whose two main characters are an American and a Czech?
But primarily, Havel, himself, is the main inspiration behind my efforts. The Pig is his only work in which he appears on stage as one of the characters. My challenge was to convey Havel’s voice, which is witty, wise, sometimes a little testy, but always compassionate and humane.