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Retrouver la voix originale d’Ibsen : le projet Ibsen in Translation

Translating Ibsen into Hindi: Finding a Voice for Each Character

Astri Ghosh


In the project Ibsen in Translation, translators from across the world work together to translate twelve plays from Norwegian to eight languages simultaneously. The process of collaboration gives a new dimension to understanding the texts. This paper explores some of the challenges that arise in finding the voice of each character in Ibsen’s plays.
A character’s social status is indicated by the nuances of the language he or she speaks, the degree of formality, and his or her choice of vocabulary, pronunciation and syntax. This paper will focus in particular on translating Ibsen into Hindi. What does a Hindi translation of an Ibsen text need to make performance possible?

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1The Ibsen in Translation project consists of an interdisciplinary team of translators. We meet twice a year to go through a play together, returning to our countries to translate the play into eight languages simultaneously. Though we translate for the page, we keep the theatrical dimension in mind, using oral and gestural language so that our translations can be staged and exist independently of any specific production. A panel of theatre and translation experts in each country reads through our texts, and comments on them. Are the words right, is the language street language or is it too formal? I have translated eight of Ibsen’s plays into Hindi so far, four of which were published last year. The panel that reads and comments on my texts is made up of a former director of the National School of Drama in New Delhi and two Bollywood actors. They are theatre practitioners who bring their expertise and suggest changes in my text if necessary.

  • 1 . Jeg vil dessuten uttale at enhver oversættelse, der fremkommer gennem samarbejde mellem to eller (...)

2Translation as collaboration” is an expression usually employed when a translator works with a director and actors to create a specific production in the target language. At translation conferences, the discussion of whether one is translating for the page or for the stage often becomes a black and white one, where one is either doing the one or the other (Laera, 2011: 213). The translators in our team come from different backgrounds, some are literary translators, some of us have acted or translated plays for specific productions, but in this team we join forces, bringing to the table our knowledge of language, of Ibsen’s quirks and peculiarities, of theatre, not as directors or actors, but as translators. We collaborate in understanding the text and finding ways in which to translate Ibsen into other languages and cultures. In doing so, we are going against Henrik Ibsen’s wishes. Ibsen did not approve of translators collaborating. In a letter he wrote to Victor Barrucand on March 6, 1891, Ibsen said: “I would like to state, as well, that I am in principle against any translation, which is the result of the cooperation of two or more [people].”1 (Ibsen, 2010: 107, my translation)

3The history of translating and adapting Ibsen into Hindi and other Indian languages demonstrates how translators have, deliberately or otherwise, appropriated his plays to make them reflect their country’s own socio-political concerns. The dividing lines between translation and adaptation have been very porous. There is a diverse range of practices involving translation in contemporary theatre in India. Very often a director or a playwright who does not know Norwegian writes a text based on a literal translation done by someone else into English. Sometimes a text is put together during rehearsals collating elements from several existing translations. Translators today are often commissioned by a particular director who is producing a play for an Ibsen festival, or for a repertory company.

4In India, Ibsen has been translated into Hindi from English, German, Russian or Japanese, leading to fourth or fifth generation translations. What happens to a text when it is translated from multiple layers of translations? It gets sanitized and becomes more fluid. But orality is not fluidity. Ibsen’s texts are written for performance. Ibsen’s characters often speak Norwegian in an abrupt fashion, in sentences that reflect spoken language because they are not all grammatically correct. There are pauses. There is swearing. There is terseness and bluntness in the way characters speak and interrupt each other. There is discontinuity. But in older translations into Hindi, some of that bluntness has disappeared. Many translators have facilitated diction by smoothing out the way characters speak, removing the pauses and some of the blasphemy, insults and swearing from the text.

5When discussing the invisibility of a translator and the development of translation strategies, Lawrence Venuti distinguishes between domesticating and foreignizing a text. A foreignizing translation aims at showing the difference of the foreign text, by “disrupting” the cultural codes that prevail in the target language. It can be a form of resistance against ethnocentrism and racism, cultural narcissism and imperialism, in the interests of democratic geopolitical relations. Venuti advocates this type of “resistance,” where one produces non-fluent target texts, where the “strangeness” of the source text shines through (Venuti, 2004: 300).

6As a professional translator, how do I translate for the theatre? Do I choose to be faithful to Ibsen or will I try to speak to my target audience by making the text more familiar to them? Indian adaptations of Ibsen often modify religious references. So in Gudiya Ghar, Qudsia Zaidi’s adaptation of A Doll’s House, Christmas becomes Eid. Since my translation is based on the Norwegian original, I do not make any such changes. However, some things are hard to explain without footnotes. In A Doll’s House, Nora remarks that it is very quiet on Christmas Day. In Norway, this is a time when everyone goes home to their families and most streets in the city are quiet and deserted. In India however, Christmas is a boisterous day with people dropping by to visit friends and relatives with gifts and baskets of cakes and sweets. In Goa and Bombay, people go out dancing after midnight mass on Christmas Eve. So Nora’s remark might be hard for an audience to understand. Rather than domesticating the text, that remark is a strange element I retain in my translation.

  • 2 . In Satyajit Ray’s film Ganashatru, a Bengali version of An Enemy of the People, Dr. Stockmann do (...)

7Removing the bluntness that characterizes the speech of an Ibsen character can change the tone of the play entirely. In Indian productions of An Enemy of the People, the ranting and blustering of Dr. Stockmann, which shows his growing confusion as the play develops, disappears when all the blasphemy and insults are removed and the play is sanitized. In Indian productions Stockmann always emerges as the hero fighting for his cause against all odds.2

8While trying to find a voice for each character, I must be aware of the nuances of the language the character speaks, consider how formal his or her vocabulary is, and be aware of syntax. I consider it an aesthetic imperative to keep Ibsen’s discontinuity and interrupted speech in my text, but syntax poses a problem while translating into Hindi. One of the differences between Norwegian and Hindi is that Hindi is a Subject Object Verb or SOV language while Norwegian is a Subject Verb Object (SVO) language. The Hindi sentence can only be understood when we reach the end, as the verb comes at the end of the sentence. But in Ibsen, a sentence often begins with the verb, and the statement gets interrupted, leaving the audience or the reader guessing the rest of what the character was going to say. This means that in Hindi you have to add words or images Ibsen only hinted at, for the utterance to have meaning. In The Wild Duck, a balding man at a party comes up to Hjalmar and Gregers and says:

  • 3 . Røger De ikke, herr Ekdal? Vil De ha’ ild? Nå, det er sandt, vi må jo ikke

Don’t you smoke, Mr Ekdal? Would you like a match? Oh, it’s true, we mustn’t—3 (Ibsen, 2008: 33, my translation)

  • 4 . The experiencer subject is also called the dative subject by some grammarians. In English, one c (...)

9The Hindi counterpart of the English expression we must (do something) is expressed by using the infinitive form of a verb followed by the “to be” verb form. The subject is always the experiencer subject in its dative form. In Hindi, I have translated “Oh it’s true, we mustn’t—” with “are nahĩ, sac hai, hamẽ—”. Or “Oh no, it’s true, we—”. By using the experiencer subject hamẽ rather than ham in the nominative case, I indicate the internal obligative “mustn’t” without actually including the verb.4

  • 5 . The Sins of the Fathers, Reading Ibsen in Translation at India International Centre, New Delhi, (...)

10In our project we work on the prose plays by Ibsen. We have to be aware of the subtext, translate the comic, think of stage directions and figure out how to convey non-verbal language. Although my translations have not been commissioned by a director or a theatre, I have worked with actors who have done readings of my translations. I listen to their suggestions, using some of them and discarding others in the final versions of my translations. We need to maintain the oral, sonorous impact of the text. Working with actors preparing for a performance or a reading, I realize how words sound. Is the text breathable? At a recent reading of Gudiya Ghar or A Doll’s House5 where the actors were sitting on the stage and not moving about, actress Moonmoon Singh asked me how many steps she should take while saying a line, would she say those particular words in two steps or would she have to cross the stage. Her question made me aware of how important it is to be precise in translating stage directions. When we translate stage action, we must describe gesture and movement precisely, as our words have the potential to set the actor’s body in motion. The word uttered on stage needs to be deciphered and rendered by the actor’s body for the spectator to make sense of it. Saying the lines is not enough; the body must take part in the act of speaking. In that reading, actors Moonmoon Singh, Rajesh Tailang and Sukumar Tudul created all the movement they needed on the stage by gestures and by modulating their voices while sitting.

11How do you translate non-verbal language? At an Ibsen festival in Bombay in 2015, actor Tom Alter and I did a reading of my translation of Gengangere or Ghosts, while actress and translator Ila Arun and director K. K. Raina read the same scenes from Arun’s adaptation of the play. The four of us were sitting on the stage. Tom Alter was reading the role of Pastor Manders, a rather pretentious character who denies he has ever had feelings for Mrs Alving. Manders and Mrs Alving are very formal with each other, using the honorific De when they address each other. Tom Alter’s voice was strong and deep with its sonorous words of condemnation. Suddenly it fell and was nearly inaudible as he breathed Mrs Alving’s first name, “Helene!”. The way he said it established without any doubt that Manders had once been in love with her. Watching brilliant actors like Tom Alter or Rajesh Tailang transfuse life into the words I have translated opened my eyes to issues I had not thought about.

Finding the voice of each character

12Ibsen created characters that have very specific voices and a distinctive manner of expressing themselves. As translators, we have to try to bring out the inflexions of each individual voice, its diction, its breath and keep the word order that a particular character uses.

13Ibsen’s characters reveal their level of education and sophistication through their individual ways of expressing themselves. In Ghosts, entitled Pretchhaya in my translation, Regine uses a lot of French words when she speaks impatiently to her stepfather Engstrand or when she wants to appear refined in front of the Alvings. There is a comic aspect to these utterances as she uses the French words inappropriately. I wondered if I should translate the French into another Indian language or just keep the words as they were in the original text. I eventually decided to keep the French, as it would bring in an element of foreignness that an Indian audience could understand.

14The honorific system of Hindi can show a progression of formality or politeness in the pronoun sequence (intimate), tum (familiar) and āp (formal) and thus express degrees of familiarity for the word you. Ibsen deliberately used the pronouns du or De to create intimacy or distance. These pronouns correspond to tū, tum and āp in Hindi. Yet many translations of Ibsen to Hindi, Bengali or Urdu do not follow Ibsen’s original use of pronouns because the translator has relied on English translations that only use you. This can change the degree of intimacy between characters in the play.

15In A Doll’s House, for instance, Helmer is upset when Krogstad addresses him with the informal du because they have known each other for years, they studied together. Now Helmer has taken over as the bank director, and he does not like the fact that Krogstad flaunts their old acquaintance by using du and not De. The degree of formality with which they speak to each other is reflected in this. In Hindi, I can bring this out even more as both and tum represent the Norwegian pronoun du. And you only use with a close childhood friend, a child or God. Indian audiences immediately understand that Helmer does not like his employee Krogstad saying to him.

16On the other hand, in the same play, Nora and Dr Rank flirt with each other. Dr. Rank comes over to the Helmers’ home every day. Yet they use De when they talk to each other, even when she is showing him her silk stockings and her ankles. In all the previous Hindi translations, the translator had to rely on the English translation and translated you with the Hindi pronoun tum. Yet Ibsen chose to use De here consciously, indicating that the characters were close and yet not too intimate, and I can show this by using āp and not tum.

17The honorific suffixes-ji or sahib can also be added to titles and names in Hindi as in Panditji, Gandhiji or Doctor sahib, when addressing people. Ibsen’s characters often have a title used before their surnames or full names like Fru (Mrs.) Ellida Wangel or Fru (Mrs.) Sørby if they do not have an honorific or professional title. Although I use the English words Mr. and Mrs rather than the more formal Hindi Shriman and Shrimati, I often use ji or sahib after characters’ names when people are addressing each other to express a feeling of formality in my translations.

18Each character’s social status is reflected in the nuances of the language he or she speaks. It is there in his or her pronunciation, syntax, in how formal he or she is while speaking, and in the choice of vocabulary and syntax. Gunilla Anderman maintains that to find semantic and idiomatic ways of matching a turn of phrase in our target languages, we have to be conscious of where the characters live, of their social standing and their eccentricities (Anderman, 2007: 7).

19In Samfundets støtter or Pillars of Society, I use rather than tum in the conversation between the boy Olaf and his uncle. And I use colloquial words like abe khote for din dumrian (you idiot). I collect words for insults, swearing and blasphemy that I can use in my Ibsen translations, and make lists on my phone and notebooks and whatever I have at hand, where I put down expressions if I hear something on television or when people speak around me.

No easy task

20Ibsen had strong views on translation. In his letter to Victor Barrucand written on March 6, 1891, Ibsen described how he wanted translators to find the individual style of expression that each character had.

  • 6 . Vildanden frembyder desuden ganske særlige vanskeligheder i det man må være meget nøje fortrolig (...)

Moreover, The Wild Duck presents particular difficulties as one has to be closely acquainted with the Norwegian language in order to understand how consistently every single person in the play has his / her own individual manner of expression, by which the person’s degree of education is indicated. When for instance Gina speaks, one must immediately hear that she has never learned grammar and that she comes from the lower classes of society. In this manner all the other persons concerned have different ways of being. The task of the translator is not easy at all.6 (Ibsen, 2010: 107, my translation)

21Gina, in The Wild Duck, mispronounces words, often words of foreign origin, like pistol which she calls pigstol. That word was easy enough for me to translate into Hindi, because pistol is pistaul in Hindi, so it was easy to just write pigstaul. There is another word that is often mispronounced in Hindi, the word bandook meaning a gun, which, some people pronounce dambook. So I used that too. But Gina misuses words she has picked up from her husband when she is irritated, and Hjalmar gets embarrassed at her. As I wish to translate the comic situation as well, these little details are very important.

22As a translator I have to be particularly careful about how to use the same recurring words all the way through a text and to avoid using synonyms of these words in Hindi. Ibsen creates word clusters for each character and uses them almost obsessively. If one is not consistent when translating recurring words, one can lose the obsessive quality of a character.

23In Hedda Gabler, Jørgen Tesman uses the word hvad (what) at the end of a sentence over 80 times. Tesman has been on a six-month honeymoon combined with a study trip of the archives of Southern Europe, and his use of hvad brings out the obsessive, pedantic quality of the scholar who married Hedda Gabler, the beauty of the town. In Hindi you can use its equivalent kya at the end of a sentence, but it might convey another tone or meaning than the one intended by Ibsen. I could use the words haina (isn’t that so) at times, but I am struggling at the moment to find the right word that I can use 80 times. I want to be consistent, and hvad does not always translate to what.

24In A Doll’s House, Nora uses the word snikk-snakk for nonsense. She uses this many times in the play. It is one of the words that characterize her speech. I tried to find words that would give the same impression as the sound of snikk-snakk. In Hindi the word bakvās means rubbish or nonsense. Which is what I first chose. The phrase kya bakvās kar rahe ho (literally: what rubbish are [you] doing) is often used in Hindi. But I wanted the terseness of snikk-snakk, and decided to use the phrase bak-bak karnā, saying just bak bak in Hindi when Nora said snikk-snakk in Norwegian.

25Sticking to the construction of the original text, trying to keep the word order as it is, and trying to stick to the same number of words in a line as in the original Norwegian is not totally impossible. I try to retain the dramatic impetus and vocal energy of the original play, because the audience perceives rhythms and sounds. In the opening scene of Ghosts, Regine tells Engstrand to stop making a noise with his wooden shoe. She says: “Klamp ikke så med den foten menneske!” (Ibsen, 2008: 386) (Don’t clunk with that foot, man! my translation). I translated it with us pair ke sath khutkhut mat karo, bhai, using the word khut khut to recreate the sound of klamp in Norwegian.

26The Norwegian Australian Ibsen translator May-Brit Akerholt states that theatre translation must be for performance for it to be successful:

Theatre translation cannot be seen merely in the light of linguistic problems or interrogations. Other processes are involved in the transformation of theatre text from one language and culture to another, including a dramaturgical as well as textual analysis and re-shaping of the original. The final proof is in the performance; only when the target text functions as theatre and not merely as a piece of translated text, can it be deemed a successful new version. (Akerholt, 2006: 64)

27Anticipating the staging of the play she is translating, May-Brit Akerholt prefers to translate for the voices of actors she knows.

I was lucky enough to earn my art and craft by working with the best theatre artists. I learnt that being familiar with the cast, the production concept and the director’s vision is invaluable. I translated for the voices of actors whose work and whose idiosyncrasies I was familiar with. (ibid.: 65)

28Not all translators agree with her. Jean-Michel Déprats, writing about translating Shakespeare into French, says:

The translation of a dramatic text must therefore remain open, it must allow for performance, but not impose a particular way of acting. It must be invigorated by a rhythm, but again not impose only one. To translate for the stage is not to distort the text according to what we hope to show or how it’ll be acted or who will act it. It is not to anticipate, plan or suggest a particular staging, it is simply to make performance possible. (Déprats, 1999: 82)

29In our project, all members collaborate with each other in order to understand and interpret the text. But we do not wish our texts to follow any particular director’s vision. We try to give our readers a text that they can transform and reshape into a performance.

30As translators, we have to be conscious of each character’s voice while trying to find ways of matching a turn of phrase in our target languages. The words we choose reflect the means of expression, social standing, eccentricities and the cultural environment in which the characters are rooted. Our guidelines direct us to make performance possible, without anticipating a specific staging by one particular director. We try to keep the vocal energy and dramatic impetus of the original play. Keeping the theatrical dimension in mind, we translate Henrik Ibsen’s plays so that our translations can be staged and exist independently of any specific production.

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Akerholt, May-Brit, 2006, “Bless thee Bottom! Bless Thee! thou Art Translated”, in Helland, F., Mollerin, K. S., Nygaard, J. & Sæther, A. (eds) Acta Ibseniana V-2007 The Living Ibsen. Proceedings – the 11th International Ibsen Conference, 21-27 August 2006, Centre for Ibsen Studies, Oslo, University of Oslo, p. 63-68.

Anderman, Gunilla, 2007, “Voices in Translation”, in Anderman, Gunilla (ed.), Voices in Translation, Bridging Cultural Divides, Clevedon, Multilingual Matters Ltd, p. 6-15.

Bhatia, Tej, 2008, Colloquial Hindi: The Complete Course for Beginners, London, Taylor & Francis.

Déprats, Jean-Michel, 1999, “Translating Shakespeare for the Theatre”, Ilha do Desterro: A Journal of English Language, Literatures in English and Cultural Studies, n° 36, p. 71-85.

Ibsen, Henrik, 1975, Gudiyaghar, trans. Qudsia Zaidi, New Delhi, unpublished manuscript.

, 2008, in Henrik Ibsens Skrifter: Samfundets støtter, Et dukkehjem, Gengangere, En Folkefiende, Oslo, Aschehoug.

, 2010, in Henrik Ibsens Skrifter, Brev 1890-1905, Oslo, Aschehoug,

, 2015a, Pretchhaya, trans. Astri Ghosh, New Delhi, Star Publications.

, 2015b, Gudiyaghar, trans. Astri Ghosh, New Delhi, Star Publications.

, 2015c, Samajkestambh, trans. Astri Ghosh, New Delhi, Star Publications.

Laera, Margherita, 2011, “Theatre Translation as Collaboration: Aleks Sierz, Martin Crimp, Nathalie Abrahami, Colin Teevan, Zoë Svendsen and Michael Walton discuss Translation for the Stage”, Contemporary Theatre Review, 21:2, p. 213-225.

Venuti, Lawrence, 2004, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation, Taylor & Francis e-Library.

Venuti, Lawrence, Baker, Mona (eds), 2004, The Translation Studies Reader, London, Routledge.

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1 . Jeg vil dessuten uttale at enhver oversættelse, der fremkommer gennem samarbejde mellem to eller flere er mig prinsipielt imod.

2 . In Satyajit Ray’s film Ganashatru, a Bengali version of An Enemy of the People, Dr. Stockmann does not rave and rant.

3 . Røger De ikke, herr Ekdal? Vil De ha’ ild? Nå, det er sandt, vi må jo ikke

4 . The experiencer subject is also called the dative subject by some grammarians. In English, one can say “We like tea”, where the subject is we. In Hindi, we say “Tea appeals to us.” The focus of sentences beginning with I is the person who experiences something, but in a sentence with mujhko (to me) or hamẽ (to us), the experience itself is the focus, the real or logical subject is marked by ko, the dative postposition, but the verb agrees with the logical direct object: hamẽ cāy pasãd hai / To us tea liked is. In order to express an inner need or internal obligation, for “I need to go”, one says mujhko jānā hai (to me to go is).

5 . The Sins of the Fathers, Reading Ibsen in Translation at India International Centre, New Delhi, 3 September 2015.

6 . Vildanden frembyder desuden ganske særlige vanskeligheder i det man må være meget nøje fortrolig med det norske sprog for at kunne forstå hvor gennemgående enhver enkelt person i stykket har sin ejendommelige, individuelle udtryksmåde, hvorigennem tillige vedkommendes dannelsesgrad markeres. Når f.ex. Gina taler, må man straks kunne høre på hende at hun aldrig har lært grammatik og at hun er udgået fra de lavere samfundslag. Og således fremdeles på forskjellig måde for alle de øvrige personers vedkommende. Oversætterens oppgave er således her ingenlunde let at løse.

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Electronic reference

Astri Ghosh, Translating Ibsen into Hindi: Finding a Voice for Each CharacterPalimpsestes [Online], 29 | 2016, Online since 17 May 2017, connection on 29 May 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Astri Ghosh

Astri Ghosh est écrivaine et traductrice littéraire. Elle vit à Goa, en Inde. Elle traduit actuellement douze pièces en prose d’Henrik Ibsen du norvégien à l’hindi. Quatre de ces pièces ont déjà été publiées en 2015 à New Delhi. Elle a récemment écrit un livre pour enfants sur le fondateur du sikhisme, Guru Nanak, et sur sa poésie. Elle a traduit deux pièces de Rabinadrath Tagore du bengali à l’anglais. Elle a par ailleurs traduit des romans, des poèmes et des nouvelles. Elle pratique la poésie-performance basée sur la poésie en traduction et a joué le rôle principal dans un film long-métrage. Elle enseigne l’hindi, l’urdu et le norvégien.

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