Literary Translation, Art and Christopher Hampton Language mediators

Greater than 2 minutes

I discovered Christopher Hampton on an audio CD (L.A. Theatre Works production of Art) that I was listening to for a book club discussion.
We were reading two plays by Yasmina Reza — Art and Carnage — and Hampton translated both of them from French into English.

You can listen to the Hampton interview here.

Robert Irwin, Untitled, 1963-1965

Art is a comedy about three guys who are friends, and their reactions when one of them spends all of his savings on a painting that is completely… white.

Robert Irwin crop Hirsshorn

Translating a successful living playwright can be a bit of a minefield, at least if the author is Yasmina Reza. Hampton and Reza watched the preview of Art in London, and this is what happened:

Chris Hampton: “They started to laugh before anyone had spoken because the spectacle of Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay standing looking at this white painting started people laughing right away. And at the end of the piece she turned and said to me, ‘What have you done to my play?’ And what I’d done is translated it. We just find, the English find, pretentiousness about art very, very amusing, probably more so than the French.“

One thing Hampton said about literary translation made me feel like we were kindred spirits: “What makes it fun to do is that it’s like doing a crossword puzzle or a maths conundrum.”


I’ve always thought translating was like doing a puzzle. a crossword puzzle or one of those cryptograms that used to be in newspapers on the comics page.

In various interviews Hampton notes how valuable the translator is, while mostly being overlooked:

“I think that in general translators perform an extremely valuable social task, which is that they explain one culture to another. And I’m often shocked when I read a novel in translation — you have to search for the name of the translator, which is in very small print, and you often find that the translator has been paid some small lump sum to do this really demanding, difficult work. It’s just as difficult as writing, in a certain way.” [L.A. Theatre Works interview]

“The translator is the person who is directly mediating the language to you and giving you access to all these worlds that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to enter.” [New York Times Artsbeat, April 23, 2009]

Christopher Hampton Christopher Hampton

Chris Hampton is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter — he won an Academy Award for the 1989 film Dangerous Liaisons, an 18th century drama of intrigue and seduction among French nobility.

Read more about him on the LitBirthdays authors calendar.

Listen to a short excerpt of the American English version of Yasmina Reza’s play Art on YouTube:

Watch the French production of Art on YouTube:

Listen to the L.A. Theatre Works production of Art:

Part 1:

Part 2:


E.S. Dempsey

About E.S. Dempsey

Literary and short business/science/legal translations from most European languages, also Japanese. Short book translations via Babelcube. Translations for (pro bono). Target=English

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