John Farndon on translating Inna Goncharova’s The Trumpeter

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Inna Goncharova’s The Trumpeter is to receive its UK premiere at the Finborough Theatre next month as part of their Voices From Ukraine programme which presents work written in response to the Russian invasion, mainly by Ukranian writers.

The play has been translated by John Farndon and is directed by Vladimir Shcherban of HUNCHtheatre and Belarus Free Theatre and stars Kristin Milward, who also starred in the internationally acclaimed Ukranian play Pussycat in Memory of Darkness by Neda Nezhdana which received its UK premiere at the Finborough Theatre in 2022, before becoming the first foreign production to perform in Ukraine since the Russian invasion began.

The play follows a trumpeter, the only survivor of Ukraine’s 36th Marine Brigade brass band, during the siege of Mariupol in Spring 2022 as they share the terrifying darkness with two compatriots.

Ahead of opening, we caught up with Farndon to find out what it is like to be part of this important strand of work at Finborough Theatre.

Q&A with John Farndon

How does it feel to be part of Finborough Theatre’s Voices From Ukraine?

Above all grateful. To be able to do just a little to help Ukrainian voices be heard means a great deal. Every time I hear of another Russian atrocity in Ukraine – a child killed by a missile, families separated, people hiding in basements – I am reminded that it is absolutely vital to continue to listen, to go on pushing for platforms for Ukrainian artists whose work is both a witness and a powerful sign of defiance. So I am immensely grateful to the Finborough for being a beacon for Ukrainian work with its Voices from Ukraine initiative since the full-scale invasion began in 2022. And it is wonderful that the Finborough is now opening its doors again to provide its stage not only for a month-long run of Inna Goncharova’s breathtaking play, The Trumpeter, but also for a fantastic programme of extra events featuring an array of brilliantly talented poets, musicians and dramatists performing in support – not only from Ukraine, but Britain, Belarus, Egypt and other places.

When did you first come into contact with Inna Goncharova’s work?

Soon after the full-scale Russian invasion started, Ukrainian playwrights began writing an extraordinary series of plays as they responded to this trauma, and I teamed up with American drama critic John Freedman to create the Worldwide Ukrainian Playreading project to help the plays be seen and heard around the world. Between us, John and I have translated well over 100 plays into English, and seen many hundreds of readings and productions across Europe and the USA. Maksym Kurochkin of the newly formed Theatre of Playwrights in Kyiv would feed us through plays, and we would translate them quickly to get them heard quickly far and wide, sometimes within days of being written. The first play I translated was written within ten days of the invasion – I translated it in three days, and it was staged at the Finnish National Theatre in Helsinki by leading actors the following week. What was astonishing was the consistently high quality of the work. Inna Goncharova’s play was one of the plays passed on to me to translate in spring last year, and I saw instantly it was something very special.

What can you tell us about The Trumpeter?

The Trumpeter was inspired by the siege of the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol in spring 2022 under the Russian assault. The long and courageous resistance of a small group of Ukrainian soldiers trapped in the steelworks in appalling conditions has become a powerful symbol for Ukrainian defiance. Inna’s play tells the story of a trumpeter of the trapped brigade’s band, forced into fighting, yet seeing himself as a creator, a writer of music, who wants to write a symphony of war, as the Russian missiles pile relentlessly in. It’s an incredibly powerful evocation of the human will to create, to live, and to love in the face of the worst horror.

What was it that drew you to translating The Trumpeter?

I have translated 40 or so Ukrainian plays over the last 28 months, and mostly I don’t choose what to translate. I am not in the frontline, so it makes no sense for me to choose. Instead, Maksym Kurochkin and other informed Ukrainians select the plays and pass them on to me via John Freedman, and I know for certain their choices will be good. All the same, I was looking for a play for Kristin Milward to follow up on her extraordinary performance in Ukrainian writer Neda Nejdana’s Pussycat in Memory of Darkness in 2022, and in Inna’s play, I knew I had found it. It is the story of a young man and his comrades trapped in the siege, but I felt certain Kristin could do something remarkable with it – and I’m happy to say I was right.

How did you approach the translation and were there any challenges in the process?

Drama presents a rather different challenge to other kinds of translation because it is not intended to be simply read on the page. It has to be easy in translation for the actor to speak, and tell the right story. So the language has to be natural and have the right rhythms. The translator also has to have some knowledge of stagecraft, and know how words on the page are transformed to voices on the stage. Most great plays, for instance, have at least an element of subtext, an undercurrent of meaning that is not in the literal translation of the words, but is an absolutely vital engine of the play. Above all, I had to make the play performable, as well as an accurate translation. So as a translator of drama, you need to have a vision of how the play will look and sound.

The Trumpeter is at Finborough Theatre from 9 July to 3 August