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It’s long been an axiom that there is no money in the theatre. I can attest to this personally using my own career as a playwright for evidence. However, I did once work for someone who managed to turn a rather handsome-- if not particularly scrupulous-- buck as a translator of plays.

Here’s how you do it:

First, come from a well-to-do family with a long liberal history of patronizing the arts. This will establish your provenance as someone who moves easily among well-heeled arts supporters. Trust me, they’re much happier if the fellow who penned the play they’re funding comes from their own set. After all, how likely is it that someone from a lower middle class background—like Shakespeare, say-- could actually produce a canon worthy of esteem?

Second, take a few years of one of the easier Romance Languages in high school: French, Spanish, or-- if you’re feeling ambitiously pedantic-- Latin. This will establish a plausible working knowledge of the language from which you will be drawing your plagiaristic translation.

Third, pick a work by a foreign playwright from the latter half of the Second Millennium, making sure that said play is safely in the public domain and has already been translated into English several times over. If you’re at a loss for samples, Marivaux or Molière are always nice.

Fourth, get yourself a English-French, or English-“Whatever-Romance-language” dictionary.

Fifth, get yourself three or four of the finer translations of the work you’ll be “translating”.

Sixth, start “translating”. You should have little trouble matching up the English lines from your previous translations to lines in the original, especially if it’s in verse. Granted, it might take you a couple months to hack through the play line by line this way, but given that actually translating a play, (or even more heinous, writing one) can take years, consider this time spent a fantastic bargain.

Seventh, begin gently hawking your translation to regional theatres around the country. They tend to be eager to consider new translations of classics, as it makes them look edgy without incurring the risk of staging actual new works.

Eighth, repeat as necessary and watch as your return increases with each new “translation”, since now you’ll be considered an expert in the field.

Believe me, this happens a lot, and not just in the specific circumstances I mention. Ursula LeGuin “translated” Lao Tzu’s entire Tao Te Ching this way, but openly admits it, calling her work a “rendition”. But of course, Ms. LeGuin is a class act (and her rendition is excellent, by the way.)

Check out Neruda’s Love Sonnet LXXVIII for my own example of using this method.

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