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  • Writer's pictureViolet Mackintosh

Translated Theatre

Given the choice between a play originally written in English (assuming that your native language is English) and one translated into English from another language, which would you prefer?

There is no correct answer to this question.

However, I find it somewhat distressing that the answer in many cases is: originally written in English, even before knowing anything about the plays in question. Why is that? Are we afraid of foreign texts? Do we assume that they will be a half-hearted version of the original or do we simply not like the idea of dirty hands (the translator) interfering with the delicate original work?

This has always been a fascinating topic to me, as a lover of languages, but with the rise of the number of translated works running in major theatres and Parasite winning the Best Picture award at the Oscars this year, I felt like it was the right time to write about it.

Actually, let’s take a brief step away from theatre and look to the Oscars. For the first time in the award ceremony’s history, a film in a foreign language (Parasite) received the Best Picture accolade. A momentous occasion in Hollywood’s recognition of works not in English. During his acceptance speech for another award (the Golden Globe), the director, Bong Joon-Ho stated: 'Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films’ and he is right (he actually said this in Korean and had his translator with him).

As English speakers, we are so used to every mainstream film ‘worth watching’ being in English. At the moment living in Germany, I have had to adjust to every film having subtitles or being dubbed into German. In fact, I quite like watching films with subtitles because of the challenge it poses – it is not handed to us on a plate and instead we have to work for the information within the story. The minute we follow Bong’s advice, exposure to different cultures and different ideas will transport us out of the tiny English bubble we find ourselves trapped in by our lack of language skills.

The same goes for theatre. Of course, subtitled and translated works are very different but at heart they are the same. They allow us to experience art from a source which didn’t use our grammatical structure or vocabulary. This sounds so insignificant and simple, but any exploration into the ways languages affect our culture can demonstrate how intrinsically the way we speak can affect our view of the world.

Plays in translation are not easy to find on London stages, especially in the West End. Of course, we have Chekhov, (Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya and The Seagull all on at major London theatres in the first half of this year) but he is a classic – what about new translated writing? According to Theatre and Translation[1]  3.8% of London’s plays in 2013 were translated works, and given that 41% of Londoners are internationals, that’s hardly a great ratio. This number is on the rise, but it still needs addressing because the demand for translated work just isn’t there.

From the options I listed above, I believe the one that stands out as a reason we just aren’t interested in translated works is purity. The idea that, when watching a play in translation, we are not experiencing the same purity of performance that we would watching a piece originally written in English. David Benedict writes: “there is no such thing as a pure rendering of a play from a foreign language”. To some extent I agree, in that – yes clearly some things have to change because a word-for-word translation often doesn’t make coherent sense. What I don’t understand is why we are measuring against a yardstick of purity in the first place. Why are we so obsessed with purity? In fact, the very process of taking a play from page to stage, of casting, of making decisions, of cutting text, of designing, of choosing costumes, is very similar to the act of translating. The same argument used against translation (because it blurs the decisions of the writer) can easily apply to staging a play. The roles of translators and directors are more similar than you might think.

With every new production, we get different takes on play texts, just look at all the different forms Shakespeare appears in, year after year.. We could very easily argue that any staging of Twelfth Night that has cuts, that has women on stage or that has modern dress is an impure version of Shakespeare. In which case, does that make those productions (this is in fact nearly all productions because hardly any are staged with the original length) not worth seeing?

Which brings me back to translated works – I think the book Theatre & Translation sums this up nicely: no matter how global your language everyone needs to look beyond their own way of conceptualising the world through theatre[2]. Alert - the next time you plan a trip to the theatre, remember that there are some fantastic works in translation out there, but you might need to look for them.

(Photo: - originally by Felix Mooneeram)

1/2 Laera, M. (2019). Theatre & translation. 1st ed. London: Macmillan Education UK, 2019.

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