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from the December 2016 issue

Translating for Theater

Paul Russell Garrett reflects on breaking into theater translation, mistrust between theater makers and theater translators, and “collective dramaturgy.”

Recently I found myself in a quandary when asked to identify myself as either a translator or a theater maker. Under normal circumstances, I would consider myself a translator, but surrounded as I was by actors, directors, and producers, about to participate in an “actory” workshop involving movement and rhythm among other things, I made a conscious, perhaps deliberate choice to call myself a theater maker.

At times I forget how fortunate I have been as a translator, but when I hear from colleagues working from French, German, and Spanish, for example, of how they struggle to make a living, to break into the world of translated literature, I am reminded of how difficult a career in translation is. The impetus for my career can be traced back to a number of years ago, when I made the wise decision (though everyone told me I was mad at the time) to pursue Scandinavian studies at University College London. The program had a wide remit, providing me with the linguistic, cultural, and research skills that now enable me to translate from Danish and Norwegian, and to a lesser extent Swedish. I was fortunate enough to complete my studies and break into translation at a time when the question of when Nordic noir would reach its peak had still gone unanswered. (The fallout from that crime spree has created a space for other genres of translated fiction to be published in the English-speaking world.) My first translation of fiction happened to be a play and, on many levels, fortune was again involved, including the fact that my wife is an actor, and one who has cofounded a theater company at that. Through my collaborations with her company, [Foreign Affairs] has staged a handful of my translations in London over the past few years. The most important aspect of this collaboration, however, is that I have had the privilege of working side-by-side with an ensemble of actors, directors, and producers, also enabling me to establish a number of contacts in the theater world that many outside this environment would struggle with. In both respects, I continually remind myself of how fortunate I am, and this has ignited a desire to share my experiences in forging such relationships, resulting in a translation program entitled [Foreign Affairs] Translates! I’ll do my best to keep this from sounding like a blatant plug for the company, but in these nascent stages of the program, and during an event we ran at the British Library for International Translation Day 2016, people keep reminding me of the fact that what we are undertaking is a unique opportunity for translators with a passion for theater.

On the surface, the aim of the program is to equip translators with the tools that will allow them to translate for the stage, examining topics specific to this craft. (Are there noticeable differences from literary, commercial, or academic translation?) We have invited our translators to consider topics such as speakability, tone and register, and the importance of maintaining integrity to the original, all vital to any translation. We are offering our translators a master class on how to (or attempt to) eke out a living from translating theater. However, something that has only recently become clear is that we are also providing our translators with an opportunity to work closely with a theater company in a way that is apparently quite rare. In our experience, there appear to be considerable barriers between the worlds of theater and translation. And we would like to break them down. The two worlds are often wary of one another, skeptical of their unfamiliar or mysterious practices. We want to change that, by seeing them work side by side, by seeing translators develop into dramatists—theater practitioners possessing an understanding of how a theater company lives and breathes, dissolving the mystery between the two fields. We want them to see that actors are not mindless, arrogant, fantastical creatures; they are sensitive, thoughtful, and ingenious. Just as translators are not (all) academics, bookworms, or mere bureaucrats; they are creative, confident, and aspiring individuals.

Our latest workshop saw a group of translators being asked to participate in movement, rhythm, and text-based sessions with a group of actors and other theater practitioners. Outwardly the translators were the least confident of the group, with something resembling panic appearing in the eyes of some when instructed to move around the theater space to the sound of music, to close their eyes as they were guided in a blind free dance. When asked to repeat a complex rhythm exercise, which included making a range of noises with the mouth, stamping the feet, and clapping the cheeks, hands, chests, and thighs at an increasingly frenetic pace, we (I include myself in this group) were often the clumsiest, the least capable in the room. But the translators certainly were enthusiastic, embracing what could potentially be a new tool in their repertoire, and I saw the entire group trying to imagine ways of incorporating these exercises into their translation practice, a potential means of visualizing, creating, finding words, and capturing the subtle rhythms of a text.

It was equally interesting to see the response of a group of actors when asked to join our translators’ workshop, asked to read the latest drafts of the translations being worked on for our showcase, and asked to offer their insight. William Gregory, one of our translation mentors, dubbed this process “collective dramaturgy.” Following the readings, I was prepared to hear of the problems, the errors, the incongruities, but I only heard positive comments—about the creativity of the texts, the wonderful peculiarities and playfulness present in the translations.

You might wonder at the point of my ramblings, my shock and surprise at seeing theater practitioners and translators working side by side. The fact is that it works, that it is effective, that it brings out the best of both worlds, and that there should be nothing unusual about this process. Instead I believe this kind of collaboration should be the norm; of all translators, theater translators should not be locked away in a room translating for days on end without seeing another living soul (although this is inevitably part of a translator’s daily routine), but I believe they should be invited to participate, to investigate, to collaborate with theaters, working alongside theater practitioners and actors. How do we go about achieving this? As program director for the [Foreign Affairs] theater translation initiative, I know that what we are doing is merely one small step in the right direction. This year we have taken on three translators, working from Swedish, Serbo-Croat, and Hungarian, offering them a unique opportunity to make the most of this relationship. It would be amazing to see more theater companies joining us in this endeavor, introducing translators to their company, not as mere contractors performing a required task, but as theater practitioners, working with, creating, and breathing life into theater.

I recall a conversation with one of Denmark’s most prolific modern playwrights, Jakob Weis, where he mentioned that when writing his plays, he has often already decided which actors will perform the various roles, and fortunately he has the clout to make that happen. In this vein, I would like to see translators—the people who know the text better than anyone, except perhaps the author—become an essential part of the production process, to see the translator’s role envisaged from the moment a director or producer decides to stage a play in translation. Perhaps the translator may not have the kind of sway that will see them selecting their own actors, but certainly bringing actors in to work with translators during the preliminary stages of a production will allow translators to hear, develop, and organize the voices in their head during the translation process. Two things are required for this to happen: translators need to be able to access theater companies and theater companies need to know how to find translators. A theater producer, one who has produced a number of translated plays, recently admitted to having no idea how to find a translator for their play. In recent years, translators have been much better at promoting themselves, at insisting on recognition for their work, and at cultivating translator networks to further the cause of translators. It would be great to see a joint collaboration between theater translators and theater companies working with translation, establishing a network that allows theater companies and translators to connect, perhaps even one that tries to develop the craft of translators and theater companies, organizing events, workshops, readings, and collaborations. Were this to happen, having translators, actors, directors, and producers working side by side would not be a terrifying and unusual experience, it would simply be a normal everyday working relationship, resulting in quality productions of translated theater that are faithful to the original writing and culture, but that also embrace their new culture, and allow audiences to be exposed to something simultaneously foreign and familiar.

Afterword: As a translator based in the UK and following the ongoing political and cultural ramifications surrounding the B-word, I feel that I must make another conscious choice in emphasizing the “foreign” in [Foreign Affairs]. I cannot stress enough the importance of even closer collaboration with theater practitioners in Europe and beyond, of breaking out of our comfort zones and embracing practices, languages, and cultures that may seem very distant from our own. Translating, for the stage in particular, is not merely moving words from one language to the other, it is also vital to translate culture, to carry it across, where possible, and if not, to find ways of making it relevant in its new language, on its new stage, to supply it with context and an understanding of the culture that it originated in. In theory, breaking down barriers between languages and cultures should be no more awkward than putting a group of actors and translators in the same room—it may be difficult at first, but the more we grow familiar with one another, the more the mystery between us is broken down, the more normalized the practice becomes. For me, translating theater is inherently different from translating a novel. In a novel, I might enjoy the story, the characters, the plot, but in a play that is being performed to a live audience, I believe there is an opportunity to do something else, something more powerful, to carry across ideas that are different from our own, not to educate or dictate, but to expand our horizons, to embrace the “differentness” that it is to be human. Now is the time to embrace this, now is the time to stand up and make this message heard!


© 2016 by Paul Russell Garrett. All rights reserved.




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