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from the December 2016 issue

The Strangeness of the Theater Translator

William Gregory argues for a greater role for theater translators in theater-making and looks at theater translation’s curious position straddling the fields of drama, creative writing, and modern languages.

I began translating plays in 2002. I was a jobbing actor, euphemistically “resting,” and looking for a way to stay creative and to make use of my languages degree. So I went to the London Instituto Cervantes (the Spanish cultural center), found their library, headed for its tiny theater section, and plucked a title out from the shelf. It was Primavera (Springtime) by Julio Escalada, a Spanish actor, playwright and, today, professor of playwriting at the RESAD, Spain’s royal academy of dramatic art. I liked the feel of the play—a restless farce of interwoven love triangles—and I translated it. Then, since I had a translation, I figured I may as well do something with it, so I contacted Julio and sought his permission to produce the play at the Finborough Theater, an off-West-End above-a-pub venue famed then and now for its commitment to new work.

And produce it I did (with a little help), over a sweltering August weekend when the temperatures in London hit the uncharacteristically high 30s Celsius. It was a joyous, creative time in and of itself, but fortunately for me, it coincided with the Royal Court Theater’s international department just having received a pile of new plays from Cuba—first drafts from the first of many new writing workshops they have since run in that country. They needed a translator, I was in the right place at the right time, and a year or so later my translation of El Concierto (The Concert) by Ulises Rodríguez Febles—in which an old rocker abducts a statue of John Lennon and sets out on an ill-advised campaign to reform the banned Beatles tribute act of his youth—was staged as a rehearsed reading at the Royal Court, published, and even broadcast as a radio drama by the BBC.

Thirteen years later and I’ve had some wonderful breaks on both sides of the Atlantic: my relationship with the Royal Court persists, with my translation of Guillermo Calderón’s astonishing new work, B (yes, just B), opening there in September and, next March, Villa, also by Calderón, opening with the Play Company in Manhattan. I’ve formed academic links in the UK and the US, and I have also made steps into the literary translation world, not least writing here for one of the literary translation community’s most respected journals. I even—and this is a highlight—shook the hand of Pedro Almodóvar after translating Todo sobre mi madre (All about My Mother) for a stage adaptation at London’s Old Vic. (I wasn’t particularly coherent, as I recall.)

Over a hundred plays translated, and it’s been a great journey, but as I look back I am struck by how unusual the journey of the theater translator is. Or rather, I have come to the view that theater translation, unlike any other field of translation that I can think of, is the least well-defined, most misunderstood, and, dare I say, marginal of translation specializations. In three realms—the theater community, the academic community, and the literary translation community—we theater translators are a minority—liked, certainly, but not understood, and always needing to assert ourselves, to redefine ourselves, as we try to ply our craft in spaces in which we are always the mysterious “other.” And as long as we are that other (insofar as that otherness can affect our ability to fully carry out our work) there is a risk that the writers whom we translate may not benefit fully from our translations as well as they might and, furthermore, that a vast wealth of playwriting talent from around the world may go untapped and undiscovered.

Take the theater world (or rather, the Anglophone theater—the experience in theater cultures of other languages is different, as I have learned from colleagues from other countries). A mere two to three percent of theater produced in the United Kingdom is a translation or adaptation of a play from a language other than English. (As pointed out by Josefina Zubáková of Palaký University at Kent University’s recent “Translating Theatre” Conference, this is in contrast to, say, the Czech Republic, where translations make up well over half of the national theater output, with the result that the role of the translator in Czech theater culture is much better established.) What this means is that the translator, perhaps unlike any other person involved in making a play, does not have a clearly defined role in the theater-making process. When a translated play is a once-in-a-blue-moon project for a theater company, the translator becomes an added person whose function is rarely considered in advance. All plays need a writer, actors, a director, a designer, a stage manager, lighting design, and more, and these roles are largely understood by everyone involved, by virtue of familiarity if nothing else. But the translator is an interloper into the world of playmaking. As a result, he/she is all too often neglected, misunderstood, or, at worst, mistrusted.

The cruelest assumption made by some other theater makers is that a translator knows nothing about theater. This assumption is best expressed in the practice of commissioning so-called “literal translations,” whereby a translator translates a play only for this translation to be given to an often-monolingual playwright to be reworked into a text deemed suitable for the stage. This method is well established and has been much discussed and decried in translation circles, critiqued especially for its alleged focus on the market under the pretext of “speakability.” (For more on this, see Eva Espasa’s article “Performability in Translation” in Moving Target, ed. Carole-Anne Upton, St Jerome Publishing, 2000.) But pretext or no, the assumption remains: that translators are first and foremost technicians, amateurs of theater whose role in the theater-making process should be, and can only be, limited.

I choose not to accept “literal” translation gigs (apart from the Almodóvar, which was worth it for the handshake), but the attitude that gives rise to the literal translation method can persist even in arenas where I am the only translator and it is my translation that is to be performed. I’ve been accused of using “translatorese” when a translation choice I have made is not quite successful; told not to worry about any moments where my translation works less well because “the actors and the director will sort it out”; told that the combination of one actor’s actorly instinct and the fact that he had a Spanish neighbor were a formula powerful enough to trump my, by then, several years of experience and to give him the right to rewrite my work. It is only as the years have gone by and my confidence has grown that I have felt able to assert my role in the creative process and to defend my right, not to have my translations uncorrected or unchanged, but rather to take an active role in making these edits within the same collaborative context that all other theater-makers enjoy, in defense not only of my own work, but also of the playwright’s. It is telling, too, how often the attitude toward me has changed when colleagues have learned that I am a trained actor. Suddenly, I am one of them. Not such an outsider after all.

But maybe if they had asked in the first place? If they had thought about it in advance? Not only might the translator be spared some damage to the ego (and I admit I have one), but the project might have benefited in so many ways. Because translators are not just technicians. We are creative artists, highly sensitive to linguistic nuance, and no less sensitive to this when tacking a text intended for the stage. Furthermore, we are a wealth of information and experience. Trained actor or no, the translator in the theater context is also an interpreter. We stand not only between two texts but between two cultures. We can help not only with the words but with the dramaturgical life of the play. When a Chinese or Czech play is being staged in the UK, who is best placed to spot the differences between the source and target cultures? Who can see them both at the same time and see when further explanation is needed? In all likelihood, the one person who has spent the most time living with both cultures simultaneously. In all likelihood, the translator. So, theaters, bring us onside. Get us involved. We don’t bite.

So much for the realm of theater. I mentioned that theater translation is the “other” in all of its realms and the next to consider is academia. Sometimes mistrusted by the theater community, the university sector is nevertheless a space where theater translation has been progressively gaining traction as a discipline. I stumbled upon this space somewhere along the road as a practicing theater translator making it up as I went along: I found a couple of books on theater translation, all of them published by academic presses; I attended a couple of theater translation conferences, and through a chain of events, I was invited by London’s City University to give a lecture on the subject of theater translation as part of their extensive translation studies program.

In recent years, I have collaborated with University College London’s Theater Translation Forum, and with Out of the Wings, a project at King’s College London comprising a database of Ibero-American theater in translation and a collective of theater-makers focusing on Hispanic and Lusophone theater, its translation, and its production and distribution in the form of staged readings. Theater translation is the subject of the above-mentioned research at the University of Kent, and in the US, specialist theater translation projects include The Mercurian, and Estreno Plays (edited out of PACE University).

Within this realm there is great expertise and enthusiasm, but real challenges persist. Firstly, theater translation seems to have struggled to establish itself as a discipline, not least because it has no single field in which to sit exclusively. With one foot in translation studies or modern languages, and another in drama and theater arts or creative writing, it is rarely embraced wholesale within either. Within modern languages, translation itself, let alone the translation of theater, has struggled to achieve acceptance as legitimate research, while in drama and theater studies (never mind in vocational drama schools), theater translation would be all but ignored were it not for the persistent efforts of a handful of passionate specialists. The result can be an isolating experience. Giving the keynote paper at the abovementioned Translating Theater Conference, Sirkku Aaltonen of Vaasa University described, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, her delight at finally meeting other academics with an interest in theater translation: “I thought I was the only one (!)”

The second and, for me, more pressing problem, however, is the failure of the academic sector to reach out to the theater world. This is a perhaps provocative choice of words to describe a phenomenon that could be, and has been, just as easily laid at the door of theater producers and literary managers who do not engage with the theater translation work of the university community for fear of being faced with stuffy, overly intellectual, untheatrical approaches. But having shared and felt the initial catharsis of those academic forums where we have lamented the absence of theater makers in the academic spaces where we discuss the translation of plays, I have come to the conclusion that a change in attitude from our theater-making colleagues must be actively encouraged, not just awaited, and that as translators we of all people must see that the way to do this is by learning the target culture’s language. In the UK at least, one historic barrier to enticing theater producers into academic theater translation events has been the simple fact that they more often than not take place within university campuses. Colleagues from outside the academic sector stay away simply because they do not believe that an event in such a setting can genuinely be a theatrical one. This belief may not be justified, but there is a simple solution: move these events into theater spaces (and into the theater timetable: nine a.m. won’t cut it!). If the academic rigor of an event rests on its content (not just the presentation of plays but also seminars, papers and roundtables), the theatrical worth of that same event will often be judged, like it or not, based on where it takes place.

The other challenge to this is the perception from the theater community that translations produced within the academic context are themselves “dry” and untheatrical, written in dusty libraries rather than vibrant rehearsal rooms. It is true that a translation carried out for research or academic publication purposes may have a different quality than one intended for production. If this is intentional, then the translator must accept that his/her translation cannot be used for both purposes; if it is not, then translators themselves need to get better at translating for the theater. For this to happen, there must be a safe space for translators to train. (Not all translators happen to also have studied acting.) There are courses aplenty for other kinds of translation, be it commercial, literary, audiovisual, legal, or otherwise, but theater translation courses in the Anglosphere—even short courses—are virtually nonexistent. How can we improve if there is no place to hone our skills?

And so, to the third and last “realm” in which theater translation takes place and where it is no less a much-beloved but misunderstood cousin: literary translation. I first stumbled into this scene thanks to a translation colleague, who translates novels but is, like me, an actor by training. Some years ago she introduced me to the Emerging Translators Network (ETN), and thence I met a community of passionate, generous, collegial literary translators, all pushing to promote international literature through events, conferences, journals like this one, organizations like PEN and the Free Word Centre, and of course dealing with publishers large and small.

We all have translation and modern languages in common, which is enough to sustain an entertaining conversation over a communal dinner or a few pints, and I am grateful indeed for having met this company of like-minded peers. Translation can be a solitary career and it is great to have networks like this where we can support each other’s work. But having translated only one novel (Vanessa Montfort’s Mitología de Nueva York [Myths of New York]), I am, as a theater translator, in a minority in this realm, too. As a discipline, is the translation of theater a literary pursuit or performing arts? 

Of course it is both, and this volume of Words without Borders is proof, if proof were needed, that the international literature and translation communities are keen to embrace theater as part of the family. Fellow journals such as Asymptote are no less open to the inclusion of drama in their pages. And for two years running, the Free Word Centre has included theater translation in its lineup for International Translation Day at the British Library. And yet, there is still untapped potential: the potential to take these translations off the page and to release their unique power.

The literary translation calendar is buzzing with events throughout the year on both sides of the Atlantic. Book launches, readings, writers in conversation, symposia and panels on freedom of expression, multilingualism, specific languages and communities. There is space, surely, for translated theater to takes its place within this calendar. For a sector already skilled at organizing events that host an audience, pulling together a play-reading is not a great leap; indeed, there is a precedent for such events, albeit a limited one, in the online archives of English PEN, in the context of promoting freedom of speech and the resistance of censorship. With technology as it is now, these live events can easily be shared globally, in the moment or for posterity on sites like this one.

And there is power in this. Theater texts reach their full potential only when voiced and embodied. When this happens, the effects can be visceral. English PEN remarks that theater has a unique and sometimes provocative power: “What is it about theater that brings out protestors? People don’t protest outside bookstores,” says one PEN resource aimed at students. Furthermore, there is the potential for a greater audience, attracting theater aficionados into the space of the literary translator.

It is great to see that three of the texts presented in this volume will be taken a step further and presented by a cast of actors. I would be delighted to see more of this, and for translated theater to take its place in the realm of activism, perhaps with sharing of readings under a theme: LGBT plays from around the world, theater addressing racism and xenophobia, new writing from a given country or continent. Who better to source and present these texts, and to harness their power, than a global community with an a priori passion for cultural exchange and a fascination in the transfer of art from one language to another? There is so much out there, just waiting to be uncovered. And if this seems a step too far, fear not: just ask a theater translator to lend a hand.

So much for my theory of the three realms and the otherness of the theater translator. Now for the manifesto.

Theaters, embrace your translators! Start thinking early on about how you can use us, what added value we might offer; keep an open mind about what additional skills and experiences we have. And most of all, allow us the space to be theater practitioners in our own right, no less imperfect than anyone else making a play, but with just as much right to learn, to have a say in our own process, and to collaborate and opine.

Universities, keep reaching out! If engagement with the theater community is a priority, then work even harder to make events that our theater-making colleagues will be inclined to attend. Take work into theater spaces, learn the language of the theater market, and be self-critical and honest when looking for the reasons behind what can be a frustrating absence in our midst.

And to the literary translation world, take it further! It’s wonderful for a theater translator to find a home in a community of translators from other disciplines; it would be even more so for the translations created in this context to have a space to be spoken, embodied, and staged, releasing their potential not just as individual texts but also as a vehicle for the creation of new audiences. 

There are initiatives out there. From within academia, Out of the Wings is planning its second week of readings for 2017 and intends to take these into a theater space. From the international literature, translation, and activism world, PEN America’s World Voices International Play Festival has been showcasing international playwriting annually for several years. And in the theater realm, [Foreign Affairs], the London-based international theater company, ran its first-ever theater translation program in 2016 (more on this from Paul Russell Garrett in this issue), while the Royal Court Theater, long a champion of the translator in theater and a rejecter of the “literal translation” method, continues to involve the translator in its new-play development processes in an ever-evolving way. In the US, a new website dedicated to theatre in translation, TinT, has just been launched, and in times of international uncertainty there seems to be a growing interest in the theater community on both sides of the Atlantic to seek out voices from languages other than our own.

Indeed, it was at the Royal Court where I was once put in the position I have argued for here, only perhaps to regret it. In rehearsals for a play reading, with a few short hours to go before the performance, a query arose about a particularly tricky piece of text. I was asked for a solution. I pondered out loud, wavering as the various options drifted through my mind. But the pressure was on.

“You’re the translator,” snapped the director, “make a decision!” 

So (note to self), be careful what you wish for. If you want to be center stage, be prepared to be put under the spotlight.


© 2016 by William Gregory. All rights reserved.

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