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Foreign Affairs: Theater Translation in the Age of Zoom

By Trine Garrett

On January 20 and 21, the UK-based theater company Foreign Affairs will present a digital showcase of six plays translated by its first-ever virtual cohort of theater translation mentees. In today's essay, Foreign Affairs Co-Artistic Director Trine Garrett reflects on how the mentorship program has evolved since its launch in 2016 and what theater translation looks like in the age of COVID-19.

Rehearsals are just wrapping up for Foreign Affairs' upcoming Theatre Translation Showcase, which this year is taking place on Zoom, a platform I had never heard of before March 2020. The showcase will be the culmination of the fourth—and first-ever digital—edition of the Foreign Affairs Theatre Translator Mentorship, a part-time workshop program for translators aspiring to translate for the stage. On January 20 and 21, we’ll present plays from Belgium, Brazil, Germany, Latvia, Spain, and Syria, translated by our mentees.

This year’s rehearsals are for obvious reasons very different from those of previous years, as they’re conducted entirely on Zoom, which is simultaneously a frustrating and joyous experience. Frustrating because no matter how optimistic and positive everyone is, I can’t help but miss being in the room with actors and creatives, working side by side to make theater. Joyous because despite everything, Zoom has opened up opportunities that I couldn’t have imagined just a year ago. Opportunities that reinforce my belief in the power of theater to gather and inspire people, which seems much needed in a world that continues to be turned upside down.

As I press the “End Meeting for All” button and close my laptop, I look out across the trees and rooftops of Hackney Wick in east London, and my mind drifts back to 2010, when all of this started.

I often hear translators talk about falling into translation unintentionally, mentioning less-than-useful university degrees, being in the right place at the right time, or a tempestuous love affair that inspired them to learn a new language. Maybe all roads don’t lead to Rome, but rather to translation? In many ways, my path was similarly unintentional (despite the name of the company I cofounded, which does lend itself nicely to a theater company specializing in translation). When Camila França and I conceived of Foreign Affairs in the summer of 2010, translation wasn’t our focus at all. So how did we end up not only developing and producing theater in translation, but also initiating a mentorship program for emerging theater translators?

Looking back on our translation journey, which to date includes no less than thirty new translations and seven UK and world premieres, three specific events come to mind. The first occurred on a walk through the streets of Copenhagen with my husband (affairs of all sorts have a role in this tale) in 2010, when we more or less stumbled across a play by Benny Andersen (a Danish poet, author, songwriter, composer, and pianist, though not the one from ABBA). The play caught our attention and serendipitously kick-started both our journeys into the world of translation—mine as a theater maker, and my husband’s as a translator. The Contract Killer or Lejemorderen, as the play was originally called, was shortly thereafter translated by my husband, staged by Foreign Affairs, and published by Norvik Press (2012)—a process that would become the blueprint for our mentorship program.

“We were afraid of what we might lose, but instead we’re thrilled with what we've gained.”

Shortly after The Contract Killer’s first staging, the second event took place. On the back of a 2011 production of Hands Around (Reigen) by Austrian playwright Arthur Schnitzler (no translator is credited in the publication!), we were invited to work on another Schnitzler play, Professor Bernhardi, as part of the Schnitzler Digital Edition Project, a cooperative research project between German and British academic institutions. In close collaboration with Dr. Annja Neumann (University of Cambridge) and Dr. Judith Beniston (University College London), with Beniston also serving as translator, we adapted the mammoth five-act play into an abridged version, incorporating archival material from the playwright’s personal correspondence and notes. This experience solidified a collaborative approach that places the translator at the heart of our creative processes.

The third event happened in 2013, when Foreign Affairs was invited to present an extract of a play called Helmer Hardcore—A Doll’s House 2 by Danish playwright Jakob Weis as part of the final event for that year’s BCLT Emerging Translator Mentorship. (Full disclosure: the Danish mentee and translator of the extract is my aforementioned husband.) These intimate insights into the mentorship process and its benefits inspired us to reflect on how we could incorporate mentorship into our own work.

With these three experiences in mind, fueled by a desire to fill a gap in how theater in translation is developed and produced in the UK and the wider anglophone context, we set up our Theatre Translator Mentorship in 2016.

During the second year of the program, our company photographer at the time, Luca Migliore, captured an image of one of the practical workshops that shows participants, mentors, and company members leaping into the air as part of a physical exploration of the plays. The image has since been shared on our website and social media channels, and as a result, I have on more than one occasion been asked something along the lines of: “So, you make translators do crazy things, is that it?” And the answer is: We don’t make anyone do anything. We provide a space that, among other things, offers translators an opportunity to look at—and experience—plays from the point of view of actors and theater makers.

A Foreign Affairs theater translation workshop in 2017. Photo © Luca Migliore.

Rooted in a collaborative and multicultural approach, driven by a pedagogy inspired by “communities of practice” and by Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory, the core aim of the program is to facilitate a space where emerging theater translators can discover, explore, and develop tools, skills, and approaches to translating for the stage. Approaches that move away from the idea of translation, especially theater translation, as a solitary endeavor; that reject the practice of “literal translation” often used in anglophone contexts; and that encourage the translator to become part of the creative team, contributing to and enriching the theater-making process. So in many ways, the previously mentioned image captures a moment of collaboration and uncensored creativity in a space where everyone felt free enough to attempt the impossible: flying.

The mentorship program is open to students of translation and literary translators (emerging and established) working into English. Past and current participants have included postgraduate and PhD students, translators (commercial and literary) with no or little experience in translating for the stage, and theater practitioners with some translation experience. As a result, each cohort brings a diverse set of experiences to the program, offering plentiful opportunities for peer learning.

Since launching the program in 2016, we’ve mentored fifteen translators (including the current cohort), most of whom have gone on to work in the industry and have collaborated with established UK theaters such as the Royal Court Theatre, New Earth Theatre (previously Yellow Earth Theatre) and Theatre 503, as well as further afield in Chicago (Theatre Y) and Tokyo (Nissay Theatre).

Foreign Affairs has also produced a play from the inaugural edition of the program (The Unburied. The Saint of Darkness by András Visky, translated from Hungarian by Jozefina Komporaly) and staged a rehearsed reading of another (Unterstadt—Story of an Osijek Family, based on a novel by Ivana Šojat and translated from Croatian by Valentina Marconi). Prior to the pandemic, we were in preproduction for a third (Where I Call Home by Marc-Antoine Cyr, translated from French by Charis Ainslie), which we hope to be able to produce later this year (fingers crossed).

And not only that—our mentoring program has also served as a catalyst for a series of activities and initiatives that seek to contribute to the development of theater in translation in the UK and beyond, including presentations, talks, and workshops at the British Library, SOAS, ALTA, and BCLT, as well as academic partnerships with some of the top universities in the UK. And, most recently, we’ve launched our Theatre Translator Lab, a sort of sequel to the mentorship, though you don’t need to have caught the first installment.

“We are more committed than ever to bringing world drama to English-speaking audiences.”

Working on these plays from around the world has expanded our company practice dramatically as we have traveled (literally and figuratively) far and wide. Both as individual artists and as a company, we have grown through each of these encounters, and the experiences have made our world bigger. The magic of theater and translation combined, I believe.

A train rumbles past the other window, reminding me that my break is over and another rehearsal is about to begin. I open my laptop, click on the now-familiar blue icon, and wait for the Zoom window to appear on my screen.

When we made the leap to run this year's program virtually, we were afraid of what we might lose, but instead we’re thrilled with what we've gained. A bit like translation? It has allowed us to welcome participants and practitioners from outside the UK (from the Netherlands, Germany, and the US), making the program more international than we could ever have imagined. By embracing the possibilities of Zoom, we have actually been able to strengthen the sense of community among participants, mentors, and the company by offering additional workshops and catch-up sessions that would otherwise have been impossible. In many ways, this sense of community across borders has been the most unexpected gain of the digital format, and it has enriched the collaborative nature of the mentorship and of our theater-making practice.

Looking back on the four years that have passed since we launched the first edition of the mentorship (on the eve of the Brexit vote, to be exact), I think that, more than anything, the program has been an act of rebellion. A rebellion against the status quo in an industry where very little theater in translation is produced and where few foreign voices are heard. But also a rebellion against the times we live in, with far-right nationalism on the rise and nations closing in on themselves. As a theater company, we are more committed than ever to bringing world drama to English-speaking audiences, opening people up to new voices and viewpoints, and championing theater as a space to foster understanding, mutual respect, and a sense of solidarity across borders.

As I click the “Start” button and wait for everyone to join, for a brief moment I gaze at my own tired eyes in the Zoom window and wonder whether this will continue to be part of our lives “when all of this is over.” Then my screen fills with squares of happy faces, once again ready to make theater in the land of Zoom.

Learn more about Foreign Affairs' virtual theater translation showcase on January 20 and 21 and get free tickets here.

Related Reading:

Translating for Theater

The Emerging Translator Valley of Death

Against the "Good" Translation: The Power of Disobedience

Published Jan 19, 2021   Copyright 2021 Trine Garrett

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