Translating Theatre: Trial and Error

jamiesmithphoto-1503_1_orig

Originally written for Exeunt.

On my way into rehearsals for Denise Despeyroux’s play Ternura Negra (Black Tenderness) on Thursday morning, I stop by the polling station. It’s the day of the EU referendum and I put a cross in the ‘Remain’ box. By the time of the play’s rehearsed reading the following afternoon, the UK has voted for Brexit and both the nation and the continent are reeling.

In that context, Translating Theatre’s project of intercultural dialogue feels more important than ever. The project, a collaboration between the University of Kent and producers Firehouse Creative Productions, combines research and practice. It aims to explore and extend what Lawrence Venuti has called a “foreignising” approach to translating plays into English – hopefully sparking discussions about the ethics and politics of translation along the way. Why do we choose to translate so little (only 3.2% of the 2013 British theatre repertoire consisted of translations according to the British Theatre Consortium’s survey)? And how do we decide what to translate and how?

“Foreignisation”, according to Venuti, is a translation strategy that resists the transformation of difference into familiarity in the process of moving a text from one cultural context to another. It’s the opposite of “domestication”, a form of translation that is arguably dominant in British theatre culture. There are still plenty of questions and concerns about Venuti’s theory – how do you balance foreignising strategies with the need for clarity? when does foreignisation nudge into the problematic territory of exoticisation? – but the point of Translating Theatre is to investigate these in practice.

At this stage, it’s about trial and error. “We’re trying to find the rules,” says Margherita Laera, lecturer in Drama and Theatre at the University of Kent and project leader. Despeyroux’s play, originally written in Spanish, is the first of three translations that the project is testing out (the other two are from French and Polish). Touching on ideas of truth, reality and fiction, the play injects a strange dose of the paranormal into a narrative about a theatre director and two actors rehearsing a play about Mary Queen of Scots. There’s at once a familiarity and an unfamiliarity to it.

Sitting in rehearsals, I scribble down a sudden thought in my notebook: “making the process of translation legible in performance”. I add a tentative question mark. What does that even mean, I wonder.

In the rehearsal room, Simon Breden’s translation continues to evolve in collaboration with the research team, director Tara Robinson and the three performers. I’m told that the few days of workshopping the play together have involved as much discussion about the aims of the project as they have practical work. On the day I observe rehearsals, there’s more of this uncertain conversation around the edges of the play. It’s a process that’s exploratory rather than decisive.

Still, discussion in the rehearsal room keeps finding its way back to those elusive “rules”. Robinson and the actors worry, for example, about consistency of approach. Is it OK to use a British idiom here but not there? At one point, the creative team go through a scene of the translated text line by line, agonising over word choice and sentence structure. Change the structure of the thought, someone points out, and you also change the character. That raises the question of what it is precisely that’s being translated – especially in a medium that’s transformed again in performance.

Pursuing the theory of foreignisation in theatre, of course, means finding a foreignising performance language as well as a foreignising verbal language. At this stage, given the end point of rehearsed readings, that language is still some way off, but it’s a useful question to have in the room. At the same time, there’s a necessary balance between exploring the parameters of the project and finding pragmatic performance solutions – a balance that perhaps characterises all translations.

To complicate matters, Ternura Negra is a comedy, and humour can be stubbornly resistant to translation. What makes us laugh is more often than not culturally and linguistically specific; even across cultures that speak the same language, comedy can differ vastly. This is one of the biggest problems that Robinson and her team have to grapple with. Despeyroux’s text plays on Spanish stock characters that mean very little to British audiences. How, then, to get the humour to transfer?

Venuti writes about “produc[ing] humorous effects that both imitate those of the foreign text while maintaining their differences for readerships in the receiving culture”. There’s a tension here: recreating humorous effects – in other words, getting laughs – requires some degree of translation into the receiving culture’s comedic conventions. What Venuti is cautioning against, however, is the use of an equivalent that blots out any and all difference. Laera uses the example of the National Theatre’s One Man, Two Guvnors, which she argues straightforwardly traded the Commedia dell’arte style of Carlo Goldoni’s play for a very British brand of slapstick.

In the rehearsal room, Robinson and the actors play around with the oddness of the three characters, which itself generates a fair few giggles. There’s also occasional comedy in the awkwardness of their way of speaking (at least to our ears) – but is it exploitative if that makes an audience laugh? If these characters are seen to be funny because of their difference, then foreignisation is just a hair’s breadth away from reinforcing national stereotypes.

Reflecting on this process and the theory behind it after the rehearsed reading, some of the most fascinating and revealing insights come from Despeyroux. After hearing the creative team talk at length about the oddness of the characters and their speech, she says that they are meant to be odd. What could be taken as an effect of foreignisation is actually an intention of the original Spanish. Despeyroux also recalls an experience with a BBC Radio producer, who pulled a play of hers because of worries that the translation would still be too “foreign” and therefore “difficult” for British listeners. But foreign and difficult are not synonyms, just as strangeness does not equal foreignness.

This presents another tension. Finding a distinctly “British” solution to every problem presented during the process of translation assumes that audiences cannot receive or process difference (though what “British” even means, particularly given recent events, is a whole other discussion). Yet so-called “foreignising” strategies have their own dangers. It’s easy, as Despeyroux identified, to fall into the trap of thinking that anything odd or challenging is therefore “foreign”. It’s also easy, especially in applying Venuti’s theory to performance, to seize on the superficial external signifiers of other cultures in attempting to communicate difference, thus perpetuating divisive national caricatures. No culture – and no theatre culture, for that matter – is homogenous. Even British theatre, which we risk talking about as a rigid monolithic entity in processes like this, is incredibly complex and diverse.

Ultimately, the first phase of this project has triggered a whole series of further questions. How do we avoid erasing difference without simply othering? Is the term foreignisation useful in fostering intercultural dialogue, or does it unhelpfully reinforce what divides us rather than what we have in common? In attempting to converse and collaborate across different cultures, how do we move beyond reductive, surface ideas of what those cultures represent?

None of these are easy or straightforward to answer. But if theatre really is a place where we think about ourselves, our society and our place in the world, then these are questions that have renewed force in a shaken post-referendum landscape. Celebrating what we have in common, without flattening or ignoring difference, has never felt more urgent.

Photo: Jamie Smith.

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