Translating Theatre Productions
Language Transfer on Stage

“Les Particules élémentaires” by Julien Gosselin at Foreign Affairs/Berlin 2014
“Les Particules élémentaires” by Julien Gosselin at Foreign Affairs/Berlin 2014 | Photo (detail): © Foreign Affairs

Productions on tours abroad: they can be surtitled, simultaneously translated or explained with the help of synopses. The right form is determined by the production itself.

Thomas Ostermeier, intendant of Berlin Schaubühne, is a star in France; his productions are shown throughout the country and are sold out there, like those of the Swiss theatre vagabond Christoph Marthaler. They are transferred into the other culture, also at the level of language. They can be surtitled, simultaneously translated or explained with the help of synopses. The right form depends upon several theatrical factors: the stage design, whether the work is improvised, whether it is a classical drama anchored in the cultural memory of the target audience, whether there a great deal of dialogue or more a visual piece.

Theatre must always build emotional bridges in the moment of experience, says Roberto Ciulli; and for him the linguistic transfer must always be a sensuous bridge. If he invites a play from another culture to his Theater an der Ruhr in Mülheim, he comes before the audience and tells them what the play is about, what cultural peculiarities they should know about and encourages them to find pleasure in not understanding.

The French director Ariane Mnouchkine thinks the audience should not be denied understanding, for then they are also being denied the emotional experience. Her approach in the Théâtre du Soleil is rather to integrate the translation into the art work. She says: “Surtitles are part of the beauty, a profound element of distance, of poetry. A new meaning is introduced, a different vision, the dimension of reading”.

Where are the surtitles?

In 1969 the American linguist and theorist of translation Eugene Nida said translation is like packing the same clothes in different suitcases: you needed only to make sure you adapted the manner of packing, for the important thing is that the clothes arrive at the destination safely. When Thomas Ostermeier’s productions, in which there is hardly any improvisation, take to the road, they can be surtitled in French, rhythmically adapted and then displayed on the spot by an experienced technician. Thus every joke, every dialogue or monologue, is transferred piece by piece. This works even with such language-heavy productions as Hamlet. Since 2008, the Schaubühne’s Hamlet has gone on 26 tours abroad.

Simultaneous translation

A production can also be simultaneously translated. At the Festival of New Plays from Europe in Wiesbaden, simultaneous translation is the means of choice. Since all plays there are being premiered, it is desirable to lose as little text as possible. Surtitling sometimes shortens a text up to fifty per cent in order to facilitate a good reception; in simultaneous translation the shortening is considerably less. Simultaneous translation is controversial for many theatre makers. It introduces a further voice, and the voice of the translator is often unsuitable, which can develop into a real ordeal. The technology required for simultaneous translation is also significantly more expensive than surtitling software. And in plays with large volumes of text, the audience has to do a great deal of reading. The actress Bettina Stucky knows what this means: “It’s as when you tell a joke and no one laughs; then you try it again and notice that they’re all reading”. Ariane Mnouchkine admits that simultaneous translation can be very difficult, but observes that it can also be very authentic. Of a translator who rendered one of her productions into English in New York, she says: “He was great. He did it with so much poetry, bearing and emotion. He didn’t act it out; he listened to the performance of the actors and accompanied it”.

The poetry of sign language

Auch das The translation of a play into sign language can also unfold a marvellous poetry. When the actress Katharina Thalbach was told that two sign language interpreters would be on stage with her in a production at the Hans Otto Theater in Potsdam, she was sceptical. But then she noticed the poetic effect of the presence of a second language on stage, which not only enabled the deaf to understand the play but was also an aesthetic gain for everyone, and she began to incorporate it.

Alternative: synopses?

The use of synopses has established itself in the independent scene, which lacks the money to afford other forms of language transfer. It is, however, underestimated as a bridge to understanding. Sometimes nothing more is needed than a summary translation of one or two pages, sometimes of only an important song, a central monologue or an important passage. The audience can then decide itself when and whether it takes in the information. With surtitles, it is difficult for most spectators not to read them or not to make translation comparisons. A production, however, should be about the emotional enjoyment of a total work of art. Important here is the transparency of the translation. The purpose of the synopsis should be explained to the audience; they should be reassured: Relax! You don’t have to understand everything right away. You won’t be missing anything, and you can look it up again if necessary.

The art of a good economical translation in the theatre lies in the balance between pragmatism and literary translation. Surtitles are not dramatic translations, whose text is intended to be spoken. They are rather about making the language spoken on the stage available for rapid reading in translation. At the same time, the author’s style should not get the short end of the stick. In addition, the aesthetics of the cultural transfer is important. For, as Ariane Mnouchkine says: “One thing I really don’t want is that the audience turns its eyes away from the production to wander over the stage design! Beautiful lettering or sentences in my production, on the contrary, doesn’t bother me at all!”