RELAY RACE: Reflections on the Workshop
Contemporary German-Language Drama in South Asian Languages

Barbara Christ
© Barbara walzer

By Barbara Christ

In the last week of January 2021, twenty-four translators from all over India and Sri Lanka gathered online to discuss contemporary German-language drama and to fine-tune their translations. This workshop is part of a large-scale project called " Contemporary German-language drama in South Asian languages " an initiative launched by the Goethe-Institut Mumbai. For the first four days, I moderate our conversations about a dozen very different plays by twelve contemporary writers. That will be followed by two days during which Roland Schimmelpfennig works with the participants on their translations of his plays.

After this week of intensive textual work, the completed translations will be proposed to Indian directors and presented to the public in staged readings – and later, where possible, in full productions.

Preparations have been under way for a whole year. Plays needed to be selected and read, and participants and mentors invited, before the translators‘ work could begin in late summer 2020. Now, half a year later, their translations are almost completed.

Like so many events all around the world in 2020, we had to adjust our plans to accommodate the global pandemic. We had originally expected all the participants to get together for the workshop in Mumbai in November 2020. When it became clear that wouldn’t be possible, we announced a postponement to January – until finally we realized we could not pursue having the workshop take place in person and had to switch to the virtual format.

There is of course no substitute for meeting in person and having face-to-face conversations. But experience – in this workshop and other such projects – has demonstrated that exchanging ideas digitally is possible and meaningful. And at the moment it is perhaps more important than ever.

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A theatre festival that takes place annually in Mülheim an der Ruhr is perhaps the most important festival for contemporary German-language drama: „Stücke – Mülheimer Theatertage“ („Plays – Mülheim Theatre Days“). While invited productions are the centrepiece, the festival also features a wide variety of supporting events. A committee selects seven or eight new German-language plays from among those premiered during that season. The „strongest“ productions – as the festival puts it – of those plays are then staged in Mülheim, and compete for the Dramatikpreis, worth €15,000. Similarly, the KinderStückePreis is awarded to one of five plays, also chosen by a committee, for children aged 6 and 10.

The supplementary programming at each year’s "Stücke" festival includes – just to mention this in passing – the "International Translation Workshop" organized by the ITI Germany in cooperation with the festival and with the support of the Goethe-"Institut. Translators from all over the world gather for ten days to gain insights into the latest developments in contemporary drama and to learn about trends in directing and about structural changes in the theatrical landscape.

The list of plays proposed for our workshop drew extensively – though not exclusively – on contemporary drama presented in Mülheim over the past several years. From those scripts, the translators chose (in addition to eight plays by Roland Schimmelpfennig) the following for young people: Der Löwe, der nicht bis drei zählen konnte by Martin Baltscheid, Dickhäuter by Tina Müller, Ich lieb dich by Kristo Šagor, and Wie man die Zeit vertreibt by Simon Windisch and Ensemble. The list of plays for adults comprised Und dann kam Mirna by Sibylle Berg, Es wird einmal by Martin Heckmanns, Die Schutzbefohlenen by Elfriede Jelinek, atlas by Thomas Köck, Mädchen in Not by Anne Lepper, Versetzung by Thomas Melle, die unverheiratete by Ewald Palmetshofer, and Zweite allgemeine Verunsicherung by Felicia Zeller.

Some of these plays were translated by just one person, others by several; altogether they were translated into six languages: Bangla, Hindi, Marathi, Sinhalese, Tamil, and Urdu. What diversity – and what a lot of material for four days!

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Many people think of drama as one of several literary genres alongside fiction or poetry. But what does it mean to translate for the stage, for the spoken word? That above all is what we want to get to grips with.

We begin with the plays for young people and turn our attention first to the question of what stories are being told, and how. It’s astonishing how many different forms the unfolding of a dramatic action can take: straightforwardly linear or with complicated shifts in time, concentrated or circuitous. And how much variety there is in how language is used – from expletives via casual everyday slang to the finest lyrical images. All of this needs to be transposed into the target language.

Then we explore the scripts in detail. Vocabulary and comprehension questions are addressed. What exactly is the difference between „Ich lieb dich“ and „Ich liebe dich“? How is one to understand „Stoßdämpferschicht“? Or „Kotzeritis“? And above all: should one translate all that into the different cultural context? And if so, how? What image could work in India to replace that of a Munich pretzel? While we’re unable to resolve these questions in the limited amount of time available for discussion, we can together at least pose them as precisely as possible. And that’s „half the battle.“
Little by little, questions relating to theatrical practice also come up. What might explain why cast sizes in the plays for young people are often so small? And how can three actors possibly depict a whole school class? How does one show that the characters are lions?

It helps that so much visual material is accessible online, and we exchange ideas about how best to find it. Considering the plays‘ production history obviously comes into it too. Who directed the premiere and at which theatre? Was the play subsequently produced by other theatres, and if so where? Can reviews, photos, and video trailers help us get a sense of how the director read, understood, and staged the play? What does the set look like, and what about the costume design?

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On the third and fourth days our schedule is positively athletic: we aim to discuss eight plays for adults by eight authors. At the start of the seminar I put forward some ideas about how that writer and play might be contextualized in relation to contemporary theatre. Then when we dicuss the plays, we take on questions that strike us as important. If we’re dealing with a script that consists not of dialogue, but simply of text, or of a monologue – do we proceed differently in translating? And if so, how? Some playwrights choose to dispense, in part or entirely, with punctuation – where does that come from? Should we in translating help readers to comprehend the play? Are we even translating for readers? How do we ensure that our translation is usable, that it will be a text others can work with effectively on stage? Are there ways to explain for theatre practitioners details or decisions that might not reveal themselves in the script? Are there useful techniques for analyzing and emulating the rhythm of spoken language? How do I find the appropriate register in my target language? The longer we talk about the plays, the more involved we become in the theatrical.

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A great deal of help is provided by the contributions of three guests whom we’re able to invite to join us after our virtual work on the plays. The experienced and well-known US-based drama translator, director, and theatre historian Neil Blackadder gives us an account of his work. We learn how productively the perspectives of his various fields – which initially seem so different – complement each other. He also emphasizes how crucial contact with authors is when translating for the theatre.

The next day, Sapan Saran and Sunil Shanbag tell us about their work as directors. They describe very clearly – including by means of a charming short animated film – how a playscript „makes a room its own.“ We come to understand how theatre directors read a script, how they hear it, pass on their vision to the actors, and realize it through their own visual imagination.

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The four days we spend together fly by. At the end we have a short time in which to pull it all together. My sense is that the participants have gained a vivid impression of what it means to translate for the theatre, and that they’ll eagerly continue this work. We have discussed specific questions relating to their particular projects and on top of that shed light on the theatre environment in which they will release their texts once they’re ready. Out there are practitioners who will take those texts, consider them, question them, and finally speak them out loud.

The image one of the workshop participants used to describe the collaborative work of author, translator, and theatre practitioner is a nice one: a relay race. The baton is passed from one to the other. At the end, the winner is always a team.

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