Theatre in translation occupies an uncomfortable place in Britain. Bound often by the inevitable and wholly understandable force of the market and economic sustainability, theatre in translation from around the world has to jostle for even a minimal space with the many writers and groups vying for slots in the increasingly pressured theatres around the country.
At the same time, this is a potentially exciting time for theatre in translation, with many rehearsed readings, companies looking for great new plays from around the world, and the beginnings of a closer understanding between translators and cultural mediators and theatre practitioners. Translation has always been part of the enriching of our cultures, and theatre is no exception. The practices of multicultural theatre, of theatre devised around different languages and ethnicities, the long-standing work of our fringe theatres and the international programmes of theatres such as the Royal Court, the Gate or Theatre503, our exposure to Shakespeare in many languages and mediated through many theatre traditions – all of these all open our eyes to the possibilities of cultural exchange.
Las Brutas / Beasts, Theatre 503
Yet, one of the problems of theatre in translation is the way in which the search for the play to be translated runs its course, and this closes down the potential for new writing to be introduced to the British stage. Inevitably, perhaps, what we look for are plays that respond to our understanding of the foreign country, plays that, because they respond to what we may already broadly ‘know’ about the foreign country, are more readily pulled across to our culture, even when there are few obvious resonances. Perhaps these plays–which so often revolve around what are perceived to be the elements of the foreign that might not belong to us– allow us to keep our distance, rather than to recognise sameness? For any translated play will occupy a dynamic space between recognition and difference, and all translated plays journey between these extremes.
The challenge of the play in translation is for the translator to journey as far as possible into the understanding of the original text. Not only in terms of what it offers linguistically – idioms, culturally specific references – but what it tells us in terms of its dramatic structure, its poetics.
The translator occupies the first position in a long series of interpretative acts that will culminate in the performance on stage. This is more than an issue of the inevitable red herring of ‘fidelity’ to the original: it is one of entering into the layers of language in the play, allowing, in the first instance, the moments of linguistic tension that make the ears prick and the first readers – the director and actors – sit up and take notice of difference. This is not a defence of an awkward text; rather it is a recognition of the need to value difference, to question and understand word choice, to avoid generalising and normalising the language so that anything that was built into the original poetics of the piece becomes obscured by the idea of that a play sounds ‘as if it was written in English’. While the play must be speakable, performable for the actor, surely we also want to journey beyond English and our known cultures with them, to discover what it is that they might have been getting, and that we might ultimately and profoundly share?
Mad Man Sad Woman, The Space
The work in translation of the Chilean playwright Juan Radrigán (Las Brutas / Beasts, Theatre 503; Mad Man Sad Woman, The Space) derives from the Out of the Wings theatre translation project takes us on a journey to experiences that are, on the surface, very distanced from us. He creates theatre languages from dramatic traditions that have long engaged with and transformed European forms, and creates a poetics that, for a British audience, is both familiar and strange. Juan Radrigán is an author who has much to say about the Britain of today, about increasing marginality and about the impact of poverty and desperation. We might not like to be confronted by authors from Latin America that suggest that we have more and more in common, but this is writing that suggests we should do, for there we might find new languages for our days.
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