In June of this year, the University of Kent undertook three weeks of research into "Translating Theatre". The research was undertaken by Dr. Margarita Laera, and each week involved the practical examination with directors, actors, sound and set designers, of a concept called "foreignisation". I was hired as one of these freelance directors and therefore set the task of directing a week of R&D on a newly translated Spanish play.
I'm writing this article because there are things I didn’t say at the time and should have. The end of this practical research week culminated with a reading at The Gate Theatre and a post-show discussion (which I was on the panel for). Unfortunately I was struck by an attack of debilitating British reservation (if we're talking about cultural stereotypes, which we will do, we may as well call it that) and so did not speak out then about my anger and irritation with this whole project. I have since felt ashamed and I want to redress this failing.
"Foreignisation", as I came to learn, was a term coined by academic Lawrence Venuti to describe the process of translating a text from one language to another without "domesticating" it for the target audience. It has lofty aims, which I think we’d all get behind ideologically: to translate a text in such a way that one resists “ethnocentrism and racism, cultural narcissism and imperialism”. Lovely. Dr Laera’s research aimed to take this goal and ask whether it was possible to apply a “foreignising process” to theatre. That is, not just the text, but the entire mise en scene (to borrow a beautifully untranslated word). But let’s start with the text, because that’s enough to be getting on with for a few paragraphs. Here’s an example:
Subject: Last night
Je buvais comme un trou! UUUUURRRRGH!
The literal translation of my friend Vincent’s email is that he drank like a hole last night. I have a number of options in translating this for my boyfriend a) ‘Vincent says he was drinking like a hole’ or b) ‘Vincent says he was drinking like a fish’.
In option b we see how translation is most commonly approached: domestication (making it familiar for my boyfriend who doesn’t speak French)*. In option a we see what could be an example of foreignisation. Sadly for many, Venuti never actually published rules and regs for how to foreignise, but in essence, you keep idioms where possible as they are, and you keep the rhythms of the source text in tact (aka don’t fiddle with it).
It should be fairly obvious why the majority of translation favours domestication. If I am to tell my boyfriend that Vincent was drinking like a hole last night, he may well wonder how this is possible when holes do not drink, or simply believe Vincent to be oddly dirty when his meaning was colloquial and fun. There is something to be said for interrogating the domestication though. If I make Vincent’s idiom easier for my boyfriend to understand, I am denying that Vincent and his text is different from mine. After all, holes and fishes aren’t the same. So I get it: there is a politics involved. But what this politics boils down to for me is a fear of cultural betrayal. And when we start interrogating this we get into all sorts of muddles because by not domesticating Vincent’s text to “fish”, we have made him sound quite weird. Vincent has been betrayed hasn’t he? Because he isn’t at all weird. Essentially, someone’s going to be betrayed.
It is probably worth pointing out that I am not in the habit of talking about writers being betrayed (I'm very anti-purist as it happens, so if Emma Rice wanted me at The Globe I'm sure I could cook up a controversial treat) but, as I understood it, the research project was to investigate how to translate theatre in a way that was somehow less of a betrayal, thereby imagining presumably a scale on which all translation is betrayal but some is less problematic. Dr Laera’s argument seemed to be that if an audience (my boyfriend in this imagined example) were to hear that Vincent was drinking like a hole, he would be alerted to his difference. He would experience the ‘foreignness’ of Vincent.
My superb team of actors and I struggled. This thing was as slippery as, well, a fish. One actor summarised his struggle like this:
He has a few choices with an odd and clunky line:
a) Come up with a psychological reason why his character says stuff like this, aka this character is a show-off, and then that’ll impact on how the other characters relate to him
b) He plays it without any intention behind it at all which is really hard and will probably make him look like he can’t act or the script is shit
c) We all agree that this is the world of this play and all these people in this world speak like this
We tried all of them in the spirit of experimentation, but none of them did anything at all for me as an audience. There were suggestions of ‘making strange’, of the actors showing the transparency between them and the text, acting as vessels for the words rather than embodying character. We talked about clunkiness, linguistic signposts. The actors wrestled with a text that should be funny but couldn’t be because it was preserving Latinate sentence structures and in English its rhythm and punch was totally lacking (I learnt that most comedy in English uses Anglo-Saxon structures, that was fascinating actually). Lunchtimes were filled with the mournful sound of “but why?” from each creative. I argued that a lot of my work is made strange, heightened, abstracted, text used poetically in a way that can be surprising, jarring even, so how would my audience know this was foreign, wouldn’t they think it was just theatre?
And then there was the problem of the other mise en scene elements: sound and design. Our designer was asked to think about Almodovar, and our sound designer attempted to play with live sound mixing because that was richer in the Spanish tradition than ours, both of which I found bizarrely irrelevant and which I believe they too found difficult. I know I became concerned that we were culturally stereotyping and had no idea how we’d ended up there.
And this is what I wished I had said: Ventuti’s exercise makes zero sense for the theatre. The theatre already has translators. Even the act of casting particular actors is interpretive. The relationship between a theatre audience and the text that was written down is vastly different from that of a reader. I do realise that this was the point of the research, but that doesn't make me any less frustrated, because any practitioner could have told the research team this at the beginning. It is impossible to communicate either neutrality or 'foreignness' as a director, actor, designer or translator. It is impossible. It is bizarre. One cannot make a fish from a hole. Because foreignness/otherness/strangeness, is not a thing of itself, it’s a by-product of two things not being the same. The oddness you feel when something is foreign is about you, not about the thing itself.
Dr Laera told me that she would like to be challenged when she visits the theatre. She would like to see a Chekhov that doesn’t make it easy for her, that allows her to experience the otherness of C19th Russia even if that is alienating and hard to access. I’m afraid I, and the vast majority of other audience members, just wouldn’t want to see that. Why? Because that’s not why we go to the theatre. So then perhaps, as discussed, her research team are in pursuit of changing the whole culture of theatre-going in the UK. Impressive. But I’m afraid I don’t want to be part of it. Even if the process somehow managed to triumph over all the political and practical issues that troubled me, I’m afraid I’d find the end result boring. And inflicting boredom on my audience, in my humble opinion, is a far bigger betrayal than any translation can ever be.
*To give another example, for those of you who haven’t given translation much thought in the past, let’s take “Drunk as a skunk”. It is a phrase in English because it rhymes. Few English people have seen skunks, they are not native to these lands, and it is therefore not commonly understood that they possess drunk-like behaviour. Let’s say we have a translator wishing to translate this English phrase into Berber (a minority language spoken in Morocco). The target audience is the key concern. Does Berber have a word for ‘skunk’? It may do. We could use that but it would be a pretty obscure phrase seeing as it wouldn’t rhyme with ‘drunk’. If it doesn’t then we could choose a similar creature native to Morocco, perhaps one that omits a rancid smell. Or we could choose any animal that rhymes with the Berber word for ‘drunk’. Or we could simply find a phrase that has the same punchy humorous effect that already exists in berber. These be the choices folks. And this is why translation is hard. It is an act of interpretation and can never be perfect. It is an art. See David Tushingham, Christopher Hampton, Penny Black, Meredith Oakes, Chris Campbell for examples. In fact, why weren't these people part of the discussion?