Translation is about as old as written language and has been causing problems ever since. According to the Oxford Companion to the English Language, translation is “the communication of the meaning of a source-language text by means of an equivalent target-language text.” But what meaning are we supposed to be focusing on, and what exactly is equivalence? Is it more important that the dictionary definitions are the same or that they elicit the same emotional response from the reader? The short answer to this is that it is largely context dependent. Just as there are different styles or registers to take into consideration when writing, there are different strategies for translation. Is it a math textbook being translated for Italian high schoolers? A literal translation with very little cultural adaptation will probably do just fine. Is it a global brand’s new slogan that’s being translated for 20 countries? A literal translation will almost certainly do more harm than good. This would call for an adaptation of the source that may not maintain any of the semantics of the original, prioritizing instead the intent and desired effect on the audience.
Unlike books, newspapers, and tweets, however, translations of plays will not be silently read by the audience; they’ll be spoken out loud by an actor. This creates a unique situation for translators of scripts. Within the pages of a script an entire world is established, love stories played out, conflicts created and resolved and all within the context of the language and culture of the original. The translator has to tell the same story using different words within an entirely new cultural context, and the dialogue still has to sound smooth to a native audience. Plays are about representing a certain group of people experiencing a certain set of circumstances in a certain time.
There are a million different ways to tell [a play] truthfully, and it’s up to the creative team to decide what’s best for their story.
If we were only concerned with the meaning of the words it would be easier, but language is complicated and deeply intertwined with cultural and personal identity. Every sentence in any language is a history of what has gone on in that place and happened to those people. If we were to take a random sentence in English it would probably have a word borrowed from French (thanks to the Battle of Hastings), a pronunciation that was affected by the Great Vowel Shift, and some new slang word that was invented in the last twenty years. When you’re talking to someone you’re actually positioning yourself into the larger context of the language you speak. The words you choose and your pronunciation of them reveal a lot about your age, gender, where you grew up, and what level of education you’ve received. It’s been proven that babies in utero become accustomed to the rhythm of their mother’s language so even newborns have an idea of where they belong based on the language being spoken around them. When someone says something to you in your native language you hear a lot more than just the words.
Even without knowing the language, we pick up on body language and tone of voice, which tell us a lot, before we even process any of the words being spoken.
Playwrights work within the context of spoken language to tell stories, and a lot of the character’s story isn’t told in the words they use but by the accent and rhythm of their speech. A classic example of this would be Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. The audience doesn’t need to hear any long descriptions of where Eliza and Henry come from, all they need is to hear them pronounce “the rain in Spain” and they understand the greater cultural context immediately.
Audrey Hepburn (as Eliza Doolittle) and Rex Harrison (as Henry Higgins) in the classic 1964 movie My Fair Lady, which was an adaptation of Shaw’s Pygmalion | Source: © Rex Features/The Independent
So, is it even possible to translate something like that?
Within the pages of a script an entire world is established, love stories played out, conflicts created and resolved and all within the context of the language and culture of the original.
If you were to set out to become a translator and wanted to specialize in script translation, you wouldn’t find a lot of resources. Most translation degrees allow for specialization in literary, medical, or legal, and often there’s an interpretation component, most likely for large conferences and meetings. So, historically the people translating for the theatre weren’t necessarily at all familiar with plays or scripts. The translators tried to create a technically and literally accurate translation of the script, but that tactic is unlikely to lead to an engaging performance. People started to recognize the importance of the dramatic tension and story arc that aren’t always conveyed in the literal words. The old translations seemed too stiff and academic. A new theory of play translation is that a translator works on the first ‘literal’ rendition and then a director, playwright, or ‘dramaturg’ — someone with experience in theatre but who doesn’t necessarily speak the original language — works on the script to make it work better as a piece of theatre. In his article on translating for the theatre, Andrea Peghinelli says, “A theatre translation above all has to function within the immediate context of performance — without annotations or editorial commentary.”
It’s the last part of his quote that’s most important when thinking about and discussing the language of a script — it has to stand alone without any more context than what’s given to the audience by the actors.
Plays are about representing a certain group of people experiencing a certain set of circumstances in a certain time.
If someone were to translate Pygmalion, the first big decision would be whether to keep the story in England or to move it into the country of the translation. Both are valid and correct choices that will lend themselves to different types of productions and tie into different creative visions. It would be up to the creative team of director and designers to decide what setting to use. Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage is a more recent play that was translated from French into English by Christopher Hampton. It’s the story of two couples whose children get into a fight at school; they meet to discuss the situation and end up in an altercation of their own. In the original version, the families have very French names and refer to places in Paris. In Hampton’s translation, he has Anglicized their names to Novak and Raleigh and instead of “square de l’Aspirant-Dunant” the parents discuss the events that occurred in “Cobble Hill Park.” By moving the action from Paris to Brooklyn the story becomes universal. The point is not to tell a story specific to France and French parents but to tell a story that should resonate with parents all over the world.
The 2015 production of God of Carnage (Hampton’s English translation) at the MAC in Belfast, Northern Ireland | Source: The MAC
As our world continues to grow and shift it is becoming more important to represent the more varied and multicultural identities of the 21st-century citizen. Instead of translating a foreign play into the national language in order to teach or show a different way of life, it’s becoming more popular to include multiple languages within the original version. More people today are from mixed-culture families or immigrant families and use two different languages between their home and their wider community, and even more people are studying different languages. As published in Psychology Today in 2012, “the 2007 American Community Survey found that a bit more than 55 million inhabitants spoke a language other than English at home. Among those people, some 51 million also knew and used English and hence were bilingual. This represents 18 percent of the population.”
For the people who come from bilingual communities, they have the opportunity to see a world like theirs represented on stage.
This new wave of multiculturalism and bilingualism has created an environment for playwrights like Lin-Manuel Miranda who are writing in two languages. As the United States becomes an increasingly bilingual nation it is only natural that theatre is evolving in much the same way. At the root of the political debate surrounding immigration is the fact that many Americans identify strongly with other cultures and a large part of that cultural identity is language.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
In his musical In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda addresses this group of first-generation Americans. The story is set in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York, which has a large Dominican-American population. Instead of choosing either Spanish or English to tell the story, he tells it much the way they would in real life, with a mix of the two. The characters code switch depending on context and mood, just like real bilinguals do every day. In the Heights was nominated for 13 Tony Awards — winning four — and also won a Grammy and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. So it’s clear that the code switching didn’t alienate any monolingual audiences. Even without knowing the language, we pick up on body language and tone of voice, which tell us a lot, before we even process any of the words being spoken. In the context of a show like In the Heights, it also gives a monolingual audience the opportunity to learn about living in two languages and provides greater cultural context for the characters. By noticing the language trends of the characters (which language they speak, with whom they speak said language, how they feel when using one language versus the other) the audience is able to learn more about the characters without having to understand every word that they say. And even more powerfully, for the people who come from bilingual communities, they have the opportunity to see a world like theirs represented on stage. For every bilingual person in the audience it’s an experience of inclusion rather than of education; they understand every word and can understand the intricacies of the characters in a different way from a monolingual audience member. As the Spanish-English playwright Roxanne Schroeder-Arce said in an interview, “I realized that plays that represent Latino characters and themes are critical for young people to develop a sense of belonging… My daughter code switches all the time and that’s a wonderful skill and ability. My characters do the same depending on who’s in the room, where they are, or what they’re talking about. All of those things influence the dialogue, but it’s not a thought process. My characters just start talking to me. They choose to speak in English or in Spanish.”
The tempo and tone of the music [in musical] gives the audience more clues into the mood of the characters and the story and facilitate the use of multiple languages at once.
Taking an entirely different strategy of combining languages, the American Sign Language (ASL) production of Spring Awakening put on by Deaf West Theatre in 2015 tells the story simultaneously in two languages. The show is about a group of German teenagers coming of age in the late 19th-century. The story was originally written in 1891 and was then turned into a musical by composer Duncan Sheik. The Deaf West Theatre cast was a mix of Deaf and hearing actors; the hearing actors signed while speaking or singing and the Deaf actors were shadowed by hearing actors who were their voices. The entire show is told in both American English and ASL. Unlike watching a show where characters code switch, this show is completely accessible to two different audiences simultaneously. While accessible, it also gave the hearing audience an up close and personal view to ASL that they may have never had before and the Deaf audience that experience of inclusion that In the Heights did for Spanish bilinguals.
Deaf West Theatre’s 2015 Broadway production of Spring Awakening | Source: © Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
An interesting note is that both In the Heights and Spring Awakening are musicals. The audience doesn’t have to rely solely on their interpretation of the words, as the music gives the audience another chance to confirm their understanding of the story. The tempo and tone of the music give the audience more clues into the mood of the characters and the story and facilitate the use of multiple languages at once.
It’s definitely possible to mix languages in plays as well; one example is Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, to use its full title. Angels in America deals with homosexuality and the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. Within the play, English, Hebrew, and French are spoken by multiple characters. The play combines reality and fantasy in its portrayal of visions, ghosts, sex, drugs, and death. The use of multiple languages facilitates this blending of worlds; is it the character’s imagination that another language is being spoken or do they actually know a different language? The use of different languages creates a separate reality for the play. The mix of languages gives the audience the same sensation as In the Heights; by paying attention to the language trends of the characters, the audience learns more about the emotional landscape of the play.
Every sentence in any language is a history of what has gone on in that place and happened to those people.
By looking at various reviews of the most recent of the language-barrier busting show — Spring Awakening — it’s clear that the wave isn’t about to end. As America becomes an increasingly multi-lingual and multi-cultural nation it will become even more important to represent these different groups on stage, and even more young artists will be growing up in a multicultural environment. In its review of Spring Awakening, The New York Times said, “Deaf actors in a musical? The prospect sounds challenging, to performers and audiences alike. But you will be surprised at how readily you can assimilate the novelties involved, and soon find yourself pleasurably immersed not in a worthy, let’s-pat-ourselves-on-the-back experience, but simply in a first-rate production of a transporting musical.”
In writing and translating a script there’s immense opportunity for adaptation and interpretation of the best ways to tell the story. In this way it’s similar to other design elements on the show; there’s not necessarily one right way and one wrong way. There are a million different ways to tell it truthfully, and it’s up to the creative team to decide what’s best for their story.