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Finding Meaning – The Art of Translation by Martine Sainvil

American audiences don’t get access to many contemporary plays originally written in another language despite the burgeoning number of talented playwrights in the US and around the world who are creating work for the stage in languages other than English.

Traditionally, classic European plays such as those written by Moliere, Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov are the only works regularly presented. There’s an ongoing fear that Americans won’t be able to relate to or understand transcultural and international work. There’s also the question of how much all this costs.

One of the ways to help change hearts and minds is the indispensable effort of translators who work in the theater. Their work is often unsung and misunderstood. 

by permission of Elise Thoron

“Translation gets as bad a rap as housework,” said Elise Thoron by video-conference. Ms. Thoron is a longtime theatrical translator and theater maker. “When you don’t do it well, it’s bad and people complain, but if you do it well, it should disappear.”

Often, translation is seen as a one-to-one process of finding the same word in both languages and then making the switch. For working translators, especially in the theater, the process goes deeper. “It’s totally not one-to-one,” said Ms. Thoron, who has worked on projects originally written in Russian, Spanish and Japanese among others.

She believes that American audiences need to be challenged and coaxed out of having to know exactly what is being said all the time. She wants to encourage theater goers to engage with the musicality of a language, to look at how performers use their bodies and to be more observant of behavior.

Ms. Thoron has been a longtime collaborator on Recycling: Washi Tales. The project, which uses the Japanese art of papermaking as a vehicle for theatrical storytelling, employs both English and Japanese.

Najio Gawa in Washi Tales New York Theatre Workshop work-in-progress presentation
Photo by Isaac Bloom

“There’s a flow of language which is on stage where there’s no one-to-one translation,” said Ms. Thoron. “Through theater, through human beings being together, you’re giving an audience the opportunity of being present to something that’s very foreign.”

Although she doesn’t speak Japanese, Ms. Thoron worked with a parallel Japanese/English text and interpreters in rehearsals along with company members who speak both languages. Together they created the scaffolding of the piece using more traditional translation that allowed them to be more creative with the production and expand the theatricality. 

Creating an experience where the public can be stretched and exposed to something new and different is Theron’s goal. “My favorite part is setting up and letting living languages play out on stage. You’re trying to create a structure but you’re not predicting how people will interpret it.”

Early in her career, Ms. Thoron had the opportunity to do a cultural exchange with the Living Languages project at the O’Neill Theater Center. Through this program an American playwright had a residency in Russia and a Russian playwright had a residency in the US. Both had access to a company of Russian and American actors working together to create a bilingual piece that was presented to Russian and American audiences. “That exchange really opened my horizons for what you can do with two languages in theatre.” Currently Ms. Thoron is working on a project with the Cara Mia Theatre Co. who presents bilingual theater in Dallas.

“In the cultural divide – and language divides in our country – (translation) is needed and I think people do want forums where they can talk to each other. Theater can really facilitate that – whether that is translating in between two languages or different people.  I think there’s a huge need for it.”

elise thoron
by permission Iride Lamartina-Lens

Professor Iride Lamartina-Lens of Pace University in NY and co-editor of Estreno Contemporary Spanish Plays agrees with the need for more translations however she is firmly on the side of eliminating as many barriers as possible for understanding translated works. “The goal especially of a theater translator is that it has to sound as if it were actually written in the language you’re watching it in,” she said via video-conference.

With live theater there isn’t the opportunity to rewind or stop the action to re-examine what was said. For Prof. Lamartina-Lens, a successful translation must be loyal to the original and still ring true to a native speaker. She sees theater as a conversation and if that conversation sounds stilted, or if it doesn’t flow, it won’t connect with the audience.

Estreno Contemporary Spanish Plays publishes translations of new Spanish plays. Prof. Lamartina-Lens has been co-publishing it since 2004 with one translation a year. The 45th volume is expected in September 2022 and now includes two plays a year. The hope is to publish even more in the future.

Through this work, Prof. Lamartine-Lens has discovered that there are some themes that are universal and translate across cultures more easily, including forbidden love, family relationships and immigration. Other characteristics are culturally specific. “One roll of the eyes in American culture says a thousand words. That doesn’t exist in Spain – that gesture. So you’re translating not only words,” she said.

Prof. Lamartina-Lens believes that one challenge facing plays originally written in Spanish is a pervasive American perception of Spanish culture as just flamenco, bullfighting and castanets. “I remember I presented (a play) to a director here in the US, we even had a reading of the play. The director said to me – Well, it’s too Americanized. How do we make it more Spanish?” she said, adding that ultimately the director didn’t do the play because he didn’t think it was Spanish enough.

Despite this, Prof. Lamartina-Lens sees a bright future for theatrical translations. With so much interest in international content through streaming services, she believes theater is next.

For the last several years, she has worked with the Spanish Embassy in Washington, D.C. to present readings of the work of Spanish playwrights in English. The presentations are designed to bring more attention to the work of contemporary Spanish artists and perhaps to inspire American directors and actors. “Everyone dreams of reaching that goal of being the next Yasmina Reza. That’s (what) we’re working towards,” said Prof. Lamartine-Lens.

French playwright Yasmina Reza has had three productions on Broadway and won the Tony Award® for Best Play in 2009 for God of Carnage and in 1998 for Art. Both were originally written in French.

“One roll of the eyes in American culture says a thousand words. That doesn’t exist in Spain – that gesture. So you’re translating not only words.”

Iride Lamartina-Lens

by permission Sarah Vermande

Sarah Vermande, based in France, translates English plays for French audiences and has a very different experience with international work. “I’m very lucky to translate from English because there’s always great curiosity about American and British plays,” she said in a video conversation.

Ms. Vermande began her career as an actor which led to translating plays. She liked doing it so much that she joined a group of translators and eventually earned a master’s degree in translation. She’s currently a committee member at the Maison Antoine Vitez, a publicly subsidized, non-profit organization that translates plays into French and promotes these works.

She wants to help audiences connect to the work through her translations. She attempts to reach the widest possible audience knowing that no one has the time to do research in real time at the theater, “I will never change a reference to something French just to make it easier but I always have in mind that it has to be seamless.”

Seamless doesn’t mean easy. Ms. Vermande doesn’t want to erase all the foreign elements. She sees the value of stretching audiences by presenting work that makes them slightly uneasy. Discomfort can remind an audience that they’re not in their usual environment. It could be a way of breaking them out of their safe cultural bubble.

Ms. Vermande admits that she doesn’t always achieve this objective. She often questions if she should push readers and audiences to make more connections themselves, “But my natural tendency is not to do that. It’s to make a French text that appears to be French. I’m really not saying I’m right. I’m always questioning that.”

She emphasizes that she won’t make a text easier in French than the author made it for the original audience. Her primary aim is to reproduce the impact the original text had on its first audience. She tries to keep in mind how much a French audience might know about the original culture the piece is from. She regularly has to explain cultural references (who a TV personality is or a food that’s common in one culture and not another).

She tries to keep the language the same with similar rhythms and patterns but reveals that sometimes compromises are made to keep the original flow. She finds English very efficient with the flexibility to say a lot in just a few words. By contrast, in French all the logical connections have to be reintroduced and therefore she has to create longer sentences to articulate the original idea.

“I’m very lucky to translate from English because there’s always great curiosity about American and British plays.”

sarah vermande

Throughout the translation Ms. Vermande asks herself – How much can remain as it is? How much does she need to adjust so that the audience can understand it? What will she have to explain? 

The entire process of translation is a series of decisions but the final word is not always up to the translator. “If you’ve got a director and they’ve already got a vision for the play, you’re going to have to take that vision on board in the translation,” said Ms. Vermande.

It’s not just the director who may have firm ideas about a translation. Playwrights of the original text are also invested in how their work is presented, but not necessarily in obvious ways.

Ms. Vermande has worked with a range of playwrights with varying degrees of interest in the translation itself. Most of the playwrights respond to her many questions quickly and are happy to be a resource.

A few playwrights choose not to be involved in the translation at all. Some view the translation as its own project that is out of their control. Once there was a playwright who was so worried that they hired an outside reader to review the translation and give additional notes.  

Ms. Vermande sees all of this as proof of how important accuracy is to playwrights. She tries to reassure them and encourage them to trust her as the native speaker to go with the solution she proposes. “I know that in that context, that’s what’s going to work best.”

Vermande McLean Pelissier © Alex Nollet-la Chartreuse

By far the most fulfilling collaboration for Ms. Vermande has been with Scottish playwright Linda McLean. The two met through a cultural exchange between a theater in Paris and a theater in Edinburgh. ​Along with fellow translator Blandine Pélissier,​ they were able to sit in a room and work through the translation together. It was invaluable to have the playwright at the same table. The smallest question or detail could be discussed and addressed.

Although Ms. McLean doesn’t speak French fluidly, she’s an expert with dialogue and was able to help when the company was struggling or had questions with the text. “Sometimes by listening to what we were struggling with she (was) able to arbitrate and say – I like that rhythm more than that rhythm,” said Ms. Vermande, who believes this project to be her most accurate translation to date.

by permission S Vermande

Ultimately, Ms. Vermande thinks that all theatrical translations have a shelf life. She approaches the work knowing that translations age no matter how good they are. She accepts that her version will work for now but in a decade or two an updated version will be more relevant. 

“It’s always interesting to look at translations of classics over the years. If you take a Chekhov play or a Shakespeare play, and you look at 10, 15, 20 different translations through the ages, you’ll see that some of them are so in tune with the sensibilities of the age that they probably worked beautifully in their context but don’t appeal so much to our ears,” said Ms. Vermande.

All three translators agree that the best part of translation for the theater is the collaborative nature of it. They all point to theater translation as being special because it’s done in community. There are ongoing conversations about what is universal and what is specific. The goal is always to connect with audiences. 

Discomfort can remind an audience that they’re not in their usual environment. It could be a way of breaking them out of their safe cultural bubble.

Another common theme among them was that with theater, the words are only part of the final translation. There is a physical component that sets it apart from other mediums. Hand gestures, body movements, sound and music are all additional tools for understanding and used as cultural markers. 

As for the future, they all believe that translation is needed now more than ever and the greatest barrier to getting more of these works to audiences is funding. The cultural exchanges that each have been a part of have enriched them personally and professionally and have had a huge impact on the communities who have participated. They all see translation as a way to build more bridges and open more doors in order to grow cultural understanding. 

by permission Martine Sainvil

Martine Sainvil is a Brooklyn-based Playwright and Communications Strategist. Recent credits include: Pursuit (2022 Barbour Playwrights Award Finalist), The Mary Lou Shine (2021 New Shokan Kitchen Island Project – Put A Woman On A Pedestal!), Indispensable (2020 Resonance Ensemble Waldman Play Development Program). Previously, Director of Communications at the Broadway League and was on the publicity team for various Broadway and Off-Broadway shows.

  • Featured image from Recycling: Washi Tales, Krannert Center Creative Residency, March 14 – 21, 2011 Photo by Valerie Oliveiro

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