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Lost and found in translation: honorary British dramatists

By Clare Bowerman, on 8 May 2013

What does it take for a foreign language playwright to become an ‘honorary British dramatist’? What is the difference between a translation, an adaptation and a version? Theatre-lovers and the generally curious enjoyed the chance to ponder these questions at a talk on translation on the London stage by Dr Geraldine Brodie on 7 May, the first day of UCL’s inaugural Festival of the Arts.
Dr Brodie, a Teaching Fellow within the UCL School of European Languages, Culture & Society, is an expert in the processes used to transform a play from its original foreign language into an English version for the stage. Many foreign language dramatists, such as Ibsen and Chekhov, are as familiar to the London stage as our home-grown playwrights, but the versions of their plays in English are in fact constantly being refreshed and renewed.

Professional drama translation requires many different skills, Dr Brodie explained, including those of the specialist translator, the theatre expert and the professional playwright. In some cases, a single literary translator fulfils all of these roles, but most of the time, the roles are split between a professional translator who develops a literal translation of the play with detailed notes, and a professional and often well-known playwright, who works with this translation to create the final version of the play that audiences enjoy.

In our multilingual city and within our global economy, translation happens all the time without us being made aware of it, said Dr Brodie. When we read Angela Merkel’s latest pronouncements on developments in the Eurozone, our newspaper does not tell us that her words have been translated. The theatre, by contrast, does make it clear that a foreign language play has been through a process of transformation to arrive on the London stage. What is frequently unclear is what this process actually is. The relationship to the original is described in many different and therefore confusing ways, ranging from ‘a new play based on The Servant of Two Masters’ for Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors, to ‘A new version of the play by Tom Stoppard’ for his translation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. While the role of the official adaptor for the stage is generally mentioned prominently alongside the name of the original author, the role of the literal translator is often squeezed into the back of the programme notes, or missed out altogether.

Why does this matter? Well, theatre is big business in London, with 14 million people going to shows in the West End every year, four million of which are plays, of which (based on Dr Brodie’s rough estimates) half a million are plays in translation. Those 500,000 people deserve to know exactly how the play they have watched came about, and all the people who worked on the translation deserve to be credited. And just as importantly, the complex process of translation itself, with all of its potential slippages, ideologies and creation of new meanings, should be made explicit.

What’s more, audience members like you and I can do a lot to promote clearer information on translation by letting theatres know we care about it, argued Dr Brodie. Next time you go to a foreign language play in translation and the programme notes are unclear, ask the theatre for an explanation.

Clare Bowerman is Head of UCL Communications, and a modern languages graduate

See what else is on the programme at the UCL Festival of the Arts website.

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