Reflections from the AHRC Translating Cultures Project and 21st Nov Symposium (

by Jan Parker


                          The playwright creates a game for actors. The translator creates the game of translation. The translator enters the labyrinth of translation and seeks the words that will draw the actors back to the centre of interpretation. The translator invents the game of the translator’s own choosing…(Kate Eaton, from ‘The Darkness of the Stage – A Provocation’, 21st Nov symposium)

Translation, Adaptation, Otherness:‘Foreignisation’ in Theatre Practice Project

‘Translation scholar Lawrence Venuti champions the translation strategy he calls ‘foreignisation’, as as opposed to ‘domestication’, in that the former tries to limit the degree to which the unfamiliar is forcibly turned into the familiar, silencing cultural difference. Despite the recent academic interest in ‘foreignisation’, theatre studies still lack a debate on what a ‘foreignising’ approach to stage translation would mean for text and performance, and whether theatre – as opposed to literature – requires a distinctive approach’ (

What an excellent question! Venuti’s dichotomisation between translation strategies – domestication, whereby you bring the text to the reader against foreignization, whereby the text demands the reader move to the world of the source – has long both held sway and been objected to by literary translators. The standard examples are the theoretical implications of, eg Walter Benjamin’s Brot vs pain: objects that have similar substance but different semantic ‘intentions’; the foreignization v domestication strategy evident in the test case of, say, ‘Sunday Lunch’. Do you conceal or emphasise cultural difference: by either transferring the setting to a festive family meal or keeping the term’s strangeness, leaving the reader to work through the gendered and generational resonances and implications of roast beef, the post Sunday worship, somewhat compulsory, traditional, family gathering…

The question of translating such a scenario depends on whether it matters: if the dynamics of the scene rests on those ‘foreign’nesses or if it is, literally, incidental.

There is no such freedom in theatre: nothing in the scenography is ‘incidental’. So, what are the implications for directors, actors and audiences of privileging or suppressing foreignnesses?

The symposium considered in interesting and passionate discussion what this meant for the theatre in post Brexit Britain: what the [limited] possibilities and [evident] dangers of staging international theatre in domesticizing translation (appropriating to the dominant monolingual culture by translating into English, with the concomitant dangers of excluding & marginalising actors and audiences from the source culture; contributing to the univocality of ‘Englishness’).

And the implications for the international project of ‘foreignising’ – of including into ‘English’ multilinguality, the sheer imaginative possibilities of thinking otherwise, were stressed as well as lamented.

The many case studies, provocations and reflections introduced rich questions about ‘translation’ as an interlingual and sometimes as an intercultural process: foreignising the ‘Other’ raises the various spectres of exoticising, demonising, romanticising or marginalising that ‘other’; domestication that of cultural appropriation. Meanwhile the wider implications for ‘authorship’ were touched on, as were issues of vocality. But, what exactly is the relationship between diversity of texts and the inclusion of diverse actors and accents into texts produced in English? The conflation of the two in discussion is significant, as it raises the question of, what exactly is being translated in theatre?

I remember a student telling me he wanted to do his dissertation on ‘language poetry’. It was the first time I’d heard the term and I laughed, but in the symposium I wanted to set up a category of ‘linguistic-’ or ‘translation-theatre’ – theatre where what is at issue, what is en procès, is the formation of identity and transmission of culture in [inter] lingual translation.

It was said of one of the projects workshopped plays, Marie Ndiaye’s The Snakes (Les Serpents), that the play’s questions: ‘Who are these women? What force – what deity – draws them to this house? What or who is the snake?’ troubled actors and translator, the language ‘prickled in the mouth’ and demanded of all involved in the production, and the audience, that they work hard to create meaning:

The opening dialogue feels like two threads, pulled in different directions, meeting only incrementally. Later France’s language begins to shed its own skin in defense. ‘Where I am from, one laughs at such disparities, even if one has no chance of being elsewhere than on the side of ridicule, of the inferior side of the comparison and of all possible comparisons.’

In the almost baroque, fractured dialogues…all we have are three female bodies speaking of histories without continuity.(Diana Damian Martin review article

It may be that the difficulty of creating and communicating meaning is the point, is ‘at issue’ in the play; if so, that seems to render it a ‘translation theatre’ play?

But, ‘The Snakes’ was billed as exploring and destabilising ‘rules of a pluriverse’: all kinds of identity, ontological and cultural constructs, including ‘a mythological exploration of colonialism’. The first responsibility of the dramaturg is to set up the rules of the game: where, when and how the drama is to be played out. Scenography instantiates those rules of that game; it seems to me that it cannot simultaneously problematize, undercut, parody, render ontologically ambivalent or even, perhaps, explore such multiple constructs of both rules and game: to do any such risks rendering the drama incomprehensible – not meaningful but finally meaningless.

The project’s questions are large; they are perhaps not answerable, or even, honestly, not askable, in the theatre performance. I wonder if what is being investigated is metatranslation theatre which questions the processes of ‘translation theatre’: theatre that questions translation of ‘thought worlds’, cultural-specific aesthetics, dramatic conventions, classic tradition, construction of character and identity…..everything to do with how a culture constructs itself in language and views itself in relation to a.n. and the ‘other’. Like metatheatre, perhaps what is being claimed for the theatre event is not an experience but a new consciousness? But don’t ‘effect/affect/identification’ in the theatre work more complexly than delivering an awareness?

The project is most tightly illuminating, rather, when the translation process, subject and dramaturgy were simultaneously, mutually questioning: when text, director, translator, actors all workshop the process of being lost or disenvoiced in translation; when what is ‘at issue’ in the play is linguistic and cultural heritage and identity:

‘Gliwice Hamlet [the second workshopped play] is a palimpsestic, poetic play in which two actors in a rehearsal setting enact episodes from Piotr Lachmann’s childhood in German Gleiwitz, which in 1945 became Polish Gliwice  The story is emblematic of German-Polish relations around WWII, when national borders and identities changed rapidly in the turmoil of political transformations. Interwoven in the evocation of multiple locations and historical moments, and in references to Greek theatre and to Shakespeare’s tragedy, is a self-reflexive commentary on the nature of theatre as a medium and the role of media in contemporary society.’ (Gliwice Hamlet by Piotr Lachmann

What we need is the implications of this nexus of translations and [dis]envoicings to be fully explored during the theatrical process and after as well as in the performance.

What is needed is research which engages with all the interrelations of the theatre studio as a multifaceted translation ‘exploratorium’, to ‘workshop’ the research questions. To go back to Kate Eaton, the researchers need to enter the labyrinth of [the many processes of] theatre translation and seek the images and thick descriptions that will draw practitioners and theorists alike

‘back to the centre of interpretation’.

This is a very important project and terribly timely. As Diana Damian Martin said in her review article:

[recent theatre criticism] signals to me a very noisy, fragmented ecology of talking about foreign theatre in UK… and make visible cultural difference through strategic, but misguided cultural policy that makes a spectacle of otherness, a pure exercise in visibility. This is a very problematic way of talking about several issues: the issue of translation of dramatic texts; the issue of adaptation and direction of foreign dramatic texts; the issue of domestication; the issue of visibility of those processes, and their centrality in different institutional and artistic agendas. And to top that off, the assumption that there is only one way of theatre doing politics, or doing cultural difference: the British way.

What we need is for the project is to carefully, caringly discriminate and map, not to answer, the multifaceted and vitally important questions it has set itself.

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