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The Translator on Stage by Geraldine Brodie

Reviewed by Byron Spring, University of Oxford

The Translator on Stage, Geraldine Brodie. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017. £23.99. ISBN: 9781501322105.


‘Theatre is translation. The director translates it to a space, his ideas are translated by the actors, the audience experiences the translation. It is even more radical when there is change of language’ (149). This statement from Geraldine Brodie’s interview with the Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga in her new book The Translator on Stage acknowledges the various interventions involved in realising theatrical works on stage. Programmes will usually list the writers, directors, managers, actors, engineers and other individuals all playing a part in the finished production. For foreign-language plays translated into English, the name of a well-known Anglophone author or theatre specialist will often feature prominently, marketing the work to domestic audiences. But the linguistic expert who transposed the source text into English rarely receives such exposure. The work may not even be called a ‘translation’: terms such as ‘adaptation’ and ‘version’ tend to be used more widely. If theatre is translation, linguistic translators remain curiously invisible.

            Brodie’s monograph puts the translator centre stage. Her research into eight English productions of foreign-language works investigates the roles of translators within the teams staging foreign works in mainstream London theatres. Some of the plays under discussion involve both a well-known writer and a ‘literal translator’, a linguistic expert who renders the source text into English for further adaptation by the writer and director. Others are examples of ‘direct translation’, translations created without the additional help of a literal translator. Brodie examines these practices alongside a forensic analysis of the institutional and financial drivers that inform decision-making in London theatres, as well as interviews conducted with various individuals involved in the plays under discussion. The resulting study situates the translator within the parties and hierarchies that determine the range of foreign works available to the London theatregoer.

            The corpus Brodie selects is a sample of eight translated works staged in mainstream London theatres between April and June 2005, ranging from Tony Harrison’s ‘version’ of Hecuba for the Royal Shakespeare Company to David Eldridge’s ‘adaptation’ of the 1998 Danish film Festen for the Lyric Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue. All of these plays, Brodie states, were therefore ‘likely to be attended by large and varied audiences’ (9); yet there is little reference to the experiences of large and varied theatre audiences outside of London. Furthermore, as an insight into how London theatre relates to other cultures and languages, the range of languages on show—Ancient Greek, Spanish, German, Russian, Norwegian and Danish—is quite limited. Brodie’s cultural snapshot, taken before the 7/7 bombings, the global financial crisis and the Brexit referendum, left me wondering whether the panorama of world theatre available in London’s mainstream is as narrow today. Another trend of her sample, that it is almost entirely made up of men (five of the eight translators are named David), still rings depressingly true.

            In order to map the London theatres under discussion, Brodie’s analysis first draws on a wide range of contextual information. She situates these institutions in relation to overarching entities such as the Society of London Theatre and funding data from Arts Council England to expose the ideological and financial factors influencing the experience of the theatregoer. This background enables her to provide interesting insights into both commercial and subsidised theatres. Brodie links the National Theatre’s preferred practice of commissioning a literal translator in addition to a named writer to the institution’s aims to maximise accessibility and audience engagement (24). This contrasts with the direct translation approach used for the staging of Juan Mayorga’s Himmelweg at the Royal Court, a ‘writer’s theatre’ that even funded the Spanish playwright to participate in the English stage adaptation (25). There are times when Brodie’s rigour as an auditor goes a little too far: at one point, Brodie digresses into effusive praise of how financial statements are filed away at the Almeida (37). However, this approach builds a detailed overview of the commercial and practical concerns conditioning cultural transference on the London stage.

            As Brodie then analyses the translation processes in each of the eight works in her sample, the invisibility of the translator becomes a common theme. Across several examples of productions where a literal translator was used, including David Hare’s production of The House of Bernarda Alba by Frederico García Lorca, David Farr’s free translation of Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector at the Olivier Theatre and Richard Eyre’s adaptation of Hedda Gabler at the Almeida, the translators were rarely acknowledged with any prominence. Brodie instead notes the ‘purposefully English face’ on each production and the involvement of ‘high-profile writers/directors steeped in the conventional English theatre tradition’ ensuring domestic marketability (67-8). In the case of David Tushingham’s direct translation of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Woman Before for the Royal Court Downstairs, the work instead ‘approached its English audience by way of non-cultural specificity’, staged alongside new British writers such as Richard Bean and Jez Butterworth (99-100). Except for cases where the name of a celebrity writer highlighted that that text had been translated, the linguists’ interventions often received little attention (103).

            This is in spite of the considerable added value that theatrical translators provide. Brodie’s interviews with theatre directors, literary managers, producers, actors, translators, playwrights and various other practitioners connected with London theatre in the following section highlight the importance of the linguist’s role. Brodie explains how the work of a literal translator can often go beyond a linguistic transposition to include cultural and theatrical guidance notes for the writer. Such specialist knowhow is vital to mainstream theatre teams in all but rare cases when a writer is sufficiently comfortable in the source language. David Johnston, who collaborated with Juan Mayorga for the Royal Court production of Himmelweg, asserts that the translator is often ‘the only representative of the process of writing if the author isn’t there’ (136). Yet Johnston acknowledges that it is ultimately the director’s show. Moreover, it is ultimately the theatre’s marketing department that puts audiences in theatres. This can often mean that the considerable efforts of literal translators go unacknowledged.

            Brodie therefore calls in her conclusion for improved standards of acknowledging theatre translators. The appearance of the translator Charlotte Pyke’s portrait next to that of David Hare in the programme for a 2006 production of Maxim Gorky’s Enemies at the Almeida is highlighted as an example of successful signposting. This should, in Brodie’s view, be common practice. Instead of avoiding the term ‘translation’, Brodie also sees opportunities for theatres to raise societal awareness of translation, its implications and the skill required of translators. Brodie’s study is a significant contribution to such awareness. It offers a practical insight into the roles of linguistic experts within the myriad interventions in the passage of a playtext from page to stage, and its detailed study of successful productions makes it a valuable resource for practitioners, critics and theatregoers alike. If theatre is translation, Brodie goes some way to translating what happens behind the scenes.