THEATRE IN TRANSLATION
The Other Side of the Tapestry
- William Gregory
“…there is a whole world out there, and theatre in translation is a part of making sure audiences have the opportunity to hear stories about that world and experience different ideas about what art can do and what theatre can be.”
An often overlooked role in theatre making, translating a foreign language text is a long and complicated task that requires skill, dedication and an ability to shoulder an immense amount of responsibility. The search to find the exact phrasing that most closely matches the original text is not one that is necessarily easy. The choice of language is an artform in itself and can completely change the intended meaning of a line, scene, or even a whole play. Aside from having the ability to fluently speak at least two languages, translators must be able to thoroughly analyse the subtext and culture of any play they are given and communicate it to a new audience in a different culture.
As part of the Plays by Post programme, Cut the Cord has been sharing, reading, and promoting translated plays from Denmark, France, Israel, Uruguay, Chile & Germany. William Gregory, Kirsten Hazel Smith, Kim Dambæk, Daniel Goldman, Eran Edry and Daniel Brunet served as the translators for these plays and spoke to us about their experiences and careers as translators in theatre.
What is the role of a theatre translator?
DANIEL GOLDMAN: At its most basic, the job is to translate the play and present it to an audience in their language. Obviously, it goes further than that because then I think the second part of that job is to translate the experience of the play.
DANIEL BRUNET: A theatre translator understands the core of what is being expressed, directly and indirectly, in one language and culture and finds a new and linguistically appropriate way to express this in another language and culture. Ideally, a reader or audience member will only know that a script has been translated if they are told; the translation should feel as though it was originally written in the target language.
WILLIAM GREGORY: Some see us as technicians (rather than artists) whose work is there just as a resource; others see us as theatre practitioners in our own right who, in our own way, are playwrights. Most see us somewhere in between I expect! We’re also scouts, de facto agents, dramaturgs, interpreters, researchers, facilitators, advocates, educators, editors, producers, and I’m sure many other things I haven’t thought of.
How did you get into translation?
ERAN EDRY: I’m a fully bilingual TV and film writer who has worked in both languages (Hebrew and English in my case), and this gave me enough confidence to start reaching out to translation/localisation companies and just offer my services. One happened to take a chance on me and gave me my first Hebrew screenplay to translate to English. I fell in love with the craft, and the rest is history!
KIM DAMBÆK: I got into translating through necessity – no one had translated the piece (“Lo Que Esta en el Aire” by Carlos Cerda from Chile) I wanted to direct at The Traverse back in 1989 – and I was lucky enough to be able to translate from Spanish into English. So the translation was born from a desire to tell this story and share it with the world.
WILLIAM GREGORY: I took some exams in translation at Cambridge, but I didn’t have any formal vocational training as a translator until around 2006. I sat a professional exam called the Diploma in Translation, which is run by the Chartered Institute of Linguists. The first play I translated was purely self-motivated. It so happened that the Royal Court was in need of someone to read, assess and translate a pile of new plays from Cuba. I translated a sample, they seemed to like it, and I have been working for them ever since.
What’s the process of translating for the stage?
KIRSTEN HAZEL SMITH: I like to translate my first draft as quickly as possible, just letting my love for the original text flow onto the page. I then put it to one side and let my mind mull over the linguistic obstacles that the translation has thrown up, such as a French phrase not existing in English. I then go back over the script and do a far more detailed draft where I tackle all the tricky bits. It is at this point that I like to speak with the playwright and ask them a bunch of questions about what they meant by a particular line or if they have a preference about a particular choice I’ve made.
DANIEL BRUNET: When I translate for the stage, my initial approach is to immerse myself in the play, directorially and dramaturgically. In order to be able to express its unique nature, world view, use of language and voice in my native language, I need to understand it as thoroughly and intimately as I would need to in order to create a production of it.
DANIEL GOLDMAN: It’s about 70% on a first draft, which might feel like a lot, but it’s definitely beyond the literal. Then clean it up, that gives you 10%, and the final 20% is in the room working with actors. And there’s always a back and forth, a dialogue with the writer. One of the most fascinating things working with Sergio [Blanco] is translating the music, because he has music that is a reference for him at his age and him and his audience, which is very different to our relationship with the same music. So translating that sort of stuff is really fascinating.
If you are based outside of the UK, is there a difference in how work in translation is received?
ERAN EDRY: I am London-based but having previously lived overseas, I can tell you that in Israel for instance, there is almost an insatiable hunger for translated work – and at times, I did find myself wondering whether that ended up being to the detriment of original, homegrown theatre work.
DANIEL BRUNET: In Germany, there is little difference to an audience regarding the language in which a script may have originally been written. Indeed, one of the most produced playwrights in Germany is William Shakespeare and the many different translations of those plays hold a literary esteem similar to that granted to works by Goethe or Schiller, for example. Scripts by playwrights from around the world are produced regularly on German stages large and small in a much, much greater frequency than they are in the United States.
KIM DAMBÆK: From the perspective of someone living in Denmark, I find more Scandinavian drama is travelling to the UK than vice versa. We have not really seen British drama here since the days of the “In-yer-face” dramatists of the 90’s (Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, Anthony Neilson). Since 2000, it seems German Theatre has had a greater influence on Scandinavian theatre and led to more contemporary drama from local writers as well as devised productions.
What’s the translator's role in the rehearsal process? Do you feel like an equal creative voice and what challenges can there be?
WILLIAM GREGORY: The role varies hugely. I think the biggest challenge stems from the fact that translations in UK and US theatre are still so rare. This means that whenever a translator finds themselves working on a project, they can sometimes find that their colleagues haven’t thought in depth about where the translator fits in, or have made a lot of assumptions about that without actually consulting with the translator first. This can sometimes lead to the translator not feeling like an equal, and it can lead to frustrations and misunderstandings.
KIRSTEN HAZEL SMITH: A translator’s role is often considered over when rehearsals begin, which I think is a missed opportunity. I was fortunate enough to be in the rehearsal room for Going Through, which allowed the director and actors to ask any questions they had about the translation and the original text. Translators are often barely acknowledged in the productions of translated plays, which is something I believe has to change. The translated play wouldn’t exist without the translator’s work, and this should, at the very least, be recognised.
Finally, why is it important to have plays in translation and how do you think international work is represented in the UK?
KIM DAMBÆK: Plays in translation are important: To bring to life the differences and similarities between cultures. To show us that there are people on the other side of the globe with dreams, thoughts and preoccupations that match our own. To illuminate cultural differences – which are not necessarily the way we expect them to be.
KIRSTEN HAZEL SMITH: I feel that international work is under-represented in the UK. Maybe this is because there are so many amazing British playwrights, but maybe British audiences are also a little wary of foreign plays, certainly those written by new voices.
ERAN EDRY: Translated plays add to our cultural wealth and living in an era of growing nationalism and isolationism, the more we expose ourselves to international, multicultural voices, the better equipped we are to “fend off the darkness,” for lack of less dramatic imagery.
I believe the UK has been a steady, loyal platform for international work to date. That said, I would urge theatres and critics to step out of their comfort zones and take a leap of faith on less traditional / linear modes of storytelling as there is a genuine golden age of creativity going on in that arena and they would be remiss to turn a blind eye to that.
WILLIAM GREGORY: It’s important because there is a whole world out there and theatre in translation is a part of making sure audiences have the opportunity to hear stories about that world and to experience different ideas about what art can do and what theatre can be. It’s important that translated plays specifically are part of this, because if not, this means that what UK theatres call ‘international’ projects risk giving primacy to playwrights who happen to be able to speak English themselves (which may itself assume a certain amount of educational privilege) or who happen to be located in an English-speaking country already.
DANIEL GOLDMAN: We are richer for the breadth of experiences that we are able to access and receive. And it's that simple. If it allows an audience to discover new voices, new ways of thinking and new ideas from other places then plays in translation are vital.
Plays by Post and the incredible selection of plays would not have existed without the work of these fantastic translators, their breadth of experience and creativity. If you would like to read more about the Plays by Post programme, go to www.cutthecordtheatre.com/plays-by-post
KIM DAMBÆK - I Run
Kim Dambæk is a translator and stage director who has worked extensively for national,
regional and private theatres throughout Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Great Britain.
His work includes award winning translations of plays by leading Nordic playwrights
such as Jon Fosse, P. O. Enquist, Astrid Saalbach, Line Knutzon, Thor Bjørn Krebs, Peter
Asmussen and Line Mørkeby for, amongst others, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, BBC TV,
Royal Shakespeare Company, Young Vic, London, Rough Magic Theatre in Dublin as well
as BAM Majestic Theatre, New York.Kim graduated from the Drama Centre Directing Course in 1980.
KIRSTEN HAZEL SMITH - Going Through
Kirsten grew up in France to Scottish parents, and trained as an actor at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. She is trilingual: English, French and Spanish.
Kirsten’s first translation Going Through by Estelle Savasta was produced at the Bush Theatre, London in April 2019. She has also translated Estelle Savasta’s Unwritten Letters for the Cross Channel Theatre Group, and What World Do I Live in? Dialogues Without Borders for Boundless Theatre and Théâtre de la Cité, Toulouse.
ERAN EDRY - Amsterdam
Eran is a screenwriter, translator and songwriter who has worked in international film, television, and theatre since 2005. From writing extensively for children’s television (BabyFirstTV, Helen Doron Group, Zumbini) to his most recent collaborations with high-profile Israeli filmmakers such as Eran Riklis (Spider in the Web, 2019), the Paz Brothers (The Golem, 2018), and Savi Gabizon (Longing, 2017). Eran writes, translates and adapts screenplays from Hebrew to global, English-speaking markets. This is Eran’s third-time collaboration with Amsterdam creator and playwright, Maya Arad-Yasur. His other theatre credits include translating original plays by Israeli director Shay Pitowski (The Oath, 2019), up-and-coming playwright Nili Lamdan (Land of Onions and Honey, 2019), and an original musical (A Tale of Two Tails, 2015) for which Eran wrote both book and lyrics. Eran lives in London where he is currently working on his debut children’s novel and a television drama pilot.
DANIEL GOLDMAN - The Rage of Narcissus
Daniel is a London-based director, writer, translator, producer and teacher. He is the artistic director of Tangram Theatre Company and was the artistic director of CASA Latin American Theatre Festival for twelve years. He trained as a theatre maker at Escuela Andamio 90 (Buenos Aires) and École Jacques Lecoq (Paris). Recent directing credits include: The Rage of Narcissus (Pleasance Theatre London), Frankenstein (Inside Out Theatre, Beijing, performed in Mandarin), Oedipus at Colonus (Cambridge Arts Theatre, performed in ancient Greek), Camasca (Teatro Britanico, Lima, performed in Spanish), Thebes Land (Arcola), Songs of Friendship (Vault Festival, EdFringe, UK / International Touring), John Hinton’s Scientrilogy (EdFringe, UK / International Touring). Always interested in working internationally, Daniel has directed in Peru, China, Kenya, Belgium and Argentina and taught acting in India, Mexico and Colombia.
WILLIAM GREGORY - B
William Gregory has translated close to 200 plays from Spanish, many of these by contemporary playwrights as part of the international writer development workshops of the Royal Court Theatre. As well as B for the Royal Court, his produced translations have included Villa and Discurso by Guillermo Calderón (Prime Cut, Belfast; PlayCo, New York), The Concert by Ulises Rodríguez Febles (Royal Court; BBC Radio Drama), Chamaco and Weathered by Abel González Melo (HOME, Manchester), I'd Rather Goya Robbed Me of My Sleep than Some Other Arsehole by Rodrigo García (Gate, London) and Cuzco by Víctor Sánchez Rodríguez (Theatre503). He was a finalist in the 2019 Valle Inclán translation award for The Oberon Anthology of Contemporary Spanish Plays. He is a Visiting Research Associate at King's College London, a member of the theatre translation collective Out of the Wings, and in 2020 will be one of two translators in residence at the British Centre for Literary Translation. Originally from Grimsby in the north of England, he is now based in London. He can be found online at
DANIEL BRUNET - The Ridiculous Darkness
Daniel Brunet is a director, performer, producer and translator. He was born in Syracuse, New York in 1979 and studied theater and film at Boston College. He moved to Berlin in 2001 with the support of a Fulbright Scholarship and began a career as a freelance theater maker. Brunet founded THE LAB at English Theatre Berlin during his 2003/2004 directing residency. He was the Associate Director/Associate Producer of German Theater Abroad in Berlin and New York from 2005 to 2008. His work includes the bilingual performance Knick-Knack to the Future | Ruckzuck in die Zukunft, created with the artist collective copy & waste and invited to the 2015 steirischer herbst festival, the world premiere of Amy Evan’s play The Most Unsatisifed Town (April 2016, remounted in 2017) and the The Land of Milk(y) and Honey?, a documentary theater project exploring Israelis in Berlin in co-production with the ID Festival – Festival for Israeli-German art and culture, which enjoyed a completely sold-out run. Brunet has received multiple awards for his translations of German plays by writers including Wolfram Lotz, Dea Loher, Falk Richter, Roland Schimmelpfennig and Heiner Müller.