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Performance, Props, and Platforms: Translation Acts at the American Literary Translators Association Conference, November 2018

Performance, Props, and Platforms

As a theatre translator and researcher, the theme, ‘Performance, Props and Platforms’, had been the initial draw to the conference. The focus on translating for performance, as well as the exploration of translation acts as performative acts, was at the heart of the activities. This theme seemed to open up the possibility for those working on prose and poetry to discuss the performative aspect of their work. The speakers also analysed some of the props, methods and techniques used by those who translate (an idea which has fascinated me for a long time and which I wrote about in a previous blog post).

At the start of the conference, I was instantly struck by the wide range of languages represented on the panels and at the different events. This captivated my interest and made me curious to see what I could learn from translators’ experience of working across other languages. I was excited to share my work on translating Uruguayan theatre for a London audience as part of the Out of the Wings workshop and on the panel ‘Constructing Iberian and Ibero-American Identities in Translation’.

Workshop: Out of the Wings: Testing and Advocating for Translation in Performance

The Translation Acts strand of Language Acts and Worldmaking collaborates with the Out of the Wings collective and through this partnership develops theatre translation practice, tests newly-translated works and explores ways for plays in translation to reach new audiences. We do this through a monthly meeting where we read and discuss a play and through a week-long festival to showcase and reflect on our activities throughout the year. The Out of the Wings collective is a group of theatre practitioners, researchers, translators, actors and directors who build on the work of the project: Out of the Wings: A contextualised resource of Spanish-language plays for English-speaking practitioners and researchers (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (2008-2011).

At ALTA we presented our simple and robust methodology for testing a play in translation by reading in small groups to hear the translated dramatic text in different voices. I was seeking to explore the rhythm of the play that I have just translated, Her Open Eyes (Los ojos abiertos de ella) by Raquel Diana. The play is a dialogue between two protagonists, Him and Her, but their exchanges sometimes shift to give way to a poetic rhythm. This seems to introduce another voice, one that is commenting on the situation in the play, critiquing it and giving a different perspective. Hearing the play (in quite an early draft) enabled me to pinpoint with more certainty where these shifts occur and to then go back to my analysis to think about how this shapes the piece dramaturgically and the effect that these shifts have on both actors and audiences.

Constructing Iberian and Ibero-American Identities in Translation

This conversation, chaired by Sarah Booker, researcher at UNC and translator of the Illiac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza, raised fundamental but rarely discussed questions about what gets translated into English at a particular moment and why, and how these translations can then be tracked (and accessed). We discussed and recognised the important work of translation databases, such as Three Percent, in producing searchable records of printed translations, the work of small presses in creating opportunities for less well-known or well-established authors to be translated, and the role of certain cultural institutions, such as L’Institut Ramon Llull (for Catalan), in supporting and promoting translations into English.

This is essential in ensuring that readers of English have access to a variety of texts and types of texts from the Iberian and Ibero-American world, although we recognised that sometimes translations of theatre texts can be more difficult to track if the script is not published. We touched on the danger that a limited selection of texts in translation from certain countries can have in perpetuating national or regional stereotypes, as well as the frustration of feeling forced to respond to these stereotypes when pitching a new translation. We discussed ways that translators can play a key role in introducing new authors to US and UK audiences and allowing different, dissident and diverse voices to be heard.

The issue of representing Latin America as diverse and multifaceted also came to the fore in the panel ‘Translating Hyphenated Latin America’. This time the discussion provoked challenging questions about how translating, and then reading aloud, poetry from certain contexts might require the translator to perform a certain identity or way of speaking which isn’t their own. The role of the translator-as-performer and advocate can become even more complex when translating and presenting, for example, poetry written in prisons, detention centres or under repressive regimes. These conflicts and complex negotiations were discussed in ‘High Wire Act: The Translator as Human Rights Activist’ and the contributors raised the issue of the vulnerability of the translator when translating sensitive texts about repression and violence. 

The Translator’s Voice

The discussions constantly made me reflect on the significance of the voice across all types of translation: the voice that we hear (primarily in our heads) as translators in the act of translating; those we listen to for inspiration in the target context; those we create, echo and emulate in the texts that we translate; and those that are performed aloud. The conversations at ALTA emphasised the fact that the concern for how these voices resonate when spoken in the target context is shared amongst translators of prose, poetry and plays. Theatre’s capacity to present a range of conflicting, contrasting and complex voices presents a great challenge for the theatre translator as well as great opportunity to engage with new and different perspectives, situations and contexts. But the translator’s own voice and subjectivity will always be present amongst these multiple voices in the creative decisions that they make, the risks that they take in choosing to translate certain texts and the innovative ways in which they make distant voices seem familiar in the target context.

* Some of this text forms part of a jointly-authored article about the ALTA conference for The Theatre Times. You can read the article to find out about other experiences of ALTA here.

More information

The American Literary Translators Association

Session Participants:

Constructing Iberian and Ibero-American Identities in Translation

Sarah Booker

Kate Good

Neil Anderson

Denise Kripper

 Out of the Wings: Testing and Advocating for Translation in Performance

Gigi Guizado

Catherine Boyle