posted by Petra Kohse
categories: Spotlight

There it was again, this time at the HAU in Berlin for a guest performance of Jan Klata’s “The Promised Land” by the Polski Express from Wrocław – that good, old simultaneous translation piped in over earphones. At the cloakroom you swapped your ID for the device, switched it to the right channel, stuck in an earbud, letting the other one hang down (in order to hear what they said on stage), and then hoped it would work. Hoped, that is, that the translator’s voice (Agnieszka Grzybkowska’s at the HAU) would be so unobtrusive and intrinsic to the performance that it could be perceived as a natural processing station for all that was said en route from the stage to the brain. It’s best when she (for some reason, the translator always seems to be a she) is not a native speaker of German, but has a slight accent from the country where the play originates. Ever since I watched the guest performance of Lew Dodin’s small-town saga “Brothers and Sisters” by the St. Petersburg Maly Teatr at the Theater der Welt festival in Hamburg in 1989, I’ve associated world theatre with this useful, monotone, charmingly accentuated voice in my ear that makes me feel I’ve listened to (and understood) the real-time dialogue on stage. Compliments to those simultaneous translators!

But because of expense and aesthetic considerations, it appears that simultaneous translation in theatre is becoming a thing of the past. When a production has several co-producers and a large number of artists touring with the piece, it’s often easier and cheaper to project supertitles on a screen at the back of the stage than have a translator accompany every performance. And for some productions, supertitles might suit the total “package” better than an artistic, but uncontrollable and omnipresent whisper in one’s ear. In any case, supertitles are the trend. Optically there’s no telling apart those in the audience who know the language from those who don’t. Yet people who rely on the translation cannot really watch the performance, because at least one eye is always glued to the supertitles. Even in smaller auditoriums like the one in the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin where Andrzej Stasiuk’s “Czekając na Turka” (Waiting for the Turk) was performed by the Stary Teatr for the first time last June, it wasn’t always possible to read the supertitles and watch the play at the same time. And when spoken language is reduced to its translated written form, and depending on how fast one can read, the meaning and action can sometimes fall out of sync.

Occasionally there are the bilingual experiments on stage like the attempt by the Theater Erlangen and the St. Petersburg Teatr Pokoleniy in Laura de Weck’s “SumSum²“. Although it might have had its fun and practical moments, it is less a model for guest performances than a way of conveying linguistically artistic texts. Which brings us to the question whether it’s even necessary to provide simultaneous translation at all. What happens when we go to a theatre in Israel or Poland but can speak neither Hebrew nor Polish? We try to obtain an English summary and pay far closer attention to what happens on stage than if we saw it at home. We try to interpret every detail and observe the reactions of the audience. Like an automatic reflex, we tend to laugh when others laugh, though we might only vaguely sense what the reason might be. Nonetheless, we find ourselves in the best of spirits (Stanislavski effect!). We begin to speculate, our minds wander and return again to study gestures and intonation. In the end, we haven’t really understood very much. We’ve seen something foreign which we’re incapable of judging or categorizing. It’s no surprise that the image and sound of such untranslated, mystifying performances make a much stronger impression on us than those performed in a language we supposedly understand. Perhaps theatre needn’t work so hard to globalise its identity and serve it in mouth-sized portions. And if theatre decides to travel the world, perhaps it should simply speak its own language and be itself without feeling obligated to transform itself and translate everything into the language of the host country.

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