I thought it might be nice to put together a quick summary and a few links about theatre translation, for my own amusement and maybe other people's too.
Translation for the stage is unlike any other form of literary translation, because of the dimension of performance. Translations for the stage are recreated with each new production and even with each new performance. When translating a play, it’s crucial to know what the purpose of the translation is. There is a big difference between translation for performance and translation for publication. Translations for publication are intended to be read, rather than performed, so you might well find footnotes in a reading translation of a play – but you can’t have footnotes on stage, so jokes, puns, cultural references and wordplay must be recreated in a way which works for the new audience. Performable translations must also be ‘speakable’ by the actors, and may be adapted by director and actors in the rehearsal process.
Like other forms of literary translation, translation for the stage is a niche specialisation. One of the more remarkable traditions in British theatre today is the use of ‘literal’ translations to support ‘new versions’ by well-known writers. A translator is commissioned to provide a close translation of the text with supporting documentation, which is then used by the writer to develop his or her ‘own’ version of the text. This is the case, for instance, with many newly commissioned translations of Russian plays. Literal translators are usually poorly paid and unrecognised for their work, though some reward may be found in the opportunity to work with big names in the theatre world. In an ideal scenario, the translator, the director and the actors work closely together in rehearsal but in the 'real world' this often doesn't happen.
There’s a good article about translation of classical French comedy for the British stage here. You might also like to read this interesting panel discussion organised by the National Theatre a few years ago.
A play that’s been retranslated for the stage several times is Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. Compare this scene from a 2006 Comédie Française production:
with the same scene from Derek Jacobi’s 1985 Royal Shakespeare Company production of the play (this is from the TV version so is a bit like cheating). Jacobi uses a newly commissioned translation by Anthony Burgess, though he could, in theory, have used any one of a number of existing translations. The Gertrude Hall translation, which appeared in 1898, might be a bit old-fashioned, but the 1923 version by the American translator Brian Hooker was a big success in its day. The 1972 Lowell Bair translation is for publication rather than for performance, but Jacobi might well have chosen the Christopher Fry translation from 1975, which I saw revived earlier this year at Chichester with Joseph Fiennes in the title role, and thoroughly enjoyable it was too! Of course, in 1985 Jacobi didn’t have access to Edwin Morgan’s 1992 Scots version of Cyrano, Ranjit Bolt and Jatinda Verma’s Indian adaptation, or Irish poet Derek Mahon’s 2004 version (which received rather mixed reviews, like this one. This is how Jacobi imagines the scene:
(Anyone who follows this blog regularly may recognise this scene from a previous post which included a clip of the same scene, subtitled in English, from Rappeneau’s 1990 film of the play.)
A specialised type of translating for the stage is surtitling, or the writing of short titles to translate dialogue or song lyrics. These titles may be displayed on a screen over or beside the stage, or in a little airline-style screen on the back of the seat in front – there are some images here of what it looks like. Surtitling is now fairly common for performances of opera in the original languages, and is also used for stage musicals. There’s a long interview with Jonathan Burton and Judi Palmer of the Royal Opera House here (it’s a big file so it might take a while to download).
Of course, it’s also possible to make ‘singable’ translations of opera, musicals and songs, though it’s extremely challenging. Here’s an aria from Handel’s opera Giulio Cesare, originally written in Italian:
and the same aria sung in English (this also gives a good picture of how different stage productions of the same ‘work’ can vary):
On a cheesier note, here’s a well-known song from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Jesus Christ Superstar:
and the same song in Italian (sorry I couldn’t find performance footage for this):
There are several good academic books out there on translating for the stage, of which one of the most accessible and interesting is David Johnston’s (alas, apparently out of print) Stages of Translation: Translators on Translating for the Stage.