Translating Theatre: ‘Foreignisation’ on Stage
An AHRC Leadership Fellowship Project, May 2016-April 2018

According to the British Theatre Repertoire Survey, in 2013 only 3.2% of all the plays performed in the UK were in translation, and yet according to the Migration Observatory, 12.5% of UK residents are foreign-born, only 80% of the population identifies as ‘white British’ and hundreds of languages are spoken in the country’s schools, especially in London. The lack of diversity in British theatres is highlighted in a 2014 Arts Council England report, stating: ‘It is vital that the arts and cultural workforce becomes more representative of the society it serves’.

This two-year project argues that translation has a key role to play in fostering equality in the performing arts. In order to make British theatres attractive to, and representative of, a more diverse audience, this project proposes to further, and widen awareness of, existing debates on the ethics and politics of translation among practitioners, industry professionals, translators, audiences, students and scholars. At a time when immigration is at the centre of the political agenda and nationalist, anti-European sentiments are on the rise, theatre translation and the representation of otherness on stage can offer a public arena for intercultural dialogue.

Translating Theatre: ‘Foreignisation’ on Stage – the first research phase of the wider project Translation Adaptation Otherness: ‘Foreignisation’ in Theatre Practice – carries out research and public engagement activities that place the politics of translation and the representation of otherness through theatre in the public eye. The research investigates how linguistic and cultural difference can be communicated through translation for the stage.

Translation scholar Lawrence Venuti argues that translation is always already an act of domestication, but champions ‘foreignisation’, an ethical effect on target readers that translators can seek to generate in order to limit the degree to which the unfamiliar is forcibly turned into the familiar, silencing cultural difference. How ‘foreignisation’ is achieved depends on the context in which the translation will be received. A set of discursive and non-discursive strategies – such as the choice of source texts that do not conform to dominant taste and expectations in the target context – need to be considered alongside performance elements such as casting, acting, mise en scène, performance style, design, music/sound, costumes, and so on. Despite the recent academic interest in ‘foreignisation’, theatre studies still lack a debate on what seeking a ‘foreignising’ effect would mean for text and performance, and whether theatre – as opposed to literature – requires a distinctive approach. 

Dr Laera and her collaborators have selected three plays for translation by playwrights based in Europe and writing in Polish, Spanish and French – representing three of the most spoken European migrant languages in the UK – and have organised practice-as-research workshops with professional performers and creative collaborators, led by scholar-translators, to test ‘foreignising’ strategies. Dr Laera has also carried out qualitative research during and after the creative process with performers and audiences. 
Each workshop presented their outcome to the public in the form of rehearsed readings at the Gate Theatre in London in May and June 2016. Each performance was be followed by a post-show debate.

Taking place in the aftermath of the EU referendum, during what is one of the most crucial political debates of recent times, Dr Laera aims to widen the reach the project by working with practitioners and presenting the project in public fora.

See Translation Adaptation Otherness on the Research Councils UK Gateway to Research website.