Translating Theatre (June-July 2016)

Part of ‘Translation, Adaptation, Otherness’

An AHRC Leadership Fellowship Project, May 2016-April 2019

This website documents ‘Translating Theatre’, the practice-as-research element of an academic project about translation for the stage called ‘Translation, Adaptation, Otherness: “Foreignisation” in Theatre Practice’ and led by Dr Margherita Laera at the University of Kent and sponsored by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council.

‘Translating Theatre’ was designed to address the alarming marginalisation of foreign-language writers in the British theatre repertoire (3.8% of all plays in the UK in 2013 were translations, and 2.2% of all performances according to the British Theatre Repertoire 2013). Meanwhile, migrants in the UK represent about 14% of the population, and in London the percentage is closer to 40%. I believe these figures point to an issue of social justice: migrant communities are being underrepresented and marginalised by the British theatre industry and its reluctance to engage with non-English plays. This is no less than discrimination on the basis of cultural and linguistic difference, but the issue is not yet perceived as such by public opinion. Part of the reason for carrying out this project is to raise public awareness of translation as an ethical imperative in a multicultural society such as ours.

To address this concern, Dr Laera’s fellowship project comprised a practice-as-research element, entitled ‘Translating Theatre’, which was developed in 2016, when a team of scholar-translators, directors and performers came together under Dr Laera’s leadership to translate and perform in English three continental plays written in Polish, Spanish and French by Europe-based writers with a migrant background. Simon Breden (University of Nottingham) translated Denise Despeyroux’s Black Tenderness: The Passion of Mary Stuart, a magical realist comedy about history and our relationship with its vestiges. Kélina Gotman (King’s College London) translated Marie NDiaye’s The Snakes, a symbolic drama about three women – the mother, the wife and the ex-wife of a man we never get to see – which keeps spectators hanging with its motionless, suffocated atmosphere. Aneta Mancewicz (Birmingham University) and Bryce Lease (Royal Holloway) translated Piotr Lachmann’s Gliwice Hamlet, an autobiographical, anti-realist rewriting of Shakespeare in which the author’s experience of displacement during WWII brings up issues of memory and identity.

These plays were presented as staged readings at the Gate Theatre, London, immediately following the Brexit referendum vote. Our practice as research offered opportunities to reflect on issues of migration of peoples and texts from one cultural context to another at a highly topical time in the history of the UK. The project was developed to resist, and offer a theatrical counter-narrative to, the anti-immigration rhetoric gaining more and more purchase in British political discourses.

Every effort was made to select outstanding plays that would challenge the perceived taste of British audiences and the conventions of British theatre, questioning generally held assumptions about what should be translated, and not only how. Our aim was to investigate alternative translation practices that would be able to highlight, rather than silence, linguistic and cultural difference, and that would engage with the ‘foreign’ text in an ethical way by making it the ground for aesthetic innovation and political resistance at ‘home’.

On this website, you can explore our work by watching our documentary or browsing our archive of videos, images and interviews with the team, and listen to some of the papers delivered at our symposium. You can also buy the books of our translations of Black Tenderness, The Snakes and Gliwice Hamlet.

Soon, you will be able to read Dr Margherita Laera’s assessment of the project in her peer-reviewed article for a special issue of Modern Drama (issue 61.3, 2018) on multilingual theatre.

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