On the back of World Theatre Day on 27 March, we want to tell you a bit about the link between this art form and our specific art, translation. 

Of the many branches of translation, theatre translation is one of the least known and most overlooked, and is often confused with literary translation, due to the close link between the two. Interestingly enough, there are more productions of translated theatre in Spain than there are plays written, which indicates just how important these translations are.

World Theatre Day 

Many of you may be wondering why World Theatre Day is on 27 March. It was first celebrated in 1961 when the UNESCO International Theatre Institute decided to declare this day to make the art more widely known. This day is marked around the world with performances of the most influential works in the history of drama, many of which have reached our stages thanks to the work of theatre translators. 

“Theatre is poetry that rises from the book and becomes human enough to talk and shout, weep and despair.” (Federico García Lorca)

What is theatre translation? 

“To publish or to perform? That is the question.” When talking about this type of translation, we first need to differentiate between translating works that are to be published and those that are to be performed on stage. How does the type of text influence the work of translators? The purpose of a text determines how it must be tackled. Translating a text that is to be purely transmitted in writing is not the same as translating a text that needs to be adapted for a subsequent production. In theatre translation, most translations usually correspond to the former, but when it’s the latter, the translator has to take both linguistic and extra-linguistic aspects (gestures, characters’ positions on stage, movements, etc.) into account. 

Translating theatre is complex and requires considerable human endeavour, which is why plugging a dramatic text into a machine translation tool could lead to huge losses, not only in terms of budget, but also content, symbolism, metaphors, the author’s intention… There are too many factors at stake to trust the success of such a painstaking task to a set of machines. 

What are the challenges of theatre translation? 

When translating plays, professional translators face a series of challenges that they don’t find in other texts. The first example lies in their orality. These texts are designed to be spoken and therefore, not only does the oral language keep changing, but also, if the text is to be read aloud, it will need to sound good and suit the style and register of the author’s work in general. Furthermore, the audience watching the production can’t rewind if they haven’t understood something, nor can they click the subtitle button on the remote; the immediacy and time constraints of these texts make translation that much more complicated. 

Undoubtedly, staging is also key in works that are meant to be performed. Who does the character speaking address? Are they referring to their costume or to nearby objects? Does it matter where they position themselves on stage? All these unknowns play out in the mind of the theatre translator. 

All plays, regardless of their purpose, need the translator to be highly creative. They must endeavour to go beyond the words on the page before them and try to reproduce the feelings or thoughts hidden between the author’s lines. Quite the task! What’s more, theoretical and practical resources and research in this area are visibly lacking, making it even more complex. 

As we can see, the role of the translator in drama texts (like their role in literary text translation) crosses the boundary of translation to delve into rewriting, as not only do they have to work with two languages and two cultures, but also with two different audiences who hope to enjoy the work they’re going to read or watch. 

Do you have a play that you’d like to translate? 

Ask us! Whether your play is going to be published or performed, put your trust in a team of professional translators to make the leap to stardom. We can’t promise you’ll have everyone in the room clapping, but we can ensure that they’ll at least understand all the nuances that you want to transmit through your words. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us via our web contact form.