Translation on stage

Published 23rd April 2014
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Translation on stage is a different scene to interpreting the spoken word in conversation or from listening, so what happens when it comes to theatrical performances?

I was at the theatre a couple of weeks ago, watching an excellent production of a play aptly named ‘Translations‘ and in it, there are parts where some actors are meant to be speaking Irish whilst the others speak only English and therefore have trouble understanding each other.

Performing to a packed-out British audience, there may have only been a handful of people in the room who could have understood Irish, however I thought that the theatre company got round it very well. They used accents to convey the different languages.

translation on stage for theatre

To have used Irish in such a play would have alienated a lot of the audience and made the whole interpretation of the performance much harder. In this case, it was necessary to make the distinction between the two languages but in a way which was subtle and did not do any injustice to either side of the story.

It also worked well because of the facial expressions and vocabulary used when the actors were conversing on stage. It was clear to the audience that, even though both people were talking in English, they were conveying a sense of misunderstanding; the sort of feeling you have if you’re abroad and you don’t really understand what someone is saying to you.

Aside from the fact that this was a very talented cast, the use of facial expressions, body language and accent all have a powerful effect on how we interpret what is being said.

In particular, it was the visual cues which gave so much away, alongside the words in the conversation, which, out of context, would have made no sense to someone who had not seen the play.

That’s the other thing which is so important to translation – context. Anyone with the right background and skills could translate a sentence from French to English, for example, however you need to know the background to the text to give it any real meaning.

Performances on stage are more concerned with what you see, rather than what you hear. Like if you press mute on the television, you can still get the gist of what is going on without the sound.

However, when it comes to translation on stage, it is the use of accent and vocabulary, together with the surrounding context and use of body language and facial expressions, which provides a full picture of what is being conveyed.

Like many things to do with languages, translation does not stand alone. It is simply another cog in the wheel of languages and interpretation and depends on other factors to make it work.

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Translations by the English Touring Theatre
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