In Review: The Translator on Stage

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The Translator on Stage
Geraldine Brodie, Bloomsbury, 2017
Reviewed by Penny Black

I am going to come clean straightaway: I came to translating plays through practice not through academia. I originally studied drama in Vienna, and when I returned to the UK found myself employable only playing German roles, of which there was a dearth. Then a small theatre asked me to translate a play for them—and I was off, it was 1989 and everyone wanted plays originally written in German. I learned by doing, and I did a lot of doing!

As a result, I find it deeply frustrating when translation theorists set out their narrowly-defined theories on how to translate a play for the stage—and it should be noted that Venuti never did—as experience shows that each individual play and the circumstances of its production are completely different. An As You Like It in the open-air naturally-lit Globe Theatre is inherently different to an As You Like It done on the main stage at the RSC in Stratford, and again both will radically differ from a four-hander version touring rural areas. Very few of the books on translation that I have read allowed for this particularity of translating for the stage as opposed to the page and, as a result, translations for the stage have often been judged by criteria that do not allow for a complete picture of the requirements of the translation.

It was in this frame of mind that I came to Brodie’s The Translator on Stage. The book is the result of research, Brodie’s stated method being the Latour-Actor-Network-Theory, “recording not filtering out, describing not disciplining,” (9) and it is this openness of approach that makes this book so interesting. She goes on to state at the start of the book that her aim is “to investigate the agency of the translator in theatre, with specific reference to plays in translation in performance on the main London stage,” which included not only commercial theatres but also subsidized theatres such as the Royal National Theatre (NT) and the Royal Court.

Brodie took a sample of ten translated plays that were in production in 2015 that she found advertised and reviewed in the mainstream British press, and within this framework she looks not only at “direct translation,” for example a translation by David Tushingham, a German-speaker, of Roland Schimmelfpfennig’s The Woman Before for the Royal Court, and “indirect translation” (and Brodie is aware and sets out how contested these terms are), which uses an interim translator to provide a literal translation for a playwright usually with a track record for commercially and critically successful productions. The two subsidized theatres in this book represent these two ways of working, the NT on the whole using the indirect methods, whereas the Royal Court has always aimed for direct translations as part of its brief to work with writers.

However, there are many others in this sample, including David Eldridge’s translation/adaptation of the film Festen at the Almeida Theatre (and she spends some time discussing how the terms translated by/adapted by/in a version by can often be interchangeable when it comes to publicity) and Tony Harrison’s poetic re-worked translation of Euripides’ Hecuba for the NT. This breadth of productions in a variety of theatres allows for a considered in-depth investigation of how translations end up on stage and in what shape.

Having found a time framework of plays for her research, Brodie goes on to interview as many people as possible involved with each production. All in all, she carried out eighteen in-depth interviews with artistic directors, producers, literary department personnel, directors, playwrights, and the translators themselves, who she divided into direct, indirect and literal. She also examines the physical and economic conditions of the productions, which plays were the most successful, their origination within the theatre—notes that some of the plays started outside London, looks at reviews of the productions, and shows how the translation is referred to in the reviews. She looks carefully at the process and development of each individual translation and interviews each of the translators in depth, not only about the process of translating the specific work, but also how each translator fitted into the collaborative process of making the play, whether through physical meetings or email exchanges, as well as the acknowledgement of their work in publicity material going out from the theatres.

On the way she examines how decisions are made through costume choice, set design and lighting, and very specifically at how class comes into play when performing a foreign text in translation on the British stage. In considering David Hare’s adaptation of Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba Brodie writes:

At home in the impressive surroundings created by the set designer Vicki Mortimer, Poncia’s clothing and demeanour portray her more as a middle-class housekeeper than a servant, and her language reflects this presentation. Hare’s version corresponds with Lorca’s original through the literal translation but addresses the linguistic challenges in his idiosyncratic manner. (49)

When considering Hare and others and allowing herself to describe as opposed to discipline, she proposes that “the use of a celebrity translator highlights the act of translation and the existence of translations themselves” (104). A point of view that irritates all translators but at the same time reflects the reality of making theatre; a celebrity director or designer or writer or actor will often ensure a larger audience from the off and is a key part of putting on plays.

Her describe as opposed to discipline approach also allows surprising facts to emerge. One example: “the directors of translated productions are still more likely to be male, with Katie Mitchell a notable exception, as are the writers and visible translators of texts for staged translations. It would certainly appear from this sample that view theatre practices through a translation prism provides information pertaining to theatrical hierarchies and visibility … especially in relationship to the least visible practitioner: the literal translator” (102). Sadly, not such a surprise to female theatre practitioners.

The interviews with the translators are fascinating. Brodie’s approach is magnanimous and her interest in each translator and not only their translation process but also their careers in general is sincere. Brodie’s genuine interest in all aspect of her research and her awareness also of the generosity of the time given to her by freelance practitioners, all of whom share her interest in translation and her desire for more to be known about it comes through at all levels.

In her concluding chapter, Brodie states:

Theatre presents the opportunity to examine the significance of the commissioning process in translation via its listing of the agents involved in all aspects of production. Its visible procedures proved material enabling reflection on translation for the theorist, and the potential to raise awareness of translation for the practitioner. (164)

Theatre translation often sees itself as the poorer cousin to prose or poetry translation, there is a sense that the translator is not in charge and even stating that theatre is a collaboration can feel defensive and open debate about the authorial voice. What’s more, the individual translator can sometimes feel embattled against the opaque machinery of theatre, seeing only a rejection of their hard work as opposed to understanding that there are many choices behind the commissioning of a new translation and that the programming of a play is not a stand-alone decision.

This book, through the prism of ten plays, opens up an understanding of translation as well as the workings of theatre for translators, theatre makers and laypeople alike. Consequently, it is a book that everyone with an interest in the subject – academic or practical – would benefit from reading. Behind the research is Brodie’s passionate interest in translation and translators which, combined with her forensic approach, makes this book fascinating to read.


Penny Black studied drama at Schauspielschule Krauss in Vienna and started her translating career by adapting Yes, My Fuehrer aand The Galizian Jewess from the novels by Brigitte Schwaiger for the Edinburgh Festival 1993 and London 1994. Since then she has translated and adapted over forty plays for a variety of theatres such as the Royal Court, the Gate, the National Theatre, Lyric Hammersmith, Arcola Theatre, as well as venues in America and Australia. Her translation of Venezuela by Guy Helminger is taught on the MRes in Playwriting Studies at Birmingham University. Her translation of Nobel-prize-winner Elfriede Jelinek’s Sportsplay toured the UK in 2012 and was chosen as a Cultural Olympic Pop-Up event.

Her first original play Making Babies was produced in 2004 in Heilbronn, Germany; See No Evil, at Southwark Playhouse in 2007; and Sudden Silence, as part of a festival of new writing at the Arcola Theatre in 2009. In 2018 she was commissioned to write a one-person show about Emilie Flöge, the woman in Gustav Klimt’s painting “The Kiss,” which was been to Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Britain, and Germany and will be in Japan in May 2019. She is currently adapting a novel, Absent, by the Scottish-Iraqi writer Betool Khedairi, to be entitled Human Honey, for Merchant Culture in Glasgow, and has just finished adapting Maggie La Tourelle’s book, The Gift of Alzheimer’s, for the stage.

Penny also works as a dramaturg: projects include Tosca’s Kiss by Kenneth Jupp for Annette Niemtzow, NYC, and work with Simon McBurney on his Magic Flute for the DNO/ENO.

Penny is president of the Dramaturgs’ Network and is the 2017-2018 Royal Literary Fund Fellow at St Mary’s University, Twickenham.

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