Review of Theatre Translation: Theory and Practice

Massimiiliano Morini. Theatre Translation: Theory and Practice. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022.

Reviewed by Emma Pauly

Massimiliano Morini’s Theatre Translation: Theory and Practice opens with a metaphor borrowed from Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall, the story of a civilization subjected, every two thousand years, to a consuming total eclipse that plunges the populace into madness, ruin, and the doom of repetition as forewarnings of the darkness are forgotten over and over again. Morini’s intention with the volume, by his own admission, is meant to “fix in a single volume the state of the art at this moment in time, and to demonstrate that this state is the neat result of concomitant (if not always concerted) efforts” (2-3) lest the future inhabitants of the field forget, go mad, and suffer as has come before.

The book’s eight chapters move swiftly and decisively through an hourglass-formation (helpfully and saliently diagrammed in the volume as well), passing the top bulb of theory and history through a narrow space of methodology into the bottom bulb, where practical applications abound and Morini builds a vision of the written—and more importantly for his purposes, performed—state of the field and its possible futures.

There is a palpable sense of longed-for potential in Morini’s writing as he outlines the seeming tug-of-war between text-centric and performance-centric modalities through the centuries, beginning in Chapter 1 with a lucid and clearly drawn outline of Roman theatrical translation conventions; specifically under the microscope are the works of Plautus and Terence, both of whom worked from Greek sources (most often Menander, New Comedy’s favorite son). Morini traces the path that the Roman playwrights’ audience-centered conventions take through the Renaissance and Romantic periods, emerging out the other side as something far more focused on literature, poetry, and “an elocutionary reproduction of literary and poetic values, involving ‘faithfulness’ to words, grammar, and syntax” (24). Chapter 2 narrows in from a civilization to individual scholars (Susan Bassnett and Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt) as they wrestle with the “main problem for the theatre translator…that she is not working on a text that is complete in and of itself, but on something that can only realize its full potential in performance” (31).

Chapter 3’s chronological scope narrows even further to the 21st century via Sirkku Aaltonen’s Time-Sharing on Stage: Drama Translation in Theatre and Society, tracking a turn towards the practical and the technological, highlighting the rise of digital means of preservation and a centering of performance. Simultaneously, Morini marks a continuing discomfort with embracing performance-centered discourse; much like the orbit that brings Asimov’s eclipse back into view again and again, Morini articulates the gravitational pull of source texts and their primacy even as performance takes up its own space. Chapter 4 speedily but clearly articulates points of view from Theatre Studies, focusing on Patrice Pavis and Anne Ubersfeld.

Morini bridges the gap from theory to practice in Part II (“Terms and methodology”, also the entirety of Chapter 5), laying out a helpful four-part extension of Roman Jakobson’s three-pronged definition of theatre translation; the terminological signposting is a great help in subsequent chapters, where the functional differences and differences in theoretical reception between interlingual, intralingual, intersemiotic and intrasemiotic veins of theatrical translation come to the fore.

Chapters 6 and 7 begin to delve into particular texts, and it is here that Theatre Translation cashes the proverbial checks it has written in the earlier chapters. It is a joy to watch Morini’s theoretical lens in practice, particularly in covering disparate time periods with similar depth—theatre objects as disparate as Giovanni Battista Guarini’s Il pastor fido and the fascinatingly flexible history of its translation—here, Morini traces the calcification of a text-centric approach to theatre translation, linking back to Chapter 1. Similarly, Chapters 7 and 2 go hand in hand across the narrow breach of the hourglass, pairing Bassnett and Zuber-Skerritt’s aslant engagement with performance-centric methods with analyses of Italian productions (both stage and film) of William Douglas Home’s The Secretary Bird and Warren Adler’s The War of the Roses—though even that phrasing is not entirely correct, as Morini outlines; both stories are much more delightfully complicated than ‘productions of’ could encompass, spanning cinematic adaptations, cultural contexts, and a surprising cameo appearance from Danny DeVito. 

It is not until Chapter 8 that Morini seems to exult in describing what can come to pass in a setting where performance is well and truly, theoretically as well as practically, centered, where the argument that “linguistic analysis is not enough to understand what happens in theatre translation, or generally in theatre performance” (130) can be well and truly witnessed. His analysis of two productions of Heiner Müller’s Hamletmaschine and of Birdie, a multimedia performance by Agrupación Señor Serrano engaging with “themes of human and animal migration and displacement” (121) is a joy to read. The possibilities that Morini engages with, particularly in the sphere of digital media and non-textual documentation of performance, and the four-part definition is on display in full intralingual, interlingual, and intersemiotic glory.

Bookending these eight chapters are an introduction and conclusion titled, respectively, “What this book is about’ and “What this book is not about”, and it is here that some critique might be possible. Though “What this book is about” states that “Theatre Translation does not pretend to report on theatre translation or theatrical translation theories everywhere and at all times”, it is not until “What this book is not about” that Morini expands upon these absences and omissions, more explicitly naming the gaps. “Nothing is said about non-Western traditions and views, which may or may not fit into the terminology and metholology proposed here” (135), as Morini wraps up the conclusion, and he is absolutely correct in his self-assessment. I believe he may be better served by providing this explicit disclaimer upfront rather than burying it in a conclusion.

The flashbulb of Morini’s volume was intended to capture “the present state of the art in the field of Theatrical Translation Studies” (3), to pin down and make “definitive” a moment in time across a field of study. This particular camera’s lens might have been zoomed in on Western Europe in particular, with some uncritical and slightly jarring references to “the West” as a sort of stand-in for “the norm”, while cultures and languages outside of that are referred to as “exotic”. I would have been intrigued to see where Patrice Pavis’ “hourglass of cultures” (figured on page 58) could be expanded to encompass a nuanced view of instances of translation where the source and target cultures occupy different positions in hegemonic and colonial power structures.

Many of Morini’s star theoretical players are women, which is a welcome sight—however, this does not extend to the playwrights or translators discussed, who are almost exclusively male. For discussions of classical, Renaissance, or Early Modern work, this is not un-anticipatable, but even the 20th and 21st century texts and the production teams behind the performances discussed are still male-dominated.

Praise is, however, due to Morini for his unwavering clarity and nearly-as-unwavering accessibility of language to those not immersed within the field of translation studies or those hoping to dip into the discipline from the outside. This volume would likely be a friendlier gateway for artists and theatre practitioners from outside the academy to gain an understanding of Morini’s theoretical moment in time: perhaps not enough to save a planet from the madness of an eclipse, but enough to keep a few strong and steady candles lit. Ultimately, I commend Morini’s view of and hopes for the future of theatre translation and the theoretical structures that, at different turns, support, constrain, and propel it forward.

Emma Pauly (they/she) is a PhD student with UCLA’s Department of Classics, specializing in Attic tragedy and its subsequent performance, translation, transmission and reception, as well as the intersections between the queer and divine body in antiquity. Their translation of Euripides’ Bacchae has previously been published with The Mercurian and has been performed as part of the University of Chicago’s Rhetoric and Poetics Workshop, while her translation of the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus can be found at Ancient Exchanges. Emma also works as a dramaturg, translator and theatre practitioner with a specialty in works engaged with or stemming from antiquity and the Ancient Mediterranean.

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