Under the Microscope: Theatre in Translation

Translated theatre can be transformative, while putting both source and target cultures under the microscope.

As a theatre translator and researcher working in London, the work that I create is motivated by a desire to enable British audiences to engage with a particular voice, author, theme, perspective, or situation from another country and culture. I seek to facilitate this in multiple ways through academic scholarship, through study in the classroom, and through rehearsal and performance. My translation decisions are informed by a process of in-depth analysis in which I ask the following questions: how might a text resonate in a local context, for example, in Britain today? What are the links between source and target culture that enable a play to become mobile? How can dialogue begin on stage and then extend into the audience, sparking new conversations, in a new context?

In 2017 I completed the translation of two plays; Ready or Not (Punto y Coma) by Uruguayan dramatist, Estela Golovchenko, and Summer in December (Verano en diciembre) by Spanish dramatist, Carolina Africa Martín. In Ready or Not, a young girl is separated from both of her parents during the period of intense military repression (1973-1985) in Uruguay and then later reunited with her father, who is a political activist turned Senator. They clash over their political views, their ways of remembering the past, and their roles in the present. In Summer in December, a family of six women is faced with seemingly small everyday dilemmas of worrying about what their neighbours might think about them, whether the food in the fridge has passed its sell-by date, and the latest diet fad. However, the play goes on to address much more significant concerns about new and old relationships, unplanned pregnancies, and what should happen to an ageing relative with dementia.

On a thematic level, the two plays are similar because they explore and expose family relationships under pressure whilst revealing aspects of local realities which have shaped each family’s situation. They also provoke broader questions about changing family roles and how people understand their individual sense of responsibility and agency at moments of change. This interplay between the culturally specific and the more universally recognisable is a consideration for most translators, provoking questions about how specific places are represented on stage. In Theatre and Nation, scholar Nadine Holdsworth refers to theatre’s capacity to examine and explore ideas about the nation whilst scrutinizing its practices:

Theatre, as a material, social and cultural practice, offers the chance to explore national histories, behaviours, events, and preoccupations in a creative, communal realm that opens up potential for reflection and debate. But it is more than this. Arguably, theatre is deeply implicated in constructing the nation through the imaginative realm and provides a site where the nation can be put under the microscope.

The question for the play in translation is, who is under the microscope? Can the translated play be used as a way to provide insight into a different cultural and political context whilst still establishing a relationship with the target audience and relevance to the target context?
In both cases, I felt that an awareness of the play’s socio-political context was essential and that the references to the source context should remain in the translated text. At the same time, I prioritized the creation of a language in the translation that interacted with present-day discourses. This was fundamental in showing how the challenges faced by the characters on stage could be relevant in contemporary Britain, and how these characters could contribute new perspectives to current situations.

In Summer in December, one determining factor in the women’s lives is the presence of Catholicism in the family and in Spanish society. One of the questions that came up when I was translating the play was: how might a British audience understand and relate to the significance of Catholicism in the character’s lives? A key moment in the play is when the character of the mother goes to mass and prays for guidance about whether her mother-in-law, Nan Martina, should go into a care home. As she prays, each of her daughters appears on stage: the characters are in different locations, but they share the same stage. Each of the women is involved in a dialogue but we only hear one side of it, and so the sense of their individual and collective search for help and guidance is paramount. The playwright depicts how each of the women faces challenges and seeks to create strategies for dealing with them. In the play, Catholic prayer is sometimes portrayed as a ritual that the characters are expected to complete but in this scene, it provides the mother with a sense of comfort and hope. Through my analysis of the play, I was aware that Catholicism plays multiple roles in the characters’ lives. At the same time, in this scene, the playwright creates a sense of multiplicity in relation to the experience of women: they are shown to face a range of challenges and develop a range of coping mechanisms. The multiplicity of female experience is woven into the fabric of the dramatic text through the diverse experiences and perspectives portrayed. It is important to remember that texts rarely say just one thing and theatre has a unique capacity for creating a variety of different voices. In this case, this means that even if the audience doesn’t instantly connect with the importance of Catholic prayer, the simultaneous representation of the other female characters searching for answers opens up possible ways for the audience to understand the role that Catholicism plays in the life of the mother. I see my creative task as a translator as analysing and working creatively with a multiplicity of voices, meanings, and ideas present in the original play. This opens up ways for the target audience to engage with the play and to experience that multiplicity. This can also help to work against national stereotypes and categorizations by showing a diverse range of experiences, all of which can connect with the target culture and context.

In Ready or Not, set in Uruguay, the challenge was to enable the audience to connect with a historical moment that may have seemed distant or remote: the civic-military dictatorship in Uruguay. In the play, the present-day conflict between the protagonists, Father and Daughter, stems from their separation during this time of intense military repression, which, the audience learns, also led to the abduction and disappearance of Mother. The dictatorship is a key period of history which continues to shape Uruguayan society today. One of the key questions surrounding the legacy of the dictatorship in Uruguayan society comes to the foreground through the opposing views of Father and Daughter in the play: should the dictatorship period be shrouded in silence and forgotten, or should civil society continue to campaign for justice and demand explanations from the state?

A key dramatic device in the play is the use of flashbacks which enable the audience to gain an insight into some of the forces that shaped the relationship depicted on stage. The flashbacks depict the Daughter as a child in hiding with Mother, who explains their situation as a game of hide-and-seek to enable her daughter to understand why they have to hide in secret. The title of the play evokes this game because it refers, in part, to the phrase that the ’seeker’ calls out before searching for those who are hiding, ‘ready or not, (here I come)’ in the British context. It also indicates the playfulness of language in the drama. The link between the past and present is reinforced by the dialogue. For example, sometimes a question posed in the flashback scene is then answered in a present-day scene. These flashbacks reveal the political struggle facing the family in the context of the dictatorship. They show that Father left to go into hiding in Buenos Aires and that there was a failed plan for the family to meet him there. These flashbacks demonstrate the hopes that Father and Mother held for the future, which are juxtaposed with present-day reality and discussions in the Senator’s office.

One of the challenges for the translation was to identify the connections, repetitions, and echoes of the past in the dialogue taking place in the present day. At the same time, I strongly felt that to focus only on the link to the past, and prioritize the centrality of the dictatorship, was to limit the play to just that: a discussion about the dictatorship. Instead, my analysis of the play showed that their dialogue also opened up many questions about how one deals with grief and chooses to remember an absent family member, about generational clashes over political ideals, and the pressure of political radicalism, all of which are relevant to the political context in Britain today. Therefore, I chose to use language which echoed and incorporated language used in current political discourses in the UK.

Both plays were performed as rehearsed readings at the Cervantes Theatre in London in 2017: Ready or Not was part of the Out of the Wings Festival and Summer in December was part of the New Spanish Playwriting Festival. After each of the performances, the audience showed critical engagement with the key themes, sympathy for what was a stake for the characters, and a sense of identification with aspects of their experiences, including their coping mechanisms and the pressures affecting their decisions. In Summer in December, the simultaneous burden and joy of caring for an older relative came to the fore, whilst in Ready or Not, the conflict between Father and Daughter over their seemingly uncompromising political ideals resonated with the audience. This was because I used language which is present in discourses and dialogues around these issues in Britain today. The creation of a stage language which enabled the audience to have access to these characters and their stories was significant. The choices that I made were essential and were enhanced through working with actors as a way to trial and test solutions in the early stages of the rehearsal process. At the same time, the recognition of the fact that audience members identified with aspects of the experience of the characters is crucial: it would be unrealistic to expect, from any play (even one originally written in English), that the audience would identify with everything on stage, accept it, and not question it.

Perhaps one of the risks with a microscopic approach is that we need to have an awareness of what we choose to focus on and why. In the development of both of these plays, singling out either the references to Catholicism or to the Uruguayan military dictatorship as representative of the other nation and as problematic for a British audience fails to see these as integral parts of the dramatic text, which are woven into the fabric of the play. By creating a robust stage language, theatre translators can reveal both the multiplicity of experiences depicted and the complex factors which shape the characters’ experience, some of which are culturally specific. Translators have an essential role to play in opening up the possibilities for interpretation by creating a stage language which resonates in the target context. This reduces the sense of distance and difference from the source culture without eliminating all references to it. As a result, a British audience is not only able to identify with aspects of the experiences depicted on stage and reflect on the relevance of these experiences to their present situation, but to also see beyond that, to something other than themselves, and to come into contact with aspects of the culture of origin. This way, translated theatre can be transformative, while putting both source and target cultures under the microscope.


Sophie Stevens is a researcher, translator and theatre practitioner. She holds a PhD from King’s College London on Uruguayan Theatre and its translation into English and she is currently working on the project, Language Acts and Worldmaking Her translations of plays into English have been presented in London at CASA Festival at Southwark Playhouse, The Out of the Wings Festival and The Cervantes Theatre.


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