Translating for the Stage

hotink-banner-2Theater translation is obviously a slightly different enterprise than translating for the printed page, just as writing for actors is a bit different from writing for readers. The words have to sound right when spoken aloud, and not merely that: they must be speakable for an actor, with no tongue-twisters or unpronounceable combinations. A certain clarity is needed – any meandering should be paratactic rather than hypotactic – unless of course the point is to tie the listener’s brain in a knot, in which case the takeaway is more likely to be knottiness itself rather than what got said in there. German in particular is a language and literary tradition strongly given to the labyrinthine sentence; and perhaps it’s no coincidence that some of its most enthusiastic practitioners of the long, involuted utterance (e.g. Thomas Mann and Walter Benjamin) never became playwrights. I had my first shot at translating for the stage with the commission to translate new book scenes for a production of The Magic Flute opening in St. Louis tonight, and my second shot when I was invited to translate a short play by Thomas Arzt for the HotINK Festival of International Plays at the Lark Performance Space. HotINK brings lesser-known (in English) foreign-language playwrights to New York, commissions translations of their work and presents it to audiences. And for the first time ever this year, HotINK will include a translation slam: Short plays by the featured playwrights were assigned to two translators each, one an experienced translator for the stage, the other not. And I am participating as one of the translators without extensive stage experience. The slam will be presented as a panel (“Translating the Spoken Word: a Proper Challenge”), co-sponsored by the PEN Translation Committee, in which the translations will be compared and discussed, and I am very curious to see what my more experienced counterpart Claudia Wilsch Case did with the Arzt play and what moderator Judith Miller and the other panelists have to say about it. Arzt’s play Meine Jugend, eine Armut (my English title: My Youth, an Impoverishment, CWC’s My Youth/A Kind of Poverty) is a monologue: an apparently prosperous or at least comfortable man addressing a homeless woman begging on the street. And it has lots of stuttery moments that take the speaker from amusement to indignation to sympathy to what sounds rather like rage and despair. How will the translations work on stage? There’ll be an actor reading both of them, and I can’t wait to hear what they’ll sound like. Even if my attempt at creating a speakable translation falls flat, what better opportunity to learn about how to write for actors. The other two translator pairs in the slam are Mariana Carreño King and Margaret Carson (Spanish) and Jolie Hale and Tess Lewis (French). Should be very interesting! Hope to see you there. For a full description of the event, including bios of all the panelists, as well as for information on the rest of the festival, see the HotINK website. Saturday, May 31 at the Lark: 311 West 43rd St., 5th Floor, 7:00 p.m.

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  1. Paula says:

    Great observations! So many of my choices are based on the mechanics of speaking a line (tongue, lips, breath) and “would anyone really say it like this” vs. how it sounds in my head or looks on the page.
    Thanks for the links and break a leg!

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