Towards a Translated Theater

by Philip Boehm

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

(Photo: credit to Sophie Kandaouroff)

Because I spent too many years in a Communist system, I’m overly wary of rhetorical manifestos, so on Caridad Svich’s kind invitation I’m submitting a gentle exhortation on behalf of a more globally-minded theater—reflections derived from a suspiciously schizophrenic career as a director/playwright and a literary translator.

The two trades turn out to have a lot in common. To begin with, both involve taking a written text from one place to another. And both depend on a fundamental act of imagination. Of course theater always happens right here and now: the live event is what moves the audience to laugh or cry or walk out dazed. The written play is all about potential, much like a musical score or perhaps a chemical formula that tells us when A comes into contact with B there will be a release of energy. The director’s job is to summon the world of the play onstage and catalyze that release. Translators do much the same thing: we first distill the potential of the original, then conjure its world in another language, another time, another place.

And both translators and directors have to cope with a shifting cultural context. Plays by Tennessee Williams seem quite concrete in St. Louis but a bit more abstract in Kyoto. Kafka’s Trial was read differently by Eastern European dissidents than by American professors. Back in the 1980s I translated Sam Shepard’s True West into Polish, which was an ear-opening experience on a number of levels. To begin with there were the colloquialisms: I remember the line “that sucker could sure haul ass” was particularly challenging. First it referred to a car with a V-8 engine in a country where you were lucky to have a 2 cylinder Polski Fiat. But the real challenge for me as a translator was to find or invent language that would convey something quintessentially American and wouldn’t sound too specifically like a working-class Warsaw suburb or a village in the Eastern province. And the challenge in directing the Polish premiere was to find the right balance between leading the actors and letting them lead me, to create a reality on stage that would resonate with a Polish audience and yet still convey the American world of the play. Of course all productions involve a similar negotiation with the audience: it’s just that translation adds another layer of complexity. All performed plays are acts of interpretation, but whereas Shakespeare’s words “merely” have to travel from page to stage, a text by Molière has further to go just to cross the English Channel, and quite a bit further to reach audiences here in the United States.

Performance requires long periods of training and rehearsal to ensure each character stays grounded in the reality being created on stage. Such grounding is also essential work for translators, so that the re-creation of the original text remains so securely and deeply rooted that it can achieve a life of its own. Clearly the first step in this process is to understand the language of the original, and not merely vocabulary, syntax, and grammar, but the personality of that language. The better we know the source, the better we are able to perceive linguistic subtleties.

Naturally every time we read a book it is an act of interpretation, but when we translate or direct or perform we are offering our interpretation to (or perhaps imposing it on) the general public. As translators we have to accept that something always gets lost while keeping focused on our task, which is to convey the original by re-creating it in another linguistic world. The notion of authenticity is a fiction. Although perhaps it’s the other way around: we have to resort to fiction in order to approach authenticity, just like onstage, where we create realism by departing from real life.

All of this is to say that as theater artists, we are already sensitive to the problems of translation. But compared to so many cultures we in the United States are a bit timid when it comes to crossing linguistic borders. Translators are a natural ally. And despite the prejudice, there are quite a few who understand how to write for the stage. And certainly more who would love to learn. They, too, strive to make a living, and can hardly afford to translate a play on spec. And while several cultural organizations do support translation, it would be great if more theaters reached out to the translators first, as a source of material, and not as an afterthought. This could enlarge our hearing to a broader act of listening.

This is what Václav Havel meant when he addressed the US Congress in 1990, shortly after becoming President of a newly-transformed Czechoslovakia. He described the experience of the totalitarian system, which “brought us horrors that fortunately you have not known. At the same time, however unintentionally, of course it has given us something positive: a special capacity to look, from time to time, somewhat further than someone who has not undergone this bitter experience. A person who cannot move and live a normal life because he is pinned under a boulder has more time to think about his hopes than someone who is not trapped in this way.”

When talking about borders it’s easy to cross from the literal to the figurative. We start with a fence and wind up talking about limits and limitations we struggle with as individuals and as institutions. Translation can help us snip the barbed wire to let in a subversive thought or build the bridge for a broader exchange, so that we might hear and even understand the words of those who have been pinned under boulders.


Philip Boehm studied at the State Academy of Theater in Poland and has directed extensively on both sides of the Atlantic. Produced original plays include Mixtitlan, Return of the Bedbug, and most recently The Death of Athahualpa, based on the Quechua oral tradition. He is the founding Artistic Director of Upstream Theater in St. Louis, which stages US premieres of plays from around the world. Mr. Boehm has also translated numerous prose works by German and Polish authors, including Nobelist Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel. He has received various awards including fellowships from the NEA, the Mexican-American Fund for Culture, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.