Thursday, 1 December 2011

Translation/Adaptation: Is there a difference?

I’ve been reading a lot about drama and theatrical translation recently for our case studies class and for one of my essays. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is where ‘translation’ ends and ‘adaptation’ begins, and whether distinguishing between these two terms is useful or not. Before I started actively engaging with issues of/in translation I always associated ‘translation’ with the act of transferring a source ’text’ from one language to another or perhaps even recreating it in another language. While ‘adaptation’ I saw as being transference or recreation across media or genres (stage to screen, novel to play etc.). However, I began to find that this distinction is too narrow and several questions began to plague me, as they do: Doesn’t cinema have its own language? In which case couldn’t we argue that say that Jane Eyre, the 2011 film is a translation of Jane Eyre, the novel? And what about Omkara, Vishal Bhardwaj’s 2006 excellent rendering of Othello? To call it merely an adaptation of Shakespeare seemed limiting to me because it seemed to ignore the act(s) of linguistic translation that would have been an integral part of the process of writing the screenplay for that movie.

While I was pondering these questions I came across some definitions in one of the readings for our case studies class which I felt would be a good place from which to start thinking about some of these issues in greater detail. In relation to theatre, ‘translation’ is defined as a ‘faithful, literary rendering into another language’, ‘version’ is ‘translation that takes performance requirements into account’ and ‘adaptation’ as a term that has been ‘used to disguise all manner of unacceptable textual and staging manipulations’ (Santoyo quoted in Zatlin, 2005:79). I find these definitions interesting for several reasons. First, they use words I find problematic: faithful, literary, unacceptable, disguise, manipulation. The first three are words that are open to interpretation based on personal preferences. As for ‘disguise’ and ‘manipulation’ they are used her in a prohibitive manner and I can’t help but find the lexical choice odd given that we are talking about theatre, which at its core is based on a recognition of its own ‘artifice’. Of course, at this point I have to say that I am reading and analysing Zatlin’s translation of Santoyo’s definitions, so perhaps there is something ‘lost in translation’ (another film reference, I know!).

The second thing that I find interesting about this set of definitions is that the author posits a dichotomy with ‘translation’ (the good method) at one end and ‘adaptation’ (the bad method) at the other. ‘Version’, then, in this schema becomes a sort of practical compromise. This suggests, to me, that for the author the written ‘text’ is more important than its performance. I suppose then, that how person answers the question ‘What is drama?’ has an impact on what they view as translation and what as adaptation.

For me, drama is both the text and its performance, whether on stage or in the ‘theatre of the mind’ (to borrow a phrase used by Herbert Grabes). Even when I read a play I visualise some form of a stage and actors in their costumes entering and exiting the stage as required. So when I set about translating a play I am translating a performance, whether it is one I’ve seen or one I’ve imagined. And I have seen, on more than one occasion, a Brecht play being performed in Hindi, having been ‘translated’ to know that ‘literary faithfulness’ is not enough, for the performance to be successful. I know I need to tread carefully here, after all what is ‘successful’, but that would take me on a tangent. My tentative conclusion then is that when it comes to theatre/cinema/dramatic works of art being rendered from language to another the degree to which translation and adaptation are one and the same thing depends on the translator’s perception of drama and the degree of difference between the source and target cultures. After all that is the main difference between Jane Eyre and Omkara, one is a translation in the same culture across media, whereas the other is a ‘transadapation’ between cultures. I do also feel that ‘translation’ is at the heart of ‘adaptation’ – all forms of it. This, at any rate, is my rationale for doing the course ‘Adaptation and Interpretation’ next term, and who knows maybe I will end up changing my mind.

Anandi Rao translates from Hindi and Arabic to English. She is doing her MA in Literary Translation and is interested in theatre and women’s writing. She can be reached at

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