Thursday, 24 April 2014

Theatre Translation and the Suspension of Disbelief

All theatre requires us to suspend our disbelief. If we didn’t, we would be forever asking questions like: “How is it tomorrow already?” and “Why did these people come here to have their argument, in front of loads of spectators?” We accept these dramatic conventions; they do not trouble us when we watch a play.

Translated drama – or any drama that is set in a country with a different language from the language of the play – requires an additional suspension of disbelief, if we are not to ask:

“Why are all these Frenchmen speaking English?”


Our unquestioning acceptance of this situation is partly to do with ‘transparent’ language. When people speak the same way we do, we don’t tend to analyse their forms of speech. When they speak differently, we notice. When characters in a Shakespeare play speak in Elizabethan English, we accept it because it conforms to what we know about when the play was written and when it is set. If characters in a David Hare play started throwing I-do-beseech-thees into conversation, we’d be puzzled (and if they talked about ‘maidenhead’, we’d assume the play was set in Berkshire).

This leaves the translator with two potential problems: time and place. If s/he is translating a 17th-century play, what kind of language should s/he use? Shakespeare’s? Difficult to master, and would sound like pastiche. Today’s? Probably easier for the audience to accept, but they might get upset if there are knights and ladies going round saying “OK” and “awesome”. Most theatre translators end up opting for as neutral an idiom as they can manage (modern-ish but avoiding any expressions that too obviously come from the last twenty years or so), which makes the play more acceptable to the audience’s ears, but does run the risk of losing some of the colour of the original.

Translators of contemporary drama are not saved from these dilemmas. If I am translating a play set in northern France, and it is an important fact about the play that one of the characters comes from Marseille, how do I translate her/his accent? I can’t just arbitrarily make her/him a Scot. The introduction of dialect is the point at which an English audience might well start thinking, not “Why is this Frenchman speaking English?” but

“Why is this Frenchman speaking with a Scottish accent?”

Bill Findlay (2006) has written, referring to his experiences translating a Goldoni play into Scots dialect, that the translator runs the risk of using a kind of invented “Costume Scots”. Since Scots as a full language was dying out by the 18th century, when Goldoni was writing (in Venetian), a ‘matching’ contemporary idiom is hard to find. For Findlay, this was made easier by choosing a play with a “narrow social and linguistic focus” (2006: 53) – a broader range of social classes would have been harder to render in Scots.

Findlay’s translation retained the original setting, whereas other modern Scots translations have tended to translocate the play to Scotland. (Findlay 2006: 54) Translocation makes the language consistent with the setting, but creates a whole new set of problems: can one milieu really be equivalent to another? Is the play’s message the same if it is set in Northern Ireland rather than the Spanish Civil War? And is this still a translation?

The question of translocation arises during almost any drama translation process, since there will invariably be elements that suggest a certain location. Should names be translated? English names will be easier to say on stage. But if my characters are now called Peter and Millie rather than Pierre and Amélie, what are they doing in Paris? Wholesale translocation requires a great deal of thought, about the setting but also the events of the play and the characters – are they all compatible with the new location? Partial translocation, where, for example, names are translated and cultural markers such as food removed or changed, without explicitly moving the action elsewhere, requires a further extension of the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

Part of the difficulty comes from the tendency to ‘domesticate’ in English translation – that is, to force the text to fit into the English language and context, rather than extending the English language to meet the demands of the text. We have grown used to a very English Chekhov, for instance, and tend to think of him almost as one of our own. Translocation is therefore tempting, as a way of making the play seem more relevant and immediately acceptable to an English audience; but it is only by maintaining the ‘foreignness’ of a play that translation can really extend and enrich the English drama.


Findlay, B. (2006) ‘Motivation in a Surrogate Translation of Goldoni’, in Bassnett, S. and Bush, P., The Translator as Writer. London: Continuum, 46-57.


Livvy Hanks translates from French to English. She is currently translating a poem every day, and blogging about the experience, at

She can be contacted at

Saturday, 19 April 2014


MALT student Livvy Hanks is currently translating (at least part of) a poem every day, and blogging about it, in her own twist on 'National Poetry Writing Month'. Check it out!

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Comics Translation and Zombies: Uncomfortable Issues

I’ve known people who read and love comics, but I have never been into any comics myself. It was simply a lack of exposure, I think, because I’ve come to respect and appreciate the art form ever since I’ve been exposed to it in Case Studies this semester. Yes, like painting, sculpture, graphic design and all the rest, comics are a form, a way of presenting art. But it is also a form of writing, of literary and narrative effort. Since reading McCloud’s (2006) book Making Comics and making myself break the threshold of comics with an issue of Fables, I appreciate comics and see their entertainment value, but more importantly their readability—their multiple layers of characters, narratives and themes. I did not particularly like Fables itself, but I could see how complex comics could be. I learned how enjoyable they can be to read, though I admit I read quickly through the text and overlooked much of the art. I think comics, like drama, straddle different art forms, and like zombies which are both living and dead, indefinable forms are often difficult to accept. (Appropriately enough: The Walking Dead) It is difficult to read them, at least I found it so, because a person reads differently than he or she looks at art. Art you look at as a whole then read in parts; literature you read then look at as a whole (see Ernest Gilman, The Curious Perspective, (1978)).

I think people who don’t like comics have not found the right comic yet. I say the same thing of poetry. I haven’t found the right comic for me yet. I admit I haven’t started reading comics, but I do search for them. I think I have a difficult time, because my narrative style and artistic style are at odds. My literary tastes are in realism, or at furthest magical realism; my art tastes lean toward the abstract. A gap has not been bridged thus far, but I will find a comic some day. Recommendations welcomed. But it does take both to appeal to someone, both an appealing narrative or literary side and inviting artwork. That is the risk of such an art form. With the freedom to display your ideas pictorially comes the responsibility of displaying your ideas pictorially in addition to text. But the rewards, as I have heard from friends, are highly worth it.

In my experience attempting to translate for comics, I found brevity the most difficult issue. I constantly overwrote in German, and I doubt my translation would have been accepted anywhere for publication due to its length. It would not have fit in the speech bubbles. Translating for comics takes a similar, though certainly more extreme, amount of brevity as subtitling. Both are limited in space, but if the subtitle is a tweet of 140 characters, the speech bubble is half a haiku. Space is at a premium.

Cole Konopka is a translator of German to English, a writer, painter. He can be contacted at


Thursday, 10 April 2014

Translating Arkady Gaidar’s The Blue Cup: the complex nature of children’s literature

For the past few weeks, I have been absorbed in the translation of children’s literature. Before looking into this area of translation, I wouldn’t necessarily have expected it to be easy to translate children’s literature, as any literary text will pose its own particular set of problems, but I certainly hadn’t expected it to be one of the most challenging and complicated areas of translation.  

First of all, defining what does and doesn’t constitute children’s literature is problematic; should we define it as literature that has been written for children? Or as works of literature that children choose to read for themselves? What is a child? Can we come to a complete definition of a child, and therefore firmly conclude what children’s requirements are with regards to literature? Furthermore, when we translate cross-culturally, what may be considered appropriate for children in one culture may not be considered appropriate for children in another, how can translators deal with such instances, while avoiding the manipulation of their readers?

I have been working on a translation of The Blue Cup by Arkady Gaidar, a children’s story written in Soviet Russia.  Many aspects of the text have been heavily influenced by the Socialist Realist doctrine of the time; it presents the reader with idealisations of work, industrialization, the Russian countryside and of the Red Army, for example, and some could consider such a text unworthy of translation into English for Western children, as the underlying ideology of such a text is not fully convergent with the ideology of Western culture, and may therefore be considered harmful and manipulative.

However, what prompted me to translate this particular text is its fragmentary nature; despite being heavily influenced by the ideology of its time, this text is predominantly subversive and, I would therefore argue, valuable for children. The Blue Cup is a story about a Russian family (a mother, father and daughter) on holiday at a cabin in the countryside. The mother takes to nagging the father and daughter (Svetlana) about all kinds of chores, not allowing them to play and enjoy themselves whilst on holiday.  The final straw comes when she accuses them of breaking her blue cup and in an act of defiance they decide to leave for an adventure across the Russian countryside. It is through Svetlana and her father’s close relationship that this text comes to be subversive, as the father introduces Svetlana to the emotional complexities of the adult world; through allowing his daughter to come into contact with a variety of people and discussing issues such as war and anti-Semitism, and by confiding in her his doubts with regards to the mother’s love for him. Furthermore, and most importantly, in their defiance of the mother, the father teaches Svetlana to challenge over-bearing authority.  In these instances I therefore paid particular attention to the nuances of the language used by Svetlana and her father when addressing each other.

It was extremely difficult to decide how to deal with aspects of the text that were conventional for its time, as children would not be aware of the socio-historical context and could consequently be open to manipulation; I had therefore considered changing or even removing some aspects of the text. However, I have come to the conclusion that it would be short-sighted to alter or remove these aspects. Precisely because Western children will lack the socio-historical context that would allow these images to be understood as part of a certain ideology, these idealisations will be no more harmful than the idealisations of work and the British countryside in children’s stories such as Thomas the Tank Engine or Postman Pat. Furthermore the underlying ideology will not be consistently supported by surrounding discourse; and therefore these depictions will do little more than allow children to come into contact with ‘the foreign’, displacing them for a short time from their own culture. I have come to believe that translating a variety of children’s literature is therefore necessary and vital to encourage a multiplicity of world views within children, and not to simply limit them to the confines of their own.


Hannah Collins studied Russian and French at the University of Nottingham. She works as a freelance translator and is currently studying on the Literary Translation MA at the UEA. Her email address is