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


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