Professing translation: The acts-in-between

David Johnston
Queen’s University, Belfast

Drawing on scholarship in translation ethics (Berman 1992; Cronin 2003) and performance studies (Conquergood 2002; Jackson 2004), this article approaches translation in the theatre from the double perspective of theory and practice. Professing translation as a model for the resolution of entrenched binaries (scholar/artist; theoretician/practitioner), the author sees the practice of translating for performance not just as a method of discovery or a hermeneutic tool but also as a mode of reflection that brings together both “readerly” and “writerly” approaches to text (Barthes 1974). By drawing on the experience of writing translations of García Lorca for the Belgrade Theatre, Calderón for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Lope de Vega for the Watermill Theatre and the Washington Shakespeare Theatre, the article attempts to characterise such translation as an act of physical imagination, of a holistic understanding of both language and performance, into which textuality is incorporated and by which it is superseded.

Table of contents

“It is not possible to deduce from the performance the work that led up to it” (Pavis 1992: 24). The ambivalence of the word work in this translation of Pavis is fruitful, in that it brings both text and processes of rendering into conjoined perspective. Theatre at the Crossroads of Culture famously goes on to detail “the synchronic confrontation of signifying systems” (that is, the mise-en-scène) that brings together these systems in a given time and place for a more or less envisioned audience. The notion of confrontation, moreover, is a useful one for theatre translators. By reminding us that the final assemblage of the play on stage is intelligible not in terms of original intentions but depends rather on the concluding perspective [ p. 366 ]of the spectator, this confrontation leads us into a consideration of how we might think about the individual constituent processes at work in the performance. In the sense that the various elements that react together to configure that final assemblage (the creative dialectic, the chemistry, of the signifying systems) are all in themselves individual loci of performance, so the text becomes an object not to be imitated, but rather to be performed through an act of interpretation. It is in their core meanings of bringing something into meaning that performance and interpretation coincide. While the ultimate meanings of the play are generated by the encounters and tensions of the mise-en-scène, the text itself is subject to processes of reading and interpretation in which the emphasis on meaning as becoming makes the translation of that text a performative constituent of the mise-en-scène.

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