globe with translate written in different languages

A provocation. A proposal. And a plea.

The provocation: What would happen if we were to think of new translations of plays, both classical and contemporary, into English the same way that we think of new plays written in English? Talk to theater practitioners throughout Latin America and Europe and they will frequently tell you how deeply their own practice was affected by the theatrical translations that they have seen and read. Talk to audience members in those regions and they will tell you how much their notions of what the theater is has been formed by work in translation. This is not the case in the US (I’ll leave our Canadian brethren and sistren to speak for themselves). Partially, this is a function of language and geography. We are a vast country, with a monolingual bias. Partially, it is a cultural mindset. Seventy percent of US citizens do not possess a passport and many of those who do travel abroad expect, if not demand, that the familiar and the comfortable reign. If translation is not to be thought of as a kind of theatrical cruise ship sailing into ports of call where the language may change but the food and surroundings are all maintained while aboard, then maybe we need to change the game.

Thinking of new theatrical translations into US English as we think of new plays written in US English could, perhaps, alter that mindset by focusing upon what is culturally unique and theatrically vibrant in the translated material, rather than forcing it to conform to a preconceived notion of what the theater should be. Thinking of new plays in translation as we think of new plays has implications for creative process, production, and marketing. Thinking of new plays in translation as new plays makes the theatrical translator an integral part of the creative process. Over the past few years, presenting organizations have increasingly programmed “international” events and festivals. Such programming brings a wide variety of theater to audiences that would never see it otherwise, but engagement with the work and the artists who create it tends to be scatter-shot, several performances lacking context and then the road show moves on. In this respect, theatrical performance becomes another byproduct of an increasingly globalized culture, where easy air travel and hastily assembled translated super titles create the impression that artistic creation is easily malleable and seamlessly transferable from one context to another. In the age of social media, we take translation for granted. It can be accomplished as quickly and as cleanly as creating a Facebook profile. Thinking of new plays in translation as new plays written in English is one way to break that mold.

The proposal: The creation of a National New Works in Translation Network. Like the National New Play Network, the National New Works in Translation Network would connect individuals and institutions interested in producing new works in translation across the country. At the same time, we envision the National New Works in Translation Network as different in structure than the National New Play Network. Where the NNPN only includes theaters and limits itself to a single venue in each community, the NNWTN seeks to include theaters, universities, and colleges who could use new works in translation as part of their educational mission in a number of ways, cultural exchange organizations such as the Goethe Institut and Japan Society—national embassies that do some performances of works in translation on an ad hoc basis already, as well as other institutions, organizations, and individuals that have yet to appear on our radar screen. We would also be interested in working with multiple kinds of venues in a given community. We plan to spend the next six months or so gathering information and talking to potential partners as we envision what form the NNWTN will take.

The plea: Talk to your institutions and see if they would like to be involved. If so, let us know. Talk to us about theaters and institutions already predisposed to this sort of work. We need as much information as possible. Let me know if you think this is a dreadful idea or if there are gaping holes in what I’ve outlined. I want to know that as well.