Translator William Gregory joins us on the pod to discuss translating for the stage, how he started his professional career and the challenges of working on translated material in the UK. William was a (virtual) translator in residence at BCLT from October 2020 to January 2021, and ran the theatre translation workshop during 2020’s BCLT Summer School. On the other side of the conversation is special guest interviewer Sue Healy, Literary Manager at the Finborough Theatre in London. It’s a wide-ranging conversation full of practical tips for early career translators and fascinating insights for anyone who enjoys a diverse mix of entertainment.

Read on for William’s blog accompaniment, further exploring the state of theatre translation.

Hosted by Simon Jones and Steph McKenna, who tease upcoming episodes, talk about their current reads and reminisce about people bringing cakes into the office.

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Theatre translation: what next?

by William Gregory

I write this piece with a week to go until an emerging theatre translators scratch night, hosted online by the Omnibus Theatre, London, and curated by Out of the Wings, a Spanish and Portuguese theatre translation collective I have been part of since 2014. Today, the selected translators have been contacted; we will in the coming days put together a whistle-stop evening of global theatre, followed by a panel with industry colleagues entitled ‘Theatre Translation: What Next?’

The question feels timely. The scratch night is one of a number of initiatives that have arisen recently to give budding theatre translators an opportunity to train, have their work showcased, or both. Last month, the international theatre company Foreign Affairs hosted the finale of its theatre translation mentorship programme, now in its fourth iteration; in 2020, the British Centre for Literary Translation Summer School offered a theatre strand for the first time in its history (it returns in 2021); the Warwick Translates summer school did so in 2019. Out of the Wings, for our part, offers a monthly reading group, an annual festival (pandemics permitting), and other theatre translation events throughout the year. During my time as Translator in Residence at the BCLT until January this year, I was particularly happy to spend time with MA students as they tackled translations of drama as part of a dedicated theatre module; other literary translation programmes in university settings also offer experience of translating plays.

There is, then, a growing offer of training opportunities for that hard-to-define group, the ‘early-career’ theatre translator. And in response, interest is also growing from translators themselves. Applications to the scratch night far exceeded the number of places available. When London’s Theatre503 hosted a translators and directors ‘speed-dating’ event last month, its second since 2019, applications more than doubled on the previous running of the event. It was heartening to see such interest, but painful of course not to be able to accept everyone, and a reminder that, much like in literary translation in general, the routes into professional work (whether one is ‘emerging’ or not) are limited, much sought after, and rarely wholly transparent. Publishing and theatre professionals alike will be familiar with the world of agents, circles of trust, networking, personal connections, ‘no unsolicited submissions’, and not knowing a freelancing gig even exists until someone has already been hired and an announcement is made online. As artists who have one foot in each of these worlds, theatre translators arguably face twice the challenge. In my conversation with Sue Healy, Literary Manager of the Finborough Theatre, some of the barriers to plays in translation reaching the UK stage seemed high indeed.

But there is some good news. As training opportunities have increased, so too has the number of theatre companies taking an interest in translations. In the UK, the Royal Court and Actors Touring Company already have a long tradition of translated work; London’s Gate Theatre, once known informally as ‘the translators’ theatre’, is once again programming a significant number of translations, and in the last decade or so a crop of companies specialising in translated and international theatre have emerged: a non-exhaustive lists includes Global Voices Theatre, Cut the Cord, Sputnik, Legal Aliens, the London Spanish Theatre Company, and the abovementioned Foreign Affairs. In the US, New York’s Play Company and Ithaca’s Cherry Arts have been doing similar work.

Much as one might counsel a budding translator of novels, a simple piece of advice to those with an interest in translating theatre is to keep track of the work of these companies. In normal times and geography permitting, this means attending their shows of course, but for those unable to see their productions in person, many have archives on their websites detailing previous productions, many of the plays they have produced in translation have since been published, and during the pandemic some are putting work online.

Also useful for those looking for avenues into professional theatre translation are the various networks that have formed in recent years. Literary translation groups such as the Emerging Translators Network or Literary Translation on Facebook are just as much as space for translators of drama as for those of novels or poetry; the same is true of the Translators Association in the UK and ALTA in the US. Specifically regarding theatre, the US-based Theatre in Translation Network can be found online and on social media, and Out of the Wings, although focusing mainly on the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking worlds, welcome colleagues from all languages around its (currently virtual) table and hosts occasional multi-lingual events.

Publishing has always gone hand in hand with, or perhaps in parallel to, performance. Shortly before its purchase by Bloomsbury, Oberon Books was leading the way in publishing anthologies of contemporary plays in English translation. A 2020 podcast with editors Serena Grasso and Max Vickers gave some indicators of the possible outlook for theatre in translation at Bloomsbury, but other presses, including the well-established Nick Hern and Aurora Metro, and more recently opened Inti Press and Salamander Street, also provide scope for translated plays, albeit with the caveat that a full-scale production can often be needed for a translation to find its way to publication. Meanwhile, online literary translation journals Asymptote and Words Without Borders have a long-standing engagement with drama, and submissions are regularly sought by specialist theatre translation journal, The Mercurian.

The above list is non-exhaustive and I encourage translators to do their own research to supplement it.

Almost a year since the first lockdown in England began, many of our theatres are still closed and uncertainly remains as to how the performing arts will emerge from the pandemic. As well as pondering the practical and financial routes to reopening, there are also questions to be addressed about what kind of theatre landscape we want to return to. Inevitably, those of us who translate plays will be affected by these same questions; hopefully, we might also be involved in finding the answers.