Dear Members of The Fence (Or, Translation and its Discontents)

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IMG_0793Dear members of The Fence (“an international network for working playwrights and people who make playwriting happen…misunderstanding each other since 2003”),

I had a very rewarding, interesting time with you last week in Manhattan and at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Centre in Waterford, Connecticut.

We spent fascinating days in conversation about the art of theatrical translation, how a performance text travels from one language and culture to another. I found the gathered group of individuals hugely impressive: playwrights, translators, academics (in many cases hybrid: playwright-translators, etc.) from around Europe and North America. Almost all of you are my elders, by a little or a lot; I learned from you.

I learned the most, I think, from our conflicts and disagreements. As some of you know well, I spent much of the week in variously civil, heated, and overheated debates about politics and art. I felt like a bit of a gadfly, and I did feel young: my questions and arguments had the bluntness and broadness of youth, maybe, if also a youthful attention to first principles. In rooms full of discussion of the What and How of translating plays and transposing them between cultures, I kept returning to the Why.

I harped on the Why because I was interested in those conversations insofar as they were among artists, not among specialists and technicians. Of course the translator of drama is both artist and technician: a high level of technical understanding is required alongside artistic intuition, and there’s certainly a place for conversations between professionals about the minutiae of technique.

But I felt there was a danger, at times, of the underlying philosophical and political questions of translation being taken to be clearly, unanimously settled, when they’re not so. It could be that for many Fence members in attendance, those philosophical questions were confronted long ago and answered, and the answers now form a foundation for current practice. But I didn’t always find those implied answers to be persuasive: so I was a gadfly.

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