Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Lost in translationese

Since returning from Wiesbaden I’ve been feeling that my mind has been stuffed beyond capacity - that my ability to process information has stalled by dint of there suddenly being way too much information to order into a form that communicates to anyone else. Part of the reason for this, I suspect, is the fact that in Germany my English compatriots and I spent most of our time speaking in “Conference English”.

It is a curious phenomenon that despite the fact that English is the default language of international conversation, the British are at a distinct disadvantage when speaking it. Everyone else speaks clearly, slowly, and with a number of words that aren’t quite correct English, but that are nonetheless internationally understood. On the other hand, native English speakers (well, me at any rate), speak rapidly, indistinctly and colloquially. Our words run together into one long noise littered with impenetrable turns of phrase. So much for a natural advantage.

What was fascinating to see was how the English contingent gradually adopted Conference English in preference to normal speech. After only a few days we were all sounding more European, speaking more slowly, littering our speech with Europeanisms and gesticulating more than any self-respecting Englishman would ever dare. I expect my transition was far from complete or entirely comprehensible, but it was interesting to notice nonetheless.

That language delineates what is sayable, and therefore thinkable, is an accepted commonplace. However, when the focus of what is being discussed is the communication of ideas and how best to say things, it starts feeling like you’re setting up a violent feedback loop.

In the Young Critics Forum everyone was writing in their own language, with their work then being emailed to various translators, and returned in English and German versions for publication in the Biennale Bulletin. It gradually became apparent that what was in fact being created were three distinct, separate entities. Due to the speed necessary, these were not the most refined translations, so once returned, I often found myself sitting alongside a piece’s author (usually outside the festival’s beer tent-cum-disco after a couple of glasses of wine) translating the translations from translationese into English while taking care not to alter the actual intention of the original sentence. Similarly, I’m told that the German rendition of my Pride of Parnell Street review reads as “very English”.

An interesting additional issue was that although writing in our mother tongues the editor of Biennale Bulletin, the German critic Jürgen Berger, was keen that we tended toward German conventions of criticism, rather than producing the sort of “critics” (the Conference English word for “reviews”) we would normally write. This seemed largely to accord with the default British way of doing things, so it wasn't too much effort for me, but some of my colleagues were surprised at the amount of difference between the modes of thinking expected of them.

There was also the issue of writing for an audience. Looking back over my reviews of Parnell Street and Hamlet is Dead. No Gravity, I think that both reviews (neither of them perfect by a long stretch) were influenced by their immediate audience – i.e. the likely festival attendees. Both were quite immediate responses, and largely lacking in the sort of background detail that I'd have probably filled in had the reviews been written for a British readership. There are lazy, but useful shorthands (“very European/German” being the worst) which simply wouldn't have worked in Germany. There was also the matter of writing to length, which in Europe is universally done by number of characters (or “signs” in Conference English) rather than words. My pieces were 2,000 and 4,000 signs respectively (not counting spaces), roughly translating as 320 words and 630 words (go figure). Since the character count was also supposed to be the same in both English and German, translated usually from the same character count in the original language, another interesting problem was thrown up by the fact that different languages take wildly different numbers of signs to say the same thing.

Perhaps the most interesting question, though, was the way that, even discussing in English about the way in which we wrote about theatre, it became clear that different language, or rather different a register, was used in different countries. On returning to England I happened to catch the latest edition of Newsnight Review on the BBC's lovely iPlayer device. I was struck by the way in which the guests were perfectly happy to discuss the Cy Towmbly exhibition with some interpretative seriousness, and yet the pair of films and the novel under discussion were dealt with much more at the level of technical achievement and plot. This all bleeds back into the long, ongoing conversation here and on the Guardian blog about modes of critical thinking and levels of engagement; the way in which other countries' theatre-critical cultures function, and the differences between them and Britain's dominant model.

On this subject, I'd like to thank George Hunka for drawing my attention to the post on his blog which quotes someone discussing one of my Helsinki pieces. I can't tell you how moving it is to read someone referring to “his beautiful text...” and saying that “Haydon poignantly concludes...”. It's always nice to discover that one isn't just talking to oneself.

That said, the range of pieces - the above-mentioned Helsinki one, the should we have judgement? one, the should we read the play? one, and today's critical ethics one – when taken together, display a pretty divided opinion of British criticism. On one hand, yes, I think it could be more arty, more passionate, more interpretative, more open to new ideas, and just less afraid of experiment and regietheater. On the other hand, I am resistant to the idea that critics should be trained (usually by the state) for up to seven years in theatreology, that they should be considered part of the theatre industry or the academy rather than as journalists, or that they should subscribe to any sort of code of ethics. While I often deplore and bemoan the spectacular Philistinism that is brought to bear on works of heart-racing beauty in the theatre, I concurrently admire the free-market buccaneering spirit that suggests that anyone in Britain can make it as a theatre critic if they want to - at exactly the same time as being appalled by some of the people who do.

I don't think I have a final position. There is plenty that is different about the way that Britain does theatre compared to much of mainland Europe, particularly Germany and beyond - both northwards and east into the former Soviet bloc. And much from those countries that I would love to see adopted here. At the same time, I still can’t quite get my head round their dismissal of performances which have not been subject to directorial interpretation/intervention. While I do find much British theatre painfully staid and literal, sometimes, if it’s a good play, I don’t honestly mind just seeing it, y’know, acted out like it’s written down. The withering looks I get for expressing this opinion, in front of Poles and Germans in particular, is fascinating. I guess a lifetime of cultural conditioning on either side is hard to totally break down. Still, the problem we have here in Britain is that it often feels as if hardly anyone is rocking the directorial boat, and worse, that there would be little support in the critical community were anyone to start. The conference also threw up an interesting linguistic third way for the text/non-text-based theatre argument - on the mainland, there is a useful distinction between ‘text’ and ‘script’. It is one that we may do well to adopt.


Anonymous said...

All very interesting and thought provoking.
I'm puzzled, however, by your failure to mention the absolute necessity of shooting Quentin Letts.

Ian Shuttleworth said...

"I am resistant to the idea that critics should be trained (usually by the state) for up to seven years in theatreology" - ah, you've met Nikolai Pesochinsky, then!

I'd like to hear more about the distinction between "text" and "script". Reading your report, I began formulating fantasy rebuttals of the disbelief you mentioned. Well, I imagined myself saying, when reading a book would you insist on having graphic designs or surtext printed on the page for a proper experience?

That quickly breaks down, of course, in that drama as presented has a stage between that of author and that of "reader": the dimension of performance (taking the entire business of staging for the time being as one). It then becomes a matter of distinction between a perspective that performance is a stage of mediation, or a process of completion/realisation that is in some quarters elevated to the status of being the true, core creation of the work. Whilst I can see the validity of the more cautious degree of that view, it seems to me a great danger of taking it to the extreme.

Another analogy has just occurred to me. Before going in to see Black Watch this evening, I tooka quick look at Steve McQueen's artwork "Queen And Country". Only a quick look, because it seemed to me that I grasped its point and nature within a few seconds. It consists of a wooden cabinet with a number of individual pull-out display cases, each of which houses a sheet of faux-postage stamps carrying the image of a British soldier killed in the current war on whoeverwedon'tlike. Now, whilst seeing the work realised - made concrete - added a little something to the feeling of its substance, it did nothing for my understanding or appreciation of the concept behind it. I'd suggest that the parallel there is with getting the point of a play from its text without performance being necessary. What does performance necessarily add? if it changes it, then how and why?... the latter in particular, because I think a case does need to be made out for extrvagantly indirect "interpretations" of work in performance. Remember that, a couple of years ago, Caryl Churchill all but had her name taken off Katie Mitchell's version of herversion of A Dream Play.

Bugger, and now I've got to go and write a Prompt Corner column...