Over Our Heads

salomeA blog post by theatre critic Lyn Gardner brought me to a realisation this week.  Virtually every theatre-going experience I have in Hong Kong is dominated, literally, by surtitles – either in English, Cantonese or sometimes both. I have often wondered how the complexity of a play in one language translates into another for a live audience. Are my Cantonese speaking compatriots having an easier time understanding the nuances of King Lear than I am? I know for sure that my students read the Cantonese surtitles when the spoken language of a play is impenetrable to them or the dialect or accent is too strong. In her post, Mind your language: the trouble with theatre subtitles, Gardner notes that great translations make foreign productions accessible, that poor ones are a distraction and asks whether surtitles always a necessity in communicating meaning to an audience:

One of the pleasures of London theatre-going over the past 20 years has been just how many foreign-language productions it has been possible to see. Shakespeare performed in another tongue has been a particular revelation as the Globe’s 2012 Globe to Globe season amply demonstrated, although what made that – and it’s ongoing spin-offs – so pleasurable was the chance to see Shakespeare amid an audience whose native tongue was the language in which the play was being performed. If you want evidence that London is truly an international city, this is it.

HEDDA GABLER, director Thomas Ostermeier

HEDDA GABLER, director Thomas Ostermeier

But there have been plenty of other opportunities to see oh-so-familiar classic plays in other languages, particularly at the Barbican, where Thomas Ostermeier has made us rethink Hedda and A Doll’s House and Hamlet, and will shortly be pitching up with An Enemy of the People. The London international festival of theatre has also done more than its bit to bring the world to London. In many of these cases it is the arrival of surtitles that have really made foreign-language productions accessible to those of us who do not speak or understand enough to get by. Without them I suspect many such shows wouldn’t get an English-speaking audience.

I remember a time when if you went to see a play in another language the best you could hope for was headphones and intrusive simultaneous translation or a free sheet detailing the action in each scene.

Good surtitles are a real art. One issue with surtitles is positioning. Poorly sited surtitles are like trying to hold a conversation in a room where a TV is on. However much you try not to look at them, your eye is constantly drawn towards them, even if you speak the language. You end up relying on the text rather than looking for other clues, which in a great production of a play in any language are demonstrated in a myriad of ways from the positioning and space between the characters to the timbre and tone of what is being said. It’s possible to understand a great deal about a production from its look and sound, even if you don’t speak a word of the language in which it’s being performed. Too much reliance on surtitles turns audiences into dummies, a bit like those tourists you see at Stratford who follow the entire production with their nose buried in the text on their lap as if it’s only the text that matters and looking at the stage is not necessary.

Rakata perform Punishment Without Revenge by Lope de Vega at Shakespeare's Globe

Rakata perform Punishment Without Revenge by Lope de Vega at Shakespeare’s Globe

Poor surtitles can be a hindrance rather than a help, as I found at the Globe last week with a Spanish-language production of Punishment Without Revenge. In this instance they were simply describing the action and not particularly well: it’s enormously frustrating and sometimes bewildering to be told that someone is speaking in metaphor or telling a joke and not to be told what the joke is. I reckon that in this instance no surtitles – and a simple synopsis sheet – would be far better than surtitles that distract the eye from what is happening on stage and are way too blunt to add any value to the viewer. What do you think? And if you’ve ever seen any real surtitle howlers do share.

I have considerable sympathy with Gardner.  I have, on occasion, found myself at the front of the stalls, unable to read the surtitles (which are almost directly above me) and watch the stage action without needing a visit to the physio the following morning.  In some of our smaller and older theatres the surtitles are shown to the side of the proscenium and you end up looking like a spectator at a tennis match. I’ve also experienced the earphone and recorded translation version elsewhere in Asia when watching theatre – once I had to leave a Bunraku performance in Osaka after about an hour because of my ever-growing irritation with the mono-tonal drawl of the voice in my (one) ear.

UntitledThe comments section that follows Gardner’s blog continues the debate as does this post from BTI Studios, which talks about the difficulties of ‘captioning’ in the theatre. One theatre in Germany, the Komische Oper in Berlin, has the surtitles shown on the back of seat in front of you, as does La Scala in Milan (both opera venues you’ll notice). This is clearly a move in the right direction in terms of being able to view surtitles clearly, but of course, does nothing to address the translation issues or how they are used by a venue (as in the example given by Gardener at The Globe Theatre). It seems that any large city with cultural aspirations now stages an international theatre festival, so watching performance in a language other than your own is no longer an unusual or unique experience. Given this, I think it’s about time venues in particular, but theatre makers more widely, become a little more adept at making captioning work for the audience, both technically and artistically.

By way of a post script, and not unconnected, the Royal Shakespeare Company in the UK have just announced that they are going to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into Mandarin, as well as translating 14 seminal Chinese plays into English (although these have yet to be named). Quieting the cynic in me and over-looking the PR puffery about boosting business and cultural links between Britain and China, this could mean some exciting Chinese work being available in translation for the first time.

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