I went to a talk at the Italian Cultural Institute featuring an English playwright and an Italian playwright, each speaking their own languages. I sat in the audience wearing headphones, and a ‘simultaneous translator’ hid behind the curtain with a microphone, speaking English in my ears while the Italian playwright spoke.

It felt like I could understand Italian. I want to make a show that feels like that, like the language barrier just dissolves.

But I don’t want to hide the translator away behind a curtain. I want to put her on stage as a character. There’s so much potential in making that work visible, and possibly even messing with the integrity of the translation - purposefully telling the audience the wrong thing. With the translator on stage, there’s a complex relationship between the speaker and the translator and the audience.

Translation in theatre usually relies on a lot of technology, and that makes it prohibitively expensive. You have to get a caption machine, translate the text, enter the surtitles, and then have someone who speaks both languages operate the performances. All that prep work means that anything improvised or interactive cannot be surtitled.

Or like the Italian Institute, you could have someone with a microphone and audiences with headphones. (By the way, that ONE translator had two radio channels for the headphones, and she translated English to Italian, and Italian to English. So she never stopped talking all night, she did both sides of the conversation.) The simultaneous translation option is quite expensive - and for a dramatic performance, possibly unsatisfying, like dubbing on film.

So, a live translation… I’ve not seen this on stage before. (I’m sure I’m not the first person to think of this, so please do comment below with companies that I should look up!)

Questions for an R&D
How many languages can we get on stage?
If one of the languages is BSL, that won’t necessarily mean that the piece is accessible to Deaf audiences. We’d need all the text to be signed, not just have the BSL translated to spoken English. Does that then create an additional layer of translation? How would that work with the concept of feeling like you speak another language?
What is the working language in the rehearsal room? (I suppose mainly English, limited by my inability to speak anything else. Also it’s a practical common language for theatre makers in the UK.)
How many actors & how many translators? Do we need one translator per actor?
Should we use a classic text or devise a brand new show?
What is the story? Who are the characters? How does the story connect with the multilingual form/theme?
What is the relationship between the actor speaking in another language and the English translator? Between the actor and the audience? Between the translator and the audience?

Thank you to Fanny, David, and Alice for dropping by this brainstorming session and feeding in questions and references!

It will probably take me a couple of years to get this project rolling, but please get in touch if you’re interested in developing the idea. Seeking multilingual collaborators, venue/residency opportunities, and funding!

Amy Clare Tasker
www.amyclaretasker.com | www.pineconeperformance.com