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Translating Performance // Republish

This article was originally written in 2013 for the now-defunct platform "Preformance", developed with Noon Enterprises, the Goethe Institute and EPS51. I have removed links where no longer available. 

Bilingual Flyer for an event

On the contextual promotion and staging of performances in another culture.

The context of a production, and the reception of it, change depending on where it is performed. While this is true of any form of art, there are some considerations to be made when promoting and staging your performative production to an audience with a passing knowledge of the culture it sprang from. In the following, you will find a general outline to making a performance accessible to an international audience and to theatres outside the Arabic- speaking world.

The more specific the play is to a certain location, time and society, the more it becomes a code that needs to be deciphered by the recipient, sometimes even explained to them. A play about Egyptian society expects a fluency in the symbols, the subtle undertones of life, and some knowledge of current and historical events in the county. It may also include gestures and jokes that an audience, unaccustomed to the mores of a country will not be able to appreciate immediately.

While some symbols, and names may be familiar through the news and media, others will be unfamiliar. A play with heavy references to media figures may lose its impact, as it is unlikely that someone following media in one country will be familiar with the topography of another countries media. A performance drawing on footage of specific places and events may become a jumble of abstract images to a viewer unfamiliar with the history of those images. Jokes and local humour are one of the greatest challenges a translator can face- especially when they deal with current events and reference names, locations and memes that are foreign to the recipient.

When approaching a space to produce or stage your play, it thus becomes important not only to convey the content of a production, but also the societal context in which it is set and in which it was created. A few guiding questions you may want to answer in your description: When does it take place? What is the current state of the society that it is set in? Does it employ techniques or methods specific to a certain culture? What are the backgrounds of the playwright, the director, actors? Which figures and symbols are used to convey the point in the play? Is there a current, or historical context? Is there a cultural connection that can be made to the country you are applying in?

As it is unlikely you will be meeting those responsible for programming in person at first, it becomes more important to display an awareness that your play will be performed in a different context than in your home country. One way to do this is to talk about the original context of the performance- the events and people that inspired it, social background, and obvious references to your culture. You may also want to outline the artistic heritage that led you to choose this form over others.

All of the above usually takes the form of a textual outline attached to your submission. It should not be longer than two pages, as it is bound to be read by busy people. They mostly speak English. They will also expect some documentation of your production in form of photographs, a short video and a technical requirements sheet, referred to as a tech rider. 

Although this is a very general argument to make, it is possible that you will be applying to people with no prior contact with Arabic as a language or personal exposure to "Arabs". Their main acquaintance will mostly stem from books, media reports, youTube and hearsay, not prolonged direct engagement with the various cultural heritages, forms of performance and self-expression. The long tradition of puppetry underestimated, the various forms of dancing, the authors unknown. They will possibly approach the production with caution and distance. At this point, it is vital to demonstrate that your production is accessible to the audience they cater to.

This begins with language: A play in Arabic, for instance, will only be understood by a small fraction of an audience in Germany, while those not fluent in the language will have to rely on what they see on stage. It needs translation, either in the form of subtitles, or a adapted performance, in order to be appreciated for its linguistic qualities in addition to it's phonetic beauty. To rephrase: If the main language you use in your play is one your audience does not understand and you perform it exclusively in that language, the script of the play is reduced to sound effects that accompany a mime performance and will not achieve it's full, intended effect. Unless that is intended, it is highly recommended you work with a professional translator who will convey the meaning of your script and the linguistic subtleties of the production to a foreign audience rather than trying to translate the text word by word.

When translating, there are a few considerations that come into play. The main one is that you will wish to maintain the thematic and dramatic integrity of the piece without changing it's tenor, tone or motif, yet transpose it into a language, an oral culture and heritage, that it was not originally intended for. Literal translations are often stilted, awkward beings that do not live up to the original. By attempting to be too faithful to the syntax of the original text, the quality and enjoyment of the production can be decreased. While it is important to retain the textual quality and the meaning of the text, you will find that some lines, when translated too literally, lose their impact and meaning. It thus becomes part of the translation to find local formulations that correspond to the original text and maintain the meaning while changing the wording.

There is an art to subtitling: they have to run concurrent with the timing of the play, be legible and understandable in a short time and convey the meaning of the script without diluting it or lessing it's impact. On stage, they should not distract from the action and acting- you may want to try several placements in technical rehearsals in order to find an optimum position. In some productions, the subtitles are integrated directly into the set, in some they float above or below the stage, depending on the set design and effect you wish to achieve.

Make sure to include some strong and telling photographs when showcasing your production or promoting it to the press. Ideally, you would upload a bilingual press kit onto a website, making it easily accessible and gaining the advantage of being able to say "Check our website" when making press calls, thus impressing journalists with your preparation. Your press kit should include a one-page description of the production, and photographs. If feasible, a video trailer. Don't forget to add contact details and the dates on which the play will be performed.

When designing your poster, keep in mind that while you should include a title in Latin type, passers-by will appreciate a bilingual poster and the introduction of the Arabic script into their daily visual world. How far you want to take the bilinguality of your design is up to you, but in all cases, make sure you use legible, matching type. The fine points of bilingual design are discussed elsewhere in detail, but your main aim is to be seen and differentiate your production from others, while adapting your design to the local visual culture.

Your next opportunity to inform the audience about the context of the play is the playbill you hand out during performances. Considering that your audience might contain both people fluent in Arabic and those whose first contact your performance is to contemporary Arabic culture. Again, context and a short history of your company will be appreciated. It is a nice touch to provide both Arabic and a local translation in the playbill, the original translated and understandable. If, during rehearsals, you realise that a foreign setting demands a new direction, you may want to mention that in your written introduction.

If your goal is to convey an opinion on a topic, consider it a success if the discourse your performance generates revolves around it. If you wish to comment on a specific occurrence, make sure you provide some background information on the main references and locations in the piece so as to establish its context. Give your audience enough knowledge to appreciate the subtleties of the play, but leave the plot open for discovery. Your audience should identify with situations and your characters should be as believable on location as they are at home.

The above are rough guidelines to the intercultural promotion of performative production. Understanding is, of course, in no way guaranteed, but these should help you communicate the qualities and context of your production effectively and in a comprehensible fashion to producers and spaces not immediately familiar with its cultural background. In practice, some of the details may differ from show to show, but following these guidelines and making a comprehensive showcase available will allow you to impress them with a professional and thorough presentation that will greatly increase your chances of connection with the performance space of your choice.

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