Behind The Translation: Unlocking Language for U.S. Audiences

Behind The Translation: Unlocking Language for U.S. Audiences

Behind The Lie, written by Chinese playwright Nick Rongjun Yu, opens this week at the Hundson Guild Theatre in Hollywood, California. This marks the U.S. Premiere of the Chinese-written play, which has been translated by Duke University Professor of Theater Studies and Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Dr. Claire Conceison. The Producing Artistic Director of the Grex Group Theatre recently asked Dr. Conceison a few questions about the work.


Mr. Guiltner: It would seem that the translation between two distinct languages would require a mutual understanding of the economic, social, historical, cultural, and political environments of both cultures. Give us a brief background of your life experience that has prepared you to so successfully translate Behind The Lie.

Dr. Conceison: I began studying Chinese language in high school, and first lived in China as a college student, spending a semester at Beida (Peking University). While in Shanghai for a year and a half doing research for my master’s thesis at Harvard, I began living in the theatre community there. It was when playwrights and directors asked me to help make their work available in English that I first became a translator. One of the first plays I translated was Pierre Bourgeade’s “Passport” in order to provide oral simultaneous translation at performances for foreign audience members who did not understand Chinese. From the outset, I was always translating language for actors to speak, not for readers to read, and this is the most important aspect of translating plays. Having to actually “perform” the language aloud during a performance, of course, made me consider how the language works for actors even more than usual. In the case of “Passport” it was necessary to translate from two languages, because I was translating the Chinese production script that had already been translated fromthe original play in French. My English translation had to match the Chinese performance, but it was also important that this English translation of the play be as faithful as possible to the French playwright’s original work.Adding another layer, the play is set in pre-communist Russia–similar to Behind the Lie, there are only two characters in a lengthy confrontation with an apparently clear hierarchy, until layers of their actual relationship are revealed.

A deep understanding of the history, politics, and culture of the society from which the play and playwright originate is important along with knowing the language, especially in the case of China. Many of the plays I translate for contemporary mainland playwrights have allusions to timely issues, or language with colloquial meanings or intertextual references. Behind the Lie is a bit more universal in its focus on the psychology of two characters during an interrogation, so maintaining the sharp distinction between the two characters from the original script is important.


Above:  Actors Cecil Burroughs and Dwayne Barnes rehearse Behind The Lie under the direction of Robert Woods for the Grex Group Theatre’s Hollywood premiere. 




Mr. Guiltner:  Why was Behind The Lie chosen to be translated into English?

Dr. Conceison:  The playwright, Yu Rongjun (Nick Yu), was awarded an Asian Cultural Council fellowship in 2006 to visit theaters in the US. I was commissioned by ACC to translate one of Nick’s plays so that when he traveled around the country meeting theatre professionals, they would be able to read an example of one of his plays (and stage readings from it if desired). I chose Behind the Lie because it has a small cast and simple set, is accessible in content across cultures, and shows Nick’s skills as a playwright in terms of character and dramatic structure (though it reveals less of his propensity for experimentation). I directed the first staged reading of the play in the fall of 2006 at Tufts University.

Mr. Guiltner:  What are the biggest challenges in translating a story like Behind The Lie from Chinese into English?

Dr. Conceison:  The play is driven by dialogue, with far less physical movement and visual elements than most of Nick’s other works, so the language must carry the play. The words must be fluid and natural enough to draw the audience into the minds of the characters and build a kind of suspense that makes the audience anticipate each character’s next line. In that sense, it seems like a realist play attempting Aristotelian identification. But the play is also about a more abstract issue of isolation that is both physical and psychological in today’s mega-cities like Shanghai, so the language has a kind of crafted and poetic quality that is not natural everyday speech(this presents a challenge to the actors as well as the translator). The language has to work on both levels: the audience must be drawn in to the conflict between the two characters while also digesting their more lofty speeches on a reflective level. And in Behind the Lie, subtext is crucial and that must come across in translation for both the actors and the audience.

Mr. Guiltner:  One often wonders how much finesse and influence a translator has on the play. As you look at your work on Behind The Lie, do you find parts of your own voice in the English version?

Dr. Conceison:  When I translate a play, I try to be true to the characters and to the playwright, so on the “fidelity vs. freedom” spectrum that translators often consider, I am a relatively “faithful” translator. Since I am working with living playwrights whose plays are still being staged (in their originals and in translation), I want the English language versions of their plays to represent the work they are writing in Chinese. On the other hand, having access to the living playwright means I can collaborate with him/her, ask questions regarding moments of the play that need adjustment for a foreign audience, or explain choices I am making as translator that might differ from the original and secure approval for such changes if the playwright agrees that it serves the play. Also, when I direct a play I translate, my productions look very different from previous productions of the play due to my experimental process and style as a director, which shows the range of interpretations a play can have even when the script is translated “faithfully.” I would say my “voice” comes out more as a director than as a translator, but one trait I do have as a translator is choosing the “right” word based on sound combinations and language rhythm (and the aforementioned speakability of the text for actors), not merely accuracy in meaning.

Closing Comments:  Thank you Dr. Concesion for sharing your work with us!  You can see the play at the Hudson Guild Theatre, playing in April 2013.  For more information, click HERE.