Interpreting the Arts

Linguistic anthropologists have always looked at the connection between language and culture. Some cultures can express concepts in a single word that would take other languages a full paragraph to approximate the full meaning. Similarly, exact translation doesn’t necessarily capture the feeling behind the word, or the connotation it carries within the cultural context.

That’s part of what makes translating music and theatre so difficult. A phrase that brings tears to the audience’s eyes in one language, could leave listeners puzzled at best once it’s been interpreted.

The Irish Times recently published an article about one director’s efforts to translate a play into Mandarin from English. Sarah Jane Schaife knew it wouldn’t be easy. A few years earlier, Schaife toured Asia putting on plays by Samuel Beckett. Beckett is a 20th Century Irish playwright, and his works rely heavily on the historical backdrop of World War II. If the audience is unfamiliar with the times and the culture Beckett was writing during and about, the meaning behind his works is lost.

Now, Schaife is partnering with a Beijing university in attempt to translate a traditional Irish play into Mandarin.

One of the biggest challenges the translators say they’ve faced so far, is replicating the feeling that the original Irish vernacular achieves. The playwright used the original language to develop a sense of community, how the characters view the world, and how they view their interactions with one another. To approximate that feeling, they are implementing a local Mandarin dialect.

Although Schaife is finding that some things, like humor and tone, just do not translate well from one culture to another, she’s also seeing the Chinese community relate to the play in ways she never imagined. Read how this text is gaining new meaning in a new culture, here.

audienceAn audience’s reaction to a theatrical work has as much to do with culture as it does with the text. Credit: Jason Ernst

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