Translators often refer to their work as a labor of love, but too often we, as theatre educators, practitioners, and audiences, are blind to the intensive labor inherent in the translation of a script. Each source text, or the text in the language of its first conception, contains a world built from the various lexical elements that emerge from an author’s individual language and culture. A translator is responsible for transforming the source text into a target text, rendering this world into a different language for a different culture, all while maintaining the essence of the source text. Translations make up nearly 70 percent of the texts of my own theatre history courses, and they regularly appear on stages at high schools, universities, and community and professional theatres.

When selecting a translation for academic purposes or production, being able to identify the labor of the translator is integral to the success of any project. Educators are often restricted to using curriculum-approved anthologies, where translations are preselected for reasons that are not always apparent. It is essential to be aware that because the plays included in anthologies are typically staples of the canon, there are multiple translations available for most, if not all, of the source texts. As directors and dramaturgs we do not have the legal luxury of cutting and pasting several translations together to create a single, desirable text for the stage, and very often a translation is chosen because of the renown of the translator. Are you more likely to pack a theatre with a production of Mother Courage and Her Children translated by Tony Kushner, or by someone else whose name does not even appear on the title page? Our audiences expect a certain product in this instance, when the labor is visible because of the translator’s reputation. But what, if anything, do we expect when that same labor is invisible? As educators and practitioners we must know how to make the labor of the “unknown” translator as visible as that of the known translator in order to select a script that will serve our project’s best interests.

Through my work with Carol Maier, professor emeritus of translation at Kent State University, during a 2015 National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute titled “What Is Gained in Translation?” I have developed a process for educators and dramaturgs that outlines the best practices for selecting a translated text. Used in conjunction with standard dramaturgical research, these guidelines can help to make the translator’s labor more visible and facilitate the translated script-selection process for the classroom and the stage. The following set of best practices outlines a process that is rigorous, perhaps more rigorous than those who are seeking a translated script are willing or able to undertake. But we must keep in mind how comprehensive the process should be, so that if one must forgo an exhaustive investigation due to time or resource constraints, these best practices can still be at the forefront of consciousness during the process.

Acknowledge Your Expectations

Our first responsibility in selecting a translated script is to be aware of our own expectations where translation is concerned. These expectations can affect how we approach target texts, as Maier clarifies: “This is not to suggest that one’s preferences be set aside, but it is to suggest that they be held in abeyance as options are reviewed” (2010, 12). For instance, I may use Eric Bentley’s translation of Mother Courage in a theatre history class because of his facility with the German language and attention to the historical and linguistic conventions of the source text. However, I may be more inclined to use Kushner’s version if I am directing Mother Courage, because of its contemporary feel and rhythm. I may be hesitant to consider his translation of Mother Courage in a theatre history class, because Kushner has admitted in interviews that his German is “not good” and the translation process was more artistic than literal (Kalb). Understanding what you expect from a translation in any given situation is the first step in making an informed final decision.

I incorporate “acknowledge your expectations” into my dramaturgy students’ daily practice, but the next two directives from Maier are at the heart of a student project designed to reveal the labor inherent in translation, and to acquaint students with the work we must do as dramaturgs when selecting a translated script. The ultimate goal of the project, which can be tailored for intermediate to advanced students, is to choose a single translation that they will recommend for a given production. They create a website that details their elimination process, from an initial broad selection of translations to a final rationale for the selected script. As a case study for the project, I created a sample website that begins to demonstrate the process of script selection for a production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Examples from my website ( will follow in this note from the field to illustrate Maier’s concepts and their application to playtexts.

Consider the  Purpose

It is easy to label a target text as a “bad translation” or “good translation,” but if we are aware of our expectations and also consider the purpose of any given target text, as Maier recommends, we are more likely to see the value of target texts that we may have previously rejected. Maier reminds us to “[r]emember that no translation occurs in a vacuum” (2010, 14). My dramaturgy students must strive to understand why playwrights created their texts in the first place. Why was the play relevant to that era’s audiences, and why is it relevant to our audiences now? One can imagine similarly framed questions on the lips of a translator: Why do we need this translated text now? Why is it relevant to these readers? The number of reasons why a source text is translated is as great as the number of working translators: a Pulitzer Prize–winner is quickly translated into multiple European languages to boost exposure; a classic receives a translation every thirty years to keep it fresh and contemporary; a target text emerges to enrich the literature of a dying language; a translator falls in love with an obscure source text and translates it for her own satisfaction. Considering the purpose of a target text allows for a more generous consideration of its inherent qualities, and then we are better able to discern how appropriate it would be for our own project.

On the sample website for the Three Sisters project, I first made an admittedly not-exhaustive list of possible target texts and the purpose of each translation. Among the texts listed are Julius West’s 1915 translation found on Project Gutenberg, Constance Garnett’s 1916 translation, Curt Columbus’s 2005 translation for Strawdog Theatre Company in Chicago, and Laurence Senelick’s academic translation from 2007. Because the goal of the project is for students to select a single script for a particular production, they can begin to eliminate particular translations based on the needs of that production. Depending on the skill level of the students, they can create these conditions themselves or the instructor can set parameters. In the sample website I determined the limitations of my investigation by deciding that as part of my elimination rationale, I would only consider translations from the last twenty-five years and rule out any target texts found in the public domain, so as to focus on a translator of significant renown for marketing purposes. In the end the three translations I used for the website were those by Paul Schmidt (1992), a noted translator of Russian and a playwright who collaborated with the Wooster Group and premiered the translation under the title Brace Up!; Senelick, a respected academic voice of Chekhov translation; and Sarah Ruhl (2009), a feminist playwright who collaborated with a Russian translator in a six-month commission of the play for Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. Once your selection is limited, the real work begins.

“Figure the  Translator”

Maier (2015) stresses the importance of “figuring the translator” in much the same way that a dramaturg would research a playwright. My beginning dramaturgy students complete outside research that provides an in-depth understanding of how history and culture affected how and why the playwright wrote that play at that given moment in time. Students are encouraged to read other plays by the same author and find personal correspondence and autobiographical content by the playwright, such as in journals or critical manifestos. They must also find reviews of the play, as well as essays and criticism to understand how other people’s experience of the piece differed from that of its creator. By understanding the playwright’s intentions for the play within its original historical context and the response of the audience during that time period, students can make more informed decisions about why that play is relevant to audiences now.

The act of translating is a complex dance among cultural idioms, allusions, and historical vocabulary. Edward T. Hall’s iconic “cultural iceberg” metaphor from his book Beyond Culture, which compares the visible parts of culture as the top 10 percent of an iceberg and the invisible parts as the submerged 90 percent, illustrates the challenge a translator faces when bringing a source text to a new culture and language. Even a literal, verbatim transfer from one language to another involves decisions on syntax and words and phrases that are difficult to translate. Translating literature and poetry requires style, finesse, rhythm, and rhyme. The text world of lexical elements changes with each translation, because in addition to the playwright there is now a translator whose culture, language, and historical experience are layered on top of the source text. For example, consider how the text could change if an English-language translator is British, Irish, or an American from the South or Midwest, from the twentieth or twenty-first century. This is why when selecting a translation for the classroom or the stage, we must recognize the role of the translator as equal in importance to that of the playwright.

“Figuring the translator” involves engaging with other writing by the translator, examining critical responses to the target text, and analyzing major lexical differences across target texts. Maier suggests consulting the following resources to discover how the translator describes her work:

•    Paratexts (foreword, afterword, notes, glossary)

•    Critical essays

•    Criticism about other translators

•    Personal correspondence

•    Editor correspondence in defense of their work

•    Interviews

•    Creative pieces (poetry, short stories, plays, and so on)

•    Blogs, websites, and podcasts (2015, n.p.)

Examining these documents allows us to paint a picture of what the translator herself thinks about translation, either philosophically or specifically relating to the target text being explored.

Schmidt’s introduction to The Plays of Anton Chekhov readily outlines his purpose for the target text and his views on translation. He asserts that his is an American translation, so as to distinguish it from early British translations that he felt were too stilted on the American stage (5). He situates himself as a unique translator by being an actor/playwright/Russian scholar, and criticizes other translations of Chekhov: those of native Russian speakers are too “formal and unidiomatic,” while playwrights don’t speak Russian and subordinate Chekhov’s “style and nuance” to their own (6). For Schmidt, the task of the translator of Chekhov is to write a play in English that will produce, when staged, an effect such as the original may be said to have had on a Russian audience.

I have to try to re-create in American English a voice that resounds within the American language            the way Chekhov’s voice resounds within Russian. . . Above all, whatever language I speak as a              translator must be a language the audience can recognize as theirs. (ibid.; emphasis in original)

Senelick disagrees with Schmidt on a fundamental level. Of his own translation he says,

I have not tried to pretend that Chekhov is anything other than Russian. Although I have converted weights and measures into Western equivalents, so that an audience can more easily gauge distances and density, I have left currency, beverages, and in particular, names in their Russian forms. . . . If one is to turn Pavel into Paul and Yelena into Helen, then one must go the whole hog and refer to Uncle Jack instead of Uncle Vanya and, to be consistent, Ivanov as Mr. Johnson. (2; emphasis in original)

Senelick uses his undeniable proficiency with the Russian language and takes a decidedly analytical approach to translation, paying special attention to Chekhov’s linguistic style: lexical repetitions, syntax, etymology, and allusions.

Ruhl’s notes at the beginning of her commissioned translation openly admit to being both “terrified and happy” that she spoke no Russian (2). She discusses the many resources she mined within a six-month period in order to complete the project, including help from her Russian sister- in-law, a Russian scholar/playwright/director, four separate translations, and a childhood teacher and Chekhov scholar. Ruhl’s sensibility aligns with Schmidt’s, in that she was not interested in subordinating Chekhov’s style in favor of her own:

It became clear to me that getting to the root of the original Russian was what I wanted, rather than putting my own authorial stamp on the text. I wanted to get as far away from a “stamp” as possible. . . . I came to this translation with no agenda, no desire to bend Chekhov to my will in any way, but instead, to learn from him. It is, then, a very faithful translation, phrase by phrase, stage direction by stage direction, comma by comma. (1, 3)

Both Ruhl’s and Schmidt’s projects were intended for performance from the beginning, while Senelick’s was meant for an annotated, academic volume. Their philosophies on translation differ accordingly, and one can begin to see how considering the purpose of a target text and “figuring the translator” can be tightly bound together.

Once we have analyzed the translator’s intention, we must focus on examining critical responses to the target text. Documents, such as those listed above, written by individuals other than the translator are essential for understanding the efficacy of the target text. Additionally, production reviews, particularly from different time periods, places, and organizations, chronicle the response to the text across time, space, and a range of artistic sensibilities.

Consult Reviews, Review Essays, and Criticism

Many of these documents must be taken with a grain of salt, particularly production reviews, where many other factors can affect how critics receive a translation. For example, Sam Thielman reviewed a production of Senelick’s translation in a joint production between The Classical Theater of Harlem and Harlem Stage in 2009. Thielman found the production flawed, writing that “[l]arge swaths of the production become a tug-of-war between academic Laurence Senelick’s unspeakable translation (benignant? really?) and fine actors like Reg E. Cathey and Amanda Mason Warren” (n.p.). Ruhl, however, specifically thanked Senelick and his “careful scholarship” in the notes for her translation (5), and her production at Berkeley Rep in 2011 received a positive review from Robert Hurwitt in the San Francisco Chronicle. Hurwitt was careful to specify that Ruhl worked from a literal translation, and called the new version “crisp” and “breezy.” He commented that the production brought the play to life “as if it were taking place today. And 110 years ago. . . . The language straddles the century, sounding colloquial but rarely out of place” (n.p.).

The notoriety of Schmidt’s translation due to its connection with the Wooster Group has led to a wealth of scholarly criticism and interviews with his artistic collaborators. Elizabeth LeCompte spoke about how his translation helped her as a director: “It’s an idealized vision of soap opera—very conversational, it can have great depth and at the same time, be very shallow. It’s like one of those silhouette pictures where you can see several images at the same time. It has tremendous ambiguity and the ability to mutate right before your eyes, and you say, ‘Oh, my God, I never heard that before’” (qtd. in Mee 146). Insights like this can be hard to come by if a translation is obscure or new, but that should not deter us from examining and holding it up to other, tried-and-true translations.

The most laborious task in “figuring the translator,” and the translated script-selection process in general, is analyzing major lexical differences across target texts. Professionals who are adept at script analysis will have an easier time with this, but students will need to train a careful eye before they become proficient. In this stage we should “attend to the formal features” (Maier 2010, 13) of the text, especially noting unfamiliar word usage, such as slang, turns of phrase, words in other languages, or forms of address. A dramaturgical glossary, which defines and illustrates unfamiliar terms and allusions, is an important comparative tool at this stage. We must also scrutinize places where translators have made distinctly different decisions in terms of vocabulary.

In the Three Sisters case-study website there is a section devoted to “Major Lexical Differences,” which contains excerpts to compare these vocabulary choices. In one example, Natasha confronts Olga and disparages Anfisa, the aged nurse. Each target text reveals a different characterization of Natasha, based on the lexical decisions made by the author. Schmidt’s Natasha is the most mild, telling Olga that they must “come to some agreement,” that she does not want that “stupid old woman” in the house, and that Olga shouldn’t “argue” with her (58). Senelick paints a picture of Natasha at the other end of the spectrum. She tells Olga they’ve got to “thrash it out,” that she does not want to see that “thieving old crow, that nasty old hag . . . that witch” in the house, and that Olga shouldn’t “provoke” her (927). Ruhl manages to create an arc for Natasha, who calmly suggests that she and Olga “come to an understanding,” then rises to a point of hysteria by calling Anfisa “that old bag, that old thief . . . that witch,” before warning Olga not to make her “mad” (82).

When we do this work on several translations and compare them, we reveal the differences across target texts, and the personal philosophies and labor of each translator become apparent. This is perhaps the most important step, when we must make difficult decisions about choosing a translation for the stage, but there are additional benefits for both the stage and classroom, particularly if you are able to use more than one target text for your purposes.

Choose One, Use Many (If Not All)

Onstage we are legally limited to one translation, but that should not stop us from consulting multiple texts throughout the process. Maier urges us to “read well” (2010, 12) and explore every available translation of a source text. In the classroom it is possible to examine several target texts, and “[t]o limit oneself to one version when more than one version is available is to deprive oneself (or one’s students) of the pleasure of awakening to the strangeness of language that is often revealed strikingly by variations, even small ones, among multiple versions of a given text” (16). Along with this, Maier warns that “[n]o choice should be considered final” (17), and that educators should strive to remain aware of new translations in the field. It is only by consulting all available texts that we can shatter the myth of the definitive translation, which does a disservice to the art of translating and the practice of considering the purpose of any given target text. But she adds, “[t]his is not to say that all versions are equally accomplished. On the contrary, . . . some translations are superior to others. Disparate versions, however, are often likely to result from divergent readings rather than from inaccuracy, and readings in translation will be enriched by exposure to those plural readings” (18). The accumulation of the target texts creates a palimpsest that brings extended meaning to the source text. When educators, students, directors, and dramaturgs do not speak the source language, as is often the case, this accumulation of translator voices, informed by their own languages, cultures, experiences, and personal connections to the text, is a valuable resource.

Present Provocatively

We can increase the visibility of the translator through deliberate recognition of translated texts, and this mission begins with educators. If we follow the practices outlined in this note from the field, then we must set our students on the same path. Introduce the target text, name the translator in addition to the playwright, and prompt students to consider, as you did, what their expectations are for a translated text:

•    Have you read a translation before?

•    Have you done any translating or interpreting yourself?

•    Do you have a preconceived notion about the role translation plays in the transmission of a work, perhaps compromising its credibility?

•    What do you know about the translator’s background, and does that affect your responsive- ness to the work? (Maier 2010, 17.)

I dedicate at least one day in each of my classes to considering work in translation. We read “Choosing and Introducing a Translation” by Maier, compare excerpts from famous translated plays, engage in a translation activity, and discuss a chapter from Mohammad Ghanoonparvar’s Translating the Garden, a scholarly, stream-of-consciousness account of the author’s experience translating a short story from Persian to English.

Educating students and ourselves to be aware that the labor of translation has occurred is a foundational building block to ensure thorough script analysis, fruitful inquiry, and successful script selection. We must acknowledge our own expectations of a target text and consider the purpose of each translation we experience. We must “figure the translator” as we would the playwright by reading well and widely and analyzing each text carefully to compare major lexical differences. And we must expose ourselves to an entire range of target texts, reject the limiting myth of a definitive translation, and ensure a pluralist and overt investigation into the art of translation. The art of theatre is the art of collaboration, and going forward we must recognize the labor of one of our most important, and most overlooked, contributors: the translator.


Works Cited

Chekhov, Anton. Three Sisters. Trans. Paul Schmidt. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1992. Print.

———. Three Sisters. The Complete Plays of Anton Chekhov. Trans. Laurence Senelick. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. Print.

———. Three Sisters. Chekhov’s Three Sisters and Woolf’s Orlando: Two Renderings for the Stage. Trans. Sarah Ruhl. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2013. Print.

Ghanoonparvar, Mohammad R. Translating the Garden. Austin: U of Texas P, 2002. Print. Hall, Edward T. Beyond Culture. New York: Anchor Books, 1976. Print.

Hurwitt, Robert. “‘Three Sisters’ Review: Chekhov’s Hope, Heartbreak.” San Francisco Chronicle. 15 Apr. 2011. Web. 28 July 2016.

Kalb, Jonathan. “Tony Kushner on Mother Courage.” Fall 2006. Web. 22 July 2016.

Maier, Carol. “Choosing and Introducing a Translation.” Literature in Translation: Teaching Issues and Reading Practices. Ed. Carole Maier and Françoise Massardier-Kenney. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 2010. Print.

———. “Figuring the Translator’s Voice: How Do Translators Describe What They Do?” Lecture at NEH Summer Institute’s “What Is Gained in Translation?” Kent, Ohio, 11 June 2015. Unpublished.

Mee, Susie. “Chekhov’s Three Sisters and the Wooster Group’s Brace Up!TDR: The Drama Review 36.4 (1992): 143–53. Print.

Ruhl, Sarah, trans. “Author’s Notes.” Chekhov’s Three Sisters and Woolf’s Orlando: Two Renderings for the Stage. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2013. Print.

Schmidt, Paul, trans. “Introduction.” The Plays of Anton Chekhov: A New Translation by Paul Schmidt. New York: Harper Perennial, 1998. Print.

Senelick, Laurence, trans. “A Note on the Translation.” The Complete Plays of Anton Chekhov. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. Print.

Thielman, Sam. “Review: ‘Three Sisters.’” 18 Feb. 2009. Web. 28 July 2016.