Simultaneous translation at BAM

I live with one of those arty-filmy types, who idolises Ingmar Bergman, and

who forced me to get tickets to Ghosts

when we were filling out our BAM subscription last year. Ghosts is

a relatively minor Ibsen play which has been loosely translated by Bergman into

Swedish (from Norwegian) and directed by him in a production for the Royal Dramatic

Theatre of Sweden, who John Lahr of the New Yorker calls "probably

the best repertory theater in the world".

The five performances of Ghosts here in New York have been long-anticipated,

and sold out for months. This is despite the fact that they’re in Swedish. There

were certainly a lot of Swedes in the audience, but most people were following

the translation. Bergman obviously has a broad and deep following.

I’m no stranger to theater in a foreign language, even if you exclude opera.

I once went to an all-day-long Russian-language performance of War and Peace

at Tramway in Glasgow,

and although it was incredibly boring at points (the political discussions did

tend to drag a little) I managed to cope with the supertitles much as I would

with the same thing at the opera, or with subtitles on a film.

So I was looking forward to this play. I’m a big Ibsen fan, and I’m always

interested in seeing theatrical productions which are acknowledged to be among

the best in the world.

I didn’t make it past the interval.

The reason had nothing to do with the acting, the direction, the stage design,

or the play itself. All, I’m sure, were first-rate. Even the costumes were great.

But the whole theatre-going experience was destroyed by BAM’s mind-blowingly

idiotic decision not to use surtitles, like any other theatre would, but to

use simultaneous translation instead.

It was just like when you go to an international conference: you walk up to

the little man with the headsets, and give him a credit card, driver’s license

or the like in surety for your little piece of high-tech gadgetry. The headset

itself was a bit like this

one, but not quite as nice: the earpieces didn’t have foam covers, which

meant that – because the weight of the whole device was borne by the inside

of your ears – you were definitely feeling it after more than an hour

of usage.

Four translators worked on the piece, which had many more than four characters,

meaning that sometimes you had the same person speaking two different parts

in very close proximity to each other: weird, and disconcerting. What’s more,

because (I suppose) that it’s much easier to find English-speaking Swedes than

Swedish-speaking Americans, the translators sometimes got pronunciations wrong,

or tripped over their lines. (The translation from Swedish to English, by the

way, was beyond dreadful: cliché-filled hackwork at its very worst.)

The translators made what was probably a smart decision not to attempt to act

their parts: the acting was on stage, and the translation was merely to keep

us up to speed with who was saying what to whom. But when the characters are

shouting and crying at each other, there’s definitely a disconnect when what

you’re hearing is delivered in such a deadpan that often it was hard to work

out whether a certain line was meant sarcastically or not.

What’s more, Ghosts is a dialogue-heavy play, which means that a lot

of the time the characters simply stand or sit on stage and have long discussions.

Everything, here, is in the delivery – but we who were listening on headphones

got none of that, since the translation effectively drowned out all of the audible

information from the stage.

For me, choosing between simultaneous translation and surtitles in a theatrical

context is a no-brainer. If the art resides largely in the text and the delivery,

then we should be able to hear it; if you’re listening to a bad translation,

badly delivered, you’re never going to appreciate the play. Surtitles do detract

attention from what’s going on on-stage, but most of the time, in this play,

that was very little. And one of the great complaints about surtitles in the

operatic world – that they steal attention from the music, which is what

really matters – simply isn’t relevant in the case of theatre.

What’s more, surtitles are much more forgiving of bad translation than simultaneous

translation is. With a surtitle, you’re always aware that what you’re listening

to is a very loose translation of the original, there to provide an idea of

what’s going on. In films, most of the script is jettisoned by the time it reaches

subtitles, without too much in the way of ill effects. You glance at the surtitle

to keep abreast of the plot, and then refocus your attention on the action.

Simultaneous translation, on the other hand, offers no opportunity to concentrate

purely on what’s going on in front of you: it’s impossible even to hear the

actors. The whole theatrical experience is mediated through an uncomfortable

headset housing uninspiring voices. (And which, incidentally, delivers hissing

white noise when no one is speaking, especially if you turn your head away from

the stage at all.)

I really can’t imagine why BAM didn’t go the surtitle route, and chose to use

translation and headsets instead. Maybe some kind company donated the headset

technology, and BAM felt that it had to use them. Maybe Bergman got full of

himself, and decided that he didn’t want surtitles bespoiling his perfect production.

Maybe the cost of making slides for surtitles was a lot greater than the cost

of hiring translators for the week. None of them strike me as particularly good

reasons: if you know what the real reason was, do leave a comment below.

But at least there was a silver lining: leaving BAM early meant that we were

finally able to try out Thomas

Beisl, the hot new Austrian restaurant in Fort Greene. Great food, wonderful

beer, very reasonable prices: all in all, one of the best places to eat out

in New York, I’d say. If you have tickets to future performances of Ghosts,

I’d recommend you sell them to the line of desperates wanting to get in, and

go treat yourself to a delicious Viennese meal with the proceeds. You’ll have

a much more enjoyable evening.

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3 Responses to Simultaneous translation at BAM

  1. Matt says:

    I couldn’t agree more about [sub|sur]titling, it really works, because you do just use the titles to keep abreast, and therefore there really isn’t a distraction.

    Here’s a couple of examples. Firstly, I have “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragin” on DVD, and thanks to the marvels of that format, I have a choice of languages for the audio, and a choice of languages for subtitles (or none of course). There is *no way* I choose the English audio, simply because all the rhythm of the acting is lost, words and movements don’t quite match, and overall it sucks. I choose Mandarin dialogue and English subtitles, and that’s that.

    Secondly, I have a pet peeve in that I want surtitles at ENO, even though the singing is in English. I want this because the strain of trying to decipher sung words is infinitely more distracting than surtitles are. Britten’s ‘Turn of the screw’ at the Royal Opera was surtitled, and they’ve generally got much better singers than ENO.

    The thing is, surely anyone can digest the two sources of information and composite them internally very easily? Subtitles in a film even seem to disappear after a while, so that I’m really only barely aware of their presence. So I always assume that people who find titling distracting, whether at the cinema, opera or theatre must have some kind of reading *dis*ability. Or is this ability to composite the information not so common after all?

  2. Reinhardt says:

    Ha ha! That is very funny! Austrian restaurant, it is a good joke.

  3. erika says:

    Only just saw this entry. Couldn’t disagree more. We saw this production at the Barbican in London after buying the tickets on the internet the previous day: the translators were superb, they did not have accents and they didn’t interfere, so we could just get immersed in the play. We could hear the voices on the stage and get the tone of what was being said while also being able to understand it. And the earpieces had foam and were comfortable. So, we guess the Barbican had better technology and better translators. We got totally into the play and neither of us would have contemplated leaving in the interval, which as you know, Erika frequently does!

    Erika and Roger

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