11 August 2017


by Philippa Wehle

[I’ve just posted reports on two foreign-language plays, both part of this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival.  One, While I Was Waiting, was in Arabic and the other, To the End of the Land, was in Hebrew—and both employed supertitles.  (My reports on these plays were posted on 1 and 6 August, respectively.)  I’ve often complained about how this device is used in theaters here, a common phenomenon at international festivals like LCF and the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  Usually they’re placed so that a spectator like me can’t read them and watch the actors at the same time—or even alternately.  That was the case with To the End of the Land—though While I Was Waiting handled the matter differently, putting the supertitle screen on stage as part of the set.  Waiting included a two-level platform and the screen was located at the half-way point so it was just beneath the feet of the actors on the upper level or just over the heads of the actors on the stage level—perfect for reading the text and watching the actors at the same time.  (Another frequent problem, especially with what Philippa Wehle calls “language based plays,” is that the text goes by in the supertitles too fast to read.  Below, Wehle ponders the need to translate the whole text.)  My friend Diana, with whom I often go to shows, passed on going the the Lincoln Center Festival this year because she didn’t want to contend with supertitles.  Diana’s an opera fan and she often remarks that opera houses like New York’s Met have small screens embedded in the backs of each seat so that patrons can read the titles right in front of them.  No playhouse that I know of does this, probably because, unlike opera, theater repertoires don’t regularly include foreign-language performances.  (I also presume the technology is expensive to install.)  

[I came across Wehle’s two short essays on supertitles while I was writing my report on While I Was Waiting and I downloaded them to keep in reserve for reposting at an appropriate time.  I think that’s now, with the Syrian and Israeli play reports just published on Rick On Theater.  The first article below was originally published on  The Theatre Times, a New York website, on 26 October 2016 (https://thetheatretimes.com/musings-on-supertitles/).]


Thinking about how to make supertitles more friendly, more accessible to an audience that is anxious to know what is being said in French or Italian or Lithuanian (as was the case with the stunning piece I saw in Avignon this summer, Didvyriu Aikste, directed by Kritian Lupa),  but also how they can enhance the experience of the play.  I recently saw two shows that used them efficiently and differently with great success.

Romeo Castellucci’s Go Down, Moses at Peak Performances in Montclair [New Jersey], began with a scrim behind which we could see the players walking back and forth and exchanging bits of conversation in Italian, of course.  Later a Mother, the main figure in this piece, is being interrogated by a police inspector who speaks very fast as does the Mother.  Instead of supertitles overhead or on the sides, they were on the scrim and clearly part of the performance, not a separate entity.  The scrim is used throughout the play not only to distance us from the performance but also as a location for the supertitles.  Of course, Castellucci’s shows are mostly wordless.  They are visceral experiences rather than linguistic, but it is still important to understand what the woman, who painfully delivers a baby in a public toilet, whom she names Moses, is talking about. For example:

“We are close, so close to a new beginning of the world

. . . How can we say this to the poor?

They are fated to toil.”

It is fantastic to be able to watch her and see the words on the scrim at the same time rather than having our eyes leaving the stage to look upward and our necks aching from an hour or two of trying to keep up with action and words.

The other show was Letter to a Man, Robert Wilson’s piece created for Mikhail Baryshnikov, seen at BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music] on Wednesday, Oct 19 [2016].  Baryshnikov is wonderful as always. His dancing is so elegant; his presence throughout is electrifying.  From time to time, fragments of text are heard, either in Russian or in English.  “I am not Diaghilev.” Or “I understand war because I fought with my mother-in-law.” These are excerpts from Nijinsky’s diaries written when the great Russian dancer was losing his mind and was put in a mental institution by his wife.  The words we hear are voiceovers recorded by Robert Wilson, Baryshnikov and Lucinda Childs.  When they are heard, we also see them written as supertitles.

We hear “I am not Christ. I am Nijinsky.” In Russian, then in English and back to Russian, spoken by Baryshnikov in audio fragments, repeated over and over.  These phrases add essential layers to the drama of this man whose mind is deteriorating. We may not know Russian but the English translation follows immediately and then comes the Russian again. This is fascinating to me. I’m wondering if the art of creating supertitles couldn’t learn from this.  I’m just dreaming but instead of whole sections of a dramatic text in English projected up on a screen, for example, could there be shortened versions with the English on one side and the translated language on the other?  The audience for Wilson’s play was filled with Russians the night I saw it.  I have a feeling they must have been hearing the English as well as the Russian just as I was and perhaps feeling a melting together of both languages to add an exciting cultural dimension to the experience.

Of course, I realize that both of these pieces are mainly visual and physical, and that the problem remains as to how to successfully create supertitles for language based plays without translating every word.


[Wehle’s second article on supertitles was posted on The Theatre Times on 24 December 2016 (https://thetheatretimes.com/more-musings-on-supertitles/).]

“Knowing two languages doesn’t make you a translator any more than having ten fingers makes you a pianist.”  Unknown wise person

I have recently been asked to translate an important book on the subject of supertitles in the theatre. Called Guide du Sur-titrage au théâtre, and published in 2016 by the Maison Antoine Vitez  International translation center in Paris. Written by Michel Bataillon, Laurent Muhleisen and Pierre-Yves Diez, i[t] is a fascinating and thorough presentation of the principles and practices of creating the best possible supertitles. Along with answers to questions such as “Are supertitles absolutely necessary?” there is practical information about how to set them up on Power Point frames, in terms of length and number of lines per slide, dialogue and punctuation.

I love the authors’ comments such as “It’s a mortal sin to put any information on a frame that has not yet been spoken by the actor.” It’s hard enough for the audience to read the translated words that are zooming by. So please don’t confuse them.

Elsewhere the authors make it very clear how important the job of sending the supertitles onto the screen is. It is preferable that the translator of the titles be the same person as the one who sends the titles.  He or she is in charge of making sure that the comic or emotional effects hit the right spot.  There is nothing more disturbing to performers and directors than to hear laughter or a gasp after the delivery. To achieve an optimal result, the translator must attend rehearsals and consult with the author and the director as well as the performers.  Imagine a show that lasts for two and one-half hours. The person in charge of sending the slides sends about 2,000 titles during that time. The least mistake will be noticed. Needless to say, it is a very hard job and it is not often sufficiently acknowledged. As translator both from English to French and French to English over the past several years, I have been amazed to discover that my name is not on the credits not to mention that a theater company has used my translation without permission.

Another matter that concerns me is the question of how to downsize the original text without offending the author. First and foremost, it’s important to collaborate with all of the artists involved not just the playwright.  I’ve been fortunate to work closely with very helpful artists whose plays I have had the pleasure of translating.  I insist on a close collaboration even if the artist is in Zagreb and extremely busy.   For example, I worked with Kenneth Collins on three of his shows.  These words from him in an e-mail are typical of the kind of response I’ve had from all of the artists with whom I’ve worked:   “In terms of cutting words, it is really a case by case basis,” he wrote. “Some stuff I feel is important to the nature of what is being communicated . . . some stuff, clearly not so much.  Do you want to talk on the phone and walk me through what you would like to cut? . . . Then I can determine if I feel they take away from what I’m trying to say or not.”

More musings:

The wonderful Tiago Rodrigues, head of the Portuguese National Theater in Lisbon, who is a playwright, performer and director extraordinaire, performs his shows in Portuguese, of course, but also in French and English. No need for supertitles with Tiago.  It’s fun to think of how many people get to see his shows in a language they understand without the need for supertitles.

Talking with a friend the other day about the thorny problems of supertitles, she volunteered that she had finally seen Hamilton. To prepare for this exciting event, she bought the CD and listened to the lyrics because she knew that even if the company is singing in English, she wouldn’t follow them as well as she wanted to. Fascinating, I thought.

I’ve been in theaters where the translation of a text for a show in a foreign language is handed out to the audience in advance.  A good idea, I think, but it frequently doesn’t solve the problem of a fuller experience of the play. Either heads are down, reading the text, or the translation is read later.

[These posts were written by the author in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed in these articles are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, its staff or collaborators.

[The Theatre Times is a non-partisan, global portal for theater news.  With more than seventy Regional Managing Editors around the world, it aims to be the largest theater news source online.  In addition to its original content, The Theatre Times filters through more than eighty sources, around six hundred articles and thousands of pages of theater news every day.  Combining premium content with ease of use, The Theatre Times provides a high-performance experience that readers can trust.  Curating a steady stream of the top theater information, The Theatre Times is a leading destination for theater audiences and professionals worldwide.  Facilitating global, transcontinental collaborative models, and generating opportunities for interaction and creative development amongst a wide network of international theater artists, The Theatre Times asserts the importance and impact of theater as one of the oldest and most universal forms of human expression.

[Philippa Wehle, an editor and translator, is Professor Emerita of French Language and Culture and Drama Studies at Purchase College, State University of New York. She writes widely on contemporary theater and performance and is the author of Le Théâtre populaire selon Jean Vilar (Actes Sud, 1991 and 2012), Drama Contemporary: France (Performing Arts Journal Publications 1986) and Act French: Contemporary Plays from France (PAJ Publications, 2007). She has translated numerous contemporary French language plays (by Marguerite Duras, Nathalie Sarraute, Philippe Minyana, José Pliya, and others). Her latest activity is translating contemporary New York theater productions into French for supertitles (ERS, Kenneth Collins, Jay Scheib, Basil Twist, Okwui Okpokwasili, Tina Satter, Christina Masciotti, and Andrew Schneider). Dr. Wehle is a Chevalier in the French Order of Arts and Letters.]

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