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Thoughts on Translation

Making theatre is an act of translation.

You start with this stuff, this… mindstuff, that swirls around and up and down between your head and your heart and your soul, and usually it’s pretty complicated to sort through it because the only tool you have to sort through it is also the thing that is generating the stuff (I’m talking about your brain here).

How frustrating is that? It’s like trying to vacuum cat hair on a carpet with a vacuum that is simultaneously spewing cat hair. Or trying to solve a math problem with a calculator that also types out its own numbers just to spite you.

The human brain is a fascinating machine. Efficient and contemplative. Judgmental and creative. Organized and jumbled. Always, always synthesizing.

So, you start with this mindstuff: your ideas, your instincts, and all of their wild, impossible, implications. And then the same engine that created the mindstuff tells you it would be a great idea to try to turn the mindstuff into something tangible, and put it up on a stage for people to see.

And that’s terrifying. Not only will you expose the inner workings of your thoughts, but you know before you even start that you’ll never be able to capture all of it. No matter how successful the tangible thing turns out to be, it will never be as pure as the inspiration behind it.

But you do it anyway. You write, or you act, or you direct, or you design, or you dramaturg.

You make a decision to move forward because you know that capturing even an ounce of the mindstuff is better than letting it fade into oblivion.

This is the struggle of translation. An act of translation is usually born out of a deep appreciation for the original, out of a desire to make it more available. And yet, in an attempt to honor the beauty of a work, you inevitably warp the beauty you are trying to replicate (ahh, irony). The magic of the original will always be “lost in translation,” much like the mindstuff that can never fully be realized.

Translation is painstaking. It may be inspired, but it is slow, it is full of failure and sweat and stress, and it often yields a product that is disappointing. But it is always worth it. The act of translation illuminates fresh meanings. It provides a new perspective. At their very worst, failed translations generate a deeper appreciation for the original.

(Side note: Check out this podcast on what happens when Shakespeare is translated to American Sign Language.)

I think that as collaborative artists, translation is the most we can hope for. To translate mindstuff into text, to translate the text into meaning, to translate meaning into bodies on stage, all in good faith that the audience will translate some visual cue into a thought that vaguely resembles the original mindstuff. There’s a lot of layers to work through, and a lot of room for loss. And yet, we go ahead and do it. Again, and again, and again.

It might be a little bit insane, but it sure is beautiful.

And, as I take a break from writing this post to check Twitter, The Almighty Lin-Manuel Miranda has managed to summarize my tangential thoughts in 5 tweets:

(read from bottom to top)




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