Features EssaysPerformance Published 5 November 2014

In Translation

Alister Lownie & Katherina Radeva, of Two Destination Language, discuss the relationship between performance and translation. Their show, Near Gone, delivered in English and Bulgarian, is part of the Radar Festival of new writing at the Bush Theatre.
Alister Lownie & Katherina Radeva


The act of performance is an act of translation.

Interpretation is in stages. Between the idea and its realisation. Between the tone intended and that understood: from intention to embodiment to perception to understanding. There are gaps everywhere.

A shadow, a blink, a hesitation. A flicker of the lights, a cough in the audience, a stumbled leap, a lift aborted. The liveness for which we return to performance makes it delicate. Repetition is full of difference, and it can always seem meaningful.

When we perform, we know what we’re doing. We know what we intend. We know what the audience should see. We have rehearsed this series of moments to make the experience as reliable as possible. But we are not in control of the experience that each audience member takes away.

There are the factors outside the performance — their personal histories, their cultural contexts, their knowledge — but also we leave gaps for them to fill. The world created is incomplete and relies on their imaginations. There are signals, but not controls.


Words are tricky. Every detail giving life to a world locates it geographically, temporally, culturally. Translating a playtext reveals the fissures, and the translator must tread a careful path across the slippery surface of the original; the risk of falling irrecoverably into a crevasse is otherwise too present.

It is the ambiguity, the presence of the gaps, which makes a text endure. The things which translate to worlds outside the setting of the play, which allow a new production to create for its audience a relevancy. When Shakespeare works, it is an act of translation bringing the concept, design, textual editing, performance styles into an alignment that covers the gaps between the world for which it was written and our own. Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking was resonant in its time, and speaks from that time, not ours.


The words need not be spoken. They can be traced in light, projected, marks left from an action performed. They can be rendered visible, fleeting, enduring. The marked body is a site of identity performance which we encounter daily. The rendering of our words as the moving signs of BSL is something less familiar to us, and something we relish for its physicality, for the weight language takes on in this incarnation.

Words spoken tell us almost too much. When we see the speaker’s face, hear their tone, understand the words, there are signs upon signs. Taking them away conjures the gaps we need. Think of Beckett demanding a performance of lips and teeth in Not I, forcing the familiar into an unfamiliar frame. Think of our own use (in Near Gone) of Bulgarian language, loaded with emotion and gesture, its literal translation an almost redundant reinforcement of events uncontrollably unfolding. Think of the foreign sounds which audiences begin to recognise as belonging to this other world, the world performed, and the gap they bridge between that world and their own.


Music offers great canyons for the audience to fill with response, few certain signposts. ¬†Dance gives us recognisable figures in exceptional configurations, it gives us a juxtaposition with sound. It sometimes uses words. In all this, audiences don’t need to feel a search for meaning, don’t need to trace a story, populate it with characters or tune a precise emotional response. The range of possibilities becomes the point.

Theatre has a resistance to this. Dramatic figures going through their story, following the script, have a power that comes from their precision. But it is a power dependent on the audience bridging the gap between their seats and the world of the play. As we move away from plays, we’re interested in the gap itself, in playing with the space, in what happens with no characters or many characters or a fractured story or a long list of images. We’re interested in playing with the form, in making the form fit our experience of how life is lived.

We like people. We like emotion. We like the apparatus of the theatre — the techniques of the stage. But we’re driven to expose these in ways which aren’t neat. We’re interested in translating our experience.


Physical theatre is adept at playing with the gaps. Complicite are expert in the creation and dismantling of objects, of translating one thing into another. The performers’ apparent control over the tools of their performance makes those gaps visible: nothing you see is quite as it seems, this playfulness tells us, and so you must engage your imagination. You must watch for the signs, choose your own path. The sound, the light, the video, the performers’ expressions: all are only clues.

Imagine a violinist, playing alone. Imagine them deeply involved in their music. Imagine them moving a bow across strings repeatedly. The same basic action, with small variations, for almost an hour. Imagine the responses inside yourself. Imagine you cannot hear a sound, and feel how much more room this gap gives you, the audience.

Imagine a performer bleeding for you. Imagine them cutting into their own flesh, hooking their own flesh, for you. How do we, you, who do not do this, translate this experience into our own? Its very foreignness, at the same time as it is viscerally familiar, is what gives it power. The gap, between the thing done and the thing seen and the thing felt.

Imagine the gap. Relish the gap, love it, nurture it. Don’t close it, for it is where we performers live.

An act of performance is an act of translation. An act of translation is an act of performance.

 Two Destination Language will be performing Near Gone, as part of Radar, the new writing festival at the Bush Theatre on the 20th and 21st November 2014



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