For several years now, surtitles have featured on a number of the chosen productions at the Theatertreffen – this year three had English surtitles, whilst the French and Kinyarwanda-speaking Hate Radio and the Flemish Before Your Very Eyes necessitate German surtitles, and are both giving an extra performance with English ones as well.
The benefits of surtitles are clear: they open up the doors to international productions and international audiences. Particularly for a festival like the Theatertreffen, which presents an overview of the contemporary German-speaking theatre scene, surtitles could be the key to sharing this insight with audiences from all over the world who want to know what’s going on the inside the heads of these infamous theatre-makers’ heads.
Great, so we’re all agreed: slap on surtitles and quadruple the accessibility of the festival. As it turned out, it’s not quite that easy.
The performance takes place at the Hebbel-am-Ufer theatre in a valley between two sets of audience seating, and the surtitles take the form of a long strip running across the top of the reconstructed radio studio at the bottom of the valley. This means they are positioned very close to the action, and coupled with the fact that there isn’t all that much action anyway, this makes them pretty comfortable to read. From the moment director Milo Rau decided to bring his hyper-realistic “reenactment” from Rwanda to Germany, surtitles became a crucial part of the equation, so you can expect them to be well-integrated in the production. Still, they aren’t without their problems, not least because you can never be silent on the radio. This constant stream of conversation inevitably means that your audience members have to spend most of their time reading, not watching.
Performing a translation of a play and supplying the original script in the form of surtitles above the stage is a strange business. There were the practical problems to deal with: if you were seated on the balcony, the English surtitles were hidden behind paper lanterns hanging in the auditorium, so that if you were lucky you could now and then catch the final word in a sentence; if you were in the stalls, the surtitle monitor was so astronomically far above the stage that it was an out-and-out choice between reading and looking at the stage. But what’s more, and perhaps even worse, when the bilingual members of the audience did manage to find some way of keeping an eye on both without getting a migraine or whiplash, they soon realized how lacking the translation being performed was in comparison to Kane’s original text. Even poet Durs Grünbein wasn’t able to reconstruct the venomous rhythms of 4.48 Psychosis – what stuck out a mile, for example, was the way Kane’s short, biting verbs, “wring slash punch slash float flicker flash punch,” above the stage being juxtaposed with the clunky German equivalents showed the latter unable to keep up.
A car crash. A surtitling catastrophe the likes of which I have never seen before. No, the monitor didn’t break after two minutes and start spouting gobbledygook. I almost wish it had. Instead, the whole of the two-hour performance was accompanied by what appeared to be the output of a quick go on Google Translate: copy and paste Ibsen. Punctuation was missing for the first hour, and the translation frequently made no sense (“I am jealous of my name and business”?) or was simply incorrect (“sunshine” instead of “stars,” “boys” instead of “children” – I know what you’re thinking, but it’s not pedantic if two of the “boys” in question are in fact girls).
OK, so not every single word and comma has to be correct for the surtitles to be of use in following the play. But if they’re going to be any use whatsoever, the timing and phrasing of the lines as they appear on the monitor need to make some kind of sense. Instead, the answers were already glowing above the stage before their corresponding questions had even been asked. Different characters’ lines appeared simultaneously, or late, and were indistinguishable from each other.
This was the ultimate example of “slapping on the surtitles” and not giving them a second thought, and it is unacceptable. Surtitling is a complex, time-consuming process; as my experiences at the Theatertreffen show, the translation, timing, spacing, and length of phrasing must all be taken into account, and problems such as dealing with improvisation need careful consideration.
Before Your Very Eyes
The surtitles were the very model here: clear, correct, well-timed, and not distracting from the kids’ performances. This probably has a lot to do with the conception of the piece: at the post-show discussion today, Gob Squad members explained that because they knew from the start that surtitles would be needed for performances in Germany and on tour, they looked for ways to truly integrate them. They went on to say that the idea of the off-stage voice of a “director” figure was partly inspired by the presence of the surtitle monitor, another sort of detached voice.
There’s no simple solution to the translation of performances. But theatres need to become more aware that surtitles are not necessarily always the best option. Even the most skilful surtitling is problematic, adding a new distracting element on stage that can also be intrusive for those who aren’t even trying to read them. At the contemporary theatre festival Neue Stücke aus Europa in Wiesbaden, audiences are supplied with one-ear headsets for many of the non-German-language productions, so they can hear both the actors and an interpreter simultaneously. Some productions simply rely on a thorough synopsis in the programme. Finally, many of the most successfully surtitled productions have taken a big scenic decision and incorporated them into their design, for instance by placing them on more places around the stage, above the heads of the actors who are speaking, or even – as with Before Your Very Eyes – by integrating them into the concept of the production.
Or are we placing too much emphasis on understanding the text? Isn’t there a “language of theatre” that we can all understand? I’ll leave you with a thought from theatre company Cheek by Jowl, who perform their shows to audiences all over the world. They say that watching a play in a language you don’t understand “can be an incredibly liberating experience: instead of concentrating on every word of the text, the audience can allow themselves to be engrossed in the world on stage which should not rely on words alone to communicate its meaning.”