Barbara Burns speaks to Sophie Stevens, author of Uruguayan Theatre in Translation: Theory and Practice which recently appeared in Legenda’s Transcript series.
BB. Your book on Uruguayan theatre showcases translation both as a practice and a mode of analysis, and includes three performance-ready translations. Can you tell us about the motivation behind this study and the contribution it makes?
SS. There are very few books in English dedicated to theatre from Uruguay and I wanted to show how rich, diverse and innovative Uruguayan theatre texts and practices are. I wanted to bring Uruguayan theatre to life, firstly by studying the plays in their original context, and then by analysing them through translation and providing insights into the ways in which theatre translation creates an afterlife for the plays.
The book contains three of my translations of plays by Uruguayan authors – Dancing Alone Every Night by Raquel Diana, Ready or Not by Estela Golovchenko, and The Library by Carlos Maggi. It also has three chapters of analysis which places each of these plays in dialogue with another one. The book is an introduction to Uruguayan theatre, and also an invitation for people to work on these plays, produce them, and do more research. It helps broaden our understanding of theatre texts, traditions and practices from Latin America, and of how they can enrich theatre-making in the English-speaking world.
BB. Have you always been interested in studying theatre?
SS. I’ve always loved languages and theatre, and this is in a large part due to excellent schoolteachers. But it was really during my degree in French and Hispanic Studies at King’s College London that I had the opportunity to explore theatre in other languages, and I even performed in a couple of the Spanish Department plays! The Arts-and-Humanities-Research-Council-funded Out of the Wings project began at King’s whilst I was studying there. This meant that I was surrounded by people working on theatre from Spain and Latin America. The vibrant research environment, and support, once again, from brilliant teachers – in particular Catherine Boyle who then became my PhD supervisor – gave me the confidence to do a PhD on theatre from Uruguay and its translation into English.
BB. Your study focuses on six plays written between 1957 and 2008. How did you locate these works and go about your selection? Were there particular criteria for inclusion?
SS. My research began with two anthologies published by the Ministry of Education and Culture in Uruguay in 1988 and 1990, entitled 50 años de teatro uruguayo [50 Years of Uruguayan theatre]. They were published after a period of political unrest during the civic-military dictatorship (1973-85), and their goal was to celebrate Uruguayan theatre and encourage new opportunities for theatre. I analysed the plays in these volumes and included in-depth studies of two of them, but then I wanted to see what happened next; if the aim of these anthologies was to re-launch theatre in Uruguay, what new types of work were created? I was particularly keen to explore contemporary work by women playwrights, as they were under-represented in the anthologies. I also wanted to include plays that were different from those I’d encountered in English, and which would be interesting for a UK audience.
BB. What are the key themes of your chosen plays?
SS. The plays deal with a range of intriguing themes including the experience of women, generational differences, death and afterlife, political resistance, memory, resilience, and the force of storytelling. I focused on plays that enabled me to provide new insights into Uruguayan theatre and that also opened up interesting translation questions.
BB. I understand you were able to meet the authors of some of your selected plays. In what ways have conversations with these playwrights about their work influenced your own creative process as a translator?
SS. This is a great question because one of the most exciting aspects of a conversation with a playwright is learning about how and why they write. It’s also often interesting to learn what they read as they are writing. Talking to some of the authors helped me to understand some of the influences on their creative process and to reflect on or incorporate these influences – other literary texts, pieces of music, images – into my own research process for the translation. Translation is a creative process and so thinking of the translator as a creative author is important.
BB. Do you have a favourite among these plays, perhaps one which holds the most enduring fascination for you?
SS. I think that the answer to this would have to be Bailando sola cada noche [Dancing Alone Every Night] by Raquel Diana, because not only is it a brilliant, funny and moving play depicting one woman’s experience of a kind of afterlife, but it was also fundamental in shaping my ideas about how narratives travel across perceived borders of geography and language to create connections in a new context. Also, Raquel has been a great supporter of my work and we’ve had many conversations over the years about this play and others.
Dancing Alone Every Night takes as a starting point the story of a woman who died alone in London in 2006. The real Joyce Vincent (also the name of the protagonist) was discovered in her flat in Wood Green, north London, two years after her death, surrounded by Christmas gifts. Raquel Diana imagines and dramatizes Joyce’s death by ascribing actions, gestures, words and songs to the period of time between her death and the discovery of her corpse. This means that the story of this play starts in London so Raquel, as the author of the play in Uruguay, had already identified connections between London and Montevideo. The challenge for me in researching and translating the play was to explore the new types of connections that emerged through her creative imagining of this story for the stage. The play has had several rehearsed readings in English, and I’ve also worked on it with students as it’s such a fascinating case study.
BB. How do people in the UK respond to Uruguayan theatre? Have some of your selected plays been staged in the UK?
SS. I’ve always found that people are intrigued by the connections these plays can create, for example, the ways in which a play about intergenerational political conflict in Uruguay and the legacy of the civic-military dictatorship seemed to contain echoes of the Brexit debate in the UK and could maybe even open up new ways of talking about that debate. It goes without saying that audience interaction with these plays depends on theatre companies and directors being willing to stage them, and I’m fortunate to have worked with brilliant creative teams at the Out of the Wings annual Festival, Barons Court Theatre, Stonecrabs Theatre, and my colleagues in Drama at the University of East Anglia. But before getting these plays on stage, there are lots of steps in the process of developing the translation involving table reads with colleagues and with actors.
BB. In the title of your concluding chapter on the role of the theatre translator, you use the triplet ‘Interpret, Intervene, Instruct’. This seems to extend the translator’s remit as it’s conventionally understood. Can you explain what you mean by this?
SS. This triplet is based on what I think about the potential of plays and playwrights to open up new perspectives on how we think about ourselves and others. This extends to the work of the theatre translator. Every play talks about multiple things, and every translation is based on an interpretation of that play and the many ideas, resonances and themes it contains. But our interpretation can be expanded through a process of research, through dialogue with playwrights and practitioners, and through exploring the play in workshops settings.
Translating theatre from another culture and language is an act of intervention because by getting the play out there in English, we place it in dialogue with plays written in English and, more broadly, with current discourses in the target culture. In this way, the play can intervene to shape ideas on issues affecting society, and the translator enables that work to happen. And the reference to instruction is because there are parts of theatre texts, such as stage directions, that provide instructions to the actors and the creative teams, and so we have to ensure that our theatre translations also provide these instructions which are necessary for staging.
BB. You are a member of the Out of the Wings theatre collective. Can you tell us a bit about your involvement with this group? Will you be taking part in this year’s festival?
SS. The Festival is taking place 11th-15th July, and I’m part of the team organizing the one-day Forum on the theme of community-building through theatre translation which kicks off the Festival. My translation of The Anemone and the Boar by Argentine dramatist Mónica Maffía, a playwright with whom I’ve collaborated in lots of ways, has been selected to be performed as a rehearsed reading on the final night of the Festival. Info here: https://ootwfestival.com/.