The following interview was conducted by Skype between Los Angeles and Cartagena, Spain.
Geraldine Brodie - The interviewee J. G. - The interviewer
LMJ: You are a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales and a member of the Chartered Institute of Taxation. Did you study and practice Accounting before you came to the humanities? Did you abandon the former in favour of translation studies?
GB: In some ways I’ve had a circular career. I read English at Oxford, specialising in Old English and Old French language and literature. I’ve always had an interest in language, translation, interculturality and how they affect the way literature crosses borders.
After graduation, I trained as an accountant with the firm that is today KPMG. It wasn’t particularly unusual to do that with an English degree - accountants have to communicate well, and be systematic and enquiring. I was able to use my language skills there, running an audit in Paris. I stayed with the firm for 12 years, including two years in New York. While there, I took the opportunity to learn Spanish, at what is now the Instituto Cervantes.
That Spanish ultimately led me back to university. I signed up for a diploma in Spanish to improve my focus on learning, which reminded me how much I enjoyed studying languages. I applied for a place on the Comparative Literature MA programme at University College London; I was intrigued by the Translation Studies element, which seemed to address the interlingual cultural issues that I had begun to explore at Oxford, and continued to interest me as I worked in different environments. From there, I didn’t look back. I went on to a Ph.D. in Translation Studies, and stayed on as a Teaching Fellow. I’m now a Lecturer in Translation Theory and Theatre Translation. I did all this part-time, as I continued to work as an accountant, and I still have business interests.
LMJ: Your academic field presumably rests upon two pillars – theatre and translation. How did you develop an interest in each of those and how did you go about combining them?
GB: I inherited my interest in theatre from my mother. One of my childhood treats was to go with her to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, and I joined their youth programme (then called Theatre 67) when I was a teenager. An early highlight was a visit from Richard Chamberlain as Hamlet. My mother and I still enjoy the theatre together – we go to the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon when we get the chance.
An essay on tragedy for the Comparative Literature MA was the catalyst for me to combine theatre and translation. I decided to compare plays by Ibsen and Lorca, and when I realised how many, sometimes startlingly different, English translations were available, I wanted to investigate and understand the translation process.
Of course, I’m only describing my own journey - I’m by no means the first to notice this phenomenon. In fact, I learned a great deal from Manuela Perteghella on a short course she taught at London Metropolitan University, and she also introduced me to academic theatre translation research circles when I was beginning my Ph.D.
LMJ: Could you define your field of study and research for the 10 years you have been with UCL.
GB: I find theatre a particularly rewarding site to study translation, because, as I’ve mentioned, new translations tend to be commissioned alongside each new production, especially for classic plays. For example, one of the books I use in teaching my undergraduate module European Theatre in Translation is Romy Heylen’s “Translation, Poetics, and the Stage: Six French Hamlets”, in which the author discusses successive translations of Shakespeare’s play over two centuries. In the other direction, tickets are currently being sold in London for Molière’s “The Miser” in a new adaptation by Sean Foley and Phil Porter. “The Miser” has already been translated into English on many occasions, but for this new production starring Griff Rhys Jones there will also be a new text. What does this continual cycle of reinvention tell us about the nature of translation (and theatre)?
My research investigates this procedure: how these translations are commissioned; which plays and translators are selected; where translated productions are staged; who are the translators and other theatre practitioners collaborating in the process. I am particularly interested in the progression from the initial play in another language to the translated text that is performed, and the terminology that is applied to describe the process.
In London, translation into English for the theatre often takes place via a “literal translation”, prepared by an expert in the source language, which is then used by a writer to create a performance text. The result of this process is usually billed as a version or an adaptation rather than a translation - but not always; so it is difficult to work out how the production you are seeing has been translated. A current example of this is the work of the young French playwright Florian Zeller: three of his plays have recently been performed in London, all translated by the writer and director Christopher Hampton, who translates from French and German. And yet the most recent of these plays, “The Truth”, is billed as an adaptation. Why? In trying to answer questions like this, I am hoping to make the intercultural movements in theatre and translation more apparent and highlight the expert and very creative work of all the participants involved. That should include the literal translators, who are not given enough credit for their contribution, in my opinion. My book, “The Translator on Stage”, which I am currently writing for Bloomsbury, delves into these details.
LMJ: Were you ever able to use techniques learnt in accounting for your research or writings in translation studies?
GB: I use my accountancy skills all the time as a lecturer and researcher in Translation Studies. It’s useful to have a background in planning, budgeting and project management when organising teaching programmes and funded research activities. However, I have also drawn on my experiences investigating and documenting systems, learned when I was auditing organisations of all sizes from sole traders to multinational corporations, to research the field of theatre translation. My aim is to establish and record procedure, and then see whether I can find patterns or trends of behaviour.
So I don’t restrict my research to a particular language, historical period or genre of writing – I look at what is actually taking place on stage. With its very active and in some ways diverse theatre scene, London is a fruitful research ground for theatre translation. I estimate that around 12% of productions are derived from another language. These range from the classical plays of antiquity, such as Sophocles and Euripides, through historically renowned playwrights - Racine, Schiller, for example – to the more recent canon: Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg, Lorca, Brecht are all regularly performed. But there are also instances of lesser-known or contemporary playwrights being given rare or first performances in the English language. Plays do tend to come from the same languages, though -French, German, ancient Greek, Italian, Russian, Spanish. The Scandinavian languages are particularly well represented by number of productions. Of course, there are always exceptions to these generalised trends, and initiatives aiming to broaden the range.
LMJ: The book “Words, Images and Performances in Translation”, (to which you contributed a chapter, “Theatre Translation for Performance: Conflict of Interests, Conflict of Cultures”) demonstrates the ways in which words, images and performances are translated and reinterpreted in new socio-cultural contexts. Can you explain that concept?
GB: Anyone who has ever tried to translate knows that translation is far more than linguistic code-shifting. Replacing a word, phrase or sentence in one language with a similar unit in another is only the beginning of the communicative transfer. The book considered translation from a wider perspective, discussing how other media, such as artwork or advertising images, can be translated – and why the cultural implications of these activities are also relevant to what is traditionally thought of as translation.
My chapter on theatre translation discussed how a range of factors beyond code-shifting influenced the representation of translated theatre, which of course is a visual, aural and textual translation.
LMJ: You coedited a special issue of the Journal of Adaptation in Film and Performance on "Martin Crimp – playwright, translator, translated", with Marie Nadia Karsky of Université Paris 8. Can you tell us about the symposium that took place on which that issue was based and on your collaboration with Marie Nadia Karsky?
GB: As so often happens in academia, this collaboration came about serendipitously.
Marie Nadia was a co-organiser of a symposium at Paris 8 where I had been invited to speak about theatre translation in London. Over a cup of coffee after the event, we discovered a shared interest in Martin Crimp’s translation of Molière’s “The Misanthrope”, from our different language perspectives.
A year or so later, I was invited to apply for funding from the Institut Français du Royaume-Uni to run a series of workshops at UCL developing links with French academic organisations and exploring directions for research collaborations. I immediately thought of Marie Nadia and our shared interest, which both of us had been developing in the intervening period. Marie Nadia, together with colleagues from the French research group TRACT (Traduction et Communication Transculturelle Anglais-Français/Français-Anglais), had been working on a project with Masters students to translate Crimp’s version of “The Misanthrope” back into French. I had been investigating Crimp’s voice as a writer as it is revealed in his own plays, his translations from French and his versions from other languages where he has used a literal translation (these include German, ancient Greek and Russian).
Between us we put together a two-day workshop with presentations by academics from three French and three UK universities; a bilingual theatre workshop led by Anne Bérélowitch (director of the theatre company L’Instant Même) with French and English actors, exploring “The Misanthrope” in Molière’s original, Crimp’s translation, and the “back-translations” by the students; and finally a conversation about translation between the critic Aleks Sierz and Martin Crimp himself, to which the public was invited.
We had a very exciting two days, full of energy. Many of the students who had worked on the translations came over to London on Eurostar with the academic presenters and the French theatre practitioners. The Birmingham School of Acting provided student actors, and all mixed in with the UK academics and UCL staff and students. We drank a lot of coffee and ate substantial quantities of cheese, thoughtfully brought over by the French students.
The special issue of the journal publishes expanded versions of the academic presentations given during the symposium, and a transcript of Aleks Sierz’s interview with Martin Crimp. We hope it captures some of the energy and the range of conversations during the symposium. Marie Nadia and I very much enjoyed our collaboration, and are already discussing our next venture.
LMJ: Translation Studies are said to be expanding their boundaries. In what directions are they moving?
GB: Translation Studies has always been an interdisciplinary field. Just as translation itself adapts to fit the environments in which it takes place, the academic discipline is evolving to reflect new routes of enquiry. The fact that UCL now offers both MA and MSc programmes in Translation is evidence of the numerous opportunities for study and research.
In addition to the broadening of translation within the Arts and Humanities to include performance, artworks, images and other intercultural movement that I mentioned earlier, there is also an increasing awareness of the advances of technology in translation. This is significant for the use of digital tools for translation – how will Google Translate impact future translations and translators? Technological advances also present an opportunity to carry out new science-based methods of research. My UCL colleague Claire Shih, for example, sees translation as a cognitive human behaviour that can be investigated using digital research instruments, such as screen recording, key logging and eye tracking software.
These different areas also speak to each other: advanced digital tools can be used to translate theatre in the form of intermedial surtitles; computational software can be harnessed to investigate style in literary translation. It is this interdisciplinarity that I find exciting about Translation Studies as a discipline. Ultimately, though, it is the everyday presence of translation in our lives, mostly overlooked, that for me is endlessly captivating, and I’m pleased if I can pass on any of that fascination to my friends, family and, most of all, my students.
UCL is a public research university in London. It makes the contested claims of being the third-oldest university in England, and the first to admit women. UCL has over 100 departments, institutes and research centres. It has around 35,600 students and 12,000 staff. Its alumni include the "Father of the Nation" of each of India, Kenya and Mauritius, the founders of Ghana, modern Japan and Nigeria, the inventor of the telephone, and one of the co-discoverers of the structure of DNA, as well as at least 29 Nobel Prize winners.