Contemporary ‘European’ plays in translation make up less than 1% of the work programmed on British stages today – an underwhelming number by any standards. Conversely, touring shows by ‘European’ companies and directors enjoy a relative popularity. ‘Why aren’t British theatres more open to European playwrighting?’ is the obvious question to ask. I’m more inclined, however, to ask the opposite. Why would we expect it to be any different?
The parallel field of publishing, also involving translation, reveals a similar disproportion. A recent study reported that in 2011, only 3% of books published in the UK were translations (what’s more, most of them bestselling novels); compared to 12% in Germany, 16% in France, 20% in Italy and 33% in Poland. The study’s conclusions speak clearly: the ‘low literary translation output [that] has always set the United Kingdom and Ireland aside from the rest of Europe’ continues to do so today.
I argue that these numbers reflect the UK’s cultural policies, education system and attitudes. Coproducing, subtitling and touring are one thing, translating and staging a ‘foreign’ text is quite another.
Why would British theatres make efforts to open cultural borders, if no popular or political demands urge them to? An Anglophone text will always be ready at hand, providing programmers with a financially safer and less labour-intensive option.
More importantly perhaps, why should we expect a similar practice, if translating ‘European’ work doesn’t seem to be encouraged by the very funding body that grants British theatres some freedom from commercial strictures in the first place? Translation is not so much as mentioned in the Arts Council’s most recent National Portfolio Investment Narratives, one of which is dedicated to internationalisation. Here, the strategies’ main goal is made clear: the ‘opening [of] new international markets for the best of English arts and culture.’ Not much is said, however, regarding traffic in the opposite direction, and the 67-page Strategic Framework, which covers the decade ending in 2020, contains neither the word ‘translation’ nor the word ‘Europe.’
Considering the vivacity of contemporary British theatre, seeking out, reacting to, translating, staging, selecting and buying a ticket for a ‘foreign’ play by an unknown playwright are activities that require the exercise of a particular kind of curiosity – more so, I would argue, than watching a subtitled film or series in bed, or having an ‘arty night out’ at the Barbican, to watch a show by a ‘European auteur’ whose name, though perhaps hard to pronounce, crops up regularly in Time Out. This type of curiosity is rarely developed in a vacuum. Rather, it requires practice – the kind of slow, quotidian exercise one engages in at school and that shapes the way one relates to the world.
I believe language learning to be one of the most obvious ways to experience oneself in dialogue with cultural alterity, not in theory but in practice. Are there not countless lessons to be learnt in the momentary estrangement from one’s native tongue – in the humbling experience of meeting an ‘other’, radically on their own terms?
It’s unsurprising, then, that in matters of slow encounters with difference, the UK’s national curriculum continues the insular trend. A 2009 report reminds us that ‘[s]ince September 2004 modern foreign languages are no longer a compulsory national curriculum subject at Key Stage 4, which has led to a rapid decline in pupil numbers studying subjects in this area.’ Also, and more interestingly perhaps, ‘[a]mong the people who did not study a modern foreign language at GCSE level, 92% have English as their mother tongue.’
But what about the equality and diversity policies implemented in British institutions? Don’t these testify to a culture of plurality? These measures, I would argue, address issues of a different kind, if no less important. Enmeshed, often, in discourses of assimilation, they work towards the recognition of those ‘differences’ that coexist on British soil – of ‘others’ one may encounter in the coffee queue at Pret, or in an NHS waiting room.
Conversely, in translation we’re often confronted with forms of alterity with whom we don’t share many points of reference, historical or present. Translating calls for a delicate balance between exoticisation and domestication – at times, even a curbing of the desire to make things entirely comprehensible. It demands careful listening, an ease with opacity and loss.
That said, multilingualism and cultural diversity are not, of course, universal values or necessary practices. While I do believe that a thorough, engaging and compulsory teaching of languages in schools – able to transmit their world-opening potential – would make this island a better place, my proposition is more modest. Namely, that we strive to embrace a sincerer discussion of the UK’s cultural insularity – in schools, in literature and on British stages – beyond the good-willed postures of our performative times.