‘Why it is so rare for a contemporary European text in translation to reach British stages?’ the conference asks. My provocation asks the opposite. Why would we expect it to be any different?
In the parallel field of publishing, the situation is analogous. A 2015 study revealed that only 3% of books published in the UK are translations – significantly fewer than in other European countries. The same insularity distinguishes UK schools, in which foreign languages are no longer a compulsory subject at GCSE level.
The very concept of translation – a relationship between different languages and cultures – takes a peculiar shape in British discourse. That a ‘new translation’ of a Russian play can be signed by a monolingual playwright remains a quintessentially Anglophone idea – where the source text is provided by a ‘literal version’ in English, and the act becomes a transferal within sameness.
A cursory look at the National Portfolio’s vision confirms the prevalent one-sidedness of this traffic. The International narrative for 2018-2022 insists on the monetary advantages of ‘opening new international markets for the best of English arts and culture.’ ‘International collaboration’ and touring are gestured to, but little mention is made of importing, let alone translating, ‘foreign’ plays.
If the theatre industry is partly Arts Council-fueled, and mainly a commercial venture, if the UK’s autochthonous population remains prevalently monolingual, if diversity policies, often enmeshed in discourses of assimilation, embrace only differences present on British soil, in what way is the lack of translated European theatre surprising?
For this to change, British monolingualism, both literal and metaphorical, must be questioned at its roots – in schools, in universities, in the apologetic postures of the good-willed Europhile: ‘I really should learn French.’ The practice of exposing oneself to ‘otherness’ must precede the theory – which abounds, inevitably falling short.