In the past year, many theatres have been challenged to wrestle more than ever with the systemic racism and white supremacy within their institutions and on their stages. So-called classical theatre in particular can be a sore spot, as for years we’ve been taught that it is defined by the work of Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, and other white men. What can be done? Many classical theatres attempt to balance their track record by opting for new work, new adaptations or spin-offs, or directors with a “bold” take on Shakespeare and other Western writers. But continuing to adapt plays from the received canon, excellent though they are, continues to center the white male perspective, and only allows us to grow so far.
With Hedgepig Ensemble Theatre’s Expand the Canon project, we are actively advocating for a solution: We’ve designed a resource to make it easier to produce relevant classic plays by a diverse group of women and non-binary playwrights from history. (Though there’s much debate among us about how old must be to be a “classic,” we general define it as an excellent play that resonates widely and has stood a test of time.) Each year Expand the Canon highlights nine plays by women writers that resonate as relevant for the American theatre. But this project has one limitation, unrelated to gender: Almost all of the hundreds of plays we read each year are in English. And while there are thousands of English-language titles written by women before 1975, if we want to truly advocate for a diverse theatre, we need to expand our view beyond the English-speaking sphere.
To guide our thoughts on this, we talked to translators and folks producing translations to find out what they need and what works best for them. While there are scholarly translations of many non-English-language plays, these don’t always work onstage. Likewise, there’s a misinformed perception that theatrical translators are more akin to human Google translators than theatremakers in their own right. The way to move beyond both of these obstacles is collaboration.
While scholarly translations are often very faithful to the original text, and give more direct or literal interpretations of each line, true theatrical translations are something else altogether. As Freyda Thomas (she/her), who has created popular versions of Molière’s plays, told us, “It is a true art to take the skeleton of a classical play and turn it into something today’s audience will enjoy.”
Scholarly translations can be an excellent starting point for both producers and theatrical translators to reference and guide their selection. The scholarship around these translations—including the context of the play, word choices, and explanations of obscure references—creates the depth of meaning we need and expect from classics. But it’s the collaboration between a language scholar and a theatre artist that can transform a literal translation into one that is powerfully actable, and contains the depth and nuance of language we crave onstage.
One method we’ve seen work effectively is to pair scholarly translators with directors. Ayako Kano (she/her), a professor of Japanese literature at the University of Pennsylvania, translated two short plays by Fumiko Enchi. Kano found joy in working with director Chari Arespacochaga (she/they) on her translation of A Hell of Her Own during the Expand the Canon Festival at Hedgepig Ensemble in 2020.
“I was initially inspired to translate Enchi Fumiko’s work in graduate school, because I could not find any plays written by women in the Japanese canon,” Kano said. “Chari was amazingly insightful—I understood aspects of the [play] much better after each conversation with her.”
At UCLA, the Diversifying the Classics team has been collaborating for years to create translations of plays from the Spanish Golden Age (roughly between 1590 and 1681), employing dozens of artists and scholars to tackle every play. Carla Della Gatta (she/her), assistant professor at Florida State University, has been a part of these translation teams in the past, and speaks highly of their model. “They work collaboratively with graduate students across disciplines, and each play gets workshopped and has a staged reading with the theatre department’s MFA actors,” Della Gata said. This approach ensures not only a level of academic rigor but also a physical life for the play, so that translations are not only created but engaged with and performed.
Alternatively, and perhaps most simply, playwrights can look to public domain translations and work from there. Melody Brooks, artistic director of New York City’s New Perspectives Theatre Company, often works with playwright Lynn Marie Macy, a French speaker, and Brooks believes their approach is quite effective. To translate and adapt George Sands’s Gabriel, a five-hour novella/play hybrid that investigates a gender-fluid experience in the mid-1800s, Macy consulted an academic translation as well as the original French script to make extensive cuts. “This is a good example of a combination translation/adaptation of a script that, in its original form, would not be appealing or comprehensible to a modern audience,” Brooks said, adding that it is “a work that is extremely deserving of attention and production.”
It’s easy to worry that a translation of a classic, especially a play in verse, might lose meaning or quality when processed through a modern third party. During a virtual PlayCo panel, playwright and translator Jeremy Tiang (he/they) described how a production is usually better for the translation: “There’s an opportunity [for] deeper collaboration that takes place when you bring a text from another language into English, and Anglophone actors and a director work on it and produce something that is hybrid—that has the essence of both places and both cultures in it,” he said. The result is “richer because it is more collaborative, because it has something from both places that fuses to produce a third thing.” In a time when theatre is being challenged to honor and represent fresh perspectives, we continue to hear the fear of not “connecting to the audience.” New translations, created with and for the ear of contemporary audiences, can serve that need and quell that concern. Thomas builds on this idea. “The value of seeing another culture’s view of a particular issue or problem, tweaked into our culture, can be inspiring,” she said.
If we begin to frame performance translations as a deepening of the material, and acknowledge the value that world classics can add to our English-language canon, supporting translations is a no-brainer. Our task, then, is to make this work a priority by creating space for translators in the world of playwriting residencies; commissioning translations of world classics; creating cross-departmental programs at universities; and honoring translators as co-owners of a work in contracts, using the Authors Guild’s model rather than the Dramatists Guild’s.
As we expand the canon to include world classics, we need to be thoughtful about bypassing or confronting the gatekeepers around translations, be they funders, producers, or even academics. As playwright and translator Catherine Boyle (she/her) noted, “In translating Ana Caro Mallén de Soto, I had to ignore the orthodoxy that her plays are unperformable,” referring to the received wisdom about the work of the Spanish Golden Age poet and playwright. Far from being unstageable, Boyle said, working on Caro’s plays “taught me about how she subverted form and how she constructed a dramatic language of her own that both used and undermined the dominant forms” of her time. Of course, Caro’s Amor, Agravio y Mujer is a performable and beautiful play: You can find versions of it on our Expand the Canon list.
Brooks seconded Boyle’s call for risk-taking with this caution: “It would be very distressing if newly found plays are only translated if they have been deemed ‘worthy’ by the same forces that have kept women’s work under wraps for centuries!”
Overthrowing white supremacy and patriarchal dominance in the canon will take time, investment, and collaboration. But this moment of reflection and adaptation is the right time to do that work. Theatrical translators must be honored as creative artists. Classical theatres need not focus solely on new work to become inclusive, nor do programs with commitments to inclusivity need to only look to new works. To celebrate a work as a classic gives legitimacy and honor to the writer and the culture she came from. As Marta Albalá Pelegrín (she/her), a member of the Diversifying the Classics team, once wrote, “I would like to imagine a world in which the classics would not only speak to but include everyone from every culture, a world in which each community would have a classic past.” We can only make that wonderful possibility a reality if we are willing to take action in the present.
Mary Candler (she/her) is a producer, actor, teaching artist, and founder of Hedgepig Ensemble Theatre and the Expand the Canon project. Emily Lyon (she/her) is a social impact storyteller, director, dramaturg, and artistic director of Hedgepig and Expand the Canon.
This piece originally misattributed the authorship of the play Los empeños de una casa, written by Sor Juana de la Cruz, to Ana Caro Mallén de Soto.
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