Sunday, November 13, 2011

Ben Brantley posted an interesting post on the New York Times' ArtsBeat Blog about enunciation and the use of supertitles on Broadway. Though supertitles are almost always used in the Opera world today, they are only rarely used on Broadway and, when they are, they are used for translating sections of plays in foreign languages. Here is the text of his post. What do you think about this issue?

Theater Talkback: The Writing’s on the Wall

Have you ever been tempted at the theater to lean toward the stage and yell at the performers, “What did you say?” I’m sure you’ve never actually done that. (If you have, you should be banned from theaters for life, even if you were drunk at the time.) But what with all the fuzzy amplification and diction-challenged actors on Broadway these days, even those with acute hearing may miss out on the occasional crucial line. That’s when you wish, if only for a moment, that the theater used supertitles, the way the opera often does.

If you are experiencing such moments with increasing frequency and frustration, then “Chinglish,” David Henry Hwang’s new play about an American businessman in China, may be just the ticket for you. Supertitles are the de facto stars and the leading comedians of “Chinglish,” much of which is performed in Mandarin.

A zippy study of what gets lost in translation, literally and otherwise, when East meets West, this comedy earns its biggest laughs when English is rendered into Mandarin by interpreters and the botched results show up on a screen above the stage. For example, when the American says to potential Chinese partners that he was the director of operations for a firm, the interpreter’s words appear on screen as “He is also a surgeon.”

Mr. Hwang isn’t just going for easy chuckles. The play’s use of supertitles is meant to reveal a more profound cultural disconnect among characters from different worlds. And he wants us to feel their confusion – and in the case of the show’s central love story – their pain. But he runs against an essential problem. Supertitles, by their nature, distance us from the characters. That is especially true in this play, where we often know more than the characters do, since the supertitles function as our own personal and omniscient translators.

Seeing “Chinglish” got me to thinking about supertitles I have known over the years, and their advantages and limitations. For the record, there is at least one Broadway precedent for the comic use of supertitles involving Chinese characters. That would be in the 2002 musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” in which the hapless Chinese henchmen of the play’s villainess, Mrs. Meers, speak uncomprehendingly of what’s going in Chinese (with projected yuk-yuk translations provided). And the human chameleon Danny Hoch, playing a bilingual Puerto Rican taxi dispatcher in his one-man show “Taking Over,” made delightful use of English supertitles to help define his wily, fast-thinking, fast-talking character.

But my greatest exposure to supertitles comes from seeing plays that were performed entirely in languages other than English. One of the privileges of having my job and being in New York City is that so many productions from all over the world visit here. And though I sort of speak French (and have an every-fifth-word comprehension of Italian and Spanish), without supertitles I would have missed what was being said altogether in productions that were performed in Russian, Belarussian, German, Japanese, Greek, Arabic and Zulu, among others.

Though they serve the same function, supertitles in the theater are different in their effect from subtitles in film. A movie (or television or computer) screen is a self-contained space, and the subtitles generally appear within that frame. Even if I haven’t seen a foreign film in a while, I find that when I do, it’s only a matter of minutes before I make the adjustment that allows me to feel I’m “listening” directly as I read.

Supertitles for plays are usually projected on separate screens, above or to the side of the stage. And if the stage is large, your eyes are forced to leave the live action to read the words. (I was especially aware of this during the Berliner Ensemble’s recent production of “The Threepenny Opera” at the Howard Gilman Opera House in Brooklyn, but I was already familiar with the songs and the story.)

You are forced, in these cases, to make a choice between word and image, which isn’t really fair to a work of theater that is ideally a melding of both. (I don’t have that problem with opera, partly because a single sentence – like “I love you” – may be stretched out and repeated to cover acres of music.) And of course when certain infelicities of translation occur, you can be jerked abruptly from the internal reality of the play.

I can remember scratching my head in 2002 when, during a fine production of Sophocles’s “Antigone” from the National Theater of Greece, this description of the title character popped up on the screen: “The glimmer that lit the last blossom of the house of Oedipus.” Watching “Umbatha: The Zulu Macbeth” at the Lincoln Center Festival in 1997, I found myself suppressing giggles as I read the words, “Is it my eyes that shape this assegai in the air?” (That’s instead of Shakespeare’s original line, “Is this a dagger I see before me?”) And Robert Wilson’s splendid French production of the “Fables de la Fontaine” for the Comedie Francaise (2007) suffered from all sorts of miscues, where the translated words didn’t match the actions at all.

It helps of course if you’re already familiar with the material or have the chance to read the script beforehand (as many opera-goers bone up pre-performance with English librettos). And in some cases the foreignness of a language can enrich a theatrical experience.

The best production I’ve ever seen of Stephen Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures,” about the arrival of Commodore Perry in Japan, was in Japanese (at Lincoln Center in 2002). The use of that language compounded our sense of the English-speaking characters as exotic and barbaric aliens. (Besides, I pretty much knew the lyrics of most of the songs, so I could sit back and relax.)

When the great film and theater director Ingmar Bergman used to bring his stage productions to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, supertitles were eschewed in favor of simultaneous translation via headset. This presented its own problems of adjustment. Getting the volume right – so that you could hear both the Swedish actors and their interpreters at the same time – was the trick. And I sometimes even came to feel that those whispery English-speaking voices were sort of mystical Bergmanesque ghosts, providing an underlayer of subtext.

Basically, though, when a work of theater is good, vital and true to the artistic terms it establishes for itself, you magically push past the language barriers, the way you might if you fell in love with someone who speaks another language. I have seen many productions of Shakespeare performed in languages other than English, which might seem like a form of blasphemy. (I imagine the French feel that way about Racine or Corneille being spoken in English.)

Yet one of the most illuminating lessons I’ve had as a theatergoer is that words are not everything in Shakespeare. I saw an exquisite production of “Twelfth Night” five years ago from the Chekhov International Theater Festival. It was in Russian, and the supertitles, instead of using Shakespeare’s original text, re-translated the words back from Russian in a sort of bizarre telegraph-ese.

And you know something? I felt I learned things about “Twelfth Night” – my favorite comedy by Shakespeare and the one I know best – that I hadn’t appreciated before. At the time, I wrote that the production “finds an alchemical substance in Shakespeare that transcends the verbal,” and added, “Shakespeare’s first language, it would seem, is not English after all; it’s theater.” I humbly give thanks to these Russian actors for making me realize that.

What have been your experiences of supertitles and simultaneous translation? How burdensome and/or illuminating have they been?

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