Confluence (2000)

Images in Translation:
Constructing a Literate Picture

Wes D. Pearce
University of Regina

Jeffrey Sweet, in a recent article in Stagebill, writes, “a play is not primarily designed to be read. It is designed to be performed. The fact that, in addition to providing the occasion for great performances, some plays also read well is lagniappe” (3). Throughout one’s journey through the educational system (be it in English or in Theatre programs) the great concern is to read and interpret the text. Whether the text makes good theatre or performance, or how the performance is created from the text is usually not even considered. Dramaturgy has traditionally seen itself as a resource and liaison between the text and the director, the text and the actor and the text and the audience, but only insofar as to further the understanding of the word. The visual world, the world of the performance, the world in which the word becomes action (i.e. theatre) is never explored, and this has become critical in our ability to produce translated works both inside and outside of Canada.

It has only been in the last century that the importance of scenography (or set, costume and lighting design) has become integral to the understanding of a dramatic production. Darwin Payne writes, “the essential point to remember about the twentieth century’s conception of scenography as an art is that prior to this century it was, almost always, an adjunct to a production. . . Ostensibly the scenographer’s task was to provide pictorial backgrounds for performers to be seen in front of. . . (1981, 4). Not necessarily as a direct result of the new ’“realist” plays of Ibsen and Chekhov, it nevertheless can be demonstrated that by the end of World War I what a production looked like and what was said through the “decoration” of the production was becoming increasingly important. Although Ibsen’s stage descriptions tend to be very detailed and precise and may seem rather anti-designer, the plays themselves are some of the first to really give the designer a voice which reverberates throughout the production. Douglas Russell writes, “the characters are obviously heavily influenced by their physical environment, and the . . . designers must treat action and characters with subtlety and awareness, if they are to create an appropriate environment” (1976, 157). This is not to say that the theatrical traditions and practices of the pictorially driven Victorian theatre immediately disappeared. But within the subversive or experimental theatres new theatrical practices were being developed and these new techniques challenged people both on and off stage.

Walter Rene Fuerst, in a study of early 20th century theatre writes, “the drama, that is, the acted drama, could no longer be a phenomenon which the spectator sensed solely through the medium of the ear. It is clear that the spectator perceives the play as much through the gesture and movement of the actor as he does through the spoken word, and, what is equally important, he must also perceive it through the scenic ensemble in its entirety. The play was now expressed by the entire scene, as well as by gesture and movement, and the spectator became conscious of entire images which themselves contained the drama. The new mise en scene was addressed to the eyes and well as to the ears, thereby creating a spectacle, which carried the dramatic action within itself “(Fuerst 1953, 11).

As the century progressed, artists and thinkers like Appia, Craig, and Svoboda, began to envision, discuss and create theatrical design that in and of itself visually captured the (previously missing) lyrical or mystical “essence” of a dramatic work. The new dramatic concerns allowed (or perhaps forced) the best of the actor-managers, such as Reinhardt, to look beyond the “self” in order to best satisfy the “dramatic vision.” The rise and importance of the designer as a vitally important collaborator within the theatrical hierarchy instead of just a decorator or costumer, has been one of the most important developments of theatre in the past century. This role as collaborator is so important that a great deal of contemporary theatre history can be told through the productions and experiments of teams like Reinhardt and Stern, Elia Kazan and Jo Mielziner, Tyrone Guthrie and Tanya Moiseiwitsch, Peter Brook and Sally Jacobs, and more recently, Andrew Lloyd Webber and John Napier. This collaboration has become so integral to theatre production that, as Bob Crowley states, “designers are no longer just expected to provide a background. Now they’re expected, as much as a director is, to come up with . . . the concept of a show” (Radcliffe 1993, 19). Audiences have become more sophisticated at receiving and decoding the many visual messages imbedded within a production. There is, as Kennedy writes, “a clear relationship between what a production looks like and what its spectators accept as its statement and value” (1991, 5).

Ric Knowles writes, “each audience member in search of meaning must necessarily decode the various languages of the stage, functioning as translator of a range of complex and discursive semiotic codes in the realm of her or his own personal, cultural, gendered and living vocabulary” (4). Given that the visual elements of a production are both designed and read as semiotic symbols and that the codings of these elements can affect the understanding and success of a given production, it is problematic to me that when a play is produced in translation all critical attention is given to the written text. Only a tiny fragment of the existing critical writings, which I have read, acknowledges the existence, much less the importance of this second “readable” language: the language of the performance text, the language of a production when viewed in translation. Jeanne Klein begins to explore these issues in her article, “Translating metaphors from Quebec to Kansas”:

Here [in Quebec] was a highly theatricalized form of theatre that went beyond representational story telling about child characters to metaphoric spaces that signified the underlying complexities of childhood. This ’theatre of images’ fired my aesthetic imagination. . . . Lacking the listening ability to discern verbal meaning quickly from texts spoken in French, I was forced to rely upon visualization (15).

Unfortunately, much of the rest of her argument returns to the traditional ’text based’ arguments of translation. If we as theatre practitioners and scholars and members of the audience accept the importance of the visual language in a source performance (Shakespeare or Shaw), I question why we are so willing to suddenly privilege the reading of the written/verbal text when a production is in translation. We, as an informed theatre public, do not accept production analysis which consciously avoids understanding or even acknowledging the visuals of a performance text when a play is written and played in English, and yet many seem willing to do such a thing with a translated production. In his analysis of what has happened to English theatre and English theatre criticism, Robert Wallace argues that a serious problem occurred with the Canada Council’s Annual Report for 1961/2. In the report, the Council wrote, “living theatre demands living playwrights . . . the Canadian theatre demands Canadian playwrights. This dictum became the prototype for creation of theatre in English Canada. This ’“statement made fact” remains difficult, for in the words of Wallace, “not only does it situate the playwright at the centre of the theatrical practice, but it privileges the script for the theatrical event -- rather than the event itself -- as primarily important” (1988, 5). In such an environment it has been too easy for critics and scholars to privilege the playwright or the translator -- removing performance from the text. The playwright has been privileged as the force behind dramatic creation in English Canada. So too has the text and the reception of this translated word been privileged as our methodology and criticism of translated performances in English Canada. The study of the translated performance text has been stymied by this preoccupation with the literal. The understanding that iconographic translation is of equal, if not greater, importance to successful interpretation of the production is yet to be comprehended by many theatrical practitioners.

In her article “Quebec Theatre in Toronto” Jane Koustas provides a brief survey of critical responses to Quebecois theatre performed in Toronto (during the early to mid 1960s) which helps support my concern that performance text criticism has been solely concerned with the verbal/oral elements of the playtext while ignoring the other translated elements of the performance. She argues that the warm response given to Gratien Gelinas’ Tit-Coq in 1951 was actually a response to the personable Gelinas, echoing Leonard’s belief “that English Canadian critics tend to valorize the playwright as the primary authority of the theatrical practice” (Koustas, 111). When Gelinas returned to Toronto with Bousille and the Just in 1962, he was met favorably, even if the play was not. Nathan Cohen “commented on the ’stilted and somewhat antiquated translation’‘ while omitting the translator’s name. He added that ’things that make the play worthwhile can only be effective in their native tongue and idiom’ [but] did not specify what these ’things’ were nor how the translator failed to convey them” (112). Basiles’s The Drummer Boy(1968), dealing with sexual politics, received very mixed reviews and “it was suggested that something ’was lost in the translation’ in this ’occasionally jarring English version’“(113). In her discussion of the critical response to Jean Barbeau’s The Way of Lacross she draws heavily upon the “sensitive” review written by Urjo Kareda:

He pointed out the importance of ’the sound of language stating that “Barbeau uses words with exceptional muscularity and vigor.” He noted as well the importance of the ’“use of words that contain other words much as social structures contain other social structures’“ and the failure of the translation, “safe, self-deprecating and listless” to convey this. . . . Kareda recognized as well the importance of cultural difference or the question of place in Barbeau’s work and that translating and transposing such plays could prove to be “a troublesome point.”

The Tarragon production of Michel Tremblay’s Forever Yours Marie-Lou in November 1972 marked the first time the celebrated Quebec writer had been produced in English. Since that seminal production the plays of Tremblay have been quite successful in English Canada. Yet despite the success of various productions there is still a belief (if not a complacent understanding) that the plays are not as successful in English. The problem (according to dramaturges, directors and designers) is that much of the power of Tremblay is found in his use of language, more specifically his use of joual. In his article “Translating Tremblay into Scots,” Bill Findlay discusses the choices that informed the translation of Les Belles Soeurs from Quebecois into Scots (as The Guid Sisters) which was undertaken by Findlay and Martin Bowman,

[We] felt that by using Scots as our medium of translation we could get closer in letter and in spirit to Tremblay’s Quebecois, and his exploitation of it, than could prove possible using English. We were aware that some critics had expressed dissatisfaction with English language translations of Tremblay’s plays, not because of the competence of the translations but because Standard English lacked the qualities needed to convey fully Tremblay’s genius in Quebecois (Findlay 140).

The translation has worked well as a literary work receiving near unanimous praise when the Tron’s production of The Guid Sisters was presented in Toronto at the 1990 World Stage Festival. As one critic for The Globe and Mail wrote, “it was an inspired idea to translate . . . Les Belles Soeurs into Scottish dialect . . . Canadian English doesn’t possess a rich, tawny working-class dialect to carry over the flavour of the play’s joyful joual. But Scottish dialect does, every bit as extravagant and ’“dorty” as required” (Findlay 145). Despite the success of these translations as playtexts I continue to find it troublesome that the ingrained and unquestioned understanding is that the translating or transposing of cultural difference and the questioning of place must be done solely through the traditional methods of playtext interpretation. Is not this the place to reinforce our designs with images, icons or other signifiers which will help to reinforce the meaning of the original language, the original culture and the original place without it becoming a heavy handed “concept” production. If we, as designers, create a second language upon the stage then perhaps it is time to merge our language back towards the meaning of the source language and through visual underscoring or emphasis make the “things that make the play worthwhile [which] can only be effective in their native tongue and idiom” more meaningful in a second language.

A response to many of my questions and concerns was offered by a 1997 production of Forever Yours Marie-Lou that I saw as an audience member. It was produced by the University of Calgary Drama Department, directed by James Dugan, with the set and lights designed by J. James Andrews. The production history of the play has been mixed, and the critical response has also been divided. Hulan argues that much of the criticism stems from the translated text. In preparing the text for its English premiere, Hulan writes that, “responding to the potential demands of reception, the translators and perhaps the director anticipated and, to some extent, accommodated the audience’s discomfort with ’bad language’. The tendency to reverse this process by reinserting the profanity in the 1990 version witnesses how that reception was historically specific” (Hulan 51). Joual exists, to my unilingual understanding, as a hybrid language of ’low’ French, Standard French with a smattering of English or anglicized French, but one of the underlying themes or linguistic connectors of the language is that the language and its curses are based in religious imagery - “tabarnac,” “hostie” among others serve as the core of the profanity. This is a strong contrast to the basis of profanity in English, which as Linda Gaboriau writes, “There’s Jesus Christ you know . . . but otherwise [English] goes into the scatological or sexual” (44). This linguistic difference becomes important because the translators in attempting to convey the power and rawness of the language have, by necessity, removed its religious edge. Listening to the play one does not necessarily realize the way in which religion has permeated the lives of Tremblay’s family -- it fills their days, their thoughts, their acts but most importantly their language. What happens in translation is that this fundamentally Quebecois, Catholic family becomes just another bickering Anglo family peppering their guttural English with a barrage of scatological profanity and relatively meaningless blasphemies. As mentioned, a response to this problem was articulated by James Andrews who took Tremblay’s description of Manon/Marie-Lou’s kitchen “decorated exclusively with pious images, statues, candles,” and turned this relatively realistic description into a bigger theatrical moment which underscored and supported the language of the original text. The walls were papered in large, pious images of Catholic iconography (including a wall-mounted font of holy water) that may have struck some of the audience as heavy-handed symbolism. However, this design permeated the entire stage with a sense of religiosity -- even the very distinct Marie-Lou and Leopold areas were flavoured by the spillover of this religious iconography. Although the pictures remained hanging on the kitchen walls, the sheer number and size of the icons continually forced the viewer to address their existence, and as such began to influence the viewer and the viewer’s understanding of the world onstage. The Catholic Church had become a part of our lives. This iconography helped to establish in us (the Anglo Protestant viewer) a primitive understanding of the reason(s) behind many of the actions in the playtext -- Marie-Lou’s rejection of the abortion, or Leopold’s insistence on his conjugal rights. It gave to the production a sense of how invasive and important the church is in the lives and language of Tremblay’s original text. In the source text the use of “hostie,” “tabarnac,” and “sacrement” are empowered by their historical and cultural context. Direct translation of these words has little effect in English Canada, and the use of “Goddamn it,” “Jesus Christ” or even “Fuck!” does not carry the same linguistic weight or cultural importance. Thus with the religious content of the language (and by direct relationship the world of the play) diluted, it became a scenographic choice (I would argue a necessity) to fill this void. I would argue that, as in this example, it should be a concern of the scenographer to create, in the production design, a visual substitute for the linguistic/cultural shortcomings of the translated text. I would also argue that this production has furthered my belief in the possibility of reading the performance text in order to come to a greater understanding of the original written playtext.

This raises an exciting possibility for scenographers -- no longer responsible solely for decor nor just providing a visual frame of reference for a conceptual interpretation, but really helping the viewer to read the languages of the production. Jennifer Harvie alludes to this new function of scenography in the article “The real nation? Michel Tremblay, Scotland, and Cultural Translatability” when she discusses the Tron Theatre production of The Guid Sisters.

In terms of space, Tremblay’s plays are distinctive for their use of physically and psychologically confined spaces, a visual trope for the insularity of communities, families, and other intimate relationships Tremblay examines over and over again in his writing. The Tron Theatre ends The Guid Sisters by opening up the closed space of Germaine’s kitchen to bring all the women parading through the rear wall -- now a paper mural of a crucified Christ -- and back on stage, each triumphantly clutching an item from Germaine’s cherished catalogue. Robert Levesque lauds this staging: [Michael] Boyd a eu cette idee de genie de faire disparaitre les murs de la cuisine alors que, a travers une grande image du Sacre-coeur qu’elles dechirent en la traversant, entrent les belles soeurs avec les appareils (tondeuse, television, lampe sure pied, etc.) que Germaine Lauzon croyait avoir obtenus pour elle seule! . . . My concern with this staging is that it significantly alters Tremblay’s original emphasis on a community’s culpability for its own malaise. While the spatial and iconic dynamics of the Tron’s ending usefully focuses this malaise as rooted in materialism and institutional religion, they also allow these forces to be seen as external, potentially diffusing community responsibility. Admittedly and constructively, however, my concern can be countered with an alternative reading wherein ’responsibility becomes -- or could be read as becoming -- both individual and institutional in this (literal) move.’ In this reading of the scene, responsibility is not diffused and diminished; it is, rather, extended and emphasized. . . . However [the translations’ productions] can also be seen, through performance style and staging, both to provide opportunities, and to exploit those opportunities, to complicate and extend the texts’ meanings to produce dialogic performance (18-19).

It is my belief that, as designers and other theatre practitioners in English Canada, our traditional desire to treat translated texts as simple extensions of our own canon is flawed and in its own way colonizing. It is easy to present the plays of Tremblay or Bouchard or Danis as simply plays of great universal truths and to deny the story a “place.” Often to see a translated play for only its universal meaning is to deny and certainly alter its original meaning and value. In designing a production of Bouchard’s Lilies or the Revival of a Romantic Drama for Calgary’s “Theatre in Exile” (a company that produces only work in translation), my collaboration with co-founder and director Gail Hanrahan often centered on linking the action of the play to the often conservative world of Calgary 1996. Being a unilingual designer I had no recourse to the “true” reading of the source text and relied, not only upon Hanrahan’s bilingual skills but also her biculturalism in order to appreciate how the translated text had come to be. The biggest difference was that the important social tensions between the Quebecois characters and the visiting/transplanted Parisians had, for the most part vanished. While this conflict is alluded to in the text, it is not built into the English playtext, as it occurs naturally in the language of the original (a noticeable use of regional Quebecois French at odds with refined Parisian French). Because this concern is not necessarily present in our playtext it then became an interpretive choice as to whether our performance text, and specifically my costume design, would reinforce this textual concern or not. In the end we (Hanrahan, Sandi Somers -- the set designer -- and myself) opted for a different interpretation that empowered our production for the Calgary audience, but did not aid in understanding the source text as Andrews’ design for Marie-Lou did. As mentioned, the important tension found in the original script between the Quebecois and the Parisians was downplayed in both the production and in the costumes in order to pursue a production and a production design that emphasized Bouchard’s concern for honesty of soul and the search for a “moment of truth” within a life. This was achieved visually by our choice that the closer to truth a character was, the less clothing was worn by the actor. We developed an image of a butch prisoner in short cropped hair and dressed in grey prison-issue boxer briefs, and then added only the most necessary of garments which could justifiably or reasonably be found or made in the prison. A barechested Simon wore cotton breeches throughout the show, which proved quite versatile, particularly for a dramatic whipping scene in which Timothee beat Simon by violently drawing upon the actor’s back in blood red lipstick. During the engagement party Simon wore a large ruffled jabot, marking his movement further away from his truth, but after the confrontation with Vallier and Lydie-Anne, it was, of course, removed for the cleansing reunion scene in the bathtub. Vallier wore a ragged tunic/shirt throughout, but stood completely nude in the tub for his confession of love to Simon which was, for us, the most pure moment in the play. Contrasting to these two characters was Lydie-Anne dressed in a lace-up corset and hobble skirt, and young Jean who wore a shirt with a tight fitting, wing-tip collar, bow tie, socks, shoes and suspenders. These were the results of the choices the team had made, and it is was felt that by trying to expand upon the friction of class found in Les Feluettes the design would inevitably collapse upon itself. Despite the success of the production, was the production team justified in creating a performance text that served our need for universality but rejected the linguistic and social world of the original? I would say yes, because we had access to a “true” reading of the original text and were able to decide that the aesthetic and political goals of the play and the company would be better understood in Calgary by showing the universal humanity and honesty of Simon and Vallier’s love. Yet without our access to the original text I would be less certain about the validity of our performance text.

The translation of theatrical texts is never easy. The most recent edition of Canadian Theatre Review is devoted entirely to the problems and to the very question of translation. Not surprisingly, the role of design - sets, costumes or lights -- is barely mentioned. Jeanne Klein speaks of recording “spectator’s translations of performances transposed from linguistic texts” (15), and yet she consistently foregrounds the written text and its ability or inability to cross the international and cultural border into the United States. Klein argues that Quebecois scripts provide the possibility of textual, performative and scenographic spaces offered as resistance in face of U.S. realism, and yet she avoids discussing how these scenographic spaces work in translation. It is yet another missed opportunity to discuss and explore the growing importance of translated space and translated scenography in theatre. The visual world of performance is far too important and the visual subtext too exciting to be ignored or viewed simply as pictorial reproduction of the source.


Beauchamp, Helene and Ric Knowles. “ A Servant of Two Masters: An Interview with Linda Gaboriau.” Canadian Theatre Review 102 (Spring 2000): 41 -47.

Beauchamp, Helene and Ric Knowles. “Theatre and Translation.” Canadian Theatre Review 102 (Spring 2000): 4 - 5.

Feurst, Walter Rene and Samuel J. Hume. Twentieth Century Stage Decoration. New York: George Blom, 1927.

Findlay, Bill. “Translating Tremblay into Scots.” Theatre Research International 17. 2 (1992):138-45.

Harvie, Jennifer. “The real nation? Michel Tremblay, Scotland and Cultural Translatability.” Theatre Research in Canada 16. 1-2 (Fall 1995): 5 - 25.

Hulan, Renee. “Surviving Translation: Forever Yours, Marie-Lou at Tarragon Theatre.” Theatre Research in Canada 15. 1 (Spring, 1994): 48 - 57.

Kennedy, Douglas. Looking at Shakespeare: A Visual History of Twentieth Century Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Klein, Jeanne. “Translating Metaphors from Quebec to Kansas.” Canadian Theatre Review 102 (Spring 2000): 15 - 19.

Koustas, Jane. “From Gelinas to Carrier: Critical Response to Translated Quebec Theatre in Toronto.” Studies in Canadian Literature 17. 2 (1992): 109 - 28.

Payne, Darwin Reid. The Scenographic Imagination. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1981.

Radcliffe, Michael. “Interview with Bob Crowley.” Platform Papers 4. London: Publications Department of the Royal National Theatre, 1993.

Sweet, Jeffrey. “Why I Don’t Write Literature.” Stagebill 32 (March 1995): 3.

Wallace, Robert. “Towards an Understanding of Theatrical Difference.” Canadian Theatre Review 55 (Summer 1988): 5 - 14.