Five Days ‘Exploring Theatre Translation’ in Buenos Aires

Jack Tarlton (middle left crouching) with the OWRI Translingual Communities Strand and colleagues Image 3

Actor and teacher Jack Tarlton tells us about his experience working with the OWRI Translingual Communities Strand and colleagues on a theatrical translation workshop in Buenos Aires.

Professor Catherine Boyle (Language Acts and Worldmaking), playwright John Donnelly and actor Jack Tarlton had never worked together before they and Lucila Cordone and María Laura Ramos of the Argentine Association of Translators and Interpreters (AATI) ran Exploring Theatre Translation in Buenos Aires. Their aim was to use three of John’s plays to offer practical guidance to students on how to approach theatre translation, culminating in the group translating a section of his latest play, The Porter, to be performed in a staged reading on the Friday night. Here, in an edited version of his diary Jack writes of his experience.


We start by looking at The Knowledge, first performed at the Bush Theatre in 2011. Challenges are thrown up straight away. How would you translate the very first line ‘Top Shop’? What is the equivalent in Spanish of an English character using the Spanish word ‘nada’? The group is divided into pairs to locate these challenges and to attempt a very rough first draft of the scene in Argentine Spanish.

Image credit: Lucila Cordone


Catherine leads us through a series of bilingual tongue twisters and we then settle down with The Pass, first performed at the Royal Court in 2014. We gave the play to the students last week so that they were fully aware of the whole story. Over the course of the play’s three acts it is revealed that what one character is doing to another is very different to what it originally appeared, which we felt it was fundamental for the translators to grasp.  We read a section of the first scene and then ask for comments, which provides short insightful points upon which to start a dialogue. I then turn their attention to a later scene to encourage them to attune their thinking to how an actor would approach the play. Together we work out the objective of each character; what they want from the other, the obstacle that is stopping them from achieving this and the actions that they perform to get around it. As a writer John will do this in his own writing, and I feel it is important for the translators to find that perspective too.


John has divided The Porter into seven sections and the group into pairs to work on a section each. They have their own specific challenges, from dealing with seemingly out of character vocabulary, to the sexual subtext of everyday interactions, to translating a passage of 17th Century metaphysical poetry. Our guiding note to them all is to think about what the characters are doing to the others with each line, and that ‘the force of the utterance’ – as David Bellos puts it in his book Is That a Fish in Your Ear? – is far more important than what the words literally mean. Above all, John encourages them to be bold, to take ownership of the text – it is becoming theirs now. In the mid-afternoon we gather to read it. And already there exists a new play. A bit rough and with the joins showing, but it has a momentum and a playfulness that speaks to us all, even to John and I with our limited grasp of Spanish.


John has already spoken about the process of writing and staging a play as being one of release. As a playwright you write a play, which is then given to the director, who gives it the actors, who finally give it to the audience.

Rehearsing on stage

Here though, the play was given to the translators first. This morning it is their turn to release it to Nicholas Lisoni, who will lead the actors Annalia Malvido, Horacio Vera and Ezequiel Lozano in an initial table-read (see image left, credit: Naty Berry) before handing it over to Andrés Binetti who will direct the staged reading tomorrow night.

As the actors work through the play I feel the thrill of a different kind of release. I would normally worry if the more I worked on something the less I understood it, but here I find it exciting that something that had been so familiar to me just yesterday now already exists in Argentine Spanish, with its own shape and inner structure, the details of which I will never fully grasp. The students have the bulk of the afternoon to rework their sections based on the feedback they have received. Warned against too much tinkering by Catherine who reassures them that the work is already very strong; most of the reworking involves finding greater clarity.


An impromptu performance space is created by Andrés Binetti as he rehearses the actors, with stage directions and sound effects spoken and scraped through a microphone. The characters intimidate one another by hovering over each other, or seduce each other by sitting a certain way in a chair. I can only imagine how empowering it must be for the students to see their work being treated with the same robust respect that any professional script would be. When the performance comes, Ezequiel, Horacio and Annalia perform with vitality and real emotional investment. The process of release is completed as the audience takes this play as their own, staged by the actors and director in a day, and translated in two days by a group who only came together at the beginning of the week. Three people from Britain and two from Argentina discovering how best to impart their knowledge and to draw the best out of each other, and how we in turn could learn from the students. It was they who provided the real engine of the work.

This article is an edited version of a longer piece by Jack Tarlton included in the IMLR ’Living Languages’ blog where you can read the full version of this post.

Generously supported by the AHRC OWRI Cross-Language Dynamics, and Language Acts and Worldmaking projects, AATI and Instituto de Artes del Espectáculo and Centro Cultural Paco Urondo (Universidad de Buenos Aires).

The AHRC Open World Research Initiative aims to have a significant impact on the study of modern languages in the UK, including research that is radically interdisciplinary and collaborative. This includes partnerships with non-academic organisations in the UK and abroad.

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