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Surtitling in Syrian Theatrical Performances Presented in Berlin: A Discussion of Essence and Consequences

Oct 2019

As part of the Cultural Priorities in Syria program, Ettijahat publishes a series of opinion articles by a group of Syrian and non-Syrian cultural experts and actors. This activity aims to highlight a range of issues and challenges facing Syrian cultural work.

In her article, Surtitling in Syrian Theatrical Performances Presented in Berlin: A Discussion of Essence and Consequence, Mehrez questions the role of surtitling as a technical mechanism that has recently been used in Syrian theatrical performances presented in Berlin to convey meaning. She also explores the problems facing the surtitling of these performances in general.

Hiba Mehrez

Whenever you read a text or poem in translation, do you wonder how that text or poem would be in its original language? What would be the sensation of those words as written by their author? What was lost in the process of translation? I still feel privileged that I can enjoy the translated text despite all these language barriers. This brings me to the real issue of translation. While the task of translation may seem like a procedure, it is actually a re-creation of the text. It creates a twin text in another language. While we are forced to admit that the spirit of one language cannot be transferred to another, the components of the text can be reconfigured to convey the meaning in a new spirit that matches the other language, or as Günter Grass said, “Translation is that which transforms everything so that nothing changes”. Thus, the translated work is an independent object as much as it is a copy of the original; and the pleasure of handling it is not less than the pleasure of reading the original text in case the translator was true to the text and creative in handling it.

Generally, all of the above is true of all written texts, i.e. in the fields of poetry, novels or theater; however, the translation of the living theater is certainly another issue. Surtitling is a living moment resembling the theatrical elements and their transitory characteristics. It is also a technical mechanism to convey the meaning. It can be considered complementary to the theatrical performance, and at the same time, the most important element in it because it the first thing seen by the spectator.

Furthermore, it seems that all the Syrian plays performed in Berlin are clearly in need of translation if the decision has been made to perform them in Arabic. Surtitling seems like a technical issue that is needed when presenting theatrical performances. There is no doubt that offering a translation for the city's German-speaking audience allows this audience to understand the theatrical performance and thus communicate with the Syrian cultural actor behind the performance. It may be a way to encourage openness and a broader understanding of culture in general. Therefore, the question of surtitling, what it means, and how it is received by the audience are questions that arose from the performance of Syrian theatre in Germany. Today, surtitling is considered a new layer added to the concept of theatrical performance and its ability to address the spectator. There is hardly a Syrian play presented in Germany without surtitles.

Certainly, the script of the theatrical performance is subject to standards that differ from those related to the written play; the script of the theatrical performance is spoken and changing, and therefore it needs to be similar to its reality "now and here" and be reflective of the current moment. Hence, a new element is added to the complexities of the Syrian theatrical performances in exile. This new element is related to theatrical language. The fact that most Syrian plays today use the ordinary vernacular language which is consistent with today's ideas and the message behind the play, is a matter of much discussion. The theatrical language in Syrian performances has a long history of debate and multiple stages of complex communication with its Syrian audience. Since we are not trying to go into these details, it would suffice to say that it was not easy for the Syrian vernacular to become part of the theatrical space. This is a question associated with a basic question, which vernacular are we talking about here? This question is valid due to the fact that Syrian dialects vary widely. However, what is important to us now is that the vernacular detail is associated with the translation. Although selecting the language of the performance is a key factor, it will remain secondary in terms of focusing on the translation of the performance. How do you offer a translation that can communicate to the audience whether the original text uses vernacular language, Classical Arabic or even an intermediary language?

First, we can clarify the concept of ​​the translation of theatrical performances or surtitling. The word "surtitle" consists of a French word (sur), which means higher and an English word "title"; the full term is playing on the English word (subtitle). This new term is used worldwide to refer to the translation of the theatrical performance. It is a registered trademark of the Canadian Opera House, which was the first to use this technique in Elektra Opera by the musician Richard Strauss written in German in 1983. This step opened new doors in the world of opera and theatrical performances. The New York Times published a report in September 23, 1983 saying, "The Canadians have designed something that makes opera understandable and available to many who love music but cannot understand the lyrics. It's called surtitling."[1]

Thus, the idea of ​​escaping the limitations of language in theater through presenting the translated text is not really that old. It has undergone many experiments and tests, and became at one moment a dramatic process that lies at the core of the theatrical performance, or a gateway to discuss the essence of its existence in relation to the cultural movement in the city, or even the cultural convergence and exchange between multiple languages ​​in one space.

From this point of view, one of the factors influencing the subject of surtitling is that most producers of Syrian theatrical performances do not master German language. Hence, the theatrical performance offers a product "a script in Arabic" to a consumer who receives another product, the "German translation of the script" without knowing the original text. The writer or director of the theatrical performance does not master the produced text or the language combinations that were presented. Here the theatrical process seems to take a different step in understanding the status of the theater or even its ability to be a tool for the rapprochement of cultures or even a powerful mechanism for integration. Surely, we need to highlight that surtitling cannot be independent; rather it is always an element of the performance, just like the scenography or the script. Therefore, it should be discussed within the context of the theatrical performance and not as a new layer added to it, since it lies at the core of the work. Poor or inaccurate surtitling is a factor for evaluating the work itself. However, surtitling is superior to the rest of the other elements. It means that the spoken language is an element that loses its meaning in relation to this particular audience. Thus, the translation takes over the spectator's attention. It is the line of communication with the story and the details of the work.



Two Surtitling Experiences

We chose two experiences to discuss. The first is the experience of the German translator Sandra Hetzel, who worked on a number of Syrian theatrical performances in Germany in recent years. She commented on presenting vernacular Syrian plays to the German public by saying that out of the 21 contemporary theatrical texts she translated from Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, there was only half of one of those texts which was written in Classical Arabic (portions of Borborygmus play by Lina Majdalani, Rabih Marwa and Mazen Kerbaj). Perhaps this is where she got the impression that plays written in Classical Arabic are already rare today. However, in both cases the German spectator will not feel the difference between a text translated from Classical Arabic and another translated from vernacular Syrian, because they only receive the translation where the German language does not have that strict separation between the written language and the spoken language.

When discussing this last point and the idea of ​​presenting the spirit of the original text to the German spectator, Sandra Hetzel had her opinion on the subject. After her vast experience translating Arabic texts, she explained, "When I translate a literary text from Arabic into German, my aim is ultimately to produce the same impact of the original text on the reader as much as possible. In order to achieve this, I have to not only translate words into words and sentences into sentences, but also to translate in my head situations into corresponding situations, and contexts into contexts. I have to wonder: if Rand, Khaldoun and Hala were Germans, to which social context they would belong? And hence how would they speak?"

When discussing surtitling in the Syrian theatrical performances presented in Berlin, Hetzel responded to a question about the extra pressure surtitling puts on the translator by saying that "It is quite the opposite, surtitles are a transient thing, because usually they will be used in three or four theatrical performances only, and sometimes the German spectator is almost unable to follow all these "slides" that pass quickly on screen, and then everything is over. Unfortunately, no one will read this translation again. However, I try to translate every theatrical text as if it will last for eternity. I may feel extra pressure when translating a literary work that will be published in the form of a book, because I realize then that my translation will remain out there "forever", printed on paper. It may fall in the hands of a critic who could read any section several times and reveal any lapses."

As for how to translate theatrical texts, Hetzel explained her basic way of working by saying, "Upon finishing the translation of a text, it has to be divided into hundreds of two-lines, sometimes up to more than 1,000 slides. The result of this division is an abbreviated version of the text, which corresponds to the so-called stage text, which is all that is said on the stage. The translation displayed is a representation of all the sentences spoken onstage, and the reading speed assumed on the part of the spectator is great, given the speed of dialogues and speech on the stage and the rhythm of the work. Often it is not me who divides the text, but I finally review the slides again to avoid any mistakes that might occur during the division of the text."

In the end, she stressed that "Listening is very important to me in the translation process, especially when translating for theater. When I translate a theatrical text, I always read out loud for myself, and finally, when I review my translation several times, I read dialogues out loud and take on different roles. In the end, my translation should convince me in the sense that: do people really speak like this? So, I always look at my audio repository for sentences and expressions."

The second experience is the play titled "Reading Between Faces" by Wael Salem, which was presented at the Tak Theater in Berlin on 23 and 24 June 2019. The theatrical performance was performed by a group of amateurs in Arabic with English surtitles. Salem stressed that reaching the German audience was an important factor for him, since the subject of his play was about the pursuit of happiness and the accompanying questions from an Arabic-speaking perspective in Berlin so public participation was a key factor. However, due to the lack of time and funding, Salem had to translate the script into English himself. He did the task in two stages: translating the text into an English theatrical text, then preparing the slides for displaying surtitles.

As he himself stated, "Of course I am aware that English is an intermediary language and it adds another dimension to the theatrical performance but I tried to deal with translation as a living part of the theatrical performance. At one point where interaction with the audience is needed, the translation stopped, but the actors used English and Arabic as an extension of the translation despite the fact that some of them could speak German."

When asked about the ability of English to convey the meaning to the German public, he said, "Today, English is a language capable of reaching a large segment of the world, especially young people. Although it was not a comfortable moment for the German public, the English surtitles did not deprive them of the pleasure of watching nor did they move them way from the meaning." He also highlighted that the selection of an intermediary language for the theatrical performance was a convenient choice for some actors in the group who did not speak German.

As for the Arabic text itself, Salem explained that it is written in the Syrian vernacular, while leaving the freedom for the actors to use their original dialects in their dialogues. This is an important factor for the actor in order to be able to interact with the text, especially since the text was written during the rehearsals. It expresses them and their ideas because vernacular is their mother tongue, which Salem defended during the translation. He made sure that English sentences are vernacular. He also highlighted that the vernacular used in his text was not an exclusionary common vernacular that creates an authoritarian hierarchy, but rather he tried to make it consistent with the spirit of the work itself and similar to it.

The previous discussion intersects with the general opinion that surtitling is a process that is still struggling in German theaters. It is still considered an additional complement, although according to the Bureau of Statistics, Berlin hosts more than 748,472 foreigners[2]. Till now, surtitling has not become a routine in Berlin's theaters, and it still suffers from major problems, the most important of which is the budget allocation, as stated by Barbara Seegert, Program Coordinator of Theatertreffen Forum in Berlin, where she said that it was the limited budget that forced them to translate half of the Forum's theatrical performances into English in 2012, leaving the other half untranslated.[3]

The second difficulty is the recognition of the importance of professional translation, which was confirmed by David Maß, owner of the first professional surtitling company in Berlin (KITA), where he confirms that his struggle continues to make surtitling part of the technical team of the theatrical performances. This struggle is aggravated by the presence of theaters that do not care about the professionalism of the surtitling of their performances.[4]

These difficulties in surtitling theatrical performances in Berlin in general pose additional challenges to the Syrian theaterical performances, the general public is not accustomed to surtitling, yet the Syrian theater attracts acceptable numbers of German audience. Perhaps curiosity to understand the nature of Syrian theater and society is attracting the German audience considering the fact that theater is an attempt to understand society. Perhaps the attention to Syria and Syrians is what makes their arts of interest. In any case, it seems that theaters in Germany seek to reach the other spectator and to open to the world, which accelerates the pace of introducing surtitling into its theaters. It seems that the Syrian theater in exile today is fighting on more than one level to reach the heart of the German spectator. This is what makes surtitling today one of the difficulties that are present in the reality of the Syrian arts. It is a difficulty that the Syrian theater did not have to address before.

In the end, it must be highlighted that the question about surtitling in the Syrian theater in exile today refers us to many questions, perhaps the most important of which is the serious discussion about the role of language in general. Is the surtitling issue temporary for the Syrian theater in exile? Will it disappear later as soon as the Syrian theater in exile adopts the host country's spoken language? Is the Arabic language in a middle stage before moving on to another language? Or is it a case tied more to the sense of the theatrical performance and what is required of it? Is language a technical or political choice or is it a need? Is it a mediator or a mechanism for communicating meaning? What does it mean today to produce a Syrian play in German or French, or to produce a Syrian text in another language? All these questions and more are the questions of the Syrian arts in exile today. They are related to the new requirements and the current complexities, ideas and mechanisms of production. The more these questions will be asked, the more their answers will be individualized and diverse as they carry new dimensions of the Syrian theatrical performance.






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