How Do You Watch Theater In Other Languages?

It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s supertitles!
The Opera Garnier in Paris, which often puts on theater in other languages

Art is meant to transcend borders and cultures, but that can be easier said than done. Paintings can move from one country to another with little problem. Books need translation work, but that’s a task almost as old as writing. Movies are at the center of the subs vs. dubs debate, but it’s not too hard to do either. There’s one medium that presents a more complicated problem: theater in other languages.

Like the other media mentioned, creative solutions have been found for making theater multilingually accessible. While non-English plays and musicals aren’t the norm on Broadway or the West End, that could always change. In the meantime, here’s a brief history of how plays have been moved from one language to another.

Theater Translation, Plain And Simple

We’ll start with the obvious: plays can simply be translated. William Shakespeare’s work is known around the world, and the very earliest translations of it go back to the 17th century, shortly after the author’s death. There are any number of issues that the translator will have to deal with  — “to be or not to be” doesn’t translate into Japanese because they don’t have an equivalent verb “to be,” making that particular Shakespearean speech a linguistic challenge — but it’s not too different from translating other media.

Theater Translation, But With Singing

Things get more complicated when you add a musical component to a play. And to talk about that, we should talk about a form of theater that has long faced translation issues: opera.

Opera came about around the 16th century in Italy. This musical form didn’t emerge from nowhere; music and storytelling have been entwined for millennia. Opera just had a particularly strong impact on theater around Europe. And while operas can certainly be in English — the earliest English opera dates back to 1656 (The Siege of Rhodes) — many of the most famous operas are in German, French and Italian.

For a long time, operas weren’t translated at all. One reason was that operas were an upper-class activity, and so they mainly appealed to the kind of person who had the resources to study multiple languages. And there is also the argument still made today that you don’t need to understand the lyrics of the opera, because the staging and the emotional tenor of the songs should be enough to get the meaning of the production across.

It’s become somewhat more common, though, to translate operas into other languages. This is often not ideal, however, because a lot of lyrical liberties have to be taken to fit the rhyme scheme and meter. Like translating any music, there will be certain parts of songs that simply don’t translate. This isn’t to disparage the translators who work hard to give the audiences the best experience possible; it’s just an impossible task to exactly match the original opera.

Theater Translation, By The Book

One option for the opera connoisseur was to purchase the libretto, which is a book that contains all of the words and stage directions for a particular production. You could potentially buy a libretto (Italian for “booklet”) that’s been translated into your language and read it beforehand, so you have a general idea of the plot when you go in.

A theater might even have a libretto available for you to follow along with, or simply offer a synopsis of the play in written form. This could entail some staring down at the book in your lap while the play is going on, though, which isn’t ideal if you want to watch what’s happening.

Theater Translation, On The Walls

Finally, we arrive at what is now the norm for operas and any other plays performed in another language: supertitles. The word “super” here isn’t a value judgment, it’s just the opposite of subtitles because they usually appear above the stage. Supertitles are in every other way the equivalent of subtitles, though, showing the translation of what’s happening onstage in another language.

Particularly advanced theaters might even allow you to choose which language you see the translation in, with the words appearing not above the stage but on a screen closer to you. That way you could watch an Italian opera and read along in the original Italian, or in your native language, or potentially any other language the theater offers. At this point, however, the language offerings tend to be limited to two or three options.

If you travel to Broadway in New York City, though, you won’t run into much that isn’t English. Once in a while there’ll be an exception, like the Yiddish version of Fiddler on the Roof that provided supertitles (though that’s further complicated because Fiddler on the Roof was originally in English). Overall, the troubles of translation have made theater a realm where work in different languages tends to get siloed, and American and British plays have a dominant role in the world. 

The rise of supertitles suggests there could someday be a shift to theater in other languages being more common. All it might take is one musical in a language other than English becoming a success.

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