Translations: A Theatrical Exploration of Language and Empathy

We translated the story of a Chinese acting student who lived in New York, in seven different ways.

For a more personal, more detailed account of my journey creating this theater piece, please check out my medium article: Translations — A Theatrical Performance Dealing with the Gains and Losses in Translation

translations_1


Conceptualization

Translations is officially defined as “the process of translating words or text from one language into another.” To me, translation is all about empathy.

In the process of translation, meanings are simultaneously lost and created. The original content is transformed by the method of translation, as well as by difference in culture, experience, and personality of the individuals involved. The agent, method, and audience play just as much as a role as language in this transformation.

The goal of this performence was to question how different kinds of translation affect the way we empathize with others. We explored this question by trying different combinations of factors–agent, method, language, visual elements, etc.

Approach

Cameron Wise and I attempted to translate a monologue of Shaotian, a Chinese acting student in New York, in seven different ways. Playing the roles of Actor and Interviewer respectively, we wanted to serve as vessels for Shaotian in the best, most honest way we could, and present his story to an audience who doesn’t understand his words.

There are many kinds of translations: subtitles, casual explaining, simultaneous interpretation, performance. We played with all of them, with the help of media, lighting, and sound.

process (i) — interviews

“Whose story should we try to translate?”

To answer this question, I interviewed six Chinese international students studying in the States. In the interviewes, I asked them to share anecdotes promped by the following questions:

Do you think you act differently when you speak Chinese and English?
How would you describe the Chinese international students community at your school?
Are there any English or Chinese words that you feel are impossible to translate into the other language?

Eventually, I decided to use a 7-minute interview footage with Shaotian Cai. It was a conversation we had in an Uber in New York, where Shaotian lived.

Shaotian was born and raised in Beijing, just like me. He was at the time a 3rd year MFA acting student at the New School. Before then he studied Geography at UC Berkeley but discovered a passion in theater. Over the course of the project, we became very good friends. You can check out more behind-the-scene stories from this article.

process (ii) — rehearsals and discussions

Since this was a devised piece, I didn’t start with a script. Instead, I began with a plan of action, and a structure which I later fluffed out into a script during rehearsals.

I partitioned the performance into seven pieces. Each piece involved a distinct way to translate Shaotian’s story.

no translation. active listening; subtitles.

Interviewer translates sentence by sentence.

Interviewer translates simultaneously.

Actor translates simultaneously.

Actor performs as Shaotian.

Actor performs as Shaotian, without video.

In the seventh piece, we Skyped Shaotian into the theater by projecting him on a screen and gave him the ability to talk to the audience directly. In this way, he finished his own story in his own voice.

Visually, we divided the stage into three spaces. The empty chair on stage left (later occupied by Actor playing Shaotian) and a camera opposite to it on stage right signified the interview space, where our interviewee Shaotian was absent. The stools signified the neutral space, where Actor and Interviewer sat when observing the performance. The area down center stage signified the translation space, where Actor and Interviewer stood when they translated and spoke directly to the audience.

rehearsals.

Since Shaotian was in New York, I organized the entire creative team to Skype with him during rehearsals.

process (iii) — performance and reflection

We had a stressful episode right before the show. The media and sound system were tricky because we wanted to make sure Shaotian and the audience could both hear and talk to each other in real time. We figured out everything as the audience was entering the theater, quite literally.

The real-time Skype conversation with Shaotian on the projection screen was also surprisingly successful. The audience didn’t expect him to be live with us in the theater. When they got to talk to him, it felt very authentic and exciting. This kind of world-expansion and communication with someone outside of the theater had rarely been done, and we were proud we were able to execute it well both in terms of the technology and in storytelling.

During the Q&A section, we received three questions in the time allowed. Two were from acting professors at CMU, asking Shaotian about the acting curriculum at the New School, which I found oddly unrelated to the theme of this show. The third question came from a student, who asked about Shaotian’s Chinese identity and its influence on his life and work. I think these questions and the discussions following reflected some very interesting reality about the community of School of Drama.

The performance was very successful and I got very positive reviews from drama students, non-drama students, and drama professors. People found it original and thought-provoking.

Very unfortunately, the media supervisor appointed by the School of Drama forgot to press the record button to film my show. Therefore, I don’t have a video of my final show.

However, I find the process behind the piece to be more valuable than the result. Also, this doesn’t have to be the end. I think a show exploring the dynamics of translation can create a very different effect with a different audience. I am thinking about bringing it outside of School of Drama and perform in front of other people at Carnegie Mellon or beyond. We will see how it goes.


Team

creator/director: Joyce Wang
performers: Joyce Wang, Cameron Wise, Shaotian Cai
media designer: Sophie Chen
sound designer: William Lowe
lighting designer: Joss Green
stage manager: Emma Patterson
directing advisor: Paloma Sierra
special thanks to Shernell Smith, Peijin Wei, Giada Sun, Zongyuan Yuan, Tracy Chen, Jeff Zhang, Xinhe Zhang