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THE PROBLEM OF “PERFORMABILITY” IN THEATRE TRANSLATION

by Martin Boyd

In her article, “Performability versus Readability”, Greek-Canadian translator and


translation scholar Ekaterini Nikolarea offers an historical overview of the development of what
she calls a “theoretical polarization” in theatre translation, between the notions of
“performability” and “readability”. In doing so, she places two authors – theatre theorist Patrice
Pavis and translation studies scholar Susan Bassnett – in opposition against one another, as
spokespeople for the two conflicting perspectives. In this context, Pavis is posited as the
advocate of “performability” – a term which, interestingly, Pavis himself doesn’t seem to have
ever employed in his writing on theatre translation – while Bassnett is positioned as the
champion of “readability” – although again, this is not a term which Bassnett herself employs.
The fact that neither Pavis nor Bassnett make use of the terms that Nikolarea attributes to them
should alert us to the fact that her “historical overview of a theoretical polarization in theatre
translation” is in fact an artificial construct; indeed, although it cannot be denied that Bassnett
makes Pavis a target for some of her sharper criticisms in her article “Translating for the Theatre:
The Case Against Performability”, I would propose that it is an exaggeration on Nikolarea’s part
to suggest that the perspectives of the two authors are poles apart. The two authors are in fact
approaching the question of theatre translation from two different angles – one from the
perspective of the stage and the other from the perspective of the text – and, as I will discuss
below, the supposed conflict between them is based largely on a misconception regarding Pavis’s
theoretical standpoint.
Nikolarea frames the alleged “polarization” between these two authors within the context
of the perspective of Anne Ubersfeld, one of the first theorists to apply semiotics to the study of
theatre. In her article “Lire de theatre” (1978), Ubersfeld asserted that the theatre text is by nature
“incomplete”, because its full potential is only realized in performance (qtd. in Nikolarea n.p.).
This dependence of the theatre text on its incarnation on the stage means that in theatre, text and
performance are “indissolubly linked” (Nikolarea n.p.), and any attempt to distinguish between

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them is artificial. According to Ubersfeld, the tendency to treat theatre text and performance as
separate entities has led to a perspective that places the performance in a subordinate relation to
the written text. It is interesting to note that Ubersfeld (who was not a translation theorist)
employs the metaphor of translation to describe this relationship, when she suggests that the
“problem” with this supposedly “artificial” distinction between text and performance consists in
the tendency to view the written text as the “original” and the staging as a “mere” translation
(Ubersfeld, qtd. in Bassnett, Translation Studies 120). It is particularly surprising that Bassnett
(who is a translation scholar) should blithely quote Ubersfeld’s metaphor without questioning
why a translation should be viewed as necessarily inferior to an original text.
In my view, a performance is indeed a translation of a text. If we accept Roman
Jakobson’s tripartite definition of translation, the staging of a play is a translation not merely in a
metaphorical sense, as it falls clearly into his category of “intersemiotic translation”. Ubersfeld’s
assumption that viewing performance as translation places it in a subordinate position in relation
to the text reflects an extremely negative view of translation itself, an undervaluing of the
translation process and an ignorance of the reality that a translation can (and often does) improve
upon an original. If we accept that the relationship between the script and the performance of a
play is one of source and translation, then we must recognize the two “texts” as separate entities.
Of course, they bear a relationship to one another, but they are not “indissolubly linked” as
Ubersfeld suggests. In this context, Ubersfeld’s affirmation that the script alone is “incomplete”
is as absurd as asserting that the Spanish version of Don Quixote is somehow “incomplete”
without its English, French or German translation. At the same time, the performance exists as an
independent entity and, if successfully realized, is in no way “incomplete” without the script on
which it was based, as a good translation should not leave the reader with a sense that they need
to turn to the original to appreciate the message conveyed.
Ubersfeld’s dubious theory nevertheless forms the basis on which Nikolarea sets up the
supposed “performability/readability” dichotomy in theatre translation. In describing the
development of the debate in the 1990s, Nikolarea locates Patrice Pavis at the “performability”
pole, based on his argument that translation for the stage needs to be undertaken “with a mise en
scene in view” (Pavis 136). Nikolarea thus equates the notion of “performability” with Pavis’s
concept of mise en scene; however, I would argue that the two concepts are not the same.
Ironically, it is Susan Bassnett who, in attacking the concept in her article “Translating for the

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Theatre: The Case against Performability”, gives performability its most elaborate definition.
According to Bassnett, the term is applied broadly to refer to some vague notion of “the
supposedly existent concealed gestic text within the written” (“Translating” 102). But Pavis’s
notion of mise en scene is something more concrete, referring not to some hypothetical
performance that the translator must somehow extract from between the lines of the original text,
but to an actual “situation of enunciation”, i.e. a future staging of the translated play. It is worth
highlighting that in his argument that translators need to consider the mise en scene, Pavis
explicitly refers to translation “for the stage” (136), differentiating it from theatre translation in
general. His focus is clearly on plays that are translated for the purposes of a specific
presentation. There is no reason to believe that he therefore dismisses the possibility that theatre
texts may also be translated to be read, in which case, obviously, the mise en scene would not
have the same significance. In her article, Nikolarea sets Pavis’s perspective within the context
of Ubersfeld’s notion of theatre text and performance as an inseparable whole, but Pavis doesn’t
appear to share this view; on the contrary, he has no problem at all with accepting the idea that
the performance is a “translation” of the theatre text, as he asserts that “a real translation takes
place on the level of the mise en scene as a whole” (Pavis, qtd. in Bassnett, “Translating” 101),
i.e., when the play is performed. Ironically, Bassnett takes this assertion to mean that Pavis
shares Ubersfeld’s view that a theatre text is “an incomplete entity”, and based on this
misconception, she identifies Pavis as an advocate of the notion of “performability” that she
attacks so fervently. Bassnett thus implicitly assumes that if a performance is a translation, the
original must somehow be incomplete; the logic that posits that Don Quixote in Spanish cannot
stand on its own. And it is on this ill-conceived argument that Nikolarea bases her arbitrary
decision to position Bassnett and Pavis at opposite ends of a “readability/performability”
spectrum.
In fact, there is no evidence that Pavis would support Ubersfeld’s dubious argument that
a theatre text is somehow “incomplete” without its translation onto the stage. According to
Ubersfeld, it is the “incomplete” nature of the theatre text that distinguishes it completely from
any other type of text; Pavis, on the other hand, gives the theatre text no such special status, but
rather seems to view it merely as a genre within the larger category literary translation, as he

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suggests that the dimensions the translator must consider in translating a theatre text are the same
as those for the translation of any other kind of literature1.
Bassnett criticizes the advocates of “performability” for their vague notion of a gestic
dimension being “somehow embedded in [the] text” (“Translating” 99); according to Bassnett, to
expect the translator to extract this “gestic text” and graft it onto the translation is too much to
ask, as the responsibility of decoding gestic text lies with the performers. She interprets Pavis’s
claim that a translator must consider the mise en scene as making just such a demand of the
translator, but Pavis doesn’t actually suggest that the mise en scene is embedded in the text of the
original, or that translators have the responsibility of extracting it. Rather, the translator’s task
consists simply in “making the mise en scene possible” (Pavis 145), in providing the space
necessary in the translated text to allow the directors and actors to create it. This is clearly what
he means when he refers to the need for the “economy” of the translated text allowing actors “to
supplement the texts with all sorts of aural, gestural, mimic and postural means” (144). In other
words, Pavis actually agrees with Bassnett that it is the performers who are responsible for
decoding the gestic text, and, although the translator must be mindful of how the text might be
performed on stage, this “does not necessarily mean that the mise en scene is predetermined by
the text” (146).
My intention in this paper has been to interrogate the polarization in theory on theatre
translation between “performability” and “readability” proposed by Ekaterini Nikolarea,
particularly with reference to the supposed proponents of the two opposing concepts, Patrice
Pavis and Susan Bassnett. In the conclusion to her article, Nikolarea affirms that the polarization
between these two concepts is not realistic, as in reality “there are no precise divisions between a
performance-oriented translation and a reader-oriented translation” (n.p.). I have attempted to
show here that in fact, the theoretical polarization that Nikolarea describes doesn’t really exist
anyway, because the supposed proponents of the two concepts are actually talking about two
different things. While Bassnett, coming from the tradition of text-focused translation theory, is
concerned with the text that translators must produce, Pavis, coming from a tradition of
performance-focused theatre studies, is interested in how the translation will be staged. The
dichotomous opposition of the two authors is essentially an artificial construction on the part of
Nikolarea, aided and abetted by Bassnett herself, who erroneously identifies Pavis as an advocate
1
“Theatre translation (like any translation of literature) is not a simple linguistic question; it
has too much to do with stylists, culture, fiction, to avoid these microstructures” (Pavis 140).

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of Ubersfeld’s notion of the inseparable nature of theatre text and theatre performance. But Pavis
doesn’t even appear to participate in this debate; his only interest is in the question of how a
theatre text intended for the stage needs to be translated, and the aspects the translator needs to
consider in order to create the space necessary for the mise en scene to be realized by the director
and performers. The fictitious polarization between these two authors can be easily reconciled if
we consider that Pavis’s perspective is in fact best summed up in a statement made by Bassnett
in the conclusion to her argument against performability:
“Theatre texts cannot be considered as identical to texts written to be read, because the
process of writing involves a consideration of the performance dimension,” (“Translating” 111,
emphasis added).
In other words, a consideration of the mise en scene.

WORKS CITED

Bassnett, S. Translation Studies. rev. ed. London and New York: Routledge. (1st ed. 1980). Print.

Bassnett, S. “Translating for the Theatre: The Case against Performability.” TTR (Traduction,
Terminologie, Redaction) IV.1. 99-111. Print.

Jakobson, Roman. “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation.” R. A. Brower (ed.) On Translation.


Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 232-39. Print.

Nikolarea, E. “Performability versus Readability: A Historical Overview of a Theoretical


Polarization in Theatre Translation” Translation Journal. 6(4): 2002.
http://accurapid.com/journal/22theater.htm. Jul. 15, 2010. Web.

Pavis, P. Theatre at the Crossroads of Culture. London: Routledge, 1992. Print