”Translations” — A Theatrical Performance Dealing with the Gains and Losses in Translation

Playground is the annual student work festival at Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama. I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to present a piece this year, on December 8th. In this article, I will be documenting my process all the way from initial concept development to the final run.

Joyce Wang 王心怡
Nov 9, 2017 · 13 min read


When I applied for Playground in September, I wanted to create a documentary theater piece where Chinese international students are brought on stage and recreate the scenario of applying for US visa at the embassy, through a series of monologues. My goal was to authentically tell the stories of one group to another, challenging the barriers of language and culture. I talked to some of my friends about this, and a few interesting ideas/questions came up.

I realized I was facing the constraint that very few Chinese international students felt comfortable performing on stage (based on my impression). There are extremely few Asian faces in the School of Drama at CMU, which is quite disproportionate from the rest of campus. So I thought, what if we invite others to perform the stories of Chinese students? Would that be problematic? What does it mean when Chinese students’ personal narratives are delivered not through their voice, but through the performance of others? What would happen in this process of translation?

As a Chinese international student myself who had a pretty hard time learning English for years, I am aware of how much can be lost in the process of translation, as well as how much new poetry can be gained if the translation is done well. Translation is accompanied by both loss and creation. It is a synthetic process that combines linguistic knowledge and emotional knowledge. It is also highly improvised in a way. Can we see translation as a performance?

With these questions in mind, I decided to open up the concept to a more experimental one.

Currently, I am re-envisioning my piece to carry the themes of translation and transcription. I am shifting my conceptual focus from the result to the means — from delivering stories, to the process of transferring stories.

The theme is still going to be about the personal narratives of Chinese international students, but the form will not be limited by monologues. I want to try many different forms of translation and interpretation. I might invite Chinese students to perform alongside actors, and they will execute simultaneous interpretation. I might also project a video of an interview with a Chinese student and the translation would be the subtitles.

Translation is defined as “the process of translating words or text from one language into another.” Anything that accomplishes this goal, I want to play around with. The translation might fail — the authentic ideas might not get across — but even that failure would be an interesting product of this experimental piece. If the result is simply confusion, frustration and a total loss of information, I would want to embrace such failure and analyze where the stories begin to deconstruct and lose their souls.

I am not sure if I am using this word right…but maybe this piece is my first attempt in Postdramatic theater.


Currently, I plan to execute this piece in five stages.

Stage 1 — Interview 4 or 5 Chinese students. The video footage and voice recordings will be used as the base materials that we translate from.

Stage 2 — Research on existing methods of translation. I will study existing methods of translation and transcription. I will watch performances, videos, and movies that involve performances in unknown languages. I will take notes and create a plan, where I will detail which types of translations we want to play with during rehearsals.

Stage 3 — Workshop together. Hopefully I can get actors, designers, and individuals who share their stories (anyone can take on multiple roles) to be in the same room. We will experiment with different methods of translation to explore how one can successfully — or if it is even possible to — tell the story of one group to another. We will start with the plan I devised in stage 2, but as we iterate forward hopefully we can do a lot more.

Stage 4 — Perform in the Rauh. For this piece, I value the process of experimentation as much as, if not more than, the final performance. I would like to see the show as a visual manifestation of my process, but I would not like to treat it as the final goal.

Stage 5 — Reflect. I want to hear what people feel after seeing my piece. Do they think they understand the stories? Do they feel a sense of connection with the owners of the stories?

Other thoughts

I feel like this piece will turn out pretty weird. LOL.

Process doc 11/8/2017 — Interviews

So far I interviewed 4 different Chinese international students. The next steps would be: listen to the sound recordings and read my notes, figure out what questions to ask in the next interview, email them the questions I want to ask and schedule 1-hour interviews with each of these students.

Question: how can I find a pivot that connects all of these different stories? The common questions I posed to all of these students are “Why come to America,” “How have you changed since you studied abroad,” “What you do feel about Chinese students as a group on our campus.” I feel like these questions are too random. I want to somehow find an angle to link up these questions and paint a more 3D picture of the individuals telling the story.

Process doc 11/8/2017— Design

Sound? Set? Media? Lighting? AHHHHH IDK PLEASE HELP

Process doc 11/15/2017 — Interview Reflection

Today I interviewed two Chinese international students. This is our second round. Last week, in the first round, I only had voice recordings and we talked conversation-style. Today, I recorded both video and audio. The conversation was more me listening and them talking. It didn’t work as well as I expected.

I think my expectations for interviews were flawed in that I thought of an interview too simply as an exchange of information between two individuals. It was actually more about establishing trust and finding a trail of curiosity and fun. Everyone has a story to tell, but not everyone is eloquent with the language of story-telling and self-reflection.

There is a cultural aspect too. One of my interviewee told me that because he knew this video would be translated for a pre-dominantly American audience, he censored himself so he wouldn’t say anything controversial. In this process of self-censoring, a lot of information was intentionally left out, so the conversation felt guarded and unnatural.

I am very intrigued by this active behavior of self-censoring. I always thought the loss of meaning and authenticity in the process of translation usually come from the difference of language or failure of the translator. But self-censor can be a major reason for the loss too. Facing an unfamiliar audience from a different cultural background, one changes their style and content of storytelling to cater to the taste of the listener. Should I see this as a barrier? Or should I see this as a kind of versatility and sensitivity?

My main goal for these interviews is to get personal stories and personal opinions. I want to encourage my interviewees to be comfortable, honest, and open. Therefore, I should reflect on my tactics and learn more about establishing trust and interest. In the two interviews I conducted today, I prepared questions for both, based on what I learned from touching base previously. However, the questions didn’t really work out. The most interesting answers actually still come from questions that I improvised. I faced a tradeoff between great answers which come from more spontaneous questions, and somewhat awkward answers which com from more structured questions. This is probably a problem with amateur interviewers / documentary filmmakers. I should be spontaneous in the conversation while keeping structure in my head. Hopefully with this new mindset my future interviews would flow better and give more valuable outcomes.

Process doc 11/18/2017–10 methods of translation

(just a bunch of examples)

  1. original interview footage (lack of translation)
  2. video of subject reading a translated version of the original, content translated by a Mandarin speaker
  3. video of subject reading a translated version of the original, content translated by the subject himself/herself
  4. interview transcript translated into English by a Mandarin speaker
  5. interview transcript translated into English by the subject himself/herself
  6. transcript is performed by a Mandarin speaker in Mandarin
  7. transcript is performed by a Mandarin speaker in English
  8. transcript is performed by an English speaker in English
  9. video footage is simultaneously translated by a Chinese speaker
  10. video footage is simultaneously translated by an English speaker

Process doc 11/19/2017 — First meeting

Today we had the first ever team meeting! The team consists of William, Joss, Emma, Paloma, Cameron, Sophie, and me. I am super excited to be working with these thoughtful, passionate individuals!

Here are some of the ideas that came up from the discussions:

  1. visually represent a conversation between the translator and the story-owner.
  2. form an “arc” with all the methods of translations (e.g. from all-power-belong-to-the-translator to all-power-belong-to-the-owner-of-story)
  3. what do we want our audience to know? each method of translation should be carefully analyzed and we should have some degree of control over the knowledge that we aim to convey
  4. when there is a misinterpretation, or a failure of translation, we need the audience to know that, but how?
  5. visually incorporate the process — all of the little obstacles and discoveries that we encounter— in the performance
  6. how to get reflection from the audience? Joss: have breaks between each segment and ask people to talk to those sitting next to them. William: set up a camera at the exit and record people talking about their experience
  7. how to help the audience understand the culture behind body language?

Process doc 11/24/2017 — Research + Inspirations

Lin Yutang(1895–1976), Chinese writer, scholar, translator, as well as a personal idol of mine, translated Lao-tzu’s book from 5th or 4th century BCE Chinese to English. I want to take a closer look at a sample of this translation:


Lao-tzu’s body of work is considered China’s literary canon. My read is only brushing the surface of this text, for the purpose of this performance piece only.

Comparing the Chinese and English version of this paragraph, I find that Lin, the translator, succeeds in not only delivering the informational aspect of the text, but to preserve the poetry in the language. The first phrase, “天长,” literally means “the sky is long,” and it is translated into “The universe is everlasting.” This small phrase of two characters uses visual imagry to signify eternity. “The sky is long” is different from “time never ends,” which is also different from “the universe is everlasting.” Ancient Chinese literature is full of signifiers, like all other languages. A good translation does not stop at decoding the message and representing it as it is; it further encodes it in the literary tradition of another language, thus preserving the poetic-ness of the original text.

In this performance piece, we are translating a casual interview, instead of ancient text. Instead of dealing with poetry and philosophy, we are dealing with colloquialism. I am currently in the process of transcribing my interview and translating it into English. I realize that the transcription is full of words that are basically the equivalent of “like,” “kind of” and “um.” There are two ways to translate the text. I can either simply decode the language, a.k.a., getting ride of the informal vernacular and only representing the message. Or, I can include all the “like,” “kind of” and “um,” maintaining the messy and casual tone of speech.

I plan to perform both the “formal” translation and the “informal” translation on stage in our performance. I believe the audience experience would be different, even though the original interview footage is exactly the same. I wonder what would be the way that the story-owner prefers. In the end, we are just trying to present their story as an honest agent.

inspirations in translations:

Examples of classic Chinese text translated into English by celebrated translators:

Chaplin’s Fake German Speech in The Great Dictator:

Japanese-language short film with English subtitles: So We Put Goldfish in The Pool, winner of Short Film Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2017 (watch here)

So We Put Goldfish in The Pool

An interview I did with a rural migrant mother in Beijing back in 2014 for a research project. I was very moved by her personal story, and to be honest I felt quite powerless when translating her story. I wish people could just hear it first-hand.

Process doc 12/02/2017 — Conversation with Cam

I had some great conversations with Cameron Wise, the actor working on the show, in the past two days. Through our conversations, we have made many changes to the original script. I decided to change the subject of the piece from a graduate student at CMU to an actor whom I interviewed for my documentary in New York a few weeks ago. We also decided to lower the number of “translations,” but instead focus on a few, creating a flow, and in the end allowing our subject, Shaotian, to finish the story himself by Skyping him in. A lot of details are waiting to be polished up.

So far I am learning a lot about how to carry on a conversation with cast members and designers for a show I am creating. There are a lot of nuances and uncertainties, especially in an early stage of a production. It is challenging to embrace these nuances and unknowns and be inspired by them without getting everyone too confused.

I am feeling this process is becoming more and more like a research. We are making plans about what we want to try, and we are embracing every little detail that works or doesn’t work.

I am very excited for our first rehearsal tomorrow!

Process doc 12/03/2017 — Pre-First rehearsal

Here is the structure of the script:

0. no translation. active listening.

(Interviewer and Actor brief intro.)

  1. subtitles.
  2. Interviewer translates sentence by sentence.
  3. Interviewer translates simultaneously.
  4. Actor translates simultaneously.
  5. Actor performs as Shao.
  6. Actor performs as Shao, without video.
  7. Shao speaks for himself.
  8. Interaction, Q&A

Process doc 12/03/2017 — First rehearsal

some notes for self:

  • [media] before each segment, show plain text on the screen to explain the kind of translation we are doing? along with a clap by the performers on stage to indicate separation?
  • is there a need to be more explicit about our choice of representation? how to make Cam feel more comfortable about being a white woman playing an Asian man?
  • When Shao Skypes in, he can acknowledge Cam and Joyce. He can also carry a conversation with Cam before engaging the audience.
  • Shao can choose to speak in a language — possibly a combination of Chinese and English — that makes him feel more like himself. Some words lose their meanings after being translated. We want to give him the freedom to express those words in Chinese to preserve their meanings, instead of translating them into English.
  • organizing a convo in rehearsal between Shao and Cam, to prep for speaking in this combo language (or whatever language Shao chooses)?
  • There can be a deliberate transition after Cam’s performance, before Shao skypes in, to indicate a transition of power from us — people in this theater piece — to Shao. Maybe we can put the props away and highlight a position of listeners?
  • in actual performance, Cam can ask Shao the question: What do think is lost from the Chinese language when it is translated into English? What words/concepts/ideas are impossible to translate?

Process doc 12/05/2017 — Rehearsals and more convo with Shao

  • convo with Shao on the issue of race and representation
  • staging three worlds: translator world, neutral world, interview world

In the past few days of rehearsals, both the actor — Cam, a wonderful second-year acting student at CMU—and I have been concerned with the issue of representation. It is an intentional choice that we have a white woman portraying/translating for an Asian male, but how does it read for the audience? Would it off-put anyone?

Today I discussed this question with Shao, and he provided some very interesting insight. He mentioned an idea that he learned from an old Morgan Freeman interview, who said that, an important way to fight racism is to focus on empathy — our similarities and their positivity, and not to be too distracted by our differences and their negativity. Shao thinks this piece is about the honest truth. It is an academic exploration, where Cam and I — a white woman and a Chinese woman — try all kinds of ways to translate Shao’s voice. The process creates many questions, which the audience is then faced with.

I agree with Shao and I think Honesty is the soul of this piece. We are honestly presenting the process to our audience, and we are clear with our simple intentions. There is a risk that the audience get a bit uncomfortable or have questions. But that is the point. That is an opportunity for reflection.

Translation is for communication. Communication is rooted in empathy beyond the exchange of information. Is empathy impossible if an Asian woman is represented by a white woman? Is this type of empathy valuable on a stage at all? These are the questions we want to raise.

Process doc 12/15/2017 — Post rehearsal

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 can both hear and talk to each other in real time. We figured out everything as the audience was entering the theater, quite literally.

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. More importantly, we all had fun and everyone learned a great deal from the process.

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 program 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. The questions proposed and the discussions that they inspired all deserve further reflection. I think they reflect some very interesting reality about the community of School of Drama.

Extremely 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. I was really bummed afterwards.

However, this doesn’t have to be the end. I think a show like this can have a very different effect with a different audience. I am thinking about bringing it outside of School of Drama, and perform in front of people at CMU or beyond. We will see how it goes.


Joyce Wang 王心怡

Written by

aspiring researcher in media, culture, and computational methods / Beijing native / joycewang.me

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