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Translating Western plays for Japanese audiences

by Chiho Iuchi

Staff Writer

Converting each word automatically from English into Japanese is not what translating plays written in English is all about.

“We should build a sense of reality into the characters played by Japanese actors, who cannot look like ‘Marela’ or ‘Conchita,’” said Mayuko Tokizawa, naming a couple of characters in Nilo Cruz’s play “Anna in the Tropics,” which she translated for Bungakuza, one of Japan’s most influential theater companies, which premiered the play in Tokyo last September.

“We have to make Japanese dialogue for Japanese actors to say naturally on the stage in Japan. That’s the most challenging and most interesting part of translating plays,” explained Tokizawa, 42, who has translated a number of contemporary Western plays. “This is very different from making Japanese subtitles for Western films with an all-western cast,” she added.

In translating English lines into natural Japanese, Tokizawa makes the best use of her experience as an actress and from her days as a student in the United States.

Born in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, Tokizawa became interested in drama when she was a junior high school student. She made her stage debut at 15 in the 1986 Japanese premiere of the Broadway musical “Annie” in Tokyo, playing one of Annie’s friends.

“Among the cast members of ‘Annie,’ there were many internationally sophisticated girls, who were totally different from my schoolmates. I admired them and wanted to speak English like they did,” said Tokizawa, who decided to study abroad as a high school student and spent a year in 1987 living with a host family in Salem, Oregon.

It was during that time that Tokizawa was able to remarkably improve her English language skills.

“I also had firsthand experience of the American culture, which I had just imagined from Japan,” Tokizawa said, recalling her first visit to the U.S.

Later, when she was a student of Nihon University College of Arts,’ she spent another year in 1991 in the U.S. as an exchange student at Washington State University, where she participated in plays.

After returning home, she studied acting at the drama institute of Bungakuza for several years. Although she unfortunately suffered a setback in her career as a stage actress, she blazed her own trail by proposing that Bungakuza stage “The Boys Next Door” by U.S. playwright Tom Griffin, using her translation of the play. The proposal was adopted by Bungakuza, and Tokizawa cemented her place as a translator when the play premiered in Japan in 1995.

“I remember very well when a famous actress said to me, ‘there are many young girls who want to become actresses, but I think those who can translate plays (within the theatrical circle) are unique,’ which gave me a boost,” Tokizawa said. “I hoped I could continue to be involved in the theater world that I loved so much in any way possible.”

With the aim of training herself in translating, she took a translation school’s correspondence course in business translation.

“It was helpful to have my translated text corrected, which improved my basic skills, but industry terms were all Greek to me. So the course effectively helped me realize that the only thing I could do as a translator was serve the theater world,” Tokizawa said.

In 2001, Tokizawa won the Yuasa Yoshiko Award, Japan’s accolade for translators of foreign plays, for her translations of “This is Our Youth” by U.S. director, screenwriter and playwright Kenneth Lonergran, and “The Weir” by Irish dramatist Conor McPherson.

“Translating a play isn’t done just by a translator,” Tokizawa said. “It’s a collaboration with the director and actors.”

Initially, the translator renders the original foreign play into Japanese. Next, the text is amended by the stage director to suit their needs and wishes. Later, each line is further transformed during a read-through with the actors, so that the lines become natural for them on the stage, according to Tokizawa.

“When translating, I keep in mind, on one hand, that I shouldn’t inject too much of myself, while on the other hand, I try to present an overall picture and direction of the play based on my understanding,” she explained. “We should reproduce the rhythm of the original script as much as possible and not alter the intention of the playwright, but the lines need to be adapted for Japanese actors.”

Tokizawa introduced an example from which she learned, when she was still wet behind the ears as a translator, how the lines were transformed during rehearsal for a play. The original English line was “Stop it! I am not a computer.” A faithful translation into Japanese should be “Yamete! Watashi wa konpyuta janai.” But the line has no impact in the Japanese. It sometimes works to translate it the opposite way, such as “So desu. Watashi wa ningen konpyuta,” (Certainly. It’s like I am a human computer). This “free translation” can much better reproduce the message that the author intended and “with such a line, the actor could make the intention clear by delivering it while making a funny face, for example,” she said.

Over the past nearly two decades, Tokizawa has translated more than 20 plays from the U.S., Britain and Ireland, including Dominic Cooke’s “Arabian Nights” and Martin McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan.”

She has recently finished the draft translation of British author David Hare’s two-hander “The Breath of Life,” which will be performed at the New National Theater, Tokyo in October. She will discuss the script with director Ryuta Horai and attend the read-throughs with the actors, including actress Mayumi Wakamura.

Tokizawa mainly focuses on translation, but sometimes she acts as an interpreter for theatrical workshops that invite guest directors from overseas. Also, “it may be an interpreter-like job to transform the lines into the most suitable way for the actors in the read-through,” Tokizawa said.

“In the theater world, we translators are not always working. It depends on the timing and our personal network,” Tokizawa said. So far, she managed to work at her own pace, striking a good balance with her private life and maintaining a good harmony with her American husband John Gauntner, a leading authority on sake, and their two children.

“I’m mostly commissioned to translate contemporary Western plays that look at ordinary life. So my own ordinary life, as a wife and mother helps a lot in getting ideas. I try to pick up interesting words and expressions in my daily conversations. It’s very important for my job to lead a fairly ordinary life,” Tokizawa said.

To her surprise, many people from English-speaking countries do not know about the Japanese theater industry, or that many Western plays are translated and performed.

“I was shocked to learn that a friend of mine from England thought there were only kabuki plays in Japan. He was surprised when I told him about my job and that all of Shakespeare’s works were translated into Japanese long time ago,” Tokizawa said with a laugh.

In order to make more overseas audiences aware of the state of Japan’s theater industry, one approach could be translating more Japanese contemporary plays into English.

“Yes, I think somebody should definitely do that. But no one has really attempted it yet,” Tokizawa admitted. “It could be an interesting unexplored field.”