As an interpreter, I feel myself as a medium or a bridge between choreographers and dancers, and between Chinese speakers and English speakers in this project. This experience has made me question what translation means for performing arts and how to translate in an artistic process that involves dancers and choreographers from diverse cultural backgrounds and linguistic or cognitive systems. Is there an alternative mode besides language emerging in this process? Are there many modes of translation occurring and shaping an in-between or unknown form in which these diverse modes cannot be identified or named?

I feel the working mode of translating for a choreographer is like an improvisational duet. We tried to find a rhythm to make rehearsals work well and run smoothly—in other words, to keep the energy of the process fluent. This might take two days. Some choreographers only spoke one language, either Chinese or English, when working with their dancers, and I translated their words into the other language. Some choreographers preferred to speak both languages, and I just supported them when they needed me.

Some non-linguistic moments in rehearsals showed dancers communicating across cultures. This kind of moment was often transient and subtle. For example, when continuously working with a choreographer on the third day, I found there were a few moments when the choreographer spoke Chinese and the London dancers in the session nodded their heads. They seemed to understand the choreographer’s words, somehow, in an unknown way beyond language. As an artist and a qigong learner besides my role as an interpreter in this project, I would like to see a process of arts communication in this sort of organic way, rather than intruded upon by linguistic translation. As a translator, I sensed the timing of linguistic translation by means of an awareness of “energy” such as Chinese qi flowing in a session, though such energy is an ambiguous felt experience in terms of qi. When the energy emerged and flowed by itself between the choreographer and the dancers, I was aware that my oral translation became an invasion of this emerging energy.

I observed that the London dancers in the sessions I worked desired to know the meaning of every word they heard. If they did not know, they looked panicked. Even though they had an interpreter, they might still feel unsafe and isolated in an unknown environment when hearing Chinese, which they did not understand at all. Asian dancers might also look confused when they did not understand English instructions, but they appeared to more easily accept uncertainty. I suppose this may come from diverse philosophies in different cultures. Chinese thought allows certain ambiguity to exist, which is distinct from traditional Western thought. The other reason may be that English as an international language is not totally unknown to Asian dancers. This is why two choreographers whom I worked with chose to speak English by themselves throughout the sessions when working with their dancers. Apparently, most choreographers still preferred to directly communicate with each dancer rather than through an interpreter if possible.

Although an unknown or in-between mode of translation is necessary for crossing cultures in an artistic process, language exchange is indeed an efficient means to enable dancers from three cities to communicate and cross cultural borders not only in rehearsals but also in daily life. For instance, a choreographer led dancers to teach each other how to say numbers in their own languages, including Chinese mandarin, Taiwanese mandarin, English and Greek. After this, the dancers from three cities no longer clearly separated into three groups before and after rehearsals. Instead, they started to have chats with one another about their everyday-life experiences of “leaving home and being elsewhere”, as the theme of this project, beyond a session time. The “home” and “elsewhere” here can refer both to a concrete resident place and to things familiar and unfamiliar, such as culture, for all dancers from three cities during rehearsals.

Through this experience of translation for choreographers and dancers, I have come to feel that these artists have to find their own ways to communicate by themselves at times, instead of through an interpreter—ways such as oral and body languages, and other forms of communication. If an interpreter always exists between them, they would not really cross boundaries. Maybe there needs to be an in-between or unknown space allowing cultures and arts to cross in any form organically, melting the border between diverse cultures.

Rethink translation in a process of “artcrossing”

4 thoughts on “Rethink translation in a process of “artcrossing”

  • Thanks for this I-Ying. As well as it being good to hear the voice of someone who has so patiently translated for the last few weeks, it is a real pleasure to find it so thoughtful and considered. M

  • Lovely to hear about your experience, it draws attention to the role of the translators as making communication happen, or facilitating it, in the spaces. As you explain, at times this means translating what is being said, but in other moments taking a step back as it is already flowing…

  • I enjoyed reading from the interpreter’s experience and find it interesting.
    I encountered a sense of calmness and smoothness this year when I was observing in the studio. Often, I wonder if there was an interpreter in the room.

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