When a text gets translated from one language to the next, change is inevitable. Although human translators and the latest forms of machine translation always strive for perfect accuracy, it’s near impossible to make the same text written in two different languages mean exactly the same thing. To varying degrees, translators have to make choices about how to best translate a word, a sentence, or an entire document. They have to engage in the process of transcreation.

Transcreation takes the work of translation a step further. Where a straight translation stays as close to the original text as possible, the process of transcreation often makes a translated text very different from its source.

The goal is to have a text evoke the same feelings in a new language, rather than a literal translation. Marketing materials and taglines often have to undergo radical transcreation in order to reach their audiences similarly around the world.  Translators who engage in this kind of non-literal translation become a collaborator or even a co-author of the texts they work with.

Imagine that , instead of a short tagline, you were working on the translation of one of the most well-known, well-loved plays of all time? What is it like being the multilingual co-author of a literary giant like Anton Chekhov?

Chekhov’s Classic The Cherry Orchard

The Cherry Orchard is the last and most famous of Chekhov’s major plays. It was first staged in Moscow in 1904 and is commonly considered a classic of the Western canon. It tells the tragic, but also comedic tale of a deteriorating aristocratic family in rural Russia who lose their estate as well as their famous, titular orchard, due mostly to their own inaction.

The original Russian text of the play has been translated into dozens of languages; new versions are released almost every year.

Chekhov presents an interesting challenge to translators not only because of the language barrier, but the time jump as well. Making writing from a hundred years ago sound fresh and exciting is a tough job.

To combat this, translators have had to take greater and greater liberties with the original text to grip a modern audience’s attention. In the latest Broadway production of the play, now in the middle of a limited run at the American Airlines Theater, a contemporary playwright was brought in to give the modern treatment to this century-old story.

A Cherry Orchard for the 21st Century

Stephen Karam is a Tony-award winning playwright, best known for his plays Sons of the Prophet and The Humans. Although he created this new version of The Cherry Orchard, Karam doesn’t read or speak Russian. So how did he “translate” the play?

Working from a literal translation prepared by a Russian scholar, Karam then adapted the translated English text into his “new” version through transcreation.

According to Karam, he wanted to reflect the colloquial nature of Chekhov’s dialogue through American vernacular rather than trying to Americanize the play. At the same time, he worked to leave linguistic idiosyncracies and idioms as literal possible, so much so that he didn’t translate the final word of the play (the obscure perjorative “nedotyopa”) from the original Russian at all.

What Transcreation Looks Like

In clips from the production, Karam’s intent comes through in the occasional insertion of space fillers such as “like” or the amplification of certain verbs (where most versions say the orchard needs to be “cut” down Karam says “chop”). Lines sound natural and are easy to follow without it being too self-consciously “modernized.”

But in other aspects of the script, Karam did make some interesting, bigger changes. For instance, he changed the word “serf” in the text to “slave.”

At first, this can seem like a minor departure from the source text. And American audiences are more likely have more context and knowledge about chattel slavery than Russian serfdom. But Karam’s word choice is combined with the fact that in this production’s cast, all of the lower class characters (former serfs in the play) are played by African-American actors. The aristocratic characters are white.

Something New

Karam’s trancreated The Cherry Orchard is arguably a new text entirely, designed for a particular production at a particular time. Rather than presenting the literal translation of Chekhov’s play as it was written at the turn of the century, Karam and his collaborators created a new play.

Critics can argue how successful this new version of The Cherry Orchard  is at achieving its artistic goals. But the production is quite an interesting example of the possibilities of translating combined with transcreating.

Translators aren’t just moving text from one language to another, they are truly creating something new.

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Alexandra Norvet

Alexandra Norvet

Alexandra Norvet is a staff writer at United Language Group where she analyzes and reports on the translation and language industries. She specializes in international regulations, digital technologies and other innovations in the realm of translation.

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