Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Glassco Playwrights' Residence in Tadoussac

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Tadoussac at Sunrise (thanks Tallulah!)

In September I participated in a Translation Colony. Maryse Warda is translating my play, If We Were Birds, into French for a workshop (and later production) directed by Geneviève Blais of Theatre à corps perdus in Montreal. Not really having any idea what a ‘Translation Colony’ would entail, I gladly accepted the invitation from Playwrights Workshop to go to the Glassco family home in Tadoussac, Quebec for ten days with my then five month old, Tallulah.

Three other translation couples were invited as well and under the guidance of prolific and insightful translator Linda Gaboriau we spent our days translating (well, Maryse was translating, I was available for questions and conversations regarding the text ... and I also worked on another play I’m writing) and our evenings talking about translating and our experiences translating and what it means to translate. The other plays were being translated from English to Spanish, from French to English and from English to Cree and each process had its own challenges.

A few things I learned about translation:

1. Some languages are long, some are short – this may seem obvious but when translating a play, length matters. My play ran eighty minutes in the theatre. French is, generally speaking, a ‘longer’ language than English but a two hour version of my play would be a different play. Maryse, therefore, needs to make choices to keep the pace of the dialogue clipping along. Spanish and Cree, I have learned are also ‘long’ languages. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say, therefore, that English is a ‘short’ language rather than that other languages are ‘long’.

2. English is unspecific in terms of gender. Objects and people do not necessarily have a gender attached which allows for an ambiguity simply not available in French. So when I write “they turn into birds”, Maryse needs to know whether “they” are all women? Or does that “they” include the one man in the cast. It is the difference in French between ‘ils and elles’. The same is true of Spanish. In Cree objects are either animate or inanimate. An animal, a tree, a rock, the moon, these are all animate; a chair, a fork, a brick, these are inanimate and the language reflects that distinction.

3. In French there is ‘tu’ and ‘vous’ when addressing someone. ‘Tu’ is familiar, ‘vous’ connotes respect to someone who is either unfamiliar or of higher status. It was exciting for me to relook at my play and guide Maryse in her choices. Who has high status? Who does not? How do the sisters address their father? How to two kings address one another? These choices add a dimension to my play unavailable in English.

4. The title is a big thing. A lot of discussion revolved around the title of each play. A direct translation is always an option but doesn’t seem to be what most translators opt for. There is a gut feeling for me as a playwright about what a play should be called. The title usually beckons to me either as I am writing or when I am a draft or two on. It seems that is the case with translation as well. The title needs to capture the emotional drive of the play and needs to draw an audience into the theatre.

5. Sayings and colloquial language require a lot of imagination on the part of the translator. I asked Linda about her experience translating a particular character in Wajdi Mouawad Scorched. The character perpetually uses malapropisms. And they are funny. Very funny. Of course those malapropisms couldn’t be translated directly from the French because word play has to do with both sound and meaning. She said she had a lot of fun with that bit of the translation because she really got to take ownership and be inventive within the world of the play. The goal with the translation is to be true to the meaning which in this case was not precisely what the character was saying, but how he expressed himself.

6. Good translation requires translators to dive into the text; to navigate the story in an intimate way; to go to deep into the emotional core of the play and see it through their own eyes. I didn’t know this before.

Also ... I saw whales and walked along the beach with my daughter and ate incredible food.

To learn more about the Glassco Playwrights’ Residence in Tadoussac go to

To learn more about Theatre à corps perdus go to

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Erin Shields

Erin Shields is a playwright and actor who most recently won the Governor General's Award for her play If We Were Birds (Playwrights Canada Press). She is a founding member of Groundwater Productions through which she creates, develops and produces much of her work.

Go to Erin Shields’s Author Page