What It’s Like to See a Play in a Foreign Language

play in a foreign language

While en route to Stavovské Divadlo (“Estates Theatre”), a venue where Mozart performed over two hundred years ago, I stood next to a Czech grandmother and her granddaughter on the metro. When I arrived at my seat and the pair was seated next to me, I wasn’t surprised—Prague is a small city. But whereas they would be seeing Three Sisters by Anton Chekov performed in their native language, I would be seeing the play in a foreign language.

For the past few months, I’ve been taking a weekly Czech course at my exchange university, so I have a strong, if elementary, grasp on the consonant-heavy language. And fortunately, the Národní Dívadlo (“National Theatre”) offers a handful of performances with English subtitles, so I was able to follow along quite well. But the experience is unlike anything I’ve encountered before.

narodni divadlo national theatre prague czech republic
Národní Dívadlo on the left 😍

This was not my first time seeing a play performed in Czech. I saw Maryša by Alois and Vilém Mrštíkback in February at the Národní Dívadlo, but at that time my knowledge of the language was not as solid. I also had the disadvantage of knowing nothing about the plot, which I thought would make it more exciting and give me a completely fresh perspective on theatre. And while I was right about the latter, it was less exciting and more confusing than I hoped. Trying to keep up with the action on stage while quickly reading the subtitles and trying to figure out who is saying what (all the while sitting up in the cheap seats) was all at once confounding and exhausting, and I walked away with only a loose understanding of what had transpired on stage.

But with Three Sisters, I had a firm understanding of the plot (thanks to my repeat viewings of Halley Feiffer’s modern adaptation of the play last summer at Williamstown Theatre Festival). Plus, my familiarity with both the Czech language and with Eastern European culture was vastly improved. These each gave me a deeper understanding of the play, but I know there were still parts lost in translation.

The English Subtitles

If anything, living abroad has exponentially increased my respect for people who are fully bilingual. But, everyone makes mistakes, even in their native languages. So it’s not a shock that the English subtitles not only had typos, but also used out-dated words. (I only knew what a “perambulator” was because there was a stroller on stage). There was even a point where the subtitles weren’t in English, but rather in French (thank goodness for my 9 years of French lessons).

The most striking part was when words and phrases were altered, or left out entirely. I’m good enough at Czech to know that the translations were a little off at times. (A simple example is when an actress said “Ano?” (Czech for “yes”) and the translation was “What is it?”) While I understand that context, slang and cultural nuances come into play with translations, as an English speaker, I would have completely understood what was underlying that actress’s “ano.”

Additionally, there were occasions when the subtitles stopped, but a character kept on speaking. And as I said, I understand the language enough to catch words or phrases and know that those words were definitely not up on the screen. It was frustrating, because I was so close to fully understanding, and yet I fell short.

The Czech Subtleties

Three Sisters was originally written in Russian, which is a language very similar to Czech. So, some nuanced aspects that were written into the play are also, quite literally, lost when translating into English.

For instance, English does not have two versions of the word “you” (nor does it have verb conjugations to match). However, Czech does. And knowing which version characters use with one another is a big indicator in their relationships and how they see one another.

Additionally, pet names are a popular custom in Eastern Europe. Understanding the situations in which someone is called by their proper name or someone is called by their pet name (and perhaps even which version of their pet name is used), can lead to a deeper understanding of the plot. Traditionally, English speakers know the three Prozorov sisters as Olga, Masha, and Irina. However, “Masha” is a pet name for Maria. (Just as “Irinka” is a pet name for Irina, and “Olya” for Olga.) So in certain English translations, we lose that dimension of familiarity (or we’re just confused as to why each character has nine different names).

Also, having lived in Czech Republic for a few months know, my understanding of the rich Czech culture is much improved. I’ve gotten to know some really cool Czechs, so seeing the manner in which the characters interacted on stage was just a reflection of all my new friends. Behavior which may have felt very foreign a few months ago seemed just like any other day in the neighborhood.

narodni divadlo prague czech republic

The (Almost) Bi-Lingual Experience

Okay, I’m nowhere near being fluent in Czech, but I think the experience of seeing a play in a foreign language did give me a deeper understanding. Often, I wasn’t just experiencing it in English, I was experiencing it in Czech, too. However, reading the lines instead of just listening to them led to a sort of disconnect between me and the play, and I always felt like I needed to catch up to the action on stage.

Overall though, seeing Czech theatre is also a chance to dive deeper into Czech culture. There’s a certain aesthetic I’ve noticed among the (two) plays I’ve seen: a sort of proto-realisim, a minimalist, matter-of-fact absurdism that is really growing on me. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to catch another play or two before I move back to the states next month.

Have you ever seen a play in a foreign language? What was your experience like? Let me know in the comments below! 

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More about Kelly

Hi, I’m Kelly! I’m here to give busy college students a guide to navigating the modern theatre world. I’m passionate about spreading my love of theatre, traveling, and trying new things.

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