The Translation of Western Plays for Japanese Theatre

The Translation of Western Plays for Japanese Theatre

If you read our blog regularly, it is likely you are aware of the fact that translation often involves more than simply transferring words from one language to another. According to a Japanese translator, this is no different for the translation of western plays into the Japanese language.


Chiho Luchi has written a great piece on Mayuko Tokizawa and the translation of western plays in order for them to be performed on the stages of Japanese theatres.

What’s in a name?

Tokizawa translated numerous Western plays into Japanese. According to her, it is important the characters feel real to the audience. She gives the example of the characters in the play “Anna in the Tropics” by Nilo Cruz, who have names such as Marela and Conchita. Japanese actors are very unlikely to have such an exotic name, Tokizawa says.

Names are only a small detail, however, as all dialogue featured in a play must be translated in such a way that it feels natural for the actors to say.

Tokizawa believes this is the most difficult, but also the most fascinating part of translation. According to Luchi, in addition to her experiences as an actress, Tokizawa can use her student life in the US for this.

Becoming a translator

In 1986, when Tokizawa was only 15, she made her first appearance on the Japanese stage in the musical “Annie,” which featured many girls that she describes as “sophisticated” and were nothing like her classmates. Tokizawa looked up to them and decided she wanted to speak English like the other girls did.

After this decision, Tokizawa moved to the US to live with a host family in Oregon for a year in 1987. Her English skills improved even further when she was an exchange student at Washington State University in 1991. After her return to Japan, she attended the drama institute of Bungakuza and even though her professional career as an actress did not go the way she wanted to, her translation of “The Boys Next Door” by Tom Griffin was used by Bungakuza, which  marked the beginning of her career as a translator.

To improve her translation skills, Tokizawa took a correspondence course in business translation at a translation school. According to her, the fact that her texts were corrected by someone was of great help to her, but she understood very little of the business lingo. Thus, she says, the course was mainly helpful because it made her aware that as a translator, she preferred translating plays.  And it soon became apparent that Tokizawa did not need anyone to teach her how to translate these: in 2001, she won the Yuasha Yoshiko Award, an award for translators who translate foreign plays, for her translations of Kenneth Lonergran’s “This is Our Youth” and Conor McPherson’s “The Weir.”

Who “translates” a play?

According to Tokizawa, the translation of  play is not a solo act of the translator, but involves the translator, the director and the actors of the play. The translator might initiate the process by translating the text, but the text is then altered to the stage director’s wishes. Moreover, during a read-through with the actors, the lines are even further reshaped in order for them to sound as natural as possible. She admits that translators should stick to the original as closely as they can and that the intention of the writer must remain intact, but also believes lines must be altered for the Japanese actors.

Tokizawa gives an example of the transformation the lines in a play undergo during rehearsal. A faithful translation of the English line “Stop it! I am not a computer.” Did not have the desired effect in Japanese. As a result, Tokizawa chose to translate the sentence the opposite way: “So desu. Watashi wa ningen konpyuta,” which translates into English as “Certainly. It’s like I am a human computer.” The actor’s expression, she says, can then convey the actual intention of the line.

Luchi says Tokizawa has translated over 20 plays, including “Arabian Nights” by Dominic Cooke, for example. Her most recent translation is “The Breath of Life,” a play by David Hare that will be performed by the New National Theatre in Tokyo next October. Even though translation takes up most of her time, Iuchi says, Tokizawa sometimes works as an interpreter for theatrical workshops as well. She even believes translating plays has an interpreter-like quality to it, as she has to “transform the lines into the most suitable way for the actors.”

Emma Tidey
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