A sur-thing

A new trend is sweeping Berlin theatres: English surtitles. But while surtitling professionals fight for recognition of their work, some theatres are balking at the possibilities opened by the new technology.

Image for A sur-thing
Jeder stirbt für sich allein at Maxim Gorki Theater. Photo by Astrid Warberg

A new trend is sweeping Berlin theatres: English surtitles. But while surtitling professionals fight for recognition of their work, some theatres are balking at the possibilities opened by the new technology.

When Schaubühne artistic director Thomas Ostermeier travelled all the way to Sydney to show his Hamlet in 2010, the performance was met with a Cate Blanchett-led standing ovation. This was made possible because, although the play was staged – just as it will be this month on Ku’damm – with German actors and in German, an English translation was projected onto the middle of the stage in LED surtitles.

While theatres like the old Hebbel were using surtitles to translate international performances for German theatre audiences as far back as the mid-1990s, the Schaubühne pioneered the use of English surtitles in 2007.

The Schaubühne is no stranger to using surtitles for travelling productions – since Ostermeier joined the theatre in 1999 they have staged hundreds of international guest performances. Since they already had the English translations, why not use them in Berlin and tap into the city’s tourist and international audiences?

“Sometimes on the streets you hear more English or French than German, and these are people we think would be interested in our work,” says Schaubühne’s artistic executive producer Tobias Viet. “We want to be an internationally open theatre!”

Nowadays the Schaubühne programme includes two to three productions surtitled in English and two to three in French every month (2012 picks include Miss Julie, The Last Day Before Tomorrow, The One-Eyed Man Is King, Märtyrer and Hamlet).

The proportion of non-Germans in the audience has doubled to approximately 30 percent on such nights, according to Veit.

A new trend

Deutsches Theater (DT) and Maxim Gorki have followed Schaubühne’s lead. Having first used (Polish) surtitles in 2008, the DT commissioned its own English surtitles for Kinder der Sonne in November 2010 and has since continued, with an average of two to three English-surtitled performances monthly, including Capitalista, Baby!, Mourning Becomes Electra and Woyzeck in 2012.

Gorki got on board in 2010 with We Are Blood. In 2012, thanks to the original book’s popularity in the US and Israel, their production of Hans Fallada’s Jeder stirbt für sich allein (photo) always runs with English surtitles.

HAU, Ballhaus Naunynstraße and very occasionally Volksbühne have adopted the practice, and as of April, a total of 77 performances at Berlin’s major theatres have run with English surtitles this year.

Then throw in festivals like Theatertreffen, which will surtitle a greater number of plays this year than ever before. Though they originally wanted more, budget constraints pushed them to settle for surtitling half of the selection (Before Your Very Eyes, Hate Radio, Platonov, An Enemy of The People, Cleansed/ Crave/ 4.48 Psychosis). Clearly this is more than a passing fad.

Who’s Wagner?

Surtitles (from the French sur, meaning on or above) originate from opera’s democratisation, when in the 1980s houses sought to appeal to the masses. Born in 1983 in Canada (where ‘Surtitle’ is a registered trademark of the Canadian Opera Company), surtitles mean that an audience no longer has to be intimately familiar with a libretto as a prerequisite for its enjoyment. As the pop cultured generation tends to know the classics less and less, surtitles have become crucial to telling these stories.

Today Berlin’s major opera houses not only surtitle shows, typically running Wagner’s archaic German with German surtitles, but also provide audiences with multilingual synopses booklets and, at the Staatsoper, even an introductory talk on the piece in the foyer before the show, lest a new generation of opera-goers be left bamboozled.

Thanks to their big tourist pull, opera houses like the Komische Oper have invested heavily in surtitle technology, equipping the backs of 1190 chairs in 2009 with screens where every performance offers the option of surtitles in German, English, French or Turkish (except for kids’ shows), and the Staatsoper plans the same for its homecoming to Unter den Linden in 2014.

Profession: ‘surtitler’

Making surtitles sounds simple enough. Translate. Condense text into succinct one- or two-line cues. Insert cues into Powerpoint presentation. Project above stage and let actors do their thing. Anyone can do that, right?

In surtitles’ infancy it may have once been so, but not any more. Five years ago, 33-year-old David Maß started Berlin’s first theatre translation and surtitle company, the Wedding-based Kleine Internationale Theater Agentur (KITA).

“There were no professionals in the field,” says Maß. “Somebody had to do it.”

Before people like Maß, surtitles were often left to what he flippantly describes as “the son of the daughter who had an English father… they get the text and they don’t know what they’re doing!” Coming from a theatre background, the busy half-German, half-Italian has since worked with almost every major Berlin theatre, touring internationally and often lending the rights to his company’s surtitles to others. He also actively pushes back against the prevalent tendency of theatres to see surtitles as an afterthought.

“This is our fight: we say that the surtitler has to be integrated into the artistic team and seen to be as important as the light, the sound, the costume and the stage design.”

So what qualifies someone to be a professional surtitler? “Above all you need to know theatre. Theatre is visual, and what you’re doing will be seen very clearly. You need to know when to put up a title, when it’s too much, when it’s not enough. Then you need the language skill. It’s always best if the surtitler knows both languages perfectly,” says Maß, who speaks five languages. “Surtitles are really an informative text; emotion must come from the stage. So you chop all the ‘oh’s, ‘ah’s or ‘I see’s, because you don’t need it. You see the hesitance in how the actor’s speaking.”

It’s more than language, agrees Veit: “It’s translation, of course, but it’s more about knowing and learning the rhythm of a production. It’s extremely important to hit lines when they’re spoken and to make abbreviations without being scared to cut down the text. It’s not so important to translate every word but rather to convey the meaning, which is the difference between a literal translator and a good surtitle operator.”

“It’s precise work”

Sequestered in a booth, the surtitle operator clicks through an average of 1000 cues on a laptop for a one-hour performance. Previously executed with finicky, labour-intensive slide projectors, the process has been digitised: white Arial font is beamed against a black background in differing locations aimed to minimise movement between the eye and the stage  whilst remaining visible to even the cheap seats.

Unlike film subtitles, surtitles must be operated live. “Actors will forget something or improvise a little, so you need someone being on point … You rehearse a lot. You need to know the piece by heart, so if there are any improvisations you can react. It’s very precise work,” says Maß.

Unfortunately not all Berlin theatres can afford such professionals. While it’s still case-dependent, many buy rights or hire freelance translators before producing surtitles in-house. At Gorki, the surtitles for Jeder stirbt für sich allein were partly produced by Maria Nübling, one of the theatre’s young trainees, who clicks through the two-hour series of 884 Powerpoint slides for a little extra cash on the side.

A matter of money?

The money issue is a line echoed by almost every Berlin theatre rep to explain the limited number and frequency of plays shown with English surtitles (even when they already have them!).

According to project coordinator Barbara Seegert, budget was the decisive factor behind Theatertreffen’s decision to surtitle only half of their 2012 programme. It’s true: investing in initial projecting equipment can be expensive, and hiring a surtitler to translate and operate nightly adds up.

The Deutsches Theater has previously paid up to €1000 for translation rights alone, and according to DT press agent Christine Drawer, every Berlin production shown with surtitles is a financial test. But, with only a dash of bias, Maß argues, “I think it’s worth the money. Compared to the other technicians, we’re a little cheaper. It’s a question of state of mind. They think it’s expensive because before, it was free.”

Yet to the ire of artists and technicians, theatre budgets are real, and their limits can result in cheap, poorly made surtitles. Maß lists potential problems: “When you can’t follow because you can’t see them, because they’re somewhere where it’s impossible to follow, or too bright, or if they’re not cut right and badly translated … Or sometimes you have a modern version of a classic play with a very old fashioned translation, and it becomes very comic … It’s a pain in the ass.”

A new state of mind

Having perhaps experienced this, some artistic directors are said to be totally averse to the use of surtitles, finding them annoying, disruptive and distracting. Theatres like the Berliner Ensemble never use them and have no plans to change, while even proponents like Veit say that in a world free of budget constraints, Schaubühne would show surtitled pieces, at most, one to two times per week, deeming anything more “unnecessary”.

Says Maß, “I don’t see anything wrong with making plays accessible to a larger audience. It’s always a compromise, but in the end everyone wins.”

Some theatre bigwigs, such as prominent Swiss director Christoph Marthaler, are rumoured to loathe surtitles. But according to Yvonne Griesel, a theatre academic, certified translator and surtitler of, it is not that simple: “He doesn’t hate surtitles, but if he has to work with them, they have to be as professional, disciplined and precise as the sound or the light … It is very easy to destroy a play if you’ve never made surtitles before,” explains the Geneva-born expert who’s currently working with her famous compatriot on surtitling his Plus minus zero.

That said, surtitles look set to stay, and recognition of their importance is increasing. April’s Pazz Performing Arts Festival in Oldenburg hosted “Getting Acrozz”, the first symposium on language transfer in international productions. Says Griesel, “The audience must get used to surtitles. It has come to that moment now. If you compare a subtitled film from 20 years ago with a subtitled film from now, there’s a huge difference. Once the audience knows that surtitles can be very good, you cannot go back.”