Censoring Translation: Censorship, Theatre and the Politics of Translation by Michelle Woods

Sandra Gaviria-Buck


Woods, Michelle. Censoring Translation: Censorship, Theatre and the Politics of Translation. New York: Continuum, 2012. 175 pp.


Václav Havel (1936-2011) was born in Czechoslovakia to a culturally and politically influential family. Due to his bourgeois origins, his educational pursuits were hindered under the Communist regime after 1948: instead of following a career in the Humanities, he was a chemical assistant apprentice for four years and a student in the Faculty of Economy for two. Eventually, from 1962 to 1966, he studied Drama by correspondence at the Faculty of Theatre of the Academy of Musical Arts. His deep interest in Czech culture and civil self-awareness became apparent after publishing his first plays: The Garden Party (1963), The Memorandum (1965), and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration (1968). This early form of activism gave origin to the Prague Spring of 1968. Later on, in 1975, he stood against Communist political repression of the Prague Spring and his efforts, together with those of other cultural and artistic figures, gave origin to Charter 77 which expressed the silent protest of the Czech population against the Communist rule and oppression. This earned Havel several years in prison and, later on, a ban on the publication of his work in Czechoslovakia. Havel continued to push for a profound change in the Czech political system, which came only in 1989 with Havel himself as president of Czechoslovakia representing the Civic Forum movement. The translation of Havel’s plays into English reveals the multiple political implications of translation: from support and diffusion of a cause to its manipulation and fundamental misunderstanding.


By depicting a comprehensive picture of Václav Havel’s struggle to have his plays produced in the Anglo-American world in the 1960s and 1970s, Michelle Woods’ latest book explores the workings of censorship in literature and its translation, both in totalitarian regimes such as the Communist rule in Czechoslovakia and in democratic governments in the West. Market constraints – the issue of marketability – in the UK and the US are to blame for the reductive readings that went from understandings of Havel’s work as being essentially apolitical – or anti-political – absurdist theatre to those that registered a mere criticism of the political situation in the East (Eastern Europe). In a highly accessible and pleasing style, Woods introduces us to the world of translating and producing theatre by presenting her thorough and deep study of Vera Blackwell’s Archive, Václav Havel’s translator, along with theatre reviews, newspaper articles, and TV and radio broadcastings related to Havel’s plays. Her book is organized into an introduction, three chapters, and a conclusion. Thanks to the extensive and strong background presented in each section, a non-linear or even a fragmented reading of the book is possible for educational purposes. 


In “Introduction: Contexts” Woods presents a bird’s eye view of the Havel/Blackwell case study: she argues that what brought attention to Havel’s plays in the Anglo-American context initially – that is, their wrongly politicized interpretation – ended up generating resistance to them and denying them their essential universality and timelessness, as well as effacing their inherent aesthetics and relevance. Woods quotes Tymoczko’s claim that “translation is how newness enters the world. It is this newness that so often gets suppressed by censorship and self-censorship” (5). Havel’s plays faced all sorts of censorship, from overt censorship of the original plays in their domestic sphere, to covert censorship of their translations coming from the translator, the producers, market impositions, and patriarch ideology in a male-dominated theatre world. This study allows Woods to exhaustively examine issues such as institutional censorship; the translator’s agency, self-censorship, decision-making, and role; and the perception of the translator’s role and of the translation process and its relevance. In her exploration, Woods evinces the complexity of censorship, which is traditionally seen as a top-down imposition, but which in reality operates as a network, reinforced from the bottom-up: from the individuals themselves, or, in the case of the theatre world, from the audience. As Woods says, “Havel’s plays did not and do not poke fun at or challenge a faceless censor; they challenge us” (29).


Chapter 1 deals with the great variety of “Censorships and constraints” that Havel’s plays faced in the 1960s in Czechoslovakia and abroad. Havel did not want to be the author writing between the lines to code his actual message and thus entering the censorship game. Havel developed his “appellative theatre” to respond to censorship in “an artistic rather than [...] political” manner, as he wanted to question the audience and motivate them to participate in the construction of meaning (41). His unique aesthetics ultimately conveyed his interest in language and the way it exerts control over us. Unfortunately, the absolutist reader logic of finding a hidden message prevailed and Havel’s main purpose was consistently disregarded. His aesthetics were not considered relevant – in fact, they were considered faulty, lengthy, verbose, and repetitious. The imposed and reductive interpretations of his plays silenced the indeterminacy of meaning for which he advocated and enacted the censorship they intended to subvert. For Havel, imposing meaning stops us from questioning ourselves: “the ‘absurdity’ of the quest for meaning becom[es] a meaning in itself” (46). Woods cleverly presents us with the double game of domestic censoring institutions such as DILIA that, while censoring Havel’s plays within the country, helped disseminate them abroad for “ideological and commercial reason[s]” (51). In translation and adaptation, his plays, originally devoid of any cultural or temporal references, had to be stripped of any supposed cultural references so they could be performed in the UK, which, as Woods says, meant either anglicizing or Americanizing them (58, 116).


Chapter 2, titled “Gender Censorship,” concentrates mostly on Vera Blackwell, Havel’s translator for 20 years, exposing the constraints she faced as Havel’s promoter, representative and, as a loyal translator, advocate of Havel’s aesthetics. For Woods, “Vera Blackwell’s archive reveals a narrative of both censorship and activism, in congruence with each other, and this narrative of what I call gender censorship is not one simply of silence and victimhood” (76). Throughout this chapter, Woods exposes the many difficulties this “demanding lady”– as dubbed by the Czech media and regime – had to overcome in the UK and the US in order to publicize Havel’s plays (75). Moreover, Woods empathetically presents Blackwell’s struggle in defending the quality and worth of her translations, and pushing her collaboration in the production process as a guarantee of respect for Havel’s aesthetics. Woods remarks how Blackwell’s outspoken, strong, driven, and loyal nature clashed with a male-dominated theatre world that expected translators to be invisible, agreeable, and loyal to the demands of producers, the market, and the audience. Woods, covering many perspectives, explains how Blackwell ended up being regarded as a suspicious figure, both at home and in the UK. Even though she was an empowered woman – by Havel’s complete trust and by DILIA – she was in-between: “‘not quite’ Czec and certainly never English” (99). Wittily, Woods states, “Blackwell had to prove herself because she was a foreigner, a woman, and ‘only a translator’. And all three identities were suspicious” (101). Woods is not one-sided in her exposition, though, as she also tells of Blackwell’s lack of coherence in her ideas and her excess of zeal. 


“Market Censorship,” Chapter 3, focuses on how profitability affects translations at different levels. Havel’s plays in translation were domesticated or acculturated either due to speakability, market constraints or even imposed readings of a political interpretation. Political readings simply served to “uphold the Cold War ideological framework of the West (as an opposition to the Communist East) by proving it right” (126). They also helped market the plays that were actually produced, for “censored theatre, seditious elsewhere, is sexy and it sells” (131). Unfortunately, this brought about a loss of their newness, aesthetic impact, and provocativeness, leading them to become mere mirrors showing only what people in the West wanted to see. By focusing solely on the supposed political criticism they conveyed and making them “palatable to the target English-language audience,” the artistic uniqueness of the plays was neutralized and even destroyed in some cases (125). In this chapter Woods makes it clear that adherence to target culture and language norms to make a literary work acceptable deprives the target culture of the uniqueness of the source text. Of course, Woods is not naïve when she says, “some acculturation is inevitable in translation because of the cultural differences underpinning languages, [while] some deliberate changes are more suspect, especially if they are made to pander to the assumed public taste or given norms of a culture at a given time mainly for profit” (130). Through her discussion of Havel’s commodification, as Havel the dissident, Woods also explores the issue of authenticity that, in a postcolonial context, becomes an issue of exoticization to make foreign literature marketable.


In the conclusion, titled “Leaving,” Woods appropriately refers to Havel’s last play Leaving, in which he stays true to his theatre philosophy by leaving the audience with an empty stage and a voice that eventually goes quiet. By means of an empty stage and silence, Havel is, once more, encouraging an active audience to engage in a dialogue. Woods ingeniously connects this with the principle that should guide the task of translators: “In working so closely with [the source text], they can come to intimate understanding with the aesthetics and form of the play, which are central to the meaning of it. This style may not fit domestic norms, but that could, and perhaps should, be viewed as a valuable thing: we should be challenged by our expectations” (166).


The wealth of resources carefully examined by Woods, including newspaper articles, interviews and even obituaries, provides ample evidence to support a Foucauldian view of censorship which, just like power, emanates from the top-down, as well as from the bottom up, and circulates at different levels. Resistance to power and censorship, as part of the system, ends up reinforcing it. Woods’ passion for this topic comes through the entire the book and she appears to identify herself with, and endorse, Havel’s “power of the powerless,” a power that wants to “confront [us] in terms of what we deny and what powers we abdicate via language or silence. We may bemoan the power [...] that multinational organizations, transnational media, and so on have in controlling our lives and information but we also have to ask to what extent we are complicit in the process” (134). Woods, like Havel, supports a personal responsibility that goes beyond our passive acceptance of impositions and interrogates our actions, decisions, thoughts, collaborations, judgements, and denials. Censoring Translation will capture the attention of cultural translation scholars thanks to its in-depth and well-informed analysis, while translation studies students will get an all-encompassing encounter with the vibrant interdisciplinarity of translation studies.




Sandra Gaviria-Buck is in the second year of her MA in Translation Studies at the University of Alberta.  Her research project consists on the translation from English into Spanish of the book of essays "Calm Things" by Edmontonian writer Shawna Lemay.  Some of her interests are translation of poetic language, as well as Latin American literature and culture.



Inquire: Journal of Comparative Literature

Brought to you by Graduate Students from the Program in Comparative Literature
at the University of Alberta

ISSN 1923-5879
Email: inquire [at] ualberta.ca

Join the Discussion