Finding poetry in technology: theatre = yet tears

Shall we take it as a bad omen that Siri is obviously not able to understand the word THEATRE? When we tested how speech is transmitted to text in a room with 10 people, without a microphone, the app produced a rather readable text – except, ironically, for this word. Instead, we got poetry: “theatre” was translated to “yet tears” or “yet tires.” What a ravishing outcome in a very technological project! And maybe a hint to use the new translation tool developed by the Dub It – team in a creative way: Surtitles as part of the artistic approach and dramaturgy.

Dub It: One Voice, Many Languages is a new approach to subtitling technology led by Théatre de Liège and Teatrul National Craiova. Together with technical experts from Incesa, Craiova, Romania, and Multitel, Belgium the team is doing research in two areas: speech to text technology and an interface wrapping all the voice recognition engines and the editing of the corresponding texts for the subtitling and monitoring in real time. This technical part of the project will be applied for the first time in the production IDIOMATIC by Marie Henry and the Belgian company Transquinquennal. The poly-idiomatic (multi-linguistic) show for 5 actors and a machine is being developed alongside with the interfaces: “A tongue-twisting entertainment on the tip of one’s tongue, turning on mother tongues and other tongues in a postBabel performance that got lost in Google Translate.”

As cultural production is getting global, surtitles are an integral part of the performance. And an artistic craft that requires special talents: First, a good translation that captures the tone of the literary source and at the same time shorten it for quick readability. Second, the sensitive real-time alignment of surtitles and the action on stage. And third, the continuous adaptation of the subtitles to the show over a longer period of time in collaboration with the dramaturg or assistant director. As the production and the actors in it develop in different ways, maybe some words have to be omitted, others replaced, or the timing changes. All this is usually done by specialized human beings, just as the light and sound design is. In that way, technology will never replace what man can do. Yet there are interesting options to explore in the field. Maybe, in addition to high-end subtitling run by experts, future solutions will provide cheaper tools for those theatres and smaller companies that are not able to invest in expensive manpower while touring around the world.

IDIOMATIC / Dub It is an experiment that might, one day, lead to a prototype. Meanwhile, playing with possibilities is part of the show that will open on 16 May in Craiova.

This article originally appeared in European Theatre Lab on December 1st, 2017 and has been reposted with permission.

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