Coming to Terms: Towards a Hermeneutics of Expectation in Theatre Surtitling

Maitland, Sarah. 2021. Coming to Terms: Towards a Hermeneutics of Expectation in Theatre Surtitling. In: Loukia Kostopoulou and Vasiliki Misiou, eds. New Paths in Theatre Translation and Surtitling. Abingdon: Routledge. [Book Section] (Forthcoming)

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What does retranslation look like on the surtitled stage? When the performance to be surtitled is itself already a translation of a global classic, Griesel (2005) argues that because of the “authority” an original drama enjoys, when surtitles are used to translate the play ‘back’ into its original language, the canonical classic becomes “a sacred text, and the translator does not dare to make serious interventions in the textual structure, so as not to change the style and language of the original” (10). The surtitler of an already-translated play thus becomes the second receiver (after the original translator) of a text that participates already in a complex chain of reception, and must thus contend with not one but two texts: the original text-for-translation, and the ‘original’ original that continues to make its presence felt.

This bind can be understood as a consequence of Jauss’s (1982) notion of the “horizon of expectation”, by which a reader interprets the meaning of a text and its context through the subjective experience of their reading present. If we characterise the translator-surtitler as a reader par excellence, and if every translator’s “horizon” is different, then the ‘meaning’ of the texts that they are engaged in interpreting are not essences to be ‘grasped’ but possibilities to be constructed. In this taxonomy of reception, pace Jauss, the question “What did the text say?”, thus becomes, “What does the text say to me, and what do I say to it?’ (146). The translator’s response to the text, in other words, takes centre stage.

In the unique reception space that is the theatre, where that which is to be translated is shaped not just by the translator’s response to the text-for-translation, but also by the translator’s interpretation of its performance context, to the needs and expectations of the director, actors, stage team, and, of course, the spectators. The vocabulary we employ in the service of explaining the phenomenon of ‘translating again’, and, more important, translating for the specific purpose of surtitling, must therefore be hardworking indeed. It is to the pursuit of an analytical language, that this contribution is addressed.

Through a real-world case study – to translate the Spanish-language play Mendoza (2012), by Antonio Zúñiga and Juan Carrillo, itself a translation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, for projection in the form of English-language surtitles – my contribution argues that when translated back into the original language, surtitles of an already-translated canonical drama resist fresh treatment, not just because spectators expect to see reflected elements of the same canonical play with which they are well familiar, but because the surtitler, as a ‘receiver’ of the text and its performance context, must not only interpret the text-for-translation, but must also ‘read’ the reception needs of its future audience, just as a reader reads a text – through their horizon of expectation. As a surtitler’s own subject expectation of what the audience expects from the classical original-in-retranslation, such a reading drives the very shape and nature of the surtitles, resulting in a translation that, pace Jauss, answers questions the surtitler herself poses. This chapter’s contribution provides the field with a taxonomy of terms and analytical vocabulary that makes transparent these complex moves of reading and reception on the surtitled stage.

Item Type:

Book Section

Additional Information:

Please note that this article has been submitted for publication in Kostopoulou, L. and Misiou, V. (eds.) New Paths in Theatre Translation and Surtitling, and, as such, has not yet been accepted for publication.


Surtitling, Theatre translation, Retranslation, Horizon of Expectation, Macbeth, Mendoza, Los Colochos, CASA Latin American Theatre Festival,

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature


22 December 2021Submitted

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Date Deposited:

07 Feb 2022 11:48

Last Modified:

07 Feb 2022 11:48


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