ART IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE

Updated: Apr 3, 2019

Sunrise over Lake Geneva.

Working in the arts gets you into some strange situations. Over the last year, the unlikely trajectory of my career has led to me attempting to familiarise myself with the entire artistic landscape of a country I’d never been to before, with four languages – not a single one of which I can speak. Just because you have imposter syndrome, it doesn’t mean you aren’t totally out of your depth.


Still, what I lack in expertise I make up for with willingness-to-have-a-crack-at-it. So here I am, in Geneva, for La Batie – a festival of theatre, performance, dance and music - on the arts professional’s equivalent of a crammer course. In fact, I’m not quite as dreadful at French as I initially thought, and my half-remembered GCSE conjugations enable me to check into hotels and ascertain the whereabouts of the beach without my interlocutor taking pity on me and switching to my mother tongue.


These rudimentary exchanges represent the limits of my current compréhension du français. But I’m not particularly fazed by watching a play in this less-than-half-understood language – in fact, listening carefully for any recognisable scrape of text to cling to is a surprisingly good way to sharpen your vocab. The theatre is my stomping ground, after all, and there’s something comforting in the familiar rituals of it: turn up, wait for the lights to go down, don’t rustle my sweet wrappers, say ‘merci’ to the usher on the way out.


At times, though, in Geneva’s high-spec auditoriums, I bump abruptly against the fact I’m an outsider. Sitting in a room in which everyone else is laughing at a joke you don’t understand is weirdly unsettling, like there’s a really great party happening in the next room to which you haven’t been invited. Stranger, still, is to be surrounded by people who start screaming and shouting all at once as if some sudden disaster were unfolding before them: to forget in that moment the drama’s artifice and to search the space in front of you, heart racing, for what they are seeing that you’re not – until they fall about laughing once more, and you realise that an instruction from the actors has totally passed you by. Later I’m turned away from an interactive show I have a ticket for – my inability to communicate will ruin it for the other audience members, I’m told. A fleeting loss of privilege which underlines how much I take for granted back home.


From Geneva, I travel to Vevey, an astonishingly lovely town on the edge of the lake, where I spend a happy three days swimming, reading and roaming the huge photography festival that takes place here every year. The exhibition notes are all, helpfully, printed on boards in French, German and English, and I spend much more time poring over these than the photographs themselves, attempting to parse the French, before reading them again in English to see how well my translation stacks up, picking up odd words I didn’t know before.


Craft, interdisciplinary, postmodern. I’m surprised by how easy I find it. But then, I’ve spent the last decade writing exactly this kind of text myself – programme notes and press releases for tens if not hundreds of theatre companies. I know the cadence of how those sentences are formed, the framing of ideas and precisely the level of arts wank required. As I feel my way through these translations, it comes to me naturally.


Cultural privilege is, it seems, a lingua franca after all.

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