LinguaMania Episode 8: Diversity in the arts: why languages need to be part of the conversation

Linguamania Logo

Welcome to the LinguaMania podcast. Produced by researchers from Oxford University-led Creative Multilingualism, the series explores some fascinating perspectives on languages and language learning, asking: Do we really need human translators? Why do we use metaphors and what do they teach us about other languages and cultures? How much of an unfamiliar language can we understand? Would creative language teaching make the subject more popular? Can languages help protect the natural environment? And so much more, so stop what you’re doing and start exploring the wonderful world of multilingualism!

Episode 8: Diversity in the arts: why languages need to be part of the conversation

Summary: Many languages and dialects spoken in British homes rarely make it onto the stage. In this episode of Lingua Mania, we explore why linguistic diversity in the arts matters. We speak to Professor Philip Bullock about multiculturalism in different music genres and playwright and producer Mojisola Adebayo about the representation of different black voices in British theatre. We also hear from Ashlee Elizabeth-Lolo about her play Between the Rocks, and from Dr Noah Birksted-Breen about his experience of translating a Russian play into British hip-hop with artists Lady Sanity and Stanza Divan.

Listen and download the podcast on Apple Podcasts or University of Oxford podcasts.

Podcast transcript


(00:00 – 00:48)

Rajinder Dudrah: Welcome to the LinguaMania Podcast presented by the Creative Multilingualism team. We are a group of people who love languages. We think languages are an essential part of being human, they’re part of our identity and part of our culture. And we think they should be celebrated at every possible opportunity! So our podcasts shine a light on some fascinating aspects of languages and language learning which you might not have come across before.

I’m Professor Rajinder Dudrah from Birmingham City University. I’m also a researcher at Creative Multilingualism. We’re exploring the links between languages and creativity.

(00:58 – 02:34)

Let me ask you a question. How many languages do you think are spoken in homes across the UK? Perhaps you’re counting them up right now. English, one; Scots, Gaelic, Irish, Welsh, that’s four more; Panjabi, Italian. Okay, we’ve got a way to go so let me stop you there. An eye-popping 4.2 million people – that’s almost 8 percent of people living in the UK – report another language, not English, as their main language. This is  according to the 2011 Census. Top of the list, after English, comes Polish, then Panjabi, then Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati, Arabic, French, the list goes on. But how many of these “home” languages make it into mainstream British culture?

Diversifying Black Voices on the British Stage

During a project for Creative Multilingualism, the Leicester-based hip-hop artist, Stanza Divan – and you’ll meet him again later in the episode – he talked about the “street slang” he heard growing up in west London. Much of it was adopted from Black British dialect. This was different from the speech of the predominantly “white” middle-class children at his secondary school, a few streets away from where he lived. Stanza was talking about English – two different types of English – different accents representing different identities. So has British theatre accommodated this range of accents and identities? Here, the playwright, performer, producer, and theatre scholar, Dr. Mojisola Adebayo, Lecturer in Drama, Theatre and Performance at Queen Mary University of London, gives an expert view on the London stage.

(02:35 – 04:47)

Mojisola Adebayo: Hello, my name is Mojisola Adebayo and I’m a theatre artist. I think theatre, at least in London, is fairly representative of different kinds of voices. But I think the representation of Black characters in particular still has a tendency to reference the Caribbean, in particular Jamaica, and West Africa, in particular Nigeria, and I think there is so much more to being Black thank this. For example, in my latest play, Stars, which goes on at Oval House next spring, there’s an old lady in the play. She’s a Black old lady, and she’s in her eighties, and she’s lived in London all her life and has a very strong South East London accent. And when we did the research and development stage, a couple of people were kind of confused and went, “is she Black?” And yeah, she’s Black. She’s played by a Black actor, but somehow she didn’t fit the stereotype of what it is to be Black. And why all this matters is that, as Stuart Hall has taught us, representation produces meaning. And if you only represent Black people as a certain kind of ideal, even when we ourselves as Black artists only represent a small, kind of limited, very, very slim kind of version of Blackness, then we limit our idea of what it is to be Black – who we can be as Black people, what our possibilities are, where we can reach into the world. And I believe we reach all over the world and beyond, into the stars, into the future, into the past. And so I think it’s really, really important that in Black theatres in particular, we get away from this kind of very limited kind of idea of what it is to be Black and what a Black voice is. I’ve got hope in the younger generation. I think the young people I work with are much more nuanced around so called cultural diversity. But I think the stage will only get more interesting when we get off our phones and get off the podcast and start talking to each other.

(04:48 – 05:22)

Rajinder Dudrah: Mojisola Adebayo just mentioned the late Professor Stuart Hall, whom you may remember was the legendary cultural theorist. He was Jamaican-born and British, and worked at the University of Birmingham. So, theatre, in London at least, could benefit from widening its representations of both linguistic and ethnic diversity. But what about other art forms? Next up is Philip Bullock, Professor of Russian Literature and Music at the University of Oxford. He’s also a researcher on Creative Multilingualism. He moves the conversation on to languages in music.

The Art Song as Multilingual Performance

(05:23 – 09:03)

Philip Bullock: I’m very interested in the question of the relationship between words and music, precisely because there’s a fascinating translational dimension here. The main object of my inquiry is actually quite a high-cultural form. I’m looking at the European art song tradition – what in German is called lieder or kuntslieder, so art songs, melodie in French, romans in Russian – and I’m fascinated by this form because it’s how I first came to modern languages. I was very interested in music as a teenager and realised that music that excited me the most always had words, and it was always foreign words: Russian words, German words, French words, Italian words. And much of my multilingual training and exposure has come through engaging with this repertoire. And it’s led me to think about this repertoire, this song repertoire, as the site of multilingualism in contemporary society through performance. Because when you go to a song recital, you are hearing untranslated foreign words. Usually you are hearing German lieder, or French melodie, or Russian romans sung in their original language, very often by a native speaker, but often by someone who’s learnt to sing that language, to perform that language. And that is a performance of a kind of national identity. And as an audience member, you’re hearing foreign-ness and you’re often glancing down at a programme book or looking up at the surtitles, which allows you to have a multilingual encounter with Heine or Goethe or Pushkin or Victor Hugo or Verlaine. And I like that very much because it is a different form of translation from reading a novel, where you're just reading in English and the original is somewhere but buried or off out of sight out of mind. Or of going to the theatre, where you are hearing Chekhov in English, anglicised – made domestic, very often by the process of translation – performed by English speaking actors in whichever way they do and I like song because it keeps the foreign Alongside the translation and holds them simultaneously together and allows the audience to engage with that process. That's quite a high cultural phenomenon. The field I work on is art music, is opera as well. And there are certain barriers to participation and appreciation of that. Those of us who love this repertoire try really hard to make sure that isn’t the case, but there are some lingering preconceptions about that world and its social codes, which may keep people out. But this kind of translingual encounter happens in all kinds of ways.

Watching Scandinavian noir dramas on Netflix means you’re watching something in Danish or Norwegian or Swedish with English subtitles; you're watching foreign films. Almodóvar’s films are an extraordinary way of encountering a particular form of vivid, performed Spanish-ness, with surtitles. And I think we see much more of this than we perhaps realise in contemporary culture. In pop music too, although it is often seen as an anglophone world, there are major non-English repertoires,  which often come through communities – diasporic communities, refugees, and migrants – who bring with them their language and their culture, often through music. And the European art song and opera repertoire has its non-hierarchical forms as well. All of these actually began as popular forms. Italy is a culture in which opera is very demotic, very popular. And art song is close to folk song in many ways. I think we should find – we should use that to bridge barriers between high art and popular culture, between classical music and urban creativity. And part of the excitement of working on this project is that it’s made me turn that aspiration into a lived reality.

(09:04 – 09:39)

Rajinder Dudrah: So – what have seen so far in this episode? Britain is a country of great linguistic diversity, but culture isn't reflecting this fully, particularly in some sectors, like theatre, while opera may have traditionally managed better. Promoting minority languages is also something I know a fair bit about because I run a project called Slanguages for none other than Creative Multilingualism. And Slanguages supports artists working in minority languages, helping to bring them to mainstream audiences. One of the artists we’ve worked with is Ashlee Roberts. Next, we’re going to hear Ashlee discussing her play Between the Rocks.

Bringing Jamaican-Patois to life on stage

(09:40 – 14:35)

Ashlee Roberts: My name is Ashlee Roberts or, now known as Ashlee Elizabeth Lolo, and my play is called Between the Rocks, which is a piece exploring my grandmother's journey into the UK and the challenges that she faced settling in a European space and the legacy that she left behind through her language to her granddaughter. And so, a massive part of the play is actually spoken in Patois, which was very interesting to actually create and to embody my grandmother on stage, but that is the main language. And Patois is made up so many different influences: you’ve got Welsh, Portuguese, English, some of the Gaelic languages as well. It all sort of feeds in. And not to mention some of the African languages as well, so you’ve got Twi, you also have Yoruba. And it's all sort of intertwined into this beautiful language that we call Patois.

I think the massive challenge that I faced at first is that my grandmother has passed away. Especially when I was writing the play, it was very raw and very fresh, so it was trying to embody and her remember how she was, and not like towards the end of her life, when you know the voice starts getting more croaky, and it was just embodying her in her raw form, when she was powerful and strong. So it was a process of going back through old videos ,old voice notes, and just hearing the way she sounded once again. Going back to old church as well, as a lot of people at her church sound exactly like her. And it's interesting as well as to note the differences between the modern day Jamaican accent and the old school Jamaican accent. Cause it's – it's very much – there was very much a need or a want to be more English in the way that they spoke when they first came to this country and you can hear it in certain words they will say. But then you also have that version which is in the workspace or public – as we call it code-switching now – and you have the “home” language which is raw. You've got the dialect coming through quite strongly from their parishes in Jamaica, and some of the slangs and colloquialisms that you’d have as well. And you also have that raw accent. And it carries through, like I said, so many of the African traditions, and it’s just got a nice rhythm to it. So it was practising that over the course of a good couple months, and just being in that space every day, and just remembering how to say the words the way that she would have I think it.

I think it’s very important to hear our dialects on stage, because I don't see it that often and it’s quite interesting considering we live in, for example, a very multicultural city. But actually the amount of Jamaican or Caribbean plays that we’ve seen that are authentic to the actual experiences that we’ve been through are very, very minimal. So I always had a mission in my heart to make sure that my grandmother ‘s story – and that generation’s story – wasn’t lost or just wrapped on the stereotypes by people that don’t actually understand the culture. So I think it was definitely – I felt like it was my duty to do so, my duty to actually tell the rest of my city – and other cities well performing in Oxford and other parts of the Midlands – that actually this happened. We were here, and this is how it sounded. This how we looked; this is this is our legacy; this is our story. And I think, yeah, I definitely had a duty to do that.

I think, on the whole, the reactions were quite positive. And I think a lot of people quite enjoyed me bringing my nan to life on stage. [Laughs.] I think a lot of the Caribbean audience as well were quite moved by the fact they could see their grandmothers and grandfathers, who may have passed away, and actually to remember some of the sayings that they would say, or some of the [laughs] quite humorous, you know, meanings of lines, which they sort of reasoned, which was amazing. And I think yeah that was really beautiful.

I did have some critique, actually, because along the process I realised that there are many different versions of Patois on the island. So my grandmother’s from, well, was from Clarendon, so you have that version of Patois. So it's got like a different type of rhythm to it. But then go down to St Thomas, and that would have a different type of rhythm, or maybe just words that are just different the way that you say it (the grammatical way of saying things). So I did have a few people saying, “is that how it would be said?”, but it actually is – it’s authentic to my history, my journey. But it was quite interesting to learn those different dialects that you don't really question, because it’s just like a normal thing. And then you also had a lot of people as well that went, well it would be lovely to see this with other the Caribbean islands and their grandmothers, because you’d have somewhere like Guyana, where it is not just necessarily the African experience – you also have the Asian experience there too – or Trinidad or Barbados. So that it just opened up my eyes to the vast amount of culture, and the richness that are in the Caribbean. And that was such a nice thing to experience, as someone who is now part of the diaspora in the UK. So I think that was really, really, lovely experience. But, yeah, the reactions were really, really good.

(14:36 – 15:20)

Rajinder Dudrah: Ashlee is one of the many artists supported by Slanguages. We’ve also supported Rinkoo Barpaga, a performance artist using British and urban sign language, and RTKAL, a grime artist, and many others. But of course there’s plenty more work to do! More artists to support, more languages and dialects to be offered space in the cultural landscape.

Breathing New Life into Russian Oxygen Through Translation into British Hip-Hop

Translation is another method of bringing new accents, dialects, and languages into British culture. Normally, we think of translation just as a copy of an original. ‘Lost in translation’ is a phrase we often use. But now we consider the opposite. What happens when you see translation as an opportunity for an active intervention. Some things may be lost, but maybe we should focus on what can be ‘found’ in translation.

(15:21 – 19:27)

Noah Birksted-Breen: Hello, my name is Noah Birksted-Breen. I’m the artistic director of Sputnik Theatre Company. Sputnik is the only British theatre company dedicated to bringing new Russian plays to British audiences. And we’ve been running since 2005. Oxygen is a Russian play. It was written in 2003. It is by Ivan Viripaev. And it’s one of the plays which is defining of the modern Russian canon. It was a complete sensation when it was performed first in Siberia in 2003, and soon after that in Moscow. Oxygen is a play, which takes a tragic love story between a young man from provincial Russia and a young woman from Moscow, and it weaves their love story, in which the man murders his wife – from provincial Russia – in order to be with his new love – this woman from Moscow. And against the – against the backdrop of their love affair, it weaves the story of contemporary Russia, in particularly – in particular the way that young people felt in 2003: very disaffected with their situation, with Putin having been in power for three years, a sense of stagnation in the country, a sense of diminishing human rights, diminishing freedom of expression.

I had been convinced for a long time that it wasn’t possible to stage Oxygen in the UK. I knew about the play for a long time and it felt that would not be possible to me. Primarily, it was very much a play born out for a particular theatrical and cultural context. In Russia, there’s a dominant tradition of psychological realism; quite conventional acting style, albeit very high quality. When Oxygen was released, it was something of a shock to many audiences in its direct address of the audience. In the original production, Oxygen is performed not only as direct address to the audience but also in a style which entirely disrupts naturalism. The actors speak extremely quickly, almost like a rap. They rush through the speech – I say rush through, I don't mean that in a flippant sense, but in terms of giving it a very powerful rhythm, so that the musicality is as important as the words they say. And the text itself has lots of repetition and lyricism. So I didn’t have much hope of staging Oxygen in the UK. I felt I didn’t – there was no way to translate that properly – both the language of it, but also in terms of theatrical language – until the inaugural conference of Creative Multilingualism.

Rajinder, who you’ve met as the narrator of this podcast – Rajinder had invited several hip-hop artists to perform at this inaugural conference, that is RTKAL and Ky’ORiON. Hearing them perform, in fact they were performing grime, hearing these grime artists perform, I had a light bulb moment and it made me think of the play Oxygen. And I turned to my colleague, Julie Curtis, who also works on Creative Multilingualism, and I said to her, “this makes me think of Oxygen.” And there’s some affinity between their performance and Oxygen and she has independently had the same idea that made her think of Oxygen. So the idea came that the translation of this new Russian play could be across genre, so that rather than translating it into an equivalent British play language, we could translat it through hip hop and in that way capture the – the um – the disruption of naturalism and the lyricism that is in the original text.

[Hip-hop music and lyrics fade in.]

(19:28 – 19:38)

Yo trying to breathe
and I urge you to imagine
the air full of smoke
and the smell of burnt cladding
no magic carpet like Aladdin’s for the little lad
at the top of the flats
mom and dad panicking

[Hip-hop music and lyrics fade out.]

(19:39 – 21:32)

Noah Birksted-Breen: So the process of working with two hip-hop artists, Lady Sanity and Stanza Divan, has been very organic. We looked at the texts – this is an atypical process for all of us, there’s no precedent of how to work in this way, to make a hip-hop translation. So every time we’ve met, we’ve just been very open with each other. We’ve looked at the original Russian; we thought how can we in some way respond to the spirit of that play, but in a very free style, creating a free adaptation, so we feel that we’re not rooted to be too literal to the original – trying to capture each semantic unit, for example – but we’re trying to engage with what’s there in essence. We had several meetings and then an intensive week of work together, a research and development process, and then we performed an extract for an invited audience. And you’ll hear some of that extract in a moment.

The process allowed us to adapt characters, to adapt plotting, into an equivalent UK context. One other aspect of the work is it felt strange once we adapted to the UK context not to also bring in the artists’ lives into the story, since they are also part of this process and we’re looking at a larger translation process of a new Russian play into hip hop, into British cultural context. And it felt relevant to weave in their stories too. And now, here’s Stanza Divan and Lady Sanity, telling you more about their responses.

(21:33 – 22:37)

Lady Sanity: The main thing that we did was kind of sat out of the brainstormed. So the first few days we actually just looked at the original script and then, once we brainstormed and like bullet-pointed about what we would see the main characters as – cuz there wasn’t really much there, so it made it a lot easier as well to then create – so we took down some main points and then kinda imagined the modern day version. So it took a few scrolls through Instagrams and socials to think this is the kind girl that Jordan would be, you know the typical Instagram model kind of personality. And then, yeah, I think we just built from there. But luckily enough the script did leave a wide gap for us to then go forward and create, so it was helpful in that sense as well.

In terms of the dialogue, though, the way that that came about is one of the days, me and Stanza we literally were just asked a few questions from Noah and then we just vibe into a conversation for an hour, which Noah recorded. And then he actually took parts of like our actual lives and then kinda weaved it into this bits of banter that had between ourselves as well that's just me and Stanza’s characters and just, you know, by knowing each other and not taking offence to anything that anyone says. Yeah, it was an interesting process

(22:38 –23:43)

Stanza Divan: Coming into this project, I had no idea with regards to Russian theatre. Like I was just like, “okay, wow. This is going to be a task”. And then reading the script itself, I was just like I don’t understand this shit, to be honest with you. [Laughter.] But, as you delve more into it, you get more interested and you learn more things, and then you end up just being culture a bit more than you before you approached it. But, I think one of the goals, and I think Satin would agree, is to sort of encourage more people like us ,from all backgrounds, to sort of delve into Russian culture. You’re really missing out on life if you just into one culture and that’s the one that you’re accustomed to and that’s all you know. I think you need – to live a rich life, I think you need to delve different sorts of – like, I'm always going to be hip hop at heart, but there's so many other things I wanna learn about. And I think that’s, that's the point, is to sort of encourage people who wouldn’t necessarily go see Russian theatre to come and have a look. And sometimes uh – the thing that will carry it so to speak is the fact that this hip hop in it.

(23:44 – 23:50)

[Hip-hop music and lyrics fade in and then out.]

(23:50 – 25:26)

Noah Birksted-Breen: From my point of view, something very special happened when we adapted Oxygen, through hip hop, into a new hip-hop multilingual drama – something was found in translation. When audiences saw it at the showing that we had at the Birmingham City University, it was in some ways a destabilising experience for them: What is this is? It a new Russia play? Is it just a piece of hip hop? Is it a new British play? It wasn’t obvious to them necessarily as they began to watch it, but I hope as the – as the extract went on and they started to feel more comfortable, maybe this is some of all of those things. But the – what was special about that experience was, I have found when I normally stage new Russian players for audiences who often come to Sputnik’s productions, they get very comfortable with that. They know what to expect. And hip hop or hip-hop fans will go to hip-hop gigs and they’re perhaps comfortable with those traditions, but what’s interesting is to propose something different to both audiences. Why can’t hip-hop artists translate a new Russian play? It proposes that Russian culture isn’t something entirely foreign, or something entirely familiar, but that there might be things in common between British hip-hop artists and Russian playwrights. It takes away from the othering which often happens when we watch or translate or stage new Russian plays which for me is a very important moment

(25:26 –26:20)

Rajinder Dudrah: Thanks for listening to our LinguaMania podcast. The series is produced by Creative Multilingualism, a research programme led by the University of Oxford and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Our aim is to make languages more visible, valued and vibrant!

If you’ve enjoyed this episode, have a listen to the rest of the series. And you can find out more about Creative Multilingualism at or follow us on Twitter @creativelangs – all one word – and you’ll find all this information on our website.

Explore the other episodes of LinguaMania: The Podcast >>