Languages & Creativity: Collaboration and ownership in cross-cultural creativity by Julie Curtis

The European Literature Network is delighted to be collaborating with Creative Multilingualism – a large-scale research project led by the University of Oxford, which studies the interconnection between linguistic diversity and creativity. In our new series of blogs entitled Languages & Creativity, ELNetter and post-doctoral researcher on the project Heike Krüsemann will curate a selection of Creative Multilingualism posts for a fascinating glimpse into the world of language research. Over to you, Heike!

It’s official – languages and creativity go together! Who knew? Well, clearly not everyone, so the Arts and Humanities Research Council gave us money to do some research and spread the word. Don’t you just love it when things fall into place like this? Our intrepid research teams right now are busy studying the creative power of metaphorthe construction of a meaningful world in nature (that’s naming plants and animals to you and me), intelligibility between languages and communitieslanguages in the creative economyworld literaturescreative possibilities in translation, and creativity in language learning. While we’re doing that, we’d like to share some of our findings and related musings with you, dear ELNetters, in bite-size chunks and blog post format. Do let us know what you think – we’re always happy to hear from you!

By Heike Krüsemann

Heike Krüsemann is a UK-based researcher, writer and translator with an interest in Language, Culture and Education. Blog: German in the UK, Twitter: @Dr_Heike_K. Heike’s #RivetingReview of Sand by Wolfgang Herrndorf; Heike’s #RivetingReview of Bühlerhöhe by Brigitte GlaserHeike’s Short Story with a translation twist: German Cinnamon


Blog post 24:

Collaboration and ownership in cross-cultural creativity

2002-2018: Ivan Vyrypaev’s play Oxygen, and its 16-year journey between a basement theatre studio in Moscow and a basement rehearsal room at the Birmingham Rep Theatre.

When Ivan Vyrypaev’s play Oxygen was first performed in 2002 at Moscow’s edgiest theatre, Teatr.doc, it caused a sensation. On the one hand it depicted an act of extreme violence – a young man battering his wife to death with a shovel in order to start a new relationship with a woman he believes will offer him more ‘oxygen’ – and it also used aggressively obscene language, transgressing against one of the strongest taboos of Soviet-era theatre. On the other hand, the play had a haunting beauty, deriving from the poetic inventiveness of its use of Biblical motifs, specifically the Ten Commandments, and the musical structuring of the language around refrains, patterning and other compositional devices deriving from both classical and contemporary musical traditions, such as rap.

The play became known as the flagship play of the ‘New Drama’ movement which has arisen in the era of President Putin, and which remains one of the few spheres in which challenges are still offered to official state narratives about society, politics, gender and sexuality, national identity and international relations. It was seen at the theatre by a narrow range of Moscow intellectuals, but gained wider impact within Russia when it was turned by Vyrypaev into a film in 2009; and it also attracted attention internationally – it has been staged in many countries of the world, including a brilliant production (featuring world-champion break-dancers from Russia) staged by the RSC at Stratford in 2009.

Dr Noah Birksted-Breen is a theatre director and Russian scholar who has for many years been exploring contemporary Russian drama and staging it at his London-base Sputnik Theatre. When he joined the Creative Multilingualism team, he attended an event organised by Professor Rajinder Dudrah which brought the grime artists RTKAL, Ky’orion and Royalty from Birmingham to perform on the stage of the Taylor Institution. Their verbal ingenuity, the Rastafarian frame of reference they deployed in their performance, and above all the powerful and infectious rhythms of their art provided a lightbulb moment for me and Noah – we looked at each other, and wondered aloud what would happen if we introduced them to Vyrypaev’s work….

A couple of years later, and that thought has translated into reality, with a performance based on extracts from Vyrypaev’s work being rehearsed in the Birmingham Rep by the brilliant UK rap, hiphop and grime artists Lady Sanity and Stanza Divan, directed by Noah. On Thursday I went along to watch the final research and development session, before the performance later that day curated by Rajinder at Birmingham City University. It prompted all sorts of thoughts in my mind about how issues of ownership and collaboration came together to produce this spectacular meeting of minds across two very different cultures:

  • Vyrypaev owns his text, and is very protective about performances of it across the world;
  • But Noah is one of the most admired directors of contemporary Russian drama in Britain, so Vyrypaev willingly licensed the text for Noah’s project in Sasha Dugdale’s translation, trusting to both Noah’s knowledge of Russian culture and his artistic gifts to create something which would be both new and true to the original;
  • Rajinder knows the rap and hiphop scene in Birmingham via our project partners Punch Records also from the city, and together they recruited artists who would bring their talents to bear on very unfamiliar material, originating from an entirely alien society;
  • Once Lady Sanity and Stanza Divan got to know the text, they worked with Noah on how to make it their own, retaining the skeleton of the piece and certain elements of the refrains, playing with the ideas of the male and female characters with the same name – the two Sashas became the two Jordans…
  • Lady Sanity and Stanza Divan have focused less on the violence and the obscenity, but have translated the relationship between the two to fit into the witty ‘clashing’ routines typical of rap/hiphop/grime performances; this allows them to develop a gendered rivalry which is absent from the original, with Stanza Divan using sarcasm (‘Calm down!..’ – to use a phrase typical of some male politicians…) to scorn and disparage the sharp-tongued teasing of Lady Sanity;
  • But they retain the relative social positions of the two Russian protagonists; she more educated, and from a more comfortable, secure background, he instead from a disadvantaged, broken family and dropping out of secondary education;
  • And above all they retain the message of the final section of Vyrypaev’s original, concerning the difficulties faced by the young in today’s world, where so many threats loom;
  • Did their UK hiphop theatre work absorb Vyrypaev into their British world? Or did Vyrypaev lead Birmingham’s hiphop performers into new areas? Above all, they said, they recognised that elements in the text of the original were primarily about the freedom of self-expression, and that chimed in with the same preoccupation in British hip-hop and grime art.
  • The generosity of very many different people’s collaborations brought this work of art into being: but who ‘owns’ the creative result? Is cultural transposition different from translation?

By Julie Curtis


Julie Curtis is Professor of Russian Literature at the University of Oxford. She is a Senior Researcher on our 4th strand, Creative Economy: Languages in the Creative Economy.


Watch the below film to find out more about the hip hop theatre version of the Russian play Oxygen:

Learn more about the creative process: Translating a Russian play into Hip Hop Theatre: a conversation


This post was first published on the Creative Multilingualism site on 28 November 2018.


Read previous blogs in the Languages & Creativity series:

Blog 1: My love affair with eight languages by Alice Sze

Blog 2: A tale of two city guides: multilingual identity, writing, and translation by Heike Krüsemann

Blog 3: How language learning can be inspired by a fictional world by Emma Huber

Blog 4: Do you have butterflies in your stomach or little deers jumping in your heart? by Marianna Bolognesi

Blog 5: Creative translation: bending to rules to keep it personal by Philip Bullock

Blog 6: Why translation matters by Julie Curtis

Blog 7: We are Children of the World

Blog 8: Helping to balance the European argument – John le Carré speakes out for language learning by Katrin Kohl

Blog 9: “Reader, I went through a wedding ceremony with him”: Translating Jane Eyre by Eleni Philippou

Blog 10: How curiosity led me to learn 7 languages by Yulia Polishiuk

Blog 11: How I produced my first-ever (multiligual) school play by Ann Poole

Blog 12: How learning languages can help in a career as a film producer and writer by Jessica Benhamou

Blog 13: ‘Lessons learnt’ by a professional translator – adapting the same play three times over three years by Noah Birksted-Breen

Blog 14: Creative translation in the classroom by Charlotte Ryland and Lucy Christmas

Blog 15: Korean pop – BTS and fan translation by Sowon S Park

Blog 16: Translating a Russian play into Hip-Hop theatre – a conversation by Rajinder Dudrah and Noah Birksted-Breen

Blog 17: Are creative or functional teaching approaches more effective in the language classroom? by Suzanne Graham and Heike Krüsemann

Blog 18: Tracing prismatic rays of translation by Matthew Reynolds

Blog 19: Research update: identity and multilingualism in South Tyrol by Jamie Green

Blog 20: Guide to directing foreign-language plays by Noah Birksted-Breen

Blog 21: How I discovered the best motivation for learning a language by Amy Varney

Blog 22: Growing up in a multilingual family by Sheela Mahadevan

Blog 23: THE BIRDS: using theatre to explore multilingualism by Holly Bateman

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