Discussion Group: Translating Turn-of-the-Century Sex Work for the Contemporary Stage

In this talk, Minna Jeffery will be discussing her in-progress translation of Finnish playwright and journalist Elvira Willman’s Kellarikerroksessa [The Basement Flats] (1907). This sprawling, revolutionary play focuses on the lives of the poorest inhabitants of turn-of-the-century Helsinki, and unflinchingly addresses sexual morality, incarceration, poverty, and political corruption. Jeffery will use this play as a case study for the exploration of how class and sexuality have been, and might be, presented in translation on the historic Finnish and contemporary British stages. She is particularly interested in how sex work and those that undertake it are represented in this play, and in considering how, via translation, this representation can be put in conversation with contemporary discourse around sex work and theatrical explorations of it. Willman depicts the lives of sex workers with honesty and empathy. In this talk, Jeffery will examine the considerations and responsibilities facing the translator of this text. How can this work be approached in an ethical, politically engaged way? In particular, her interest is in what it means to translate this play for contemporary performance; how the performance situation both complicates matters and offers opportunities. This work builds on her broader, practice-based research into feminist theatre translation practice.


Minna Jeffery is a Junior Research Fellow in Drama at St Anne’s College. Her research centres around theatre translation, women’s playwriting and Finnish theatre. Currently, she is researching and translating work by socialist-feminist playwrights Minna Canth (1844-1897) and Elvira Willman (1875-1925). She recently completed her PhD by practice as research at the University of Kent, where her doctoral research proposed and examined strategies for feminist theatre translation through translating Minna Canth’s The Worker’s Wife (1885) from Finnish to English. In addition to her research and translation work, Minna is a theatre-maker producing work with her company Good Friends for a Lifetime.