What I Learned at the HotINK/PEN Translation Panel

One of the great things about discussions of translation that take place in unfamiliar contexts (like a theater festival) is that they introduce you to different perspectives on your work. At the excellent panel “Translation in the Theater” this afternoon, a collaboration between the hotINK Festival and the Translation Committee of the PEN American Center, the audience was full of theater people, which was ideal for a discussion of translating plays. Two of the translators on stage, Whitney Eggers and Kimberly Jannarone, had translated plays that were included in the festival, and the three others are all experienced at translating for the stage: Neil Blackadder, who specializes in contemporary German-language theater, Cobina Gillitt, the PEN representative who’s translated (and performed in) a number of Indonesian plays, and playwright Caridad Svich, who’s been translating her way through the complete dramatic works of Lorca. All of the translators included on the panel have also worked as dramaturges and directors.

The theater directors in the audience wanted to know all sorts of things. We translators of contemporary are used to thinking of footnotes as an embarrassment, as a sign that the translator just couldn’t think of a good way to get something across so threw up her hands. But the directors apparently want infinite footnotes, and marginalia, and every sort of cultural contextual clue you can imagine to help them figure out what to do to get a play across. One asked for a “cheat sheet” including a bibliography of books that would help him with the play’s background and YouTube videos that would help him understand how the play worked in its original language and context, along with copious notes on the translation.

While all the translators talked about how wonderful it is to work with directors, a few noted that directors often want to make changes to translated plays that seriously change what was said in the original. Blackadder noted (to general nodding) that there’s a tendency for actors and directors alike to request changes that “smooth things out” and have a domesticating effect. Jannarone, who specializes in the French avant-garde, agreed, pointing out that it can be hard for a director to judge how strange the language of a play is supposed to be; strangeness can be attributed to the translation when in fact the original itself can be bumpy on purpose, to dramatic effect. The main thing, Blackadder said, is to get the overall tonal quality of the play right in English.

Plays can be tricky in new contexts. Eggers described jokes in the original of her hotINK play, Sniper Alley by Sonia Ristic, set in Sarajevo that don’t work in translation because they depend on the listeners understanding that Sarajevo has a strong tradition of not being anti-Semitic. Gillitt described a play by Putu Wijaya whose original one-word title was best translatable into English as “Oy,” which would have made no sense culturally. In conversation with the playwright, she decided to call the play Ought. Another set of issues for her is raised by the fact that Indonesian favors passive constructions far more than English does.

One more thing I learned during the panel: Jannarone brought up the Des Voix Festival held in San Francisco that presented not only the plays of three francophone playwrights in translation but brand-new works produced by them while working collaboratively with Californian colleagues during their visit to the Bay Area. That sounds pretty fascinating. Jannarone also happened to mention how many variants of the word “shit” had been invented in attempts to translate the famous “merdre” in Alfred Jarry’s classic play Ubu roi. It occurs to me that the word “shit” just isn’t funny enough. I don’t know if this has been done before, but if I were ever to do a translation of this play (which will probably never happen), I would take a different tack: fruck!

If you’re reading this on or before Monday, April 22, there’s still one play left in this year’s hotINK lineup you can catch: Bela Kiz by Australian playwright Hellie Turner. For details, see the hotINK Festival website. And if you’ve missed this year’s festival, be of good cheer; curator/director Catherine Coray is planning to put on another one next year. Keep an eye on the Lark’s website for announcements of hotINK 2014. Or just watch this space.

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