This keynote address was written for the 2018 American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) conference, held in Bloomington, Ind., Oct. 31-Nov. 3, 2018.
Light slants through the window on a fall day. First light of morning. The world is waking, I say to myself, as I look out the window. But of course, the world has already been awake on another continent or two, and in other time zones. Far away from here.
News and chatter. Broken times and foul weather.
The world is close, a friend said to me once, when we were talking about the light—the same kind of light that falls across the windowpane on this gently bruising morning. We did not debate the statement, because we both lived in and out of translation every day. For us, the world, such as it is, is always somehow close.
Pick up a book of poems in a language that you do not call yours, but is yours. A language you were born into. (In my case, Spanish.) One that your parents taught you, because, yes, it was their language, and so it is a part of you. Like breathing, sleeping, dreaming. But also not a part of you, because being born into a language is not the same as being raised in and living in that language every day.
The book of poems speaks its mother tongue, although its language was codified by a father. The book is slim and holds its breath against your own.
Who will read me? Who is reading me now?
Open the book and the words dance and sing of streets unknown and hearts broken in halves and quartered beasts left on altars of sacrifice. The poems sing in the language you heard your parents speak around the dinner table. In the warmth of their tongue, wit and desire. You want to be this book. You want to deliver these words into your language so that someone else can feel close to them too.
It is said that the English language is, by its very nature, harsh and cruel—filled with unyielding consonants and gendered norms. English is the language of commerce and trade and banking. It should hold no secrets, but of course it does. The best writers know this, as they excavate its edges for the sweet-sad music of its birth, tracing its colonial arms down to roots equal parts Germanic and Latin. Or so says one poet, whose name remains anonymous on the pages of another book you refuse to put down.
Living in American English and writing in the syncretic rhythms of Spanish, feeding your soul with the fire of the ancients read in translation, the world opens wide, and yes, it does seem/feel close.
When you set down the book of poems and let your fingers trace through the shapes of the letters and sounds on the thrice-read page, you know this language, this poet’s language, must be heard in yours.
Translation is an act of love. And no age-old, tiresome debate about fidelity, or sense and spirit vs. word for word can come up against this act of love. We fall into words. We speak their codes. We deliver them anew with the full knowledge that in 50 years’ time or less, someone else will need deliver them again, because your language, the one of today, of your audience now, will be gone, and some student or budding scholar will say, “That translation is dated. It sounds so fussy. We need a new one to speak for our time.”
Translation is an act of remembrance. It is, in its own mysterious, less than invisible hand, as much an act of recording time as the act of writing itself. When translating works intended for live performance, this act is multiplied, for you are not merely translating a play, but also what the author was thinking about theatre and how it functions, and what their perception and understanding of presence and absence reveals, and where too they are in their own life/art trajectory.
Record this moment. Hold it in front of you, for it will be over soon.
Light catches the windowpane in descending streaks of grey. The world’s closeness prefigures the internet when you find yourself immersed in translation. A writer who grew up in a city without the liquid impermanence of global modernity is being brought to bear upon this age through the mind, heart, and breath of another. Centuries meet, sensibilities mesh, and the hybrid creature called the translator walks through the day with the other writer’s patterns of thought inside their head. The word-for-word business is the least of the translator’s worries. It’s the thought-for-thought business that keeps one up at night, searching for the right phrase, the perfect metaphor, or the proper way of illuminating the spirit of the source.
Reflections on the passing of the light might go something like this:
I saw the page as a wound that needed healing.
I saw the page as a way of entering another time.
I saw the page as a way to step into the future.
I saw the page, and it saw me.
A bond forms between the translator and the author, the translator and the text. This double bond is, at its best, one that demands the same care and consideration of any creative process. Translation is an art. Sadly, it is treated by many as mere work. Translators, especially in the theatre, are often asked to deliver drafts in ridiculously short amounts of time under duress and underpaid. When turning in a work, surprisingly, the thought that a draft is merely that is sometimes not called into question. The draft becomes the thing, and the work is considered done at the laptop, when it is only truly made in the rehearsal room. Just like any other play. A work for live performance is meant to be embodied. If you are writing for embodiment, but are denied access to the opportunity to test whether the piece breathes, speaks and moves as it should, then the work is merely that: unfinished. Even if it is published.
You wrestle with the beast of performance mode to mode. The author is writing for their audience in their time and their specific cultural apparatus. As a translator, you want to dignify this but also are in a position where you may be—indeed, likely are—remaking something for an entirely different cultural apparatus. If the author’s influences are readily or mostly accessible to their audience, then the translator need figure out how to both respect the theatrical worldview of the author and their influences, but also make the work live for its new, unintended audience.
This piece of work was not meant for you, dear audience.
There is another, far away from here, for whom it was made.
This other audience knows the author’s other works
And knows how they tell a joke, even when they don’t call it one.
This audience has grown up with this author.
Maybe they have even studied them in school.
Or maybe they are friends and hang out in the same cafés and bars together.
This other audience doesn’t need translation.
Because they are in the work’s direct presence.
When you are translating spirit words, you are in the presence of the other. The one that is not you, the one that calls to you from the page, the one that whispers in your ear at night fragments of poetry and half-remembered phrases of unmaking.
When you are translating, you are always…translating. It never ends, because the work lives in the fault lines between the visible and the invisible, between the imagined and the known, between what is rendered in inky signs on a printed page and what is hidden in the underbelly of those signs: the light that set them into being.
Late at night the spirit wanders across the palimpsest of the text, your you merging with theirs, medium-like, in a bilingual trance. If before it was you who summoned the author, in the nightly shade, it is now the author who summons you. They are insistent, because the spirit is now traveling from one body to another, from the imagined longhand and typeset of the past, into the intangible field of the digital screen. Stories, poems, and plays unknown in this new language thrill at the prospect that a new reader/audience will discover them and make them live again.
The beautiful wrestling match of translation wraps its arms around the translator and author as the work is opened, excavated, rethought and reborn.
How will you dream me today? Whom will I inspire?
The love affair which is the translation process is not without its moments of doubt and contention. After all, for some, the work itself may be seen as an act of violence—one language erasing another, colonizing it and speaking against its origin. If you are translating into English, this kind of violence is bound to be a thorn with which you must contend. English is a colonizing force and often pretends that there is no other language which can rival its supremacy. If you are living as well in chaotic, dark times where the specter of white supremacy looms large and enacts its insidious or overt violence upon others who speak and live in languages and cultures positioned as Othered politically, you may find that the translation process is one that tears through the better part of you, and at best renders you sleepless with anxiety.
In times of sociopolitical dissonance, carrying the life of a work into a new language in translation may feel akin to smuggling contraband. If the work has been banned or heavily censored in its own country, you may in fact be the only way it can obtain recognition and readership elsewhere. Beyond mere cultural exchange, translation can be the lifeblood of a work that would not have seen the light of day otherwise. This gentle art, then, comes with not only the burden of responsibility but also the burden of authority. Your voice as a translator may rescue a work from historical oblivion, and enact defiance against censure.
Make no mistake. It may begin as an act of love in all its headlong excesses and spirit of egalitarian bonhomie, but that phase quickly moves onto the more charged waters of carrying the burden of responsibility for the work’s life—nothing more and nothing less—its very life in a new language and culture that may not have asked for it in the first place or may even resent the concrete existence of this “new-made thing” in their midst.
The world of arts and letters is fickle. There are major works that never make it into translation worldwide. There are others that trickle in and find a coterie audience, and others that for a variety of reasons hit a cultural nerve. Witness the effect of the first boom of translations of Roberto Bolaño’s works in English by Chris Andrews, Natasha Wimmer, and later, of two of his poetry collections by Laura Healy.
In theatre, the fickle nature of it all is amplified. On most U.S. stages, performed works in translation are rare, save at the university and college levels, and this was way before the current climate of nationalist populism. At theatres and in theatre training programs, you are likely to find the so-called “usual suspects” on display and for study: Ibsen, Chekhov, Brecht, with maybe a smattering of Molière, Racine, and the ancient Greek tragedians on the side. Theatrical works from the Americas and the Caribbean, the African continent, and Asia get short shrift in U.S. theatres, and as such the demand for translations for modern and contemporary theatrical pieces from these lesser-represented global regions falls either on the shoulders of American Studies or World Studies departments, usually championed by intrepid faculty members that either are aficionados of a particular artist’s work, or scholars of an artistic theatrical movement from a specific region or country.
Nestled gratefully in the halls of the ivory tower, translations of modern and contemporary theatre from under-represented countries and languages find their first audiences, usually among students and postdoctoral fellows. In the commercial and not-for-profit sector, the most produced non-English-language playwright in the U.S. is Yasmina Reza, whose plays Art and God of Carnage found their way here in Christopher Hampton’s translations via the sturdy transatlantic special relationship that exists among mainstream U.S. and British theatres. Florian Zeller, also of France and also translated by Hampton, is poised to follow in Reza’s footsteps as the “voice” of French commercial theatre on the English-speaking stage, now that his plays The Father and The Mother have, or are about to have, in the latter case, major productions.
While smaller companies in New York like Kate Loewald’s the Play Company have featured contemporary works from Italy, Japan, Germany, Poland, Serbia, and Mexico, among others, there seem to be—outside of the major touring circuit, where companies from abroad perform in surtitled translation at BAM, Lincoln Center’s international Festival, and the wider touring belt that encompasses the Wexner Arts Center, Walker Arts Center, UCLA, CalArts, and so forth—very few theatres or companies in the U.S. that are devoted to a repertoire of international work in performed translation, let alone such work alongside U.S. new writing.
Catherine Coray’s formerly named HotInk Festival, first at NYU, and then at The Lark, fills a necessary gap in readings of new work from abroad, as does the reading and publication work of Frank Hentschker, Marvin Carlson, and Jean Graham-Jones at the Segal Center at CUNY Graduate Center. Derek Goldman’s Laboratory for Global Performance at Georgetown University promotes study, travel, and exchange. Patrizia Acerra’s International Voices Project in Chicago and Neil Blackadder’s Theatre in Translation network work valiantly to promote the visibility of translations. The internationally focused journal Theatre Forum regularly publishes new work from outside the U.S., as do Performing Arts Journal and Yale’s Theater magazine. The editorial team at The Theatre Times are a valuable resource by which to keep track of the world theatre scene. Adam Versenyi with his field-wide translation journal The Mercurian, and Jonathan Meth with his roving network of global translators the Fence, offer additional lights of hope in a field that at least in the English-language has been dominated by Elyse Dodgson, who founded and headed the International Department at the Royal Court Theatre in England. Her sudden, unexpected passing on Oct. 24, 2018 has been a huge blow to the world of translation. She championed so many artists from all over the world, and while her legacy and impact are massive, it remains a question now as to whom might take up the flag for the urgency and necessity of dramatic work in translation that she so proudly waved for over twenty years.
I stand here not only of course as a playwright, poet, translator, editor, and adaptor of texts, but also as drama editor of Asymptote literary translation journal, which, unlike other literary journals, online or otherwise, features drama alongside fiction, poetry, nonfiction, essay, and criticism. (And if there are theatrical translators here this afternoon, know that Asymptote welcomes your submissions!) When founding senior editor Lee Yew Leong approached me to join Asymptote’s editorial team, I was pleasantly surprised that he wanted to showcase international drama in the journal.
Drama is often treated like an unruly bastard child in the world of arts and letters, especially when it comes to publication, even though it is one of the oldest forms of writing and is at the root of many of the storytelling techniques and narrative models used to teach other forms like the short story and the novel. Poised between the literary and the evanescent embodied, theatre and performance are usually not given the same regard or shelf space, for that matter, as their other siblings in literature. Reasons for this are many and complex, and perhaps best addressed on another occasion, but I will say that the snobbish disregard in which dramatic writing is often held, at least in a great deal of the literary arts scenes in the U.S., may have as much to do with its ubiquity (on stages, film, TV, web platforms, and streaming services) as with the Puritanical beginnings of the first iteration of genocidal colonization in this country.
Now, you may say, hold on, wait a minute, this cannot be true, for we are here at a conference where performativity is the theme, and among us are advocates, champions, scholars, students, makers, and publishers devoted to the dramatic form, whether it falls on the so-called experimental or traditional ends of the spectrum. Performance poetry and spoken word, for instance, are experiencing a mighty renaissance. Surely we are at a time of support and abundance, given the multiple platforms where work can be experienced, heard and seen.
But consider the field as a whole. Consider the kinds of work that are truly made visible for everyone.
Works in translation in theatre and performance, and even in film, are hard to come by. You really do have to seek them out. You really do have to make an effort. Scripts in other languages are shared furtively and enthusiastically from one scholar, teacher, poet or theatremaker to another, are read in classrooms, and rarely if ever, see the light of the stage in translation.
In a world where the digital revolution once promised sublime and supreme connectivity, far-reaching exchange, and the possibility of building a by-country database of current dramatic works and significant authors available for translation, we find ourselves somehow backwards in time, with seemingly less accessibility, stronger lenses of proactive or covert censorship, and what feels like a hold on a truly interactive theatre and performance community.
The full impact of Brexit looms, and its fallout will place us all in quite difficult terrain in matters of exchange. The instability of political systems in the Americas and in the African continent and Middle East also present us with a tough road ahead in the world of dramatic translation. Theatre works from the 48 countries that comprise Asia have been historically barely heard, read, or witnessed in the English language. So really, while there’s much to uphold and rejoice about in the field, we have a very long way to go to locate the support, showcase visible platforms, and fund creative opportunities for a truly robust network of dramatic translation.
But I remain hopeful. Because if there’s one thing that those of us that sometimes wear the translator hat know, it is that historically a life in and out of translation requires three parts tenacity and dedication, and one part hope. And that one part often overrides the three parts to such an extent that after a while you find yourself living wholly in translation, even if at first you didn’t realize or fully comprehend its meaning.
Light falls greyish blue on a fall evening as you walk out of your apartment. You have been arguing with a word all afternoon. The word in the middle of the sentence of the text you are translating. It keeps nudging you to do something about it, and no matter how many times you search through the thesaurus and re-look up the word in the dictionary, nothing quite fits as it should, because you want the word to fall into place as organically as it feels in the original.
And this time, the author with whom you are working has long passed. So you can’t call them up, have a Skype chat, or even email them to ask them to walk you through this particular sentence and this specific word. All you have is the author’s other works to reread, critical essays to muse upon, and biographies to pore over for clues to the exact rhythm that need make the sentence flow as if it’s water.
Sometimes you stare at the screen and reread the text so much that you need to get away, walk about, and let the universe distract you from the creative problem at hand. As you walk past shuttered storefronts, clearance signs in windows, and boutique coffee and tea houses made to shelter folks from the coming cold, you hear snippets of French, German, Spanish, Hindi, Urdu, Polish, Russian, Italian, Luganda, Mandarin, and Japanese down the street. You try to locate the snippets in the bodies of students, day laborers, caregivers, families, tourists, and street vendors. So many words. So many amazing sounds, lilts, and inflections! And down the way you see two people who seem like friends conversing in American Sign Language.
For a moment, the fluid state to which you aspire seems possible. Borderless, boundaryless, through multiple languages and selves, you see yourself as both a citizen of the world and a citizen of a very particular corner of the literary universe —the medium, the spirit-channeler, the translator. And it sends you back to a time when you were a child and you were translating sections of the newspaper for your parents, because although they had become fluent in English, there were subtleties and nuances of the vernacular that they did not understand—words, in effect, that they misread, because they did not understand the cultural context upon which they were positioned.
The newspaper was my prop in this case—the object that carried its own cultural signifiers. But in other cases, it was a novel, a poem, or a song. I remember that my parents and I would often get into quite loud arguments over the words of English-language pop songs. They would assure me the words meant one thing, and I would assure them in kind that they meant quite another. The crossed transactions we had made me angry. It felt strange to possess knowledge over words, and that those very words could cause little rifts between us, when really, if they only knew the sense and spirit of the thing, we could all hold the same meaning of the word in our hands, or at least a shared meaning with multiple images in our minds and be able to communicate freely.
But over time, oddly enough, while the shared meaning seemed ideal, I began to become interested in the misreadings of words and phrases by my parents—what we sometimes call the exposed rift or the transparency of non-erasure. From their cultural and linguistic standpoint, they would interpret words and phrases one way, and sometimes even alter meanings entirely, un-fixing language and reinventing it. I started to delight in this, and as a playwright and poet, began to revel in ways in which I could re-see the American English I thought I knew.
Translation is an act seeing and re-seeing. Language, as we know, is never fixed. It is a living thing. It changes and evolves, and sometimes, no matter how hard we fix it, it slips away from our grasp. In theatre, multiple acts of translation take place: Objects become symbols, light becomes environment, actors signify other people and sometimes other species. The world in performance is constantly being translated on a visual, ontological, as well as semantic and semiotic level. So even when you are drafting or making a play in your own language, or the one you choose you call your own, you are still translating the precarity of liveness itself, and by doing so, seeking correspondence.
In the old, old days, which were not that long ago in terms of the wheel of history, people wrote letters to each other and waited. Sometimes weeks, sometimes months, for the letter to reach its destination and then, for the recipient of the letter to respond. In between the writing of the first letter and the arrival of its response, an imagined correspondence took place in the sender’s mind.
This space of imaginative play and rumination is related to the act of translation, because in working on one, you are seeking for somebody else to be your correspondent—to have an answer, a response, a gesture, a word—across the way, across an ocean, across many lands. The first correspondent is the author, and what you imagine the author to be saying to you as you reconfigure their poetry or prose. The second correspondent is the audience, which is always there in mind if you are making or remaking work for performance.
In between, there are the other correspondents: actors, directors, designers, collaborators. They may also be in mind as you work or you may meet them later in rehearsal, but they are always part of the translation because you have to imagine them signalling to you through the flames of theatre’s body.
The canvas of the text speaks to you in rhythm, tempo, gesture, light, sound and space. Words are action-images. They reverberate across the floor of theatre, which is ever haunted by its own histories.
If you are a woman translating the work of a male dramatist—a cis female writer translating a cis male writer, for instance—you are also, well, translating a way of being in the world. Privilege, position, political standing, status, and visibility. Sexual orientation and ethnicity also come into play. Translation may seem like an invisible act, but that is mere illusion. One of the tricks of translation, of which there are many, is the fact that, in the end, most likely it will seem as if the work has not been translated at all, but rendered wholly visible for a new audience. The translator is a conduit—the body that passes through the other body, one theatre to another. But is the conduit neutral? In the tricksy nature of things, the illusion of neutrality is sustained. But in the reality of working on a translation, there is much negotiation internally between the body of the one and the body of the other.
When I write, I am they.
When I live, I am she.
And sometimes when I see, I am seeing through him reflecting back on she
So that I may write again as a they.
Down the seeming rabbit hole you go, neither you or I, somewhere in an eternal in-between, poised to crash at any moment, collide with the specter of another you or I from another text, Borges-like in the labyrinth of signs.
You are writing for the now, but the now keeps changing, shifting, eliding your grasp. So you write for this moment. This exact moment. You look at the clock. It is 13 past midnight. Strange time. You make a pact with yourself. You promise the object that they will be fixed at 13 past 12. It will be a secret held between the two of you.
The other I, the one that wrote it first, will never know, because although their spirit is inside you, and you are writing from inside their thought process and structural logic, you are despite all conduit-like appearances still you, with your distinct point of view, which is very much of this time, informed such as it is by what you know about theatre and hauntology, and the ragged gardens too wherein theatre once played and may yet still.
So, right now, at 13 past 12, as you set down the word or phrase, fixing it forever on the page, you make a decision. Yes. At this moment, you are putting an end to politics.
The object sits.
It considers your position.
You wait, aching for correspondence.
The text shivers.
Perhaps that is the only answer it will give you.
The 13 becomes 14 on the clock.
You thought this politics was over,
But the text has other ideas.
You missed a word.
And so the game begins again.
The street is full, busy with life. You can see your window from this side of the block. You rarely look up. You are surprised. The window looks smaller from down below. From which angle was the light coming, you think, as you brush past a young person sunken into the screen of their phone.
It is a coldish day. Early fall. You are in that odd mental space your friends call “post-translation.” The space where the other I is leaving and you are coming back to yourself fully, shaking off the conduit’s guise. Except here’s the thing: You never really do shake it off. Not completely. Because in the land of post-translation, you are multiplied. You are both yourself and all the other selves you have been. And if you have been translating for a while and include the act of writing in your own language too as an act of translation (because it is), then you carry a lot of selves every time you walk out the door, think about life, and face the page again.
Your friends remark that being a translator is like stepping into or becoming an empathy museum. They talk about curator and artist Clare Patey and her work exactly in this area. Participatory arts projects that explore teaching empathy as the lens by which inequality, conflict and prejudice can be worked through.
Is that what I’ve been doing? Is that what my fellow translators do?
There is a sound on the street. Something soft.
Like what you imagine when you imagine… Finnish?
For a moment, all the selves you have been, all the selves that have encountered audiences that they never thought they would meet, dance in the greyish light.
Strange world. Beautiful.
Caridad Svich‘s plays include Guapa, 12 Ophelias, Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell That Was Once Her Heart, Alchemy of Desire/Dead-Man’s Blues, and RED BIKE. She has also adapted for the stage novels by Mario Vargas Llosa, Isabel Allende, Julia Alvarez, and José León Sánchez, and has radically reconfigured works from Wedekind, Euripides, Sophocles, and Shakespeare. As a theatrical translator, she has translated into English nearly all of the plays of Federico García Lorca, and works by Lope de Vega, Calderón de la Barca, Antonio Buero Vallejo, Julio Cortázar, and contemporary works from Spain, Mexico, and Cuba.