Discovered in Translation

Might a play find its true voice in a second languaqe? Well, if the shoe fits...

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Publication: American Theatre
Author: Avila, Elaine
Date published: January 1, 2012

I'M ON A PLANE TO PANAMÁ CITY1 PANAMÁ, where I am due for a rehearsal of my play, Quality: The Shoe Piay. This will not be the usual rehearsal where the actors and director get nervous because the playwright is coming; I am the one who is nervous. I will be expected to comment on the ups and downs of Myrna Castro's Spanish translation.

I am terrified. Back in New Mexico, I read the translation quickly, in the heat of other commitments. I asked a Colombian colleague of mine, a professor of Spanish and French, to help me, and we both found the translation "good." The only comment I'd made was about Myrna's title: Calidad: la obra del calzado seemed lacking. "Calzado" means "footwear." I'd suggested the tide iZapatos! - a more exciting and, I thought, comic choice, combining the literal Spanish word for "shoes" with a sly nod to Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.

The prospect ahead of me on my first morning in Panamá City is more involved than a quick readthrough and a title tweak. The actors, translator and director are going to have three hours to question me in depth about the translation. My end-of-semester wrap-up did not wrap up neatly - it was more difficult than usual - so the only chance I have to focus on the translation is now, on this flight from Atlanta to Panamá City. I plunge in. I begin to read my play in Spanish. I am shocked to feel the slumbering Spanish part of my brain kick in. Is this panic or elation I'm feeling? I understand every word. I laugh out loud at the clever choices of my translator. I see where things could be improved or are slightly mistranslated.

Translation has become a metaphor for communication breakdown; we always talk about what is lost in the process; we bemoan attempts to translate rhyme and rhythm. And jokes? Forget about it. We adopt "untranslatable" words into English: simpatico, schadenfreude, laissez-faire. We even rescue words that defy translation from languages expected to become extinct in the next hundred years - words so fabulously well thought out, so deep, that they take a dozen words to explain in English: Saudades in Portuguese, Uhaatu in Chichewa.

It's rare to hear translation described as an improvement, a jump. But what if translation could bean expansion of meaning - what if it could be like the difference between a song on a piano and the same song played by an orchestra, or the difference between a Cole Porter demo and a rendition by Ella Fitzgerald or Miles Davis? Will it be this way for me when my plays start being done in Panamá?

THE TRANSLATION AND PRODUCTION OF TWO OF my plays was prompted by an American director, Ted Gregory, a Fulbright Scholar to Panamá, who has begun an intercultural project called ELATE (Educational Latin American Theatre Exchange). As part of this project, he asked Myrna Castro to translate short plays and scenes written by many of my fellow American playwrights: EIaine Romero, Jorge Ignacio Cortinas, Marisela Treviño Otta and Maria Irene Fornés. Our writing shared the stage of the exquisite National Theatre of Panama, launching the first MFA in theatre in Central and South America. Ted then asked to produce and translate two of my full-length plays, the aforementioned Quality (eventually renamed ¿Zapatos!, as I'd suggested), and Jane Aitsten, Action Figure (Jane Austen, figura de acción?)

At rehearsal my first morning in Panamá, we are all a bit breathless and shy. On the ride into town from the airport the night before, I met Ted and one of the actresses in Jane Austen, Clara Tristan. I suspected I would have some affinity with them - they know the deepest, most vulnerable parts of me, what scares me, what makes me laugh, because they know my plays. This kind of intimacy with people you have never met is precious and strange.

I'm staying with Clara, a 20-yearold actress, and her family, in former U.S. military housing reclaimed by the Panamanian people. Around their kitchen table on my first night, I asked her mother, Aimee (a Peace Corps official), her father Santander (a civil rights lawyer) and her two sisters about previous performances of plays by U.S. writers at the National Theatre. They told me many juicy things: that Elaine Romero deeply understands Latin American politics, that Maria Irene Forces completely gets the current issues of illiteracy in rural Panamá. Fornés once said to write for the next century, as this one is over; she has clearly succeeded. I've realized how important the ELATE project is, in terms of breaking down the artificial separation between theatre ans north and south of the Mexican border.

Ted also told me about how important it was for us to be there. While there are women who write texts as performance artists, and women novelists, strictly speaking there are no professional women playwrights in Panama. He said he hopes 1 will serve as a role model, an example of a working woman writer.

At rehearsal, all of us are shy, but immediately become enchanted with each other. I am at the table with actresses Marieta Aragón Chiari and Maritza Vernaza, members of Teatro Lagartija. A lagartija is a bright yellow-green lizard, fast and wily, who clings to walls - a great metaphor for the theatre. One of the company's recent productions was an ensemble-based creation critiquing the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panamá. My host family, the Tristans, have told me that Mariela and Maritza are the best actresses in Panama. Ted is directing and guides us. Myrna sits ably at my side.

I make a few opening remarks in Spanish, and quickly discover that we have a language mix - English, Spanish, Portuguese - that makes me happy and comfortable. I tend to slide among the three, as my grandparents were from the Azores, small Portuguese islands in the mid-Atlantic. We bash about in the three languages, only seeking translation, mostly from Myrna, when we need it I dive in by asking, "Are there places in Panama where people wait on the very rich?" They laugh and start telling stories.

Maritza asks me why her character, the aspiring shoe saleswoman Pippa, loses her gift to "channel" the fantasy behind the shoes; does she know she is selling out? I say yes, and put the question another way: Is there work for actors in Panama where they can make lots of money, like in telenovelas? She says yes. I continue: If she worked in telenovelas for a while, would she lose her chops as a superb physical-theatre performer? She nods - and together we Ve found the cultural metaphor for Pippa's shoe problem.

We all weave back and forth this way, creating mutual understanding. They tell me they like how there aren't easy answers in the play - that they know this dance between art and commerce through their work in the theatre. Mariela laughs about how much she loves to try on shoes as an escape, and how actresses (and actors) often find a key into their characters when they find the shoes their characters wear. I can tell their production is going to be superb - they get the play.

I ask if I can go through a few aspects of the translation. "Lap dog" has been mistranslated as "guard dog." And apparently, "zeitgeist" has no Spanish translation. It doesn't even have a translation in English; it is a German word. It isn't easy to find an equivalent, so I'm making fon of pretentious art/shoe language. We dance around various ideas, like the "now of the now," which I attempt to get into Spanish: abore, aborita, inmediatamente, en cualquier momento, espíritu del tiempo. I find that Spanish has some comic opportunities that I don't have in English, such as in the line, "Pippa, Pippa, Pippa, it reminds me of all that's good about being a girl." In Spanish, Pippa becomes "Pipa," and the word for girl is "chica," so the line might have a delightful sound to it: "Pipa, chica, Pipa, chica." When I point this out to Mariela, the actress playing Roxanne (who in Spanish becomes Roxana), she says, "Don't worry - I know exactly what to do."

Then I begin working on a local joke, as I did for the London, Canadian and New Mexican productions. I ask about Panamanian cliches - annoying ones. We discuss how the country is marketed to tourists, until we come up with a line about how a famous, international shoe designer has been to Panama and is obsessed with molas (colorful, indigenous folk art sold on every corner) and ecotourism. There are spray-painted sayings on the walls in the streets that say "Verde es el nuevo oro" ("Green is the new gold"). At last I write a joke that makes them laugh - about a Panamanian shoe designer who has "figured out how to capture the divine humidity of the tropical rain forest... in a shoe."

I am amazed and humbled by how my play has provided a way to discuss deep things quickly: the government, the political situation, class, theatre, art, the actor's lives. I feel so close to them. I fell in love with them.

MY LOVE BECOMES DEEPER WHEN I watch a rehearsal in which Ted has them doing a Sanford Meisner exercise that asks them to repeat lines and make discoveries. They stop occasionally to note things they learn. Their physical-theatre training means they commit with passion - in character choice, vocally, in physical movement. At the University of Panama, for example, they train students in Russian, Italian, Balinese and Japanese theatre techniques.

In my time there, I will have many more revelations about being translated. In no particular order:

* Spanish has more open vowel sounds and actors are less afraid of enunciation than in English; their vocal commitment brings out more feeling.

* Certain phrases are naturally stronger in Spanish, making the play simultaneously funny and political in a way I love, as in the phrase, "for the women," which becomes "para las mujeres?

* The politics of Panama, including their resisting U.S. forces and then reclaiming the country, mean that they understand the p!ay.

* Maritza, who plays Pipa, appears to have such deep dedication to the art of shoe-selling that it looks like she is entering a shoe army. She gives her portrayal such desperation and hope around getting a job at the boutique that huge parts of the play unlock for her immediately.

* Marieta, who plays Roxana, the shoe boutique's manager, has a sense of sophistication, pride and poise I recognize from the Portuguese side of my family (I know she would respect my female relatives' penchant for wearing high heels in challenging situations, like long hikes down cobblestone streets). She understands the sacrifice it takes for a woman to succeed, and has a poignant sense of mixed feelings about what an older woman hands down to her younger peers, such as the inevitability of resigning herself to her boss taking credit for all her ideas.

IT SEEMS THAT MY SECOND LANguage, Spanish, has unlocked my first intentions. I soon find I am not alone. Writer Sallie Bingham, instrumenta] in the creation of the Women's Project in New York, and author of more than 200 short stories, including the terrific new collection, Mending, tells me she likes her work better in French.

And Gabriel García Márquez has said he loves his work in English. "I think that my work has been completely re-created in English. . .. The impression one gets is that the translator read the book and then rewrote it from his recollections. That's why I have such admiration for translators. They are intuitive rather than intellectual."

Why is this? These are second languages for all of us. Perhaps it is the possibilities lost to us in the language we take for granted; in a new language, there is a sudden doubling or tripling of vocabulary. Maybe it is the pleasant associations we have with learning the language; Bingham learned French as a young woman from a devoted caregiver. I learned Spanish because there weren't any classes in Portuguese, and Jt allowed me to understand my Azorean grandparents a little better, if not completely. Spanish quickly became its own universe for me: the passions and politics of Pablo Neruda and García Lorca, Caridad Svich's gorgeous interpretation of Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits at New York's Repertorio Español - a lovely landscape of possibility unto itself.

And it's not only the language; it's the cuitare. There is a different relationship between art and politics in Latin America. In the U.S. and Canada, as the larger theatres have accepted more corporate dollars, we tend to like our political plays in documentary style oras clearly "politicar - the kind of play David Mainet caricatures in his collection Writing in Restaurants as "[insert oppressed group here] are people too" plays. In Panama, no one finds it odd that my play contains politics, jokes and purposeful ambiguity. They understand it immediately.

Later, I learn from Ted that this is because of the politics in Panama. Nearly one third of Panamanians live in poverty, and they understand why one of my characters is desperate for work. "Machismo reigns supreme," Ted adds. So the way that Roxana passes on her sad legacy of limited power in a male-dominated field is poignant to them. The actresses, Mariela and Maritza, explode with what Ted calls "feelings and behaviors that have been held back for years"; they are liberated to play in the minefields of their characters' power struggles.

And I am told one of the most moving stories in my career by Clara, who appeared in my play Jane Aasten. She says that young men in Panama are forced to go to prostitutes by their families at a young age, often to prove they aren't gay. One of her male friends asked Clara and her parents to help him avoid this rite of passage. She says that my play, by making the audience comfortable laughing at other taboo subjects, might make it possible for audiences to question this little-challenged practice.

Stories like this begin to help me connect the dots of why I write the way I do, and to gather courage for my upcoming projects. Ted tells me the seemingly contradictory facts that Panamanians love to laugh, and also that domestic violence and femicide are big issues there. This rings a bell: When I was 22, 1 volunteered in a domestic violence shelter for a year in Troy, N.Y. That's when I learned you gotta laugh - to survive, to thrive. It seems they know this intimately in Panama.

Panama is known as the "Bridge of the Americas" and has a complex relationship with the U.S. My collaborators show me where my country has scarred Panama: places from their childhood that the first Bush administration bombed into oblivion; Cerro Rincón, the hill in the heart of the city that controls canal operations, where it was illegal for Panamanians to set foot during the U.S. occupation; the high school where students protested in 1961 and were subsequently gunned down by U.S. soldiers.

Amazingly, the Panamanians still welcome U.S. theatre artists. A prominent Panamanian director explains: After so many years of occupation, Americans are part of many Panamanian families through marriage. The actress Clara shares the pain of her thwarted dream to study theatre in the U.S. I talk about how her founding her own theatre in Panamá would be profound, speaking of Augusto Boal as a guiding light.

Ted arranges for me to talk at the university about Jane Austen^ figura de acción, which many faculty and students have seen. The talk quickly turns into a discussion of the obstacles women face in play writing. I say, "Let's write some plays." They do, and it's wonderful: a room full of people writing for the theatre for the very first time - about beautifully impossible things like chocolate waterfalls and deciding not to die, even while living in a house Like a giant clock.

Ted takes me through the neighborhoods of Panama, one of his favorite pastimes, in a warm torrent of rain. We continue to find mutuai theatrical reference points. I admire his dedication to his art and how his translation program has unveiled the other half of our continent for me. Notably, this work is also being done by the Lark Theatre Company in New York through its U.S./ Mexico playwright exchange, and by Caridad Svich's NoPassport Alliance.

But Ted's ELATE program has added a vital piece. It makes us feel less cut off from one another. There is a place, inspired by and beyond the translation of words - a nonverbal place we try to create as playwrights, where our hearts can meet, open, explode, laugh, weep, connect. It is live theatre. I am grateful to be a part of Ted Gregory's ELATE project a new bridge of the Americas, built through translation.

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