Windows Onto the World: New Works in Translationby Caridad Svich
Lars Noren’s War receives its US premiere at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre this month and a veritable stone’s throw away Peter Handke’s classic Offending the Audience plays the Flea under Jim Simpson’s direction. Is New York City finally listening to the rest of the theatre world out there? Or are these two productions mere drops in a pond? It’s too early to tell, but certainly something is afoot on the NY scene. Intrepid directors, translators, playwrights, producers, play development directors, and presenters are placing international exchange, dialogue and translations on the front burner of their conversations and actions. One can look at the range of work presented on a regular basis under Frank Hentschker’s leadership at the Martin E. Segal Center at the CUNY Graduate Center, the many international initiatives in rotation at the Lark Play Development Center, exchanges with Eastern Europe, Australia and UK at New Dramatists, the Buenos Aires in Translation events at PS 122, the Slovenian Exchange at New York Theatre Workshop, and the hotINK International Play Reading Festival at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts as healthy indicators that contemporary work from abroad and particularly (and crucially) non-English-language-speaking countries is finally finding its way to New York City’s stages. While the assertion that there has been a dearth of non-English theater in NYC may seem bald, just think about the last, say, ten theatre seasons and the full-run (not limited-run, i.e. at BAM, St. Ann’s Warehouse or LaMaMa) productions of contemporary theatre from abroad; more than half have been imports from England and on occasion from Scotland.
The dominance of new work from England reaching our shores has of course a great deal to do with the US’ long-standing co-dependent relationship with British theatre – a relationship that goes all the way back to when the US were colonies. Translations of new work from Spain, China, Germany, Russia, the Ivory Coast, Serbia, India, Central and South America and the Caribbean tend to find their homes in print rather than on our stages: in university press collections, and in the resoundingly dedicated, broad-minded theatre journals Performing Arts Journal, TDR, TheatreForum, and in grass-roots fashion, in translator Adam Versenyi’s digital publication The Mercurian. But while Ivo Van Hove does his take on Tony Harrison’s translation of Molière’s The Misanthrope in his inimitable style at New York Theatre Workshop, where are comparable high-profile stagings of new writing from abroad?
Translation of theatrical work is a complicated game of intercultural negotiation between and amongst languages, aesthetics, dramaturgical methodologies, and histories. The process of translation and the witnessing of translated work necessarily broadens the spiritual and political engagement audiences and artists have not only with theatre itself as a form that speaks back to and sustains culture, but also with global human experiences, the subtle shifts of recognition and difference that make the invitation of art transcendent and compelling.
Expanding and encouraging that engagement has been one of the driving forces behind the 2008 hotINK International Play Reading Festival, January 26th-28th and February 2nd-3rd at NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts. Although the hotINK festival in the past has boasted an impressive mix of US and international new work, this year its scope has expanded even more with plays in English-language translation from Romania, Sweden, UK, Guadeloupe, Australia, Belarus, France, Lebanon and Quebec. Widening these windows onto the world highlights the process of engagement with ‘other’ ways of being, doing and seeing life, art and society and enriches our immediate theatre culture and the resonances such work may have on how US artists, in turn, speak back and to the world. For hotINK Festival Curator Catherine Coray (Assistant Professor of the Experimental Theatre Wing at Tisch) it is not only the high caliber of the plays themselves that is exciting to witness but the opportunity for “these plays, and the presence of the playwrights at the rehearsals, readings and receptions, to create dialogue with other writers, directors, actors, students and scholars.” Indeed, Coray hopes that New York area theatre producers see the international plays at hotINK as a wake-up call to produce more works in translation in this city.
Five of the international plays featured in the festival are finding a virtual home for publication – after hotINK – through InTranslation, an online section of The Rail curated by Jen Zoble and Rail Fiction Editor Donald Breckenridge. At press time the plays are: Alina Nelega’s Amelia Breathes Deeply from Romania; Bernard Da Costa’s Boomerang from France (translated by Kathleen Huber); Nikolai Khalezin’s Here I am from Belarus (translated by Yuriy Kaliada and Oleg Shafranov, final translation edited by Jenny Lee); José Pliya’s The Sister of Zarathustra from Guadeloupe (translated by Judith Miller); and Sofia Fredén’s White Baby from Sweden (translated by Edward Buffalo Bromberg).
Amelia Breathes Deeply is a play in monologue form about modern Romanian history through and beyond Ceausescu’s Communist regime. The play follows the central figure of Amelia from the ages of fifteen to sixty-five and is a tour de force for an actor. Originally written in 2005 the play has already been produced in Romania four times and read previously in New York City at the Lark Play Development Centre in May 2007 “for an audience of artists and people who had known or been to Romania, some of them Romanian immigrants,” says playwright Alina Nelega (who also serves as her own translator on this piece). Nelega expressed via e-mail how excited she was to have the play heard again in New York and to share with the hotINK audience “the story of a woman from a world so obsolete that they couldn’t have ever me” were it not for the theatre.
Boomerang is Bernard Da Costa’s tart duel of wits between a second-rate actress and a prized drama student. Heard previously in a different translation at New Jersey Repertory Company, the play is, for translator Kathleen Huber, a portrait of two people who refuse “against all reason to surrender their dreams.” In a long tradition of plays about the theatre and theatre-makers Boomerang looks with wary tenderness at the “hopeless, blindered optimism,” as Huber puts it, held by people “unsuited to the Real World.” The chance for this play by French dramatist Da Costa to be heard in New York in a new translation will certainly be a treat to audiences unfamiliar with his work which feels akin to the cadence and timbre of US dramatist Edward Albee.
The Sister of Zarathustra is one of two plays by José Pliya on view in translation (by different translators) at hotINK this year. Pliya, who was born in Cotonu, Benin, West Africa, has been produced at La Comédie Francaise and other major theatres, and now runs the National Theatre of Guadeloupe. The Sister of Zarathustra is loosely based on the biography of Elisabeth Nietzsche, sister of the eminent German philosopher. The play sketches in flashback Elisabeth’s “astounding trajectory,” translator Judith Miller notes, as a woman whose “heightened narcissism and incestuous love allowed her to spurn the world.” For Miller, a leading specialist in French and Francophone theatre, Pliya’s dense, erotic, politically thorny and defiant play suggests the “connections between colonization, racism, anti-Semitism and fascist ideology.” The Sister of Zarathustra is a welcome introduction to Pliya’s varied and exciting imaginative landscape.
White Baby is Sofia Fredén’s sharp political comedy about a Swedish deputy prime minister who refuses to acknowledge the responsibilities and demands of parenthood and shoves off her infant onto an ex-husband who can’t make much of a go with the child and hands the infant off to another…and so a crazy daisy chain of neglect begins. It is a vibrant, odd and open play full of energy and rage. Translator Edward Buffalo Bromberg compares Sofia Fredén’s writing to that of US humorist Larry David. Bromberg states that to those who think Swedish theatre is “Ingmar Bergman, deep symbolism, whispers and cries, anguish, suicide,” Fredén’s work will come as something of a pleasant surprise. Unlike Bergman’s “silent and closed characters, hers are open and naïve. They wear their psychology on the outside.” White Baby opened February 2007 in Sweden and hotINK marks its first presentation in English.
These intriguing and challenging plays are, of course, only the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to works in translation from world theatre. Festivals like hotINK and others dedicated to the free mix of international and US work nevertheless offer eye-opening perspectives on the possibilities of theatre-making, dramaturgy and the role of the audience. No doubt, such work will inspire a wily young playwright or theatre-maker or two to explore the dramaturgical lessons shown in Nelega’s and Pliya’s writing, in addition to the ones found in Mamet or Maxwell’s.
Plays In this Article
The Sister of Zarathustra
By José Pliya (Guadeloupe), translation by Judith Miller
Directed by Sarah Cameron Sunde
Featuring Janet Zarish, Bill Buell, Lynn Cohen, Christopher McCann and Sebastian Calderon.
Monday, January 28th at 7:30pm
For more information on these and all the plays in the festival visit www.hotink.org
Caridad Svich is a playwright-lyricist-translator-editor and founder of theater alliance NoPassport. Her play Instructions for Breathing premieres this spring at Passage Theater in NJ under Daniella Topol's direction.