The complex process of writing my documentary play She He Me included the translation of its multilingual source material. One of my characters is Algerian (Randa), one is Lebanese-American (Rok), and one is Jordanian (Omar). So I was working from interviews in Lebanese Arabic and Jordanian Arabic (which are somehow similar), French, and English. Take Randa, for example. Algeria, like Lebanon, was colonized by the French, so Randa often spoke French during our interviews, especially when reading from her prison diaries. French is the language Randa favors for reading literature and expressing herself in writing, and she’d written her prison diaries in French with the additional intent of keeping less educated prison guards from understanding them. Randa had also traded in her Algerian dialect for a flawless Lebanese one because she felt more empowered by her experience in Beirut and her Lebanese femininity.
Not only were there different languages to contend with. Each character’s words were operating on a different emotional register, and there were also micro-nuances within that. Rok speaks a highly Americanized English with some “bro”-like phrasing, yet when he speaks Arabic, it’s very much a southern Lebanese cadence. I kept a few sentences from his mother in Arabic so we can trace the southern Lebanese village roots of her socio-political background, and we can understand their impact on Rok. Omar comes from Jordan, which was a British Mandate. Not only is he fluent in English, but he also studied in London, so he sometimes would throw the Queen’s English in the middle of a hardcore Transjordanian accent. That accent is very much associated with a kind of Transjordanian male bravado, which becomes an interesting and powerful reclaiming when a gender radical like Omar speaks it.
For the purposes of the hotINK readings, I wrote the script in English. We’re hoping to have a production in Beirut soon, and for that I’ll have to translate the script back into Arabic, hopefully with support from the actors. It’s true that people in Lebanon speak French and English as well, but I would really like to see this piece performed in Arabic, as a political statement.
– Amahl Khouri
Before the reading at the Lark, I was hoping that the audience would learn some interesting facts about my country, but at the same time I was hoping that both actors and audience would discover familiar things in the play, things that are universal.
I also was a little bit afraid–there are many things in the play that are so specifically Romanian that they cannot be translated 100%. Together with Ioana and the actors, I tried to bring these specific things as close as possible to the American audience. And I think we succeeded.
During the translation process, Ioana and I talked a lot about the situation in post-communist Romania, about all kind of people living together in blocks of flats, about young people over the age of 20 who are still living with their parents, about the factories that had to close leaving many people unemployed, about the importance of colored plastic bags.
The Life Expectancy of Washing Machines is not only about the problems of post-transition Romania, not only about a generation gap, a midlife crisis, loneliness, and a unusual love story. It’s also a play about the courage to follow your dreams. “The themes are universal,” and audience member wrote to me. “All this could have happened in a small village in the Appalachians, or the Adirondacks, or Rosedale, Queens.” “It’s a love story,” another wrote, “with each of the characters pining after an unrealistic love in order to distract themselves from their present reality.” Clearly the audience understood the message of the play, and even more. They discovered things I didn’t even think about while writing the play. And I think all this was due to the translation.
– Elise Wilk
Translating Elise’s play was a wonderful experience, in the format offered within the hotINK at the Lark project. To have the Romanian author, as well as the American stage director, assistants, and actors working together, discussing facts and characters, refining cue after cue, sounding layers of meaning, defining cultural differences, finding the right expression together where needed–that can well be considered the ideal way to finish a theatrical translation. It was indeed a time of warm cooperation and discovery. The members of the team brought to the table their professionalism and experience, their gifts and wholehearted involvement. The response of the audience in the end confirmed our work well done. A well-crafted foreign story from Romania came to be understood and considered relevant across the distance of a continent and an ocean, in the United States.
– Ioana Ieronim
The challenge of translating Mrs. Ghada’s Pain Threshold has been to strike the right balance between staying true to the play’s subtleties and yet at the same time not to lapse into excessive opaqueness so as to disengage the English-speaking viewer or reader. Here is a play that is all about what is not said, or the hidden meaning behind the words uttered, and the challenge for the translator is to capture those subtleties in English.
There is a problem, indeed I would go so far as to say a crisis, with regards to plays that come out of the Middle East or are about the Middle East and reach an English-speaking audience. Often theatres mistake being “relevant” for headline-chasing, and so the Middle Eastern plays chosen tend to respond to current events and remain in the by now well-charted territory of terrorism, war, and Islamic fundamentalism. These are certainly worthy topics for any writer to tackle and I’m not suggesting we impose a moratorium on plays that deal with these subjects. Yet focusing exclusively on these topics can mean that we limit the space for other plays by Middle Eastern writers that deal with universal themes such as the quiet defeats of lonely individuals, which is the central focus of Mrs. Ghada’s Pain Threshold. Abdullah Alkafri has created in Ghada a character that will resonate with audiences worldwide. Through her they will learn something about Syrian society, but far more importantly they will learn a great deal about themselves. For me that is when theatre is at its most alive.
– Hassan Abdulrazzak
“People come from wherever they can,” says one of the characters in Mine Water, Csaba Székely’s tragi-comic tale about horrible desires and broken dreams, with a witty linguistic humor. The characters come from their own past, a territory populated by actions. The question for the village priest, his adopted son, the schoolmaster, his daughter and all the other characters is how to go on in life. This play horrifies and amazes me. It is the third and darkest play in a trilogy (Mine Flower, Mine Blindness, Mine Water) about an imaginary Transylvanian mining region where people struggle to survive after the mines close down. Loss of resources and traditions, loss of love for nature and one’s fellow men–these are not questions of exotic and remote provinces, but of our own daily reality. Desires shape human relations with the force of the mighty sea or the hidden dark streams of mine water. Most people go where they can, but some of the characters of this play wish to decide where to go. And some just want to stay and forget.
– Maria Albert
On finishing up an “extracurricular” project (I am a Romanticist, currently writing a dissertation on William Wordsworth), a new English translation of Eno Raud’s Sipsik (Tallinn, 1962), an enduringly popular Soviet-era Estonian children’s book, and considering its chances for US publication, I found myself anticipating the ambivalent reactions: This lovely story is too quiet and too circumscribed for a contemporary North American audience—too quiet for, say, five- to eight-year-olds who may already have acquired a “thirst after outrageous stimulation” (to quote the preface to Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads) and too circumscribed for parents who prefer that the narratives offered their children engage, however distantly, with social realities. The story, of a five-year-old girl and her imaginary companion, unfolding against the backdrop of the daily life of a sketchily, if realistically, rendered immediate family, might seem to float in some just slightly exotic and geographically unplaceable (because of unfamiliar personal names and a few details of setting) but otherwise comfortably familiar world of an idealized postwar, urban, petit-bourgeois domesticity
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– David Sassian
Silke Scheuermann is decidedly a lyric poet, but her language is not ornamental. Instead, her lyricism is plaintive, imaginative, and humorous, and Scheuermann evokes familiar, accessible language to recall a more uncertain space. Through apparent syntactical coherence Scheuermann devises possibilities and impossibilities, wonders out loud, reimagines familiar stories as playfully unfamiliar, and tests the waters at language’s edge. In translating these pieces, I have tried to preserve the innocent, curious lyricism that I find so integral to her work, a truly unique and vulnerable lyricism unlike that of any other poet I know. Scheuermann is unafraid of cliché: she is a poet in constant state of wondering, and I hope I have translated this exuberance.
– Patty Nash
Let the question asked and answered by one German critic stand as introduction to Vasilii Golovanov’s “documentary novel” The Island (Original Russian title: остров or Ostrov):
“A travelogue, a novel, an ethnographic report, a historical narrative, a cautionary tale, an autobiography, or a collection of stories and myths? It is all of this and more. It is the kind of book that only appears a handful of times in a century.”
Now it’s my turn. I say The Island is a transcendently beautiful book, both formally innovative and emotionally charged, possibly the first deep engagement with the extremes of the Russian Far North that is truly post-Soviet. And by “post-Soviet” I mean it is less concerned with bearing witness to great suffering and great crimes, and more concerned with the allure of the north (although Golovanov acknowledges crimes visited upon living beings and living land).
By “post-Soviet” I also mean a work that is not explicitly political (and much of the fiction we call “post-Soviet” continues to identify itself in terms of its stance toward the power of the state). In The Island, the state is marginal, marginalized. The focus is on the individual, his environment, and whatever informs him–past traumas, personal history, education and engagement with the world around him–and as such is liberating, for any reader, not just the Russian reader.
i details a number of journeys Golovanov made during the nineties to the island of Kolguev, a “tiny planet” in the Barents Sea. Golovanov claims these sojourns were a therapeutic response to a personal and professional crisis brought on by his work as a war correspondent. Over time, his involvement with Kolguev broadened into a meditation on the Russian Far North, its inhabitants, its natural beauty, and its tragedy; along the way, the work he produced to document this engagement deepened into an exploration as to the meaning of travel itself.
Formally, it may be the first Russian nonfiction novel (it is billed as such). It is certainly the first Russian work I know that mixes a wide variety of genres, and puts them all at the service of a rhapsody. It is a cut-and-paste picaresque, filled with lengthy discursive asides on flora, fauna, indigenous inhabitants, earlier encounters with the landscape (by Scottish explorers, by Soviet scientists, by other late-20th-century dreamers and refugees), myths, legends, personal stories, and the vast Russian literary tradition to which Golovanov lays claim, from Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Aksakov, Platonov (to whom he consciously acknowledges a deep debt), and even the Babel of Red Cavalry. The theme of the book, or its impetus, is that of flight–and for the first time in Russian literary history this flight takes place within the vastness of Russia, because of Russia and not in spite of it, constituting challenge, possibility, and opportunity–for redemption, for self-discovery, for a deeper understanding of what it means to go to extremes.
– Adam Siegel
I never thought about translating my own work into a foreign language, yet with this story I decided to try for the first time. The reason, it seems to me, lies in the story itself (and not just in the fact that my native country is under the spell of an evil man and is descending into madness). The story plays out in a Southern California beach town. Everyone in it is an English speaker, so when I was writing the story in Russian I tried to echo the intonations of English. Translating the story was almost like re-translating it into the language that was original to its plot; but translating is always, in some way, a rewriting. This is a story of death-in-life, of alienation. Nothing spells alienation more clearly than a story told in a language alien to its teller. When I reread my translation, a chill goes down my spine because the form and the content coincide perfectly, and I can barely recognize myself either as the author or as the character of the story–similar to how the heroine can barely recognize her existence in the beach town as the life she was supposed to live.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Ha Nguyen for her corrections and suggestions.
– Maria Rybakova
My older sister took out Niels Fredrik Dahl’s Antecedentia from the library when it came out in 1995. I was fourteen at the time, and as far as I can remember, these are the first poems that truly fascinated me. Antecedentia is Dahl’s third collection of poetry. The book has big themes: love, history and the passing of time, suffering, ill fortune, and humanity’s darkest sides. But it’s also filled with the local and specific: references to places, news events, pop culture, and real people, done in an elegant and sometimes humorous way. Dahl creates vivid stories with few words and keeps his readers on their toes. Antecedentia has always given me a feeling that the world is large and rich with hurtful detail that one can access through poetry.
When I had to pick a translation project for a graduate workshop, Antecedentia was a natural choice. I was a complete novice, but I’d been working in the territory between English and Norwegian ever since I’d started writing as a young teenager. Like everyone else in Norway, I grew up with TV and pop music in English, and started honing my knowledge of American idioms and slang early on. I spoke English with parts of my family, and it felt more intimate than Norwegian did. Writing felt natural in this English, which was full of satisfying, cool phrases. I felt free to pour out things that were too painful or embarrassing to express in Norwegian. I think I share this sensation with many Norwegians—almost all Norwegian pop stars, for example, write their lyrics in English. Later, I would translate my writing into Norwegian. When exposed to the bright light of my native tongue, these pieces curled into themselves and tightened up, until only the strongest and smallest possible structure of terse Norwegian remained. This became my modus operandi for years. I was primarily a poet until I switched to fiction and left Norway to pursue my MFA in the United States. Attempting to bring the no-nonsense clarity of the Norwegian language into English via Dahl’s poems has been a very interesting experience.
Translating poetry can be frustrating, so I consider a bonus anything I can manage that carries over a little bit more of the original’s unnamable qualities. Dahl uses punctuation sparingly, and changes verb tenses and tone midway through a poem. Translating his tightly packed sentences without losing even their most basic meaning is sometimes challenging. I hope I’ve been able to do the poems justice.
– Karen Havelin
In Melanie Taylor Herrera’s short story “Journey,” a girl is abandoned, reclaimed, and again reclaimed. Mothering occurs as a plurality, the matriarchs, like the view from the streetcar, automobile, bus, horse, hip, whisking past, blurring countryside and city, nostalgic past and modernist present, refocusing even as eyesight worsens. Who is abandoned in the making of a nation, and for whom is it truly a nation? Which traces now recognized? Which lines can be transversed, by whom, and for how long? Or is the sound that is made collectively or the images that are combined the only true celebrations? A voice from the depths of the sofa. A call and need for a different mothering in the midst of. A woman like a country ages exponentially even as “progression” occurs at its pace. At which point the intersection?
The reader is in each place asked to exist and accommodate, as in grow comfortable, though in each place the female body is faced with danger, betrayal, quieting. How does this act as a metaphor for the country, Panama, now, as it celebrates anniversaries of construction, canal, nation; for conflicted memories of invasion; for a woman’s relation to power; and for globalization? Who has been considered a citizen? Who now is so easily adapted? Before whom does the law bend or turn its back? What knowledge in the wrinkled eye lost?
And as for home in instability and the contrast of enclosure and open air. The females who advocate for open windows, walks outside. Threats to security. Who should have been saved? Is not getting saved? Is saving? Is it a postcard? A ghostly trace of tracks stepped over. There are numerous hauntings, possessions. To be a devil or a ghost because memory remains and is desired to be shared. In the very center of the city hidden away or very far in the countryside open to the air. What is aging us prematurely?
Melanie Taylor Herrera included this story in her book Camino a Mariato. Each story offers a route into an interior slice. In “Journey,” our protagonist has been taken into the core of a nation and there enclosed. Female territory and mythmaking and agency. The book and the story offer up new possibility.
– Christina Vega-Westhoff
The Brooklyn Rail welcomes you to our web-exclusive section InTranslation, where we feature unpublished translations of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and dramatic writing. Launched in April 2007, InTranslation is a venue for outstanding work in translation and a resource for translators, authors, editors, and publishers seeking to collaborate.
We seek exceptional unpublished English translations from all languages.
Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry: Manuscripts of no longer than 20 pages (double-spaced).
Plays: Manuscripts of no longer than 30 pages (in left-justified format).