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
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
Before he wrote his renowned fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen wrote the play Mulatten (Horatio in English), which premiered at the Royal Danish Theater in Copenhagen in 1840 and was a great success. It takes place on Martinique, and deals with slavery and the plantation system in a unique way: two white women (Eleonore, the plantation owner’s wife, and Cecilie, a countess living with them as a ward) fall in love with Horatio, a man of mixed race who is free. When the plantation owner discovers the two white women’s–and particularly his wife’s–affections for Horatio, he attempts to sell Horatio as a slave at an auction and later to kill him. In a surprise ending, Horatio is saved by Cecilie when she proposes marriage to him, in which she refers to an old law that guarantees the liberation of a slave if he is married to a white person (known as “code noire”).
The play was written at a time when the Danes owned plantations and slaves in the Danish West Indies. Not only does the play grapple with race and gender issues, but it is also clear that Andersen himself is speaking through Horatio, a poet, who is considering the role of the artist in a society that does not appreciate him as such. Andersen himself was at an early stage in his artistic career and was not established yet. The intellectuals of his day refused to take him seriously, not only because of his impoverished background, but also because of his highly creative and innovative ideas and usage of the Danish language. His contributions, particularly his fairy tales, would later transform Danish literature forever and put Denmark on the international literary map.
The translation of Andersen’s play is one in a series of books I’m seeking to publish in 2016 to commemorate the purchase of the Danish West Indies by the U.S. Another book which will be translated in connection with the series–this one, from English to Danish–is the celebrated Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, which tells the story of a half-Danish, half-African-American woman’s plight to find her Scandinavian and African American identity in the 1920s.
– Nina Sokol
Set in Haifa in 1988 during the first Intifada, The Admission is a play about memory and denial in the context of what Israelis call their “War of Independence” and the Palestinians call their “Nakba.” It portrays one Jewish and one Palestinian family. Some of the families’ members are trying to reveal the events that took place during the 1948 war between Jews and Palestinians, hoping that an open and truthful discourse will heal their wounds–but some are trying to deny the events and bury their memories deep in the ground, hoping that peaceful co-existence without exposing the painful memories will heal those same wounds.
Six years after their divorce, a man and a woman meet each other again for the first time, at the place where their only child is buried. A letter, announcing that their child is going to be reburied because poison has been found in the soil, brings them back together. But whereas she is looking for someone with whom she can re-live the past, he wants someone who can look to the future. Both are torn apart by grief, but it is not until they let themselves become vulnerable enough to return to the past, to their child’s deathbed, that they seem to reconnect.
The Brooklyn Rail welcomes you to our web-exclusive section InTranslation, where we feature unpublished translations of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and dramatic writing. Published since 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).