One of the most important lessons I’ve learned personally is that you can make no assumptions when you sit down at the table to work on a play in another language with a playwright from another country and culture. At the Lark, we work through the play line by line, beat by beat, with a team that includes its original author, a translator who is also a skilled playwright, a director and actors. It is not enough to translate the language for the meaning of the words alone: you must first understand what the language of the play means within its original cultural context in order to derive an acceptable and relevant equivalent in the destination language. Further, you have to develop a clear sense of how the action itself may mean different things in different cultural contexts.
We’ve seen many examples of translation misunderstandings during the ten years the Lark has been involved in international artist exchange. For instance, we set up a roundtable to examine a draft of a translation of a play by Hong Kong author Candace Chong who was visiting New York on a fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council. We were reading the play around the table, and everything was going along fine. It was a play about a pair of young lovers thwarted by their families and, naturally, images of Romeo and Juliet wafted through my mind. Then along came a scene where the man gave the woman he loved a 100 dollar bill, folded, origami-style, into the shape of a heart. Whew! What happened? I had missed some kind of sharp curve in the play, and now the man was cruelly insulting the woman by presenting her with such an expensive little green heart. Why was he treating her as a prostitute? Was the heart green because he was jealous of somebody? I readjusted my take on the play, however, and we read through to the end. In the discussion that followed about the relationship between the characters, Candace was shocked that her intention wasn’t clear. She explained that, in her culture, a 100 dollar bill was pastel-pink and worth hardly anything, a trifle. The character’s gesture was not one of contempt, but of courtship, and I had to again reframe my entire take on the play.
I think this kind of cultural misunderstanding happens more often than we think in the process of translation. I distinctly remember the first time we held a “simultaneous translation session” with a play by Argentine author Jorge Goldenberg, led by Lark’s international program pioneer, Michael Johnson-Chase. There were seven bilingual New Yorkers around the Lark’s roundtable, each, by chance, hailing from a different Spanish-speaking culture. Not a page went by that we didn’t have to stop to clarify idioms that actually existed, with vastly different meanings, in the seven cultures represented around the table.
I love this experience of having my eyes opened to the true meaning of an image or moment, when the context shifts swiftly into focus and everything becomes suddenly clear. It’s like falling for a well-crafted practical joke that you have to admire in its wit and execution, or the breakthrough moment of understanding a terrific pun. For this reason, I prize the never-empty grab-bag of revelatory and frequently amusing cultural surprises that the process of translation is all about.
Perhaps even more important to me is what I’ve learned from the translation process about how I encounter plays in my own language—people with whom I am more likely to share a cultural context and common idiom. Even though I think I understand where the writer is coming from, it is not necessarily true. I’ve solved this problem by asking more “stupid” questions about things that I might have formerly considered obvious. Ironically, many playwrights make the same kind of assumptions as I have that they are on the same page with the people who read or see their plays. I’ve come to the conclusion that translation is part of every discussion between two people. Even when you ostensibly share the same language, meanings can be elusive. Taking the time up front to get things straight makes a big difference in any relationship that we hope will endure. That’s why there’s got to be a little of the translator in all of us.
John Clinton Eisner