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Translating the Meaning, as Well as the Words

Global Exchange
John Eisner at Translation Meeting in Romania.
John Clinton Eisner speaks at a roundtable discussion in Romania.

Last week, Lark Artistic Director John Clinton Eisner returned from a trip to Transylvania (yes, it’s a real place) with playwrights Rajiv Joseph and Rogelio Martinez, where they worked on translations of their plays into both Romanian and Hungarian. Upon their return, all three travelers were reflecting on what it meant to hear work read in another language. “To judge a play’s success in a language that is not your own you need to come up with a different way of listening to the work,” said Rogelio, in this piece he wrote for Goddard College. The Lark’s Global Exchange work aims to allow playwrights to learn about models for making theater in differing cultural contexts. This year, we celebrated the 10th anniversary of another Global Exchange Program, The Lark’s México/U.S. Playwright Exchange, with a convening of artists who also took the time to do some deep, collective thinking around translation. In light of these varying moments of reflection, we are choosing now to repost this essay John wrote about a play from the México/U.S. exchange back in 2008. Translating the Meaning, As Well As the Words provides enduring insights on what we stand to learn about art through global conversations.

April 2008
A new play from Mexico is running this month in a New York City co-production by The Working Theatre and Queens Theatre in the Park. Our Dad is in Atlantis, a poignant road story of two young boys trailing their immigrant father to the U.S., by Javier Malpica, was translated by New York playwright Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas as part of The Lark’s annual Word Exchange partnership with the Mexican National Fund for Culture and the Arts. As I think about this project and the many other international plays at The Lark this year that brought people from different cultures together, it is clear we have learned a lot through translating dramatic works for the stage.

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 translation of a play by Hong Kong author Candace Chong, who was visiting New York on a fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council. Everything was going along fine as we read through the  play about a pair of young lovers thwarted by their families. Naturally, images of Romeo and Juliet wafted through my mind, until a scene came along where the man gave the woman he loved a  hundred dollar bill, folded, origami-style, into the shape of a heart. I felt I had missed some kind of sharp curve in the play. Now the man was cruelly insulting the woman by presenting her with  an expensive, little, green heart? Why was he treating her as a prostitute? Did the green heart represent jealousy? I had many questions, but I readjusted my take on the play 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 “hundred 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.

This kind of cultural misunderstanding happens more often than one might expect 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 The 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. I’ve begun to ask the questions that I might have formerly considered obvious, avoiding making assumptions even though I may think I understand where a writer is coming from. Ironically, many playwrights also assume 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 we hope will endure. That’s why there’s got to be a little of the translator in all of us.