This year’s International Literature Festival brought about the first collaboration between PEN American Center and the Martin Segal Theatre Center. Thursday afternoon, a Polish, Russian, and Portuguese playwright gathered in this intimate theater setting with moderator Tom Sellar, editor of Theater Magazine to talk about the challenges of bringing the private work of a play into the public eye. How does it feel for authors to see their work produced? To what degree do they get involved in the production process? How do they deal with issues of translation when their plays cross borders to different countries and cultures? What’s the difference between the work of translating plays and translating other literary forms? Those were some questions that Dorota Maslowska (Poland), Vladimir Sorokin (Russia), and José Luis Peixoto (Portugal) confronted during this session.
The highlight of this session involved a group of young actors, whom were not introduced to the audience, giving dramatic readings of the English translations of these playwrights’ recent plays. First up was Vladimir Sorokin’s Dostoevsky Trip. The premise of the play grew from the idea that literature is a drug. In the future, perhaps, we will live in a time and place where people can get their favorite literary fix in the form of a pill. In this play, seven literature addicts decide to take some pills together. They go to the dealer who is prepared to sell them Alexandre Dumas pills that offer a mellow trip, suitable for twelve friends. When the dealer realizes there are only seven of them, he shakes with disapproval; the Dumas pill will not work for seven; they must try the Dostoevsky drug. The friends make the purchase, pop the pill, and are suddenly transported to scene in The Idiot in which The Prince is admitting that he would like to marry Natasha Filippovna.
We heard a dramatic reading of an excerpt from José Luis Peixoto’s The Winter Arrives. The playwright was influenced by Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Faulkner’s pregnant woman character from Light in August who changes the lives of the three men in the sanitarium. In Peixoto’s scene, three men talk nonsense over a grave then we see them sick in an asylum. Personally, I felt this play might be a more interesting read by an individual reader. It didn’t come off as well as Sorokin’s.
Dorota Maslowska’s play A Couple of Poor, Polish-Speaking Romanians includes two young Polish people who have this idea of dressing themselves up to try to convince others that they are almost homeless Romanians. Over the course of the play, their ruse breaks down. It is a play about hatred. The actors read lines that came off as crude, sad, and funny. Their dramatic interpretations were quite gripping, and I would have loved to see the whole play in context to get a better idea of these characters’ motivations.
Overall, I felt that the discussion with the playwrights relied too much on this idea of drama being difficult to translate. Instead, I wished the discussion could have focused more on the playwrights’ writing practice, craft, and influences. For instance, it turned out that the only answer Vladimir Sorokin could give to the question of his involvement in the production is that he doesn’t get involved. That is not his business. His business is the text. He admitted that he has walked out on the opening nights of his plays because he is so overwhelmed by what monstrous creations they become once they are produced. He laughed that he was sure the same thing would happen again in the future. But he also admitted that a writer shouldn’t get involved in the production of his plays. Maslowska and Peixoto echoed these sentiments. A play, in its life, goes through many layers of translation and interpretation, and everyone participates: directors, actors, and audience members. These playwrights agreed that variety is something to celebrate. There seemed to be a lot of consensus on this panel, though we had just witnessed vastly different dramatic creations.
Saturday, April 28th at 6:30 pm, the Martin Segal Theater Center at the Graduate Center, CUNY will host “From Page to Stage III: Whose Translation is it Anyway?” Speakers include playwrights Charles Mulekwa from Uganda and Koffi Kwahulé from the Ivory Coast. Their plays will be read in English and discussion will follow. Again, the discussion is supposed to focus on cross-cultural challenges. I wonder if there will be a future PEN festival that won’t be so hung up on the challenging aspect of translation. Of course crossing borders poses challenges, but aren’t the audience members who are hungry for this PEN festival showing that they are willing and ready to cross borders, face the challenges, become more aware of the World out there? Perhaps someday panel discussion will better reflect our readiness to feel at ease with the challenges, confront them with grace, and move on so that we can ask these artists and translators about craft, transitions, adjustments, and fusion. Crossing borders is nothing new, really. It’s been going on for thousands of years. When people learn that I speak and write the Chinese language, they often will say, “Isn’t that a hard language to learn?” I have not figured out a good answer to this question yet, but I know the question unsettles me. Usually I tell them, compared to English, Chinese grammar is very simple. So what if learning a language or translating a text is hard? Life is hard for most of us, and a hard life is also a good life and is someting to celebrate. No?