Intro to "On Translating for the Stage"

Jon Peede, formerly of the NEA, put Joanne Pottlitzer in touch with me in hopes that we could help publicize her recent essay “On Translating for the Stage.” The essay—which will go up in about 10 minutes—is very interesting, and discusses one of the singular challenge of translating drama. In order to contextualize the piece though, I had her write this intro explaining Jose Triana’s significance, etc. So, enjoy this, and be sure and read her full essay as well.

Palabras comunes is the consensus of my sense of theatre, of poetical life, of fragmentation. It is about honorable people and dishonorable people, about revolutionary people and non-revolutionary people, about good and evil, about false morality. It’s about the cyclical nature of history. -– José Triana, 2006

The celebrated Cuban poet and dramatist José Triana is known best internationally for his play La noche de los asesinos (Night of the Assassins, 1957-1965), which was awarded the coveted Casa de las Américas Literary Prize in 1965 and has been translated into twenty languages. But of his thirteen plays, Palabras comunes (Common Words, 1979-1986) is arguably his masterwork.

When Triana left Cuba in 1980 and moved to France, among the manuscripts he took with him was an early draft of a play he had adapted from the popular novella, Las honradas (Respectable Women) by Miguel del Carrión. He called it Un diálogo de mujeres (A Dialogue among Women). In 1986, responding to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s interest in producing the play, Triana reworked it and gave it a new title, Palabras comunes (literally, Common Words), paying homage in part to Ramón de Valle-Inclán’s classic play Divinas palabras (Divine Words) and alluding to familiar idiomatic expressions or words, such as “honor” and “respectable,” whose meanings can shift within the ethic of a society.

“When I read Respectable Women,” Triana wrote for the April 11 reading at the Americas Society, “the idea that something was missing came over me. The seductive suggestion of the title gradually began to fade. I found myself faced with a plot and characters that would disintegrate if touched, like fragile gold leaf or unhemmed linen, but were not fragile or unhemmed.

“I began to imagine the possibilities of secret threads only hinted at and felt that this text could be revisited, that beyond the given image one could see signs of its characters behaving in another way, orchestrating new situations, creating and dissolving labyrinths, unveiling the mediocrity of their actions, forming inner lives as a world apart, growing, shrinking—or escaping. But I felt I needed to wait a few more years. Years that would give me a deeper understanding of Cuban life in all its complexity, its contradictions, its authenticity; that way I could pay it proper tribute.”

Palabras comunes is a large and complex play that flows with a cinematic rhythm characteristic of Triana’s work. Set in Cuba between 1894 and 1914, from the prelude of the Spanish-American War to the eve of WWI, it dramatizes a bourgeois, racist society unable to recognize its own self-righteousness and rigidity, screened through the fragmentary memory of Victoria, a member of Cuba’s landed class. Victoria’s struggle to destroy society’s hypocrisies is set against the polarized politics of the time and an impending war that threatens a family’s way of life.

Translating Palabras comunes has been a long and delicate and exhilarating process. Triana’s intellect, attention to language and style, and sense of theatricality are extraordinary. But the play’s length and multiple layers, its prolific use of poetic language, and the distinctive voice of each of its eighteen characters, made it prohibitive to undertake without financial support. I am deeply grateful to the NEA Literature & Arts Education Division for awarding me a translation grant in 2009. It took several attempts.

In addition to keen competition, the fact that the project was a retranslation was a disadvantage, even though the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation, rejected by Triana, and the version ultimately performed were never in circulation and never would be. Another was the absence of a theatre person on the panels. As a rule, literary scholars have limited knowledge of the unique task of translating a play to be performed on the stage.

The April event at the Americas Society was the translation’s third public reading. Two scenes appear in the current Spring 2011 issue of the Society’s literary magazine, Review 82: Cuba Inside and Out.

— Joanne Pottlitzer, May 2011

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