The “Theater in Translation as Resistance” panel at the 2018 PEN World Voices Festival occurred on April 17 at Dixon Place in New York City and featured Jeremy Tiang, Michael Eskin, Agnes Walder, and Martin Puchner.
“How do you take [a culture] on its own terms and do all of that whilst presenting the story as it is in terms of the conflicts of the characters and their journey?” translator Jeremy Tiang asked. These and other questions became the focus of an enlightening panel on the challenges and triumphs of translating theater from Hungary, France, and Taiwan.
After an introduction by PEN America Translation Committee cochair Mary Ann Newman, moderator Martin Puchner gave the floor to the first speaker, Michael Eskin, who reflected on his journey translating a unique and challenging text, In Praise of Weakness (Eloge de la Faiblesse) by Alexandre Jollien, a disabled philosopher with cerebral palsy. Eskin showed a video in which Jollien, in halting Swiss French, describes his feelings on the occasion of his first trip to Nepal and his reflections on poverty.
Echoing the theme of this year’s festival, “Resist and Reimagine,” Eskin explained that Jollien, having been forced to spend his formative years in a home for individuals with disabilities, later fought his way out of this confinement and isolation, ultimately resisting institutionalization. Translating In Praise of Weakness, which imagines a conversation between the author and Socrates, was a difficult task because the French language has few words to express the diversity of the disabled community. It relegates all such individuals to the status of handicappé—handicapped—a term largely no longer applied to disabled people in the Anglophone world. But Jollien forces audiences to reconsider what is “normal” and writing this text became his way of “reimagining” himself and his place in the world.
Poet and translator Agnes Walder reflected on a highly personal project: translating Tyrtaeus: A Tragedy. Written in complete secrecy by her father, Lajos Walder, a Hungarian lawyer who later died in the Holocaust, the play reimagines Nazi Germany in Ancient Sparta. Notably, the values of Sparta inspired the rhetoric and rituals of the Hitler Youth. This is particularly relevant now, given the rise of nationalism in today’s society, she said. In one scene, Tyrtaeus says, “The right to vote can be a very dangerous tool in the hands of a clever demagogue and a lot of ignorant and foolish voters. People will often give power to those who appeal to their feelings and not to reason.” I could not help but draw parallels between this line and the political landscape in America today. In terms of challenges she faced, Walder spoke about the differences between Hungarian and English. Most notably, English is “succinct,” while Hungarian is “longwinded.” While the translation presented many difficulties, it was of immense importance to Walder that her father’s play come out of the shadows. “The play’s survival is a miracle,” she concluded.
Finally, Jeremy Tiang, a Singaporean novelist and translator, discussed his experience translating Taiwanese playwright Zhan Jie’s award-winning Taste of Love. While American and British audiences familiar with the plays of the nineties that dealt with the AIDS crisis may jump to the conclusion that Taste of Love is “dated,” Tiang emphasized that we must recognize that it is just part of a different cultural context. “People have different conversations at different times; it’s not a race,” he reiterated. Taiwan’s LGBT community still suffers discrimination despite the fact that Taiwan’s constitutional court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in 2017, paving the way for Taiwan to become the first country in Asia to legalize it. The fact that Taiwan is “a marginal culture that isn’t widely known in the West” posed many challenges for Tiang, who asked, “How do you present a culture that is simultaneously, to the Western gaze, both progressive and regressive in different ways? How do you take it on its own terms and do all of that whilst presenting the story as it is in terms of the conflicts of the characters and their journey?” In the case of Taste of Love, the play was “situated within the framework of contemporary queer plays” in a queer-themed reading series, which helped the audience contextualize it as modern.
Emphasizing that many struggles are universal, Tiang perfectly summed up the mission of PEN when he said, “There is a kind of global solidarity that comes from understanding the struggles in other places on their own terms . . . By widening the context in which we exist, we create, hopefully, an environment in which empathy and human understanding bring us all together and reduce the need for further resistance.”