Theater, translators, and the unique world we inhabit.

June 22, 2016 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

If you know me personally, you know how much I like going to the theater. I enjoy musicals, drama, comedy, classic and contemporary, big and small productions; I watch anything and everything: from the biggest names on stage to community theater.  For professional reasons, I am presently in New York City, and I have taken this opportunity, as I always do, to see as many plays and musicals as allowed by my busy agenda.  This past weekend, I saw “On Your Feet!” the musical that tells the story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, the world famous musician/producer and songwriter/musician/performer respectively.

The play is full of beautiful music, with top-notch singers and dancers in a production second to none, but the most relevant aspect of the musical is the story.  The performance takes you by the hand through the lives of Emilio Estefan and Gloria Fajardo, with all of the highs and lows they have experienced in life. From Emilio’s childhood when a little boy had to say goodbye to his family in Cuba in order to escape the atrocities of the Castro regime, to little Gloria’s life in Miami as part of an immigrant family that faced all obstacles encountered by those who move to another country, with a different culture that is expressed in an unknown language, as well as the devastating Multiple Sclerosis that her father suffered during Gloria’s youth.  The play shows us how a strong will, ambition, determination, and hard work (and huge talent), were key to their success.  The musical is in English, but it is culturally and linguistically permeated by a Cuban atmosphere at every step.  It does not hide or minimize the struggle to be accepted when you look, speak, and sound different.

During (in my opinion) the most important scene of the play, already successful Gloria and Emilio meet their record producer to convince him to back an album in English. By then, they were famous and recognized in the Hispanic world and culture everywhere, but they lived in the United States and wanted to reach everybody with their music. The producer tells them that their music is popular with those who share a Hispanic taste, that their style is for latinos, that their work would never make it in the wider English speaking American society. He suggests they stick to their culture and stay Cuban. At this point, a very angry Emilio approaches the producer, and within a paper-thin distance from the producer’s face tells him: “look at my face up close, and take a good look, because this is how Americans look”.

At that point, the audience reacted with a huge applause. It was extremely moving, and very telling. In a few words, Emilio had summarized the reality that we are currently facing in the United States as a nation, and in the rest of the world as the human species.  Emilio’s face is the face of all immigrants, refugees, political and economic, who leave everything, and sometimes everyone, behind to pursue an opportunity to contribute to society at large.  As interpreters we are constantly exposed to people from all walks of life and from all corners of earth. We interact with them on a daily basis and we see first- hand their flaws and their qualities. This is our reality, but it is not everyone’s; In fact, most people, especially those who do not live in the big urban areas in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, spend a big part of their life around people who look like them, act like them, think like them, and speak a common language with a familiar accent.  This is the rule around the world; we, and some other professionals who work with different cultures, are the exception.

As interpreters, we hear different languages spoken with different accents every day, it is part of our “normal”; but we need plays like “On Your Feet!” for the rest of the people who are too quick to form an opinion and disqualify others a priori, just because they do not share their language, wear the same clothes, or eat the same food. This is the true value of the play: one that goes beyond the challenges that the Estefans had to overcome to get to the top and stay there. Given the current environment generated by the U.S. presidential campaign, the brexit vote in the U.K., and people’s attitude towards war refugees, and indigenous immigrants all over the world, artistic manifestations like this one give us an opportunity to reflect and talk to others about what is really important.

I believe that theater and our profession are connected.  In both cases we are only successful when our message is understood by others. Plays and musicals are written in a particular language, and they cannot reach a universal audience unless they are translated. Can you imagine a world where only English speakers knew Shakespeare, or Spanish speakers were the only ones enjoying the works of Lope de Vega? It seems impossible, but it is only possible because of the work of many translators who have taken these and many other works to the masses for centuries.

As a theater lover, I try to see plays and musicals everywhere I go, particularly in those cities famous for their theater.  Every time I am in New York City, London, Chicago, Toronto, Madrid, Buenos Aires, or Mexico City, I make a deliberate effort to attend a play. I enjoy musicals and plays in their original language, but as an interpreter, I am always fascinated by a good translation and localization of a play.

Although the success or failure of a foreign play rests on the shoulders of the translator, it is rare to see a program, or a marquee that credits the translator. I have examined many programs to discover at the end of the booklet that the people who provided the lightbulbs for the stage are credited on the program, but the translator is usually missing.

It is for this reason that I was in shock when I saw that a translator was given a very well-deserved credit for a very difficult play.

I was in Madrid about two years ago. It was late in the afternoon after a very exhausting job. I really needed something to lift my spirits and at the same time take my mind away from more work waiting for me the next day. Of course, I immediately thought about going to the theater, and before I knew it, I found myself at the steps of Teatro Lope de Vega on the Gran Vía. I looked up and saw that they were showing “El Rey León”. By then, I had already seen The Lion King many times in New York City, London, and Mexico City, so I hesitated for a minute. Another theater was showing “Chicago” a couple of blocks down the street, but after a quick reflection, I decided to buy a ticket for the Spanish version of The Lion King.

It turns out that I made the right choice, the play was excellent, actors, musicians, costume designers.  Everybody did a first-class job; but the best part in my opinion, was the translation and adaptation of the play. Dialogues, lyrics, and cultural references were all impeccable. I had seen the musical in Spanish before in Mexico City, but humor is very different in Madrid, and the localization was excellent. Moreover, translating a play with some dialogues and lyrics in Swahili, leaving those portions untouched, but making them fit the Spanish version, despite the fact that they had been originally conceived with English in mind, was an enormous task. The translation was very good.

Everything I have shared with you resulted on a memorable experience that I still bring up to my friends and colleagues more than two years after the fact, but the highlight of the evening happened when, as I was reading the program, I found the translator. There he was: Jordi Galceran, from Barcelona, getting a well-deserved credit for his work. I never forgot that moment, and since that night, I continue to look for the translator on every program; unfortunately, for the most part, I cannot find any names. For this reason, I have taken the opportunity that this blog entry, on diversity and tolerance in a Broadway musical gave me, to advocate for the respect and recognition that our translator friends and colleagues deserve. I now invite you to share your stories on diversity and tolerance of foreign groups and cultures, and to write down the names of any translators of plays or musicals that you may want to honor by mentioning them here.

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§ One Response to Theater, translators, and the unique world we inhabit.

  • Two of my grand daughters, who attend a Spanish immersion school, participated in a children’s adaptation of Lion King, in English, with the Swahili kept in. They both enjoyed it, and one of them, several days later, was featured in the Orange County Register. She played the Lion King as a juvenile, before his voice changed. I think these presentations are extremely important for our children’s development.

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