Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Translating Talk

Now this is something that has interested me before: the Literary Translators' Association of Canada is hosting a talk on March 3rd on "Translating the Spoken Word" in The Book of Negroes.

It fascinates me because so much rests on what characters say in a story, and what they say is so dictated by the language, the time, and the culture that they live in. It's vitally important (as came up in an Ottawa Storytellers meeting I was at last night) that the words of the characters - and their diction, and their idiom - serve the story and convey more than just what they're saying. And in translation that becomes a whole separate challenge.

I remember, while rereading Umberto Eco's novel Foucault's Pendulum, years back, suddenly becoming aware of his (frankly brilliant) translator, William Weaver. It was because I was reading along in a passage where the characters were engaged in a funny, witty, snappy bunch of dialogue, and I noticed ... a bit of slang, or a reference to something in pop culture, that had seemed completely natural to me. Until I remembered that the whole passage had originally been in Italian. The novel is set in Italy. The characters are undeniably - essentially - Italian. And I caught myself thinking, "what the hell did Weaver have to go through, if this is not an idiom in Italian, to find an idiom that would make sense in English and still fit the characters?"

Since then, I've been, in a sidelong kind of way, really interested in the question of translation. I remember talking to Marie Bilodeau on Literary Landscapes a year or so ago: she is a native French speaker who didn't really speak English until adulthood, and who now writes fantasy and science fiction novels - in English. And she told me that she wouldn't translate her own work into French, and isn't sure if she's got a 'voice' in French.

It's fascinating. I don't, and can't, translate. But I think I'd like to catch this talk.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Literary Landscape tonight!

So, tonight I'm breaking from the usual trend of talking to someone about an upcoming book launch or reading or what have you: I read Pearl Pirie's post on poetry and performance on her blog, and thought, yup, that's something I think I want to talk to Pearl about on the show! Check out the post, and then tune in tonight at 6:30 (CKCUfm, 93.1)!

(And, after the show, I'll try and post the audio here in case you miss it.)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Oscar Wilde? Bollywood? WTF?

This weekend a friend and I got to go see Plosive Productions' The Importance of Being Earnest at the Gladstone. I have had a bit of a soft spot for the play since I was a teenager (when, by way of illustrating something in the middle of an after-dinner conversation, my dad once got me to read through the Lady Bracknell interrogation scene with him. Something to do with his wondering how I would decide to deliver the line "A ... handbag?!?")

It's a terribly clever script, of course, packed with so many one-liners and quotes and aphorisms and tight little reversals and verbal fireworks that you're almost certain to get a laugh out of at least a tenth of them, no matter what you do. After that tenth, the rest of the laughs have to do with how good your actors are. And this production had some solid actors - leading the pack were Stewart Matthews as Jack and Garrett Quirk (what a terrific name, especially for this show) as Algy.

But - but - oh, I can't go any further into the show, really, without addressing the looming, unavoidable thing that's breathing down my neck. I have to get this out of the way. For some reason, God knows why, the director (David Whitely) decided to set the play in British India. And in the 1920's, which is sort of peripheral. Okay. . . fine, upperclass twits are upperclass twits wherever - and whenever - you go in the Empire. Global search and replace London to Calcutta, Shropshire to the Punjab, Victoria Station to Howrah Station, etc. There's an extensive glossary in the program to explain all of the replacements, and I have to be impressed at the research that went into it: looking up a Calcutta cultural equivalent of "the Empire Theatre" or "Willis'."

But I mentioned to my friend, going into the theatre, that I was really curious to figure out why they had decided to do that. As it turned out, the setting didn't change anything, really. The characters are all the same, the story rattles along as archly and cleverly as ever. Except that it was set in India, and the servants popping in and out were Indian. Oh, and then every so often they parachuted in an inexplicable sitar player (Sheldon Heard). Only in the second half: at one point he comes out and plays for a minute or so, when the tea trays come out and Gwendolen and Cecily are being frosty. Then he abruptly stops playing and scurries off stage, presumably because he senses a fight brewing between the two women, although it's not that clear. Then at another point, the lights go dim on the side of the stage where the action is taking place and for no discernible reason he comes out, settles down, and plays while Henna Kaur Sodhi, playing the servant Merriman, performs an Indian classical dance. Don't get me wrong, she was beautiful to watch and an excellent dancer. But what was she doing in the middle of the scene? When the dance was finished, they walked off, the lights went up, and Algy and Jack were still sitting in the garden eating muffins.

Disconcerting though the slight stabs at "Indian-ness" were, the crowning silliness came at the end, when after everything's come to its frothy conclusion, the servants came back out with a bunch of colourful scarves, the music came up, and my friend nudged me. "They're not going to do a Bollywood number, are they?" she asked. I didn't say anything. We both knew the answer. And they did. A slightly haphazard and rather white Bollywood dance number, complete with one of the actors lip-synching some of the vocals, and Lady Bracknell doing hip shimmies.

It was jarring, it was weird, and it came close to driving the entirety of the rest of the play out of our heads. And it went on just that bit too long, with the actors dancing around and clapping in time and waving their scarves around.

It occurred to me what the reasoning might have been: In this day and age, where do you find a romantic comedy that hinges on social standing but in Bollywood? Yup, The Importance of Being Earnest is a great plot for a Bollywood movie, a la Bride and Prejudice. But it seems to me that if you're going to do that, you should go all the way. Get an Indian cast, get someone to write you a couple of catchy tunes, and reimagine the play. The way this turned out, it's like someone had the idea, but then had to invent ways to fit the India theme in so the Bollywood dance number at the end would have had some setup. It didn't work.

Which is a shame, because there was some solid acting, as I said. Stewart Matthews was a lot of fun as Jack - and his timing, especially paired with Garrett Quirk as Algy, was really impressive. He's a really good comic actor, and the two of them pulled off, physically, the same sort of quick, clever wit as is in the dialogue. And Quirk's characterization of Algy was great - he was a completely disarming insouciant rake, and someone ought to register his devilish smile as a deadly weapon (which he deployed knowingly.) In the first half he spoke too fast at times, tripping himself up and burying some of the dialogue, but he settled into it in the second half.

Bronwyn Steinberg, as Cecily, was adorably bubbly, and her scene with Algy, where she explains to him that in her diary they've been engaged for months, was great. I thought Katie Bunting's Gwendolen was a little severe at first, but got used to her by the end of the play. Kel Parsons' Lady Bracknell wasn't quite the force of nature she could have been - some of her great lines ("To lose one parent..." for example) would have benefitted from a pause, or a reaction. Something to set them up before delivery.

But as we walked out, my friend said, "I can't remember the play now. All I can remember is that Bollywood bit."

Monday, February 7, 2011

You know you're hooked when...

The other night I had a fairly vivid dream about retelling Frederik Pohl's classic SF story 'The Day After The Day The Martians Came' at Once Upon a Slam. It's strange, because so far I haven't really been able to picture telling a literary story. I know that people do it, but somehow it just didn't seem like the kind of thing I could do. I couldn't really imagine doing anything but personal stories.

But then on Saturday night I was talking to my friend Simon - who wanted to be at the last story slam but couldn't - and somehow the subject came up of telling a Lovecraft story. I think it was because the last slam's Sacrificial Teller was Marie Bilodeau, and she did a story inspired by 'The Shunned House.' And it suddenly struck me that you could do some Lovecraft stories in five minutes... you'd just have to pick your story. Simon hadn't really realized that you could tell a literary story - someone else's work - and I told him yeah, sure, you could do any kind of story: folk tales, ghost stories, literary stories... you could even do 'The Statement of Randolph Carter' if you thought you could get it into five minutes...

And I think I'd been thinking along those lines. Anyway, I woke up the other morning out of a dream in which I was at the slam, ready to get up, and running the "Martian jokes" that are central to Pohl's story through in my head. Reminding myself that I didn't need to remember all of them as long as I remembered enough. Trying to figure out how to deliver the zinger of a last line.

Ruthanne, who runs the slam, will probably be pretty pleased about this.

She's created a monster.