Dear Members of The Fence (Or, Translation and its Discontents)



IMG_0793Dear members of The Fence (“an international network for working playwrights and people who make playwriting happen…misunderstanding each other since 2003”),

I had a very rewarding, interesting time with you last week in Manhattan and at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Centre in Waterford, Connecticut.

We spent fascinating days in conversation about the art of theatrical translation, how a performance text travels from one language and culture to another. I found the gathered group of individuals hugely impressive: playwrights, translators, academics (in many cases hybrid: playwright-translators, etc.) from around Europe and North America. Almost all of you are my elders, by a little or a lot; I learned from you.

I learned the most, I think, from our conflicts and disagreements. As some of you know well, I spent much of the week in variously civil, heated, and overheated debates about politics and art. I felt like a bit of a gadfly, and I did feel young: my questions and arguments had the bluntness and broadness of youth, maybe, if also a youthful attention to first principles. In rooms full of discussion of the What and How of translating plays and transposing them between cultures, I kept returning to the Why.

I harped on the Why because I was interested in those conversations insofar as they were among artists, not among specialists and technicians. Of course the translator of drama is both artist and technician: a high level of technical understanding is required alongside artistic intuition, and there’s certainly a place for conversations between professionals about the minutiae of technique.

But I felt there was a danger, at times, of the underlying philosophical and political questions of translation being taken to be clearly, unanimously settled, when they’re not so. It could be that for many Fence members in attendance, those philosophical questions were confronted long ago and answered, and the answers now form a foundation for current practice. But I didn’t always find those implied answers to be persuasive: so I was a gadfly.

I write you this letter, then, to clarify my own thoughts about our encounter (for myself as much as you) and to offer a more careful, less extempore account of the difficulties I felt our conversations raised. Most of all, I write you this letter because English playwright and translator Neil Fleming’s camera caught me, during a group discussion, looking like this:

Surly Daniel at The Fence, cropped And nobody over the age of 16 is permitted to look that surly in public without offering a full account of his actions, complete with bold topic headers.

Naïve, Childlike, Possibly Surly Questions About Translation

Why do we translate plays? Why do we want our communities to produce plays in translation that originate in other places and cultures?

Let me scoot around this question and answer it from behind (not to be coarse). I want my plays to be translated, to have a life in other places and cultures, because I think it’d be quite nice to take over the world. Not in a political way, of course, not in a I-want-to-be-dictator-of-a-totalitarian-world-state sort of way; that seems like too much trouble. I just think it’d be awfully nice to live forever everywhere, to be renowned and beloved wherever men and women live and honour beauty. That would be okay.

I’d like my plays to be produced in translation because if my work is intelligible across cultural borders I feel maybe I’ve done something right with it, captured a human truth: maybe it’s art. Also because I like to make a living as an artist, and, given the length of time it takes me to write a play and the limitations of my country’s theatre infrastructure, playwriting isn’t a financially self-sustaining endeavour unless the work is produced beyond my local community. Also because I learn from, am provoked by seeing my work interpreted in accordance with other theatre cultures’ formal conventions.

But when my work has been produced abroad, in Germany or the United States, it’s my impression that the reason it’s been produced is, at bottom, rather straightforward: somebody in one of those places thought it was good. “Good” may mean many things, of course, may be shaped by various political agendas. But there are a few things I’m pretty sure it doesn’t mean, when applied to my plays.

I don’t believe anybody who’s gotten behind my work has found it inherently very interesting that I’m a straight white man or that I’m from Canada. (“We don’t have enough of those straight white Canadian men in our season,” etc.) I don’t believe such persons have felt my work represents “the authentic Canadian Now,” “the truth about English-language Canadian experience,” “an authentically Canadian perspective/subjectivity.” I don’t believe that what they’ve liked about my work has had much to do with my culture, defined by national or linguistic identity, at all.

Though my writing sometimes dramatizes problems that exist in my culture, I feel that to the extent the work has no potentially equal or similar resonance for individuals in Mumbai or Beirut or Vienna, it’s failed. Perhaps it’s succeeded at saying something factual about my particular environment, but it’s failed to do justice to the basic human experiences and problems.

This rationale for the translation and cultural transposition of theatre can be summed up as follows: we translate and transpose work when we feel that that work is beautiful and wise and good and we wish to share what’s beautiful and wise and good with others, who would otherwise be excluded from it because of accidents of language and location.

Such a model has one main alternative, as I see it, and it’s this alternative that I challenged so often and so stubbornly in your company, dear Fencers.

(As I write this, I hear you, dearest Jonathan (Meth), object to my creation of a Binary. To which I say: okay, I am fond of binaries — right/left, advantaged/disadvantaged, etc/etc — but only insofar as they reflect real tendencies of thought. To reject binaries absolutely entails a denial that we can recognize patterns of opposition in the world. Reality includes fractals but also darkness and light. A spectrum may have directional tendencies without determining therewith the detailed character of everything in the middle.)

Sorry, sorry. I was saying: the model I’ve described above has one main alternative, as I see it. This alternative makes the following claim: difference is interesting in itself, for its own sake; one of the main reasons we look to art is to discover cultural difference and celebrate it, thereby rendering ourselves (in the West, natch) more empathic and more informed about various Others.

A Benign Neo-Colonialism?

Ideas about merit and goodness can be used for imperialist ends: the contention that liberal democracy is a transcendently and/or demonstrably good political structure has been used by Western statesmen, with varying degrees of sincerity, to help justify foreign military incursions. On the face of things, it seems that to apply a criterion of goodness/wisdom/beauty to art of different cultures may be imperialist in a related way: you apply only your own, culturally constructed idea of merit to art produced by other cultures that may not share your standards. “There is no outside” to culture, to paraphrase Foucault (with thanks to Dan Bye for the excellent post-structuralist refresher on the CT-NY train); culture is wholly determinative of standards and of modes of perception.

If you accept this thesis, however, trans-cultural criteria for merit and goodness don’t disappear: they just become identical with the recognition of difference. To engage with difference, to celebrate it and establish your non-superiority to it, becomes identical with goodness. A good work of art is one that achieves this end. A translator, whose craft enables this experience, is by definition good. Insofar as the play she’s translated exposes us to difference, it cannot but be good. We’re absolved of the need to ask questions about what makes that play good or bad beyond its otherness. How could we judge its merits anyway, if no standard of merit transcends culture and the culture that produced the artwork isn’t ours?

To look at art this way defies common sense. The issue is perhaps clearest in film, a more cosmopolitan form than theatre. One can’t really be a film buff without being a devotee of what might be called world cinema. Yet who’s ever suggested that Bergman is great because he represents the specificity of Swedish culture, Tarkovsky because he captures the essence of the Russian soul, Hirokazu Koreeda because he allows Westerners to appreciate the fascinating eccentricities of Japanese life? Of course these artists’ films reflect the various differences their cultures embody, and those films’ emotional and intellectual dynamics reveal cultural idiosyncrasies, but that’s not primarily why the films are valued by those who value film as art. World cinema, to speak of the class of art films that are exhibited first of all at festivals, is largely predicated on a universalist idea of art. It implies a belief that art’s true objects are those human experiences that aren’t culturally created or culturally contingent in a total way. It affirms the possibility of a beauty that can speak to human beings as such, or at least to a selection of human beings who have no cultural or linguistic community in common.

The danger of denying this possibility, in favour of a vision of art that makes difference identical with goodness, is that we may begin to fetishize otherness. If we do so from a position of relative cultural influence and power, our relationship to that other becomes colonial. To say, “Why aren’t there more African plays done in Canada! How awful of us Westerners!” is a neo-colonial statement — takes a condescending, reductive attitude towards the other — if the speaker affirms no value in those African plays besides their persuasive “Africanness,” their revelation of specifically and exclusively African realities.

That said, the Canadian theatre needs somehow to become aware of the Senegalese author’s play before the theatre’s staff can decide whether the play has compelling virtues besides its cultural provenance. To say, “We need to get more African plays into the hands of decision-makers in Canada,” is a just demand. But if she’s not merely to rhapsodize about the delightful oddities of the locals whom she spots from her veranda and about whom she make notes in her field diary while she sips tea, that Canadian theatre’s artistic director needs to evaluate the trans-cultural merits (or at least the valid-and-evaluable-in-both-Senegal-and-Canada merits) of that Senegalese play.

To do so, she — we — must have a conversation about what we want from art besides the celebration of difference. We recognize that not all plays are translated: why, then, do we choose some plays and not others to transpose to our culture? Is this just whim, chance? Or does it point, instead, towards a search for visions of beauty that can speak across cultures and languages?

Isn’t This A Straw Man Argument? Does Anybody Actually Think All African Plays Are Worth Putting On in the West Just Because The Plays Are From Africa?

I dunno. But that’s the implication when we talk as if translation is a good in itself, or when we scruple about applying our own standards of worth to foreign art. Because, again, if we’re unable to apply our own standards of worth, we don’t have any really felt basis to evaluate one artifact of another culture over against a second artifact of that culture. If we have no basis for choosing between artifacts (and if we’re not to make wholly arbitrary choices), we have to include all of them or exclude all of them. Which isn’t what happens, of course — some plays are chosen to be translated, others aren’t — which means some criterion of selection is applied, even if it’s just “this is the play that happened to cross our desk.” But the arguments for value-free “international outreach” persist.

So if my argument is taken to be a criticism of realities on the ground, it’s largely a straw man, but if it’s taken as a response to ideas that really circulate and are asserted (and were asserted last week in CT), it’s a tin man at least.

Okay, Daniel. So You’re Not a Translator Yourself, And You’re Ragging On Translators. Real Classy.

No, no, not at all. I’m enormously indebted to translators: there’s a wealth of wisdom and beauty that I’d never have encountered, never have been able to encounter, if not for brilliant men and women who found an English approximation for Ancient Greek, Mandarin, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Arabic, Latin, Russian, German, and Japanese words written by people who knew what they were talking about. We can be polyglots, but a lifetime isn’t enough to learn all the world’s languages and also read the great books written in them. A lifetime is hardly enough even to read the books in translation. And I give Lydia Davis almost as much credit as Proust for the beautiful English prose of her translation of Swann’s Way, Edward Snow almost as much credit as Rilke for his English renderings of Rilke’s poems, a permanent possession for me.

Also, I should say: while my arguments in this essay and my other recent essays are either good or bad or somewhere in between and can be adjudicated by anyone anywhere — while their validity and soundness, as arguments, are not “relative to culture” — I probably make these arguments in part because I’m Canadian. It’s true that I argue, give or take, for less assertion of identity and more meritocracy — but American and British readers should note that I grew up in a society that’s much less comfortable with the idea of individual genius than are the American and British traditions. If I lived in New York or London, I might find (as I have at times found) the mania for “star” artists to be a bit much. I might grow uneasy about the connections between perceived merit and backgrounds of economic privilege, and I might find the whole genius-oriented structure to be rather brutal and demeaning to its aspirants. I might feel that meritocracy is a nonfunctional idea and be attracted, as an alternative, to a politics of radical inclusion: give a platform to all the voices, all the stories, minimize hierarchical ideas of merit.

But when his culture, in its deep republicanism, is reluctant even to speak about beauty or merit, a person may need to make arguments that are opposed to what that same person would argue in a culture with monarchist impulses and a legacy of very rigid class divisions, for instance. Not because “everything is contingent on culture,” but because his feeling for a justice that transcends culture demands it.

I hope you’ve all had a nice return to your various homes, and I hope to see some of your plays and translations onstage. And when I’m moved by the intense beauty of what you’ve created, I’m happy to pretend, if you like, that what I mean by beauty, why my cheeks are damp with tears, is profoundly irreconcilable with what you mean by beauty — which, as an Anglo-Canadian trapped within the narrow walls of my culture, I can never fully understand.

Yours with affection,


p.s. I wasn’t feeling surly at that meeting, I was just cold.

p.p.s. In case you missed it above, here’s the definitive online source about Otherness and the Other:


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