Staff Writer Julia Tolda learns about translating plays and decides to become a translator at the International Play Reading Festival.

My alarm goes off at 10 am and I roll out of bed, ready to join my first Zoom meeting of the day. I am just in time for the penultimate event of the 3rd Columbia University School of the Arts International Play Reading Festival. This yearly festival presents readings of three plays by living international playwrights alongside conversations with the playwrights and translators. The 2020 edition, in order to reach a wider audience and ensure the safety of attendees, was held entirely online as a series of podcasts.

The three plays chosen this year were Taxi Radio by Nophand, Rarámuri Dreams by Camila Villegas, and May 35th by Candace Chong Mui Ngam.

Written around karaoke hits, Taxi Radio is a Thai dark comedy about five beings stuck in traffic on a stormy night in Bangkok. Calling forth the afterlife and higher powers, playwright and translator Nophand critiques cycles of corruption.

Mexican playwright Camila Villegas tells the story of two Rarámuri parents, Nicolasa and Jacinto, in their quest for justice and redemption in the face of a broken system in Rarámuri Dreams. The play unfolds in Northern Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental, and translated by Daniel Jáquez, becomes a trilingual narrative: Spanish, English, and Rarámuri mingle on stage constantly.

Lastly, written by Candace Chong Mui Ngam, May 35th explores human aspiration for freedom alongside the complexities of personal and political history. Set 30 years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, Sui Lum and Ah Dai grapple with the censorship and repression of the event. Due to the nature of the play, May 35th was translated from Cantonese by an anonymous translator, who was not present during the event I attended.

Moderated by Susan Bernofsky, translators Nophand and Daniel Jáquez discussed the particular challenges they undertook to bring both plays into English.

Originally a bilingual play, Jáquez transformed Raráumi Dreams into a trilingual story, retaining much of the original text in Spanish and Raráumi. The use of the Raráumi language was crucial for the context of the play, the story of two indigenous Mexican people, which could not be changed in an English translation. Jáquez complimented Villegas’ lyricism, and her ability to capture the voices of the Raráumi, a feature he sought to preserve in his translation. He commented on the difficulty of translating cultural ideas into English, as well as anglicisms.

When talking about his process of translating, Jáquez encouraged listeners to “pick the right piece”: not only something they personally connect with but that they felt the need to translate. For him, translation is key in showcasing the voices of those usually not heard, it is a way to travel and see other points of view. Growing up bilingual and with experience in acting, Jáquez’s greatest advice in translating plays was to surround oneself with people who have a point of view on the subject you are writing about. That way, the translation remains authentic, no matter how adapted to another language.

Nophand, the playwright of Taxi Radio, discussed the influence of his background in his choice to translate his own work. Born in Thailand but brought up in London, Nophand listened to a lot of eclectic music growing up, which now plays a large role in his writing process. After working for many years as a film translator in Thailand, Nophand understood the importance of rhythm, sound, and poetry in translating which he applied to his own play. There are many ways to say something, but the manner chosen by the writer reveals what in the story is the most important.

Due to the online nature of the performance, Nophand was unable to use much of the music he selected for the play, as the songs chosen could lead to copyright infringement. Instead of writing his own songs (“I’m not creative enough for that,” he joked), Nophand allowed the dialogue to carry the story. In the translation, he mentioned having to add some lines and remove some cultural practices which did not make sense for an American audience, like a fast-paced radio station that announced horrifying accidents and deaths. For him, translation is important as all stories are relevant because we are human, because we all struggle with the same thoughts.

Susan Bernofsky did a wonderful job moderating the event, asking interesting questions related to the translators’ works, and also bringing her own work as a translator to the table. I was pleasantly surprised to meet her after reading one of her texts in my Introduction to Translation lecture. She mentioned how she found herself adding more words to her English translations to imitate the length of German words, their musicality, and their strength. Similarly, she shared an anecdote on translating a play in which the playwrights asked her to set the story in New York to make it feel universal. She refused.

The event’s goal to expand contemporary American understanding of theater beyond English and to breakdown artistic borders was definitely achieved. Hearing accomplished translators talk about their work processes with such excitement and honesty was refreshing, and I felt inspired to continue seeking art in new languages, with stories much different from mine. “Translation is the most intimate act of reading,” said Gayatri Spivak, and I couldn’t agree more.

Image of the panelists via Columbia Arts’ event page

Editor’s Note, 10/27 1:09 PM: We have corrected this article for the correct spelling of Susan Bernofsky’s name.