Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The Translator And The Actor At Cross-Purposes

I don't know how to write about this. If I'd intended to blog about the process of M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A. I should have started months ago, at the beginning. Now I need to think - and by think I mean write- about last night, but I can't start there, or nothing will make any sense. I'll have to start at the beginning after all, and see if I can follow my thoughts to where I stand.

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The beginning came courtesy of Phoebe, an old friend in Athens who is a journalist but used to be an actor. She reported for the BBC World Service on Greek theatre's response to the economic crisis, discussing several plays that sounded intriguing. Selfish motives foremost in my mind, I asked if any of them might be suitable for translation and performance in English. She replied that the best thing she'd seen in Athens last year was not notably political, but, come to think of it, it might suit me perfectly. It was Μ.Α.Ι.Ρ.Ο.Y.Λ.Α a one woman show written by Lena Kitsopoulou and performed, to great acclaim, by Maria Protopappa.  I asked another good friend, Maro, who also has a deep knowledge of theatre and excellent taste, though different aesthetic preferences from Phoebe. She too, said the show was very powerful, though she warned me it was full of wordplay and references to Greek culture, that it would be almost impossible to translate.

I had to read it. I contacted Lena, whom I didn't know, with some trepidation, but she was warm and friendly, cheerfully sending me a copy of the performance script. I loved it. It surged off the page with a reckless, flamboyant energy; fascinating, exasperating, as alive as any text I've ever seen. I wrote to her again, being perfectly frank about my near total lack of resources;  nevertheless we agreed easily on the terms by which I could use her work. It's not necessary to like a playwright whose work you're dying to perform, but I like Lena very much. Even if M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A. never gets off the ground in English, I'll have had the pleasure of getting to know her a bit.

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I'm not going to say I didn't struggle with the translation, because I did to some extent, particularly with a section in the middle that's made up almost entirely of punning acronyms. For this section, I sought, and received help from a mixed group of Greek friends and family, who got me unstuck and on the right track more than once. I also had a wonderful time doing it, and found it much easier than I anticipated. I've worked as a translator on and off, it's a natural occupation for someone brought up bilingual, but I'd translated marketing bumf, academic texts, a coffee table book, never a work of art. I loved translating M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A., it was the most fun I've ever had at my desk. If you're reading this and you know anyone who might need a literary translator - Greek to English- please put us in touch. This isn't really a joke; I could use the work.

I won't talk about the content except in general terms. It's a rip-roaring rollercoaster of a stream of consciousness monologue, whose clever, self-aware protagonist tries to conceal her own truths under a slew of great universals and outrageous jokes, some deft, some clunky, and ends up revealing more than she thinks. It's a lovely play. It's also a play that requires a great performance; something with depth, comic timing, a huge emotional range, nuance, layers. Nothing less could carry it, could even begin to approach the power of the words on the page.
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It's also a play that strikes very close to home for me. Like me, the protagonist is an actor in early middle age. Like me she is single, language-obsessed, unhappy - unlike me she is childless. There are so many mistakes to make in the performing of it; melodrama beckons, and glib reliance on the wit of the text, so does a cathartic self-indulgent wallow. Now, I didn't come back to acting, my first love, in my 30's because I was scared of a big, juicy, complex part. And I didn't spend two months translating M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A. to balk at playing her. But neither was I unconscious of the scale of the difficulty, of how very much dedicated character work it was going to take to do it properly, nor stupid enough to try it on my own.

I was going to need a director. Not only a very good one, but one who cared about new writing enough to take on this odd and entirely unknown text from another culture,  and would be willing to entrust the acting to me, an odd and entirely unknown actor from another culture. Fortunately, I knew an excellent director, whom I trusted aesthetically and as a person, and she'd seen me do a short solo piece I was quite proud of. It would serve as an audition. She is Louie Ingham, Associate Artist at The Duke's Theatre in Lancaster, where I live, and recently director of one of the most moving things I'd seen there. I sent her the script. She loved it, we agreed to apply for funding, to try to make it happen. I was thrilled, thrilled and impatient to start. Also slightly incredulous, needing the reassurance of a starting date to believe it was real. But Louie's schedule was packed. The earliest we could start development was mid - May. Rehearsals were unlikely to begin before autumn.

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There I was, with a freshly translated play I was itching to start work on, and no director for weeks or months yet. And there came an invitation to a scratch night, issued by undergraduates at my old university. This, I thought to myself, was a great opportunity to try out  a short extract from the script. Undirected of course. I wouldn't attempt to play the character, just speak the words in a way that made sense to me, to see if my translation actually worked in English, spoken aloud. Even just learning it would help me understand how the words felt in my body, in my mouth. It would allow me to further polish the translation, to make sure it was a dramatic text, not just a literary one. I would have no ego riding on the performance because I would have put very little into it. Just learned the lines, played a bit with word stresses, come up with a bit of business. There was no point in trying to do character work, no point in going into any depth without Louie's guidance and support. It was just text, not acting.

The first indication that I might be deluded came as I re-read the script, looking for a good bit to do, an extract that had a shape to it, that gave some idea of what the play was like, without requiring any of the depths I couldn't yet supply. I chose a couple of bits, read them out a few times, started learning the one that sounded best. And stopped. I couldn't learn it. It was too far along. I'd have to start at the beginning, that's where actors start learning monologues, at the beginning. Fortunately the first two pages were pretty self-contained, almost an overture. I started learning them.  I did redraft as I learned, finding the places that didn't flow out loud, and that was good. I learned it more easily than I've ever learned any text, probably because I'd already broken it down into thoughts in order to translate it, or maybe just because I'd worked on the English words for so long that I already knew them a bit.

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Which brings me to last night, to that scratch night, where I learned that it's one thing to say you don't care about your performance as such, just about speaking the words in English to an audience, and another thing to actually not care about your performance, as such. Don't get me wrong; I held the audience, they laughed in the right places, even got a little bit tense in the right places - a little bit.  The text certainly worked, some decisions about it that had troubled me had clearly succeeded, and my core skills in speaking text didn't fail me. But, it was empty when it should have been full, a husk instead of a ripe fruit. In Mairoula's terminology - the title is both a name and an acronym- a watermelon that was a bit unripe, not very juicy, a bit bleah.

And I hated it. I hated not giving my baby - Lena's baby - the care it deserved. It hurt. It hurt during the performance, and it still hurts. A few years ago, in the depths of an ugly depression, I spent a lot of time being emotionally distant from my young son. I'm better now, and I feel like shit about those times. It's not the same thing of course, but the flavour of that guilt is like the taste in my mind right now, the taste of having betrayed a precious, tender creature in my trust. I betrayed M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A.; not grossly, not irrevocably, but I betrayed it. And it haunts me. I've spent all day writing this just to get to these two paragraphs where I can say: How stupid of me to think I could  not care about the performance, even for the sake of the translation. I may be both translator and actor here, and who knows what else, but I can't be both at the same time. And I know it was a scratch, and presented as a work in progress, and it's not the end of the world. I know. But all the same, I'm ashamed of myself. In my enthusiasm, I volunteered to do that little extract at another couple of events. I'm cancelling those. I'll go through the rest of the text reading aloud, making changes like the ones I made in the first two pages, and that's that. The rest can wait, and I can stand waiting much better than I can stand letting the material down again.