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From the Corner of a Theatre Translator

© Maya Pandit

By Prof. Maya Pandit

Translating a play is quite different, I feel, from translating other literary and non-literary texts. A play by itself is a kind of ‘double-talk’, both present and not present, reality and fiction; it is written form but actually it is to be spoken. It has an overarching gestic, performative dimension, and one must have an ear that hears unspoken voices, an eye that sees bodies in all gestural dimensions and ‘perform’ in consonance with other ‘bodies'. The textual and performative levels merge . The verbal text is only part of the total script of performance.

In my theatre translations, I have attempted to partially re-structure, re-create this performance. This is easier said than done! The challenges involved are so multifarious that one remains permanently in the twilight zone of doubt! Let me share my experience of translating some of these challenges I faced in my own modest work: translating three plays from English into Marathi (Eka Atireki Kaidyacha Apaghati Mrutyu, Jag and Mahadevbhai) and five from Marathi into English (Chanakya Vishnugupta, Routes and Escape Routes, Gamble, Pass the Buck on Brother, and The Nowhere People).

I began with Dario Fo’s play An Accidental Death of an Anarchist in the eighties. I was part of left and women’s movements in Maharashtra and the politics of his plays struck a chord with my ideological and political convictions. The play, an English translation of the original Italian play about police repression and state – induced violence, brought home a situation we also experienced as striking women, labourers, workers, and “naxalites.” Since humour was the most important political tool of this play, it appealed to me immensely as a form of cultural-political action.

But my ‘articulation’ was a failure initially when I rendered the play as “faithfully” as possible in standard Marathi. It was going nowhere because the gestic dimensions of the original text simply wilted in standard Marathi. The translation was becoming quite ‘boring’ as it lacked the verve and vigour of ‘perfromability’ required. The conventions of the proscenium theatre did not work out well and the standard language used was too weak to shoulder the tremendous violence underlying the farcical situations and caricatures of the policemen. I decided to re-translate the play in the ‘non-standard’ regional Marathi, closer to the folk form of Tamasha, which I felt was elastic enough to incorporate all the ‘profane’ that tries to caricature the so-called ‘sacred’. (I loved writing the abuses!) I changed the ‘anarchist’ to ‘political’ in the title and borrowed heavily from the performative tradition of Tamasha: caricatures of policemen, comments on political leaders, a bare stage setting and crude and raucous language. Instead of ‘lavani’ or ‘powada’s in Tamasha, I used revolutionary and satirical songs written by a poet friend. (Unlike Tamasha, there were no dances.) In the process of staging , the play came alive. (Two groups, ‘Pratyaya’ in Kolhapur, and ‘Natya Aradhana’ in Solapur did several performances in Maharashtra).

The translation, I realize now, employed domestication as a strategy as it moved the spectators, not towards the situation in Italy and the original author, but towards their own context that witnessed violence against workers, students on educational campuses, gang rapes of women in police stations and repression of dissident voices. The translation aimed at making an intervention in the public consciousness. Marathi has a tradition of political plays but that was mostly in the form of discussion plays. This political play was full of action. The translation was an ‘in-between hybrid form’, neither belonging to the original theatre nor to the receiving culture.

The second play I chose for translation was Dario Fo and Franca Rame’s one-actor Awakening which is about a working class girl coping with the unbearable strain of responsibilities of home and work place in capitalist society. It was sheer delight to translate the play! Except for making a few minor changes ( viz.names of characters and appropriate utensils, mother’s baby talk etc), there was hardly any tough challenges I faced. It was in fact my story! - the story of a working woman struggling against patriarchal norms, male domination in work place and the ‘family’. Standard Marathi was adequate. This translation also lent itself easily to performance. (Two groups performed it, one in Kolhapur and the other in Hyderabad).

The same was the case with Ramu Ramanathan’s play Mahadevbhai, making waves on the Mumbai English theatre. Again the play presented few problems for translation, linguistic or otherwise. And the gestic dimension was so organically fused with the text that performative possibilities opened up like petals of a flower. Again the reason for translating this play was to seek an intervention in the popular theatre discourse, making people see history and contemporary reality through the portrayal of Mahadevbhai and Gandhiji. When I first saw a performance of the play by Jaimini Pathak, I was electrified and my intense desire was to reach this play to Marathi audiences against the increasingly threatening rise of the Ultra Right, the tendency to denigrate the Father of the Nation who taught us to wield the tools of Truth and Non-violence, and increasing trend of globalization. The language and structure of the play, the subtle humour and humane engagement with political issues – these were so different from the Marathi theatre as I knew, that I felt I had to take it to my Marathi theatre friends. My group Pratyaya did several public readings of the play and also staged it. Some other amateur groups also performed it in state competitions.

I also translated a few songs into Marathi for translations of plays by Bertolt Brecht (Mr. Puntila and his Man Matti) and Girish Karnad (Nagmandala) and that, again, was an amazingly delightful process. The songs and music drew a lot of appreciation from the audiences.

But I certainly had a different experience with my English translations of Marathi plays, which were milestones on the alternative / experimental Marathi theatre. Plays like Mukta Dixit’s Jugar (Gamble) or G P Deshpande’s Chanakya Vishnugupta presented no serious challenges. I used the standard Indian English which readers told me was all right. But the translation of Marathi dalit plays such as Datta Bhagat’s Wata Palwata (Routes and Escape Routes), or Sanjay Pawar’s Kon Mhanato Takka Dila, (Pass the Buck on Brother) posed challenges of a very different kind. The issue was how to reach the dalit issues to the directors, actors and audiences on the national and international stage in a theatre language familiar to them. (I myself was not familiar with that theatre). The original plays had a tremendous subversive potential as they looked critically at the past, present and future of the contemporary dalit movement from the perspective of both an insider and an outsider. Now English has race, gender, regional specificity, but it does not have caste! Caste could not be translated as a race issue! Therefore the receiving culture of English had to move to the original authors and the dalit issues and social criticism.

Wata Palwata at least was closer to a discussion play in its structure but Sanjay Pawar’s Pass the Buck On brother actually combined conventions and ‘actions’ from Tamasha, drawing room comedy and Marathi experimental theatre in its use of diverse dialects, bizarre situations, stringent humour and strong characterization. The gestic dimensions were integrated beautifully in the text. The challenge was how to propose functionally adequate equivalents in the translation. I didn’t know any ‘dalit’ variety of English! Except for a general non-standard English, I was not able to do much except remain ‘faithful’ to the original, without using any restructuring strategies. The translations therefore entered into a different zone of reception altogether; they remained ‘closet plays’. This was especially true about Jayant Pawar’s play Adhantar (The Nowehere People) which combined diverse non-standard varieties of Marathi: the Konkani, the pseudo-academic, the lumpen and lower class. All the spoken, religious, mythological local and political references got lost in the plain standard English I used.

This is no justification for my failure to produce an adequate translation, of course! I do not know whether these plays will ever be taken out of the closet to be staged. Till that happens the plays lie in a limbo, in an in-between space, that belongs neither to Marathi or English. They cannot be linked organically to either dalit or textile workers’ oppression or other forms of performative traditions.
I am aware that my experience in theatre translation is too narrow and restricted to make any strong general statements. Should a translator translate plays only in her mother tongue? But if she doesn’t translate into other language/s she may know, how do the texts from her own language reach outside? How does she help reach her own language texts to the world of Indian theatre then?
This write up is a modest beginning in the exploration of the challenges of translating English plays into Marathi, and Marathi plays into English. Someone should try to see if the translated texts require to undergo transformations in the process of their actual staging. The documentation of performance - or preparing ‘actual play scripts’ could draw maps of the processes involved in arriving at the performance, besides the additions, deletions and restructuring and reformulations of the gestic dimensions of the original play. That would contribute to our understanding of how we bring alive the in-between spaces of translation of theatre texts and capture new horizons of creative articulations.

1. Eka Atireki Kaidyacha Apaghati Mrutyu, Marathi translation of Dario Fo’s An Accidental Death of an Anarchist , Garjana, Diwali issue, Kolhapur,1985
2. Jag, translation of Dario Fo and Franca Rame’s Awakening in Milun Saryajani, March 1995
3. Chanakya Vishnugupta English translation of Marathi play by same title by G P Deshpande) Seagull, Kolkata, 1996
4. Routes and Escape Routes English translation of Marathi play Wata Palwata by Datta Bhagat, in Drama Contemporary, ed. Erin Mee, Johns Hopkins, 2001
5. Gamble English Translation with Uday Narkar of Marathi play Jugar by Mukta Dikshit with introductory article “Women in Marathi Theatre” in Staging Resistance (ed) Tutun Mukherjee , OUP, Chennai, 2005, pp263 – 360
6. Mahadevbhai English translation of Ramu Ramnathan’s play of the same name, Popular, Mumbai, 2012
7. Pass the Buck on Brother, translation of Sanjay Pawar’s Marathi play Kon Mhanto Takka Dila , in Gender, Space and Resistance: Women and Theatre in India (ed) Anita Singh: DK Print World, New Delhi 2013
8. The Nowhere People translation of Jayant Pawar’s Marathi play Adhantar in Gender, Space and Resistance: Women and Theatre in India (ed) Anita Singh: DK Print World, New Delhi 2013