our words make worlds

From Madrid to London, via Minnesota: An American Life and Triangular, Transatlantic Translation

Guest blog by William Gregory

A piece of theatre is never finished. Even once the audience sees it, its life continues. And when a new audience sees it the following night, it is remade again. Even when a playtext is published in the black-and-white, seeming permanency of print, its stability is illusory: new actors will embody the words, new directors and other theatre artists will interpret them, new audiences will reinvent them. The same is true for the translation of a play: as translators we try to take a text from one language and culture and offer it up to another, to take it on a journey from its place of origin to a new destination. But in theatre, there is never one destination; there are as many destinations as there are theatres, theatre artists, and above all audiences. When translating An American Life for the London Spanish Theatre Company, it was not a case simply of translating from Spanish into English, but of translating from Spain to the UK, from Madrid to London, from the barrio of Tetuán to the borough of Southwark, for this theatre, for this night, for this company, for these spectators.

For any play, this can be a complex matter. Who are these characters and, when translated into English, how might they express themselves? Can a play from one place ever be fully transferred to somewhere else? And how can the play as a whole be best rendered into another language in order best to communicate the author’s original intentions? Set in the US but firmly Spanish, An American Life served up challenges linked to all of these questions.

Culture and Context

When discussing the translation during a post-show discussion chaired by the London Spanish Theatre Company’s artistic director, Jorge de Juan, we considered whether one way to achieve this might be to relocate the play altogether: should the characters have been made British? This is a common question in theatre translation: for an English audience to relate to a Spanish play, is it best to remove that play from Spain entirely?

Although possible, changing a play’s geographical centre can be more complicated than it may appear. Switching names of people or places can seem like a simple way to bring a play closer to an audience, but sometimes this is not a straightforward process. In any given translation, we could turn Juan into John or María into Mary; Barcelona to Birmingham or El Corte Inglés to Marks and Spencer, but would that really move the play as easily as we think? Is there more to a Spanish play, something deeper in its cultural context and subtext that, woven through its references, through the relationships between the characters and their society, their geography, their history, that is more intangible? Rather than translating the play, are we sure that changing a few proper nouns here and there doesn’t simply disorientate it?

Lucía Carballal’s An American Life, itself a play about disorientation, is certainly a case where swapping some Spanish terms for English ones would run into difficulty very quickly. The rootedness in Spain, in Tetuán, of Paloma and her family is central to the meaning of the play. Carballal’s text is peppered throughout with so many references to Spanish popular culture that to try to substitute them for British ones would destabilise its world. Brand names abound: Bimbo, Nocilla, Mercadona, Samaiza, La Perla, to name but a few. In each case, we could perhaps find some British approximation, but would these substitutes really occupy the same place in the UK psyche as the Spanish names do for the Spanish? Could a Kingsmill white sliced loaf really have the same significance as the ubiquitous Bimbo bread? [1] Is there any brand of coffee in England with the same resonance as Samaiza?

One could try. But before too long the translator would come up against more challenges that make these ideas of simple transference even more problematic. This is especially the case in An American Life, where the importance of Spanish popular culture to the family’s backstory goes beyond the occasional brand name. Crucial to the family’s relationship with their long-lost father, for example, is the music of the iconic Spanish pop group Mecano. It is hard to explain just how major a pop-culture phenomenon this prolific band from the 1980s was in the Spanish-speaking world. Were their appearance in An American Life a mere fleeting mention, we might consider changing them for Wham, Bros, or any of the acts from the Stock, Aiken and Waterman stable. But when the Clarksons mention Mecano it is not a throwaway remark: the group and their lyrics are fundamental to their image of themselves, their lives and their feeling about their disappeared father. Carballal skilfully weaves seemingly meaningless lyrics into the thematic concerns of the play, using them to tease out the desires and longings of the Clarksons while again rooting them in the country they have come from.

And even if we could extract Mecano from the life of the Clarksons, we would still find more features of Carballal’s text to root them firmly in Spain. Not simply in Spain, but in a very specific part of it: the Madrid neighbourhood of Tetuán. The particular character of this borough of the Spanish capital is crucial to the events that have led to this ill-fated trip to Minnesota, and finding an equivalent area for a British context would not be easy. Is there anywhere in London that corresponds to Tetuán? A neighbourhood near to the centre of town, with a large Latino population but where the LGBTQ+ community might feel threatened? Would an adaptor need to find an alternative, perhaps even for the Latin American character of the area? Is the British relationship with its Latino community the same as the Spanish one? One of the largest BAME communities in the UK is South Asian: would Gladis need to become Geeta for this recontextualisation to work? This act of transference would not be impossible, but it would mean that the new American Life would increasingly be an adaptation, not a translation, straying further and further away from its original meaning.

The decision made to stick with Spain, my task was to retain these Spanish phenomena but in such a way as to make them understandable to a London audience. Luckily for Carballal’s translators, it is almost as if the author had spared a thought for them when writing the play. To keep Samaiza as the name of a coffee brand, when an English audience would not recognise it, would be a problem where it not for the fact that Carballal reminds us two lines later that it is, indeed, coffee. When Mecano are mentioned, Paloma and Linda have a conversation that gives us some sense of who the group are and what their significance is.

The same is true for Tetuán. When mother and child debate the rights and wrongs of Paloma’s planned ‘queer refuge’, the audience are given chance too to learn something about what kind of place Tetuán is, thanks to the content of the argument.

LINDA: Mum, Tetuán’s a Latino neighbourhood. No one knows what ‘queer’ means.
PALOMA: We’ll explain it.
LINDA: It’s full of Christian centres.
PALOMA: We’ve always been the neighbourhood pioneers, and we’re not going to stop now.

For a play that is so filled with cultural references as to pose, at first sight, many conundrums for the translator, Carballal has in fact made this particular aspect of the job remarkably easy.

So the Clarksons are staying Spanish, at least in this translation. The next question is how? The cast of the reading of An American Life were themselves concerned about this question. Should they try to be ‘more Spanish’? And if so, what would that mean? There are often short-cut responses to such a concern. Do it in a Spanish accent, perhaps? Or, as one actor suggested, try to be ‘more passionate’? Perhaps trying to do some ‘Spanish’ gesticulation?

It does not take long for these suggestions to run into difficulty. Lilac Yosiphan, the Israeli director of the reading, put this very eloquently when discussing Israeli plays performed in English. She had no desire, she said, to hear actors affecting thick ‘Israeli accents’ while speaking in English, in some attempt to reaffirm the Isreali-ness of the play. If this approach were applied repeatedly, there would be a risk of painting each and every play produced in English in broad cultural brush strokes that fall into stereotype and give every play a sheen of superficial similarity.

Rather, the ‘Spanishness’ of An American Life (or any other Spanish play) lies in its specificity. Carballal’s play is not Spanish in general; it is Spanish in a specific way. The Spanishness of Paloma, Robin Rose and Linda lies not in a Spanish accent or an exaggerated gesture, but in how they, as individual characters, relate to themselves, each other, and their situation. To be ‘more Spanish’ as a British actor is to work to understand better the context of Spain, of Tetuán, in the moment when the play is set. What does it feel like to be a Spanish woman, rather than a British one? How has Spain developed sociologically, politically, historically in ways that make life complex for someone like Robin Rose in ways that are different to the experience their UK counterpart may have? When Paloma refers to a moment in time when US air bases were setting up in Spain, US soldiers were appearing in Madrid and American fashions seemed seductive, how did that feel? How was this different to living in London at the same time, given that the British had been familiar with US bases ever since the Second World War?

For a rehearsed reading, it was possible only to scratch the surface of these questions, but in the ideal world of a full rehearsal period, it is these particular cultural, sociological and historical questions that will unlock the Spanishness, or rather the specificity, of the play. The translation of a play lies not just in its words, but in a deeper understanding of all of those things that make the world of the play specific to its characters, author, culture and context, and in exploring how these can be interpreted clearly in the production that results.

Use of Language, and Language as a Theme

One fascinating challenge when translating a play can arise when the text itself includes use of language as one of its thematic concerns. This can relate to the use of the language of the source text, Spanish, or indeed to the use of the target text, in this case English. In An American Life, both of these themes run through the piece: finding themselves in the United States, the Clarksons need to use English to communicate and, to say the least, each do so with varying skill; meanwhile, Robin Rose’s non-binary gender identity leads to Paloma and Linda struggling to adapt the Spanish language to speak to, and about them.

In the case of English, Paloma’s misuse of English is key to one of the more comic and endearing elements of her personality. Despite always having adored the idea of America, she has never quite mastered the English language and her children are variously annoyed and entertained by this. Translations into English of plays that include English in their original version often prove challenging. How, in an English translation, does one differentiate between when the characters are speaking their own language and when they are speaking English, for example? In the case of An American Life, these challenges certainly exist, but the fact of being in the US, when the play is to be presented in the UK, allowed for some entertaining, creative solutions.

Conveniently, differences between US and British English proved sufficient to replicate Paloma’s linguistic mistakes in the English translation. Doing her best to adapt to local traditions, Paloma suggests to Robin Rose that they go to Cold Springs (which she pronounces ‘Colesprin’) for a ‘sangüis’. Linda corrects her: ‘Se dice sandwich, mamá’. It would be odd in the English translation for Paloma to mispronounce the word ‘sandwich’, but fortunately there exists in the US a kind of sandwich which is less familiar to British visitors, and which could realistically result in an equivalent mispronunciation:

PALOMA: (To ROBIN ROSE.) Why don’t you go to Cold Springs and buy something for breakfast? One of those hoggies.
LINDA: It’s hoagies, Mum.

Elsewhere in the play, Paloma’s mistakes with English lead to more general amusement. Pretending to have been searching for hair product, she struggles with the simple word grease.

PALOMA: (Miente.) He ido a buscar gomina.
ROBIN ROSE: ¿Gomina?
PALOMA: Sí. El bosque entero me he cruzado, de caravana en caravana, mendigando un poco de glis.
LINDA: Se dice “grease”, madre.
PALOMA: Gris, como el 4 de julio.

Again, for the English translation, performed by a British actor, to include this mispronunciation, glis, would seem very odd, considering the word ‘grease’ is perfectly well-known in Britain. Luckily for us, however, there were some options that arose that continued to play on the idea of US verses British English and how they can sometimes cause confusion.

PALOMA: (Lies.) I went to get some Jell-o.
PALOMA: Yes. I’ve been all over the forest, caravan to caravan, begging for dab of hair Jell-o.
LINDA: It’s just hair gel, Mum.
PALOMA: No, I think they call it Jell-o over here.

‘Jell-o’ is the US word for what the British call ‘jelly’. In turn, the word ‘jelly’ is used in America to describe what the English call ‘jam’. None of these words relate to hair products, but ‘jelly’ and ‘Jell-o’ both sound conveniently similar to ‘gel’, and given Paloma’s linguistic confusion, it seemed fitting that she would make these multiple mistakes.

Working with Lilac and Lucía, we also explored some other options. One of these retained the original ‘grease’ but threw in another cultural joke that referred once again to a misunderstanding of US culture:

PALOMA: (Lies.) I went to get some grease.
PALOMA: Yes. I’ve been all over the forest, caravan to caravan, begging for dab of hair grease.
LINDA: I think they call it hair gel nowadays, Mum.
PALOMA: Oh, I thought in America grease was the word.

In the end, for the reading at least, we decided that the first version was the one that we wanted.

Turning to the use of Spanish as a theme in the play, the gender identity of Robin Rose is a fascinating challenge to the translator of An American Life. Robin Rose identifies as non-binary, signifying a gender identity that is neither male nor female, rejecting the idea that gender is a simple a pair of opposites. In many languages, this leads to new solutions needing to be found in order to speak or refer to non-binary people, but because languages express and use gender differently in their grammar, translating between these solutions can prove complex.

When translating between Spanish and English in this regard, the main difference is that English requires the use of pronouns (which are often gendered) where Spanish often does not, whereas Spanish nouns and adjectives are often gendered when English ones are gender-neutral. This means that when translating the language that communicates Robin Rose’s non-binary identity, those translations cannot always be ‘literal’, but they can open the door for creativity.

Paloma is doing her best to adapt to Robin Rose’s identity, but Linda struggles to accept that her sibling prefers to be neither sister nor brother. Frustrated by Linda’s lack of support for Robin Rose, Paloma tries to help:

PALOMA: Te voy a pasar una lista de adjetivos que terminan en “e”: “liante, valiente…”, así no metes la pata.

To translate these gender-neutral adjectives into English would be somewhat meaningless, as nearly all adjectives in English are genderless, unlike Spanish ones. It is more common, however, for English to use gendered terms for family members, so in an early draft of the translation Paloma says the following:

PALOMA: I’ll write you a list of gender-neutral options. Person, child, sibling… so you won’t put your foot in it.

Although this communicated the same idea, it was in discussions with the playwright that we unlocked a version that offered something more creative, and that delved deeper into the issue of the linguistic challenges of non-binary identities. Researching ways in which non-binary people have sought in English to affirm their identities linguistically, we discovered various terms that have been coined that move away from the blander sibling:

PALOMA: I’ll write you a list of gender-neutral options. Sibling, sib, sibter, sibster, broster, sisbro… so you don’t put your foot in it.

This leaning towards newly created words, although not strictly speaking a translation of the mood of this particular line, did however express the fact that overall in the play new innovations in Spanish are introduced which could not easily be translated. Paloma repeatedly struggles to remember to use the recently-coined gender-neutral term hermane (neither hermano – brother – nor hermana - sister) when referring to Robin Rose, for example.

Meanwhile, some ingenuity also needed to be applied when tackling some of the gendered nature of English that arises in places where Spanish is unproblematic. While Spanish grammar allows for verbs to be used without a pronoun, therefore doing away with the need to identify the gender of the subject, English does not afford us that possibility. So when Paloma describes taking Robin Rose to therapy, she can, in the second part of the sentence, avoid the issue of gender altogether:

PALOMA: Llevé a tu hermane una vez. Por ese miedo tan atroz que tiene a la oscuridad.

In the English version, the problem of English not allowing for a verb with no pronoun becomes an opportunity:

PALOMA: I took your sibster, too. For that morbid fear of the dark she’s got - they’ve got.

Paloma, in the English, corrects herself, switching as an afterthought from ‘she’ to ‘they’. Thanks to the specifics of grammar, we can use this moment in the translation to stress Paloma’s own flawed efforts to get things right.

‘Flawed efforts to get things right’ could well describe the endeavour of the translator. The oft-quoted idea of something being ‘lost in translation’, or the Italian phrase ‘traduttore, traditore’ (‘translator, traitor’) refer to the idea that, once translated, a text is no longer its original self. As I have discussed here, the task of retaining a text’s original essence, spirit and meaning, as well as preserving or communicating to a new audience its references and intentions, is always an imperfect balancing act. At the same time, however, it is an act of creativity, and one that can offer up new insights into the original play, just as the interpretation of the play by actors and directors, and then by an audience, will also leave it somehow changed but also, hopefully, enhanced.

We travel for many reasons. To broaden our horizons, to briefly escape reality, to rest, to work, to see something other than ourselves. Just as the Clarkson clan fly to Minnesota in search of their origins, An American Life lands in London in search of new places to visit and new responses that may in turn inform its future life. Although committed now to seemingly-permanent print, its journey, and its translation, is not over.


[1] Observant readers will notice that for this translation, Bimbo was simply reduced to ‘bread’. This was a case where explaining what exactly Bimbo was within the text did not quite work.