(Arab) Theater in Translation

Theater scholar Adam Versenyi wrote, earlier this month, “A provocation. A proposal. And a plea”:

The provocation: What would happen if we were to think of new translations of plays, both classical and contemporary, into English the same way that we think of new plays written in English?

Versenyi complains that translated theater is too often treated as a sort of “theatrical cruise ship,” where audience members are taken to exotic locales for brief, sunny visits. (Novels too, of course.) Sure, he writes, there have been a number of “international” theater events in the US, but with sometimes incomplete translation efforts that don’t consider altered context and audience. He adds:

Thinking of new theatrical translations into US English as we think of new plays written in US English could, perhaps, alter that mindset by focusing upon what is culturally unique and theatrically vibrant in the translated material, rather than forcing it to conform to a preconceived notion of what the theater should be. Thinking of new plays in translation as we think of new plays has implications for creative process, production, and marketing. Thinking of new plays in translation as new plays makes the theatrical translator an integral part of the creative process.

His proposal:

The creation of a National New Works in Translation Network. Like the National New Play Network, the National New Works in Translation Network would connect individuals and institutions interested in producing new works in translation across the country.

And his plea:

Talk to your institutions and see if they would like to be involved. If so, let us know. Talk to us about theaters and institutions already predisposed to this sort of work. We need as much information as possible. Let me know if you think this is a dreadful idea or if there are gaping holes in what I’ve outlined. I want to know that as well.

In contrast to the swelling number of books in translation, I believe that relatively few Arabic-language plays are staged in the US. I can think of recent stagings of Tawfiq al-Hakim’s “The Donkey Market” in California, an adaptation of Ghassan Kanafani’s “Return to Haifa” in D.C., Valantina Abu Oqsa’s “I Am Free,” which toured a few places. Oh, and the sometimes excellent pieces that came out of the  Plays from the Arab World project, which at least got readings in New York City, and stagings in London.

Could a project like this foster more translated theater?

Also: When it comes to databases, we are sorely in need of them. What works are currently being translated? What works are now seeking translators/up for bids? What Arabic-language works have been newly published in English, French, Japanese, Slovenian? I hope we don’t need to keep all of this a secret.

Read Versenyi’s whole piece, and the comments.