On Translating the Classic Plays in Wannous’s ‘Sentence to Hope’

The newly released Sentence to Hope: A Sa’adallah Wannous Reader is a collection of plays, interviews, and essays by and wish the great Syrian theatre artist Saadallah Wannous (1941–1997), put together by two author-academics in Beirut, Robert Myers and Nada Saab:

Myers is director of the Center for American Studies at the American University of Beirut and is himself a playwright, while Saab is an associate professor of Arabic studies at Lebanese American University.

Ursula Lindsey and ArabLit editor M Lynx Qualey discussed the collection on Bulaq Episode 28, “Sentence to Hope;” Lynx Qualey also wrote an overview of the collection: “Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous can still reach his audiences two decades after his death.”

Part of the discovery process was a brief email chat about the collection. An edited version is below:

Could you tell me a little bit about you came to this project? 

Robert Myers and Nada Saab: We started working together as translators on Hammam Baghdadi, Baghdadi Bath, by the Iraqi playwright and director, with whom Robert worked in Beirut. That play was published in PAJ, and there was both an Off-Broadway production reviewed in The New York Times, at LaMama Theater, and an extraordinary staged reading at Dartmouth, produced by the New York Theater Workshop. At Nada’s suggestion, we then translated The Dictator, by the Lebanese playwright ‘Issam Mahfouz, which was also published in PAJ and produced in New York Off-Broadway as part of the Between the Seas Festival. Both plays are published in our recent volume Modern and Contemporary Political Theater from the Levant, from Brill.

Next Nada, who has much more experience as a scholar of Arabic literature and is an extraordinarily gifted scholar and teacher of the language, suggested we try a more complex and difficult work, which was also political, Rituals of Signs and Transformations, by Wannous. Malik Gilani and Jamil Khoury, who run Silk Road, contacted us with an opportunity to receive a MacArthur grant to translate a play from Arabic and have it read at their theater in New York. Both of us were awed by the play. At the same time, Sahar Assaf, a Lebanese theater artist who also worked at the American University of Beirut, approached Robert about staging a play together, and she, Robert, and Nada ultimately decided on the translation of Rituals. It had not been produced in Beirut in almost 20 years (and never before in English), and it played to packed houses there and received excellent reviews in the local press and a glowing review in The Boston Globe. We also did readings at the Segal Center in New York and at Silk Road Rising.

When you first set out, how did you want to build on what you, Nada Saab, Marvin Carlson, and Safi Mahfouz had done in Four Plays from Syria?

RM & NS: Since Nada is an accomplished literary scholar and Arabic professor and Robert is a playwright with a long a varied career, the goal was to translate plays that could go on stage. Both of us felt that modern and contemporary plays from the Arab world needed to be presented in other languages before audiences in the same way as plays by Brecht, Ibsen, Chekhov, Pirandello and others are without mystification and anthropological explanation. We both felt that the keys to doing that were: 1. to avoid a lot of cultural explanation; 2. to make sure that the plays had their their own logical dynamic and register in English; 3. to eschew literal translation in favor of crisp dialogue that would seem as if they had first existed in English and actors would be able to say as if speaking. Unlike the Carlson/Mahfouz project, we planned for a production almost from the beginning and were able to see how the language lived on stage. Although we are both serious scholars, we saw ourselves first and foremost as cultural producers.

Marvin Carlson, Frank Hentschker and the Segal Center were key in helping us develop our work. Frank Hentschker was extraordinarily generous in allowing us to translate three of the plays in “Four Plays From Syria” for our Yale volume. Certainly the work of the Center was vital in making people aware of the stature of Wannous’s work. And the primary differences between the two volumes are that we hoped to present translations that are more or less ready for the stage, because some of them have already been presented and seemed to work well, and we are trying to reach an audience and readership between those who are already initiated, know Arabic or know Arabic literature and theater.

How did you choose which works you wanted to include in the collection? It was brilliant to include the speeches, essays, interviews — it really brought Wannous into more intimate connection with the reader. How did you decide which to bring in?

RM & NS: We tried to select works we felt were representative of the different phases in Wannous’s careers. Marvin Carlson and Frank Hentschker were extraordinarily gracious and generous in letting us do our own translations of two plays that Marvin and Safi Mahfouz had done in their collections. If we had had more time we would likely have done Historical Miniatures instead of Wretched Dreams because we both love it and we’re both drawn to Wannous’s larger epic work. Nevertheless, we think the four plays we selected and translated offer English-speaking readers and excellent introduction to the breadth of work by one of the major playwrights of the 20th century.

As to why we included essays, interviews and speeches, we are both drawn to Wannous’s work because, like Brecht, Boal, Soyinka and others, Wannous’s plays are political and philosophical treatises as well as dramatic works. Theater is one form of activism, and his statements about theater and his theoretical notions about it are related to practice and to a much larger social practice. Edward Ziter refers to Wannous’s plays as “rehearsing for civil society,” and the essays, interviews and statements are forms of social criticism, descriptions of Arab society and theater, and expressions of his political stance.

What sort of audience do you envision for the book? In the introduction, you seem to be addressing a reader who has little knowledge of Arabic literature. Who do you see reading this collection & in what context? Do you hope this will lead to the staging of more of Wannous’s work? Or to his work inspiring Anglophone playwrights?

RM & NS: We are interested in reaching the widest possible audience. We are very happy that Yale University Press is publishing the collection as part of the Margellos World Republic of Letters. This volume is one of only a few works by a playwright–others include Celestina, by Rojas, and Fuenteovejuna, by Lope de Vega–and its the only collection of plays with essays and other works by the playwrights. We want these works to be produced in the English-speaking world. We also hope they will be taught in university world literature classes, high school drama classes and studied by theater scholars. Since we think Wannous’s works belong on the shelves of readers and scholars right beside Chekhov, Büchner, Dario Fo and other modern and contemporary playwrights, we hope that he will be judged as both an Arab writer and a writer on the world stage. As for those with expertise in Arabic literature, we believe the process of defamiliarization that inevitably results from translation will allow them to see Wannous, his works and works from the Arabic tradition more generally in a new light.

Wannous grew out of a context that was made up, in part, of Tawfik al-Hakim, Bertold Brecht, Chekhov, Abou Khalil al-Qabbani, and Maroun al-Naqqash. What other playwrights significantly informed his work (or informed who he didn’t want to be as a playwright)?

RM & NS: Peter Weiss was profoundly influential, he glossed the work of Antonio Buero-Vallejo, the actor and direct Jean Marie Serreau and the director and actor Jean Louis Barrault. As a cultural writer, Wannous interviewed a number of significant theater makers such as Jean Genet, and he attended and was clearly influenced by the work of Peter Brook and the Living Theater.

How did your translation process work? How did you know when it was finished?

RM & NS: We were very fortunate in that we were translating for stage productions. Even if the production was not on the immediate horizon, we always translated thinking about putting the plays onstage. When they were staged we got to see in very stark terms what worked and what worked less well and we made adjustments as necessary.

The original translation of Wannous’s WTD message was “our lot is to hope.” Others have translated it as “doomed to hope” or “condemned to hope.” Why “sentence to hope”?

RM & NS: We actually like “condemned to hope,” which is very close to “our lot is to hope.” ”

“Sentence to Hope” is a very clever pun that John Donatich and our sterling editors at Yale UP suggested. It may not be the absolutely perfect translation, but it makes a wonderful title for what we believe is an intriguing collection by an important writer that we hope will be read by people who are interested in Syrian and Arab literature, theater and culture and by those who want to know more about these subjects.