By Bobby Theodore
Translation dramaturg and host of the Glassco Translation Residency
Much like the bees in the burgeoning flower garden outside Fletcher Cottage, this year’s residency featured a tremendous amount of cross-pollination as we welcomed playwrights and translators from Innu, Queer Pakistani-Canadian Muslim, Tamil Canadian, French-speaking Quebecois, English-speaking Quebecois, and Argentinian communities. The plays in translation dealt with the aftermath of the Sri Lankan Civil War, the perversion of contemporary art by corporate interests, the intersection of queerness and Islamic identity, and how to talk about life to toddlers. Conversations are always inspiring and exciting in Tadoussac, but there was an essential shift this year that provoked new exchanges which will likely reverberate for years to come.
Innu translator Joséphine Bacon kicked off the residency with a deeply moving, in-depth acknowledgment of the unceded land that Fletcher Cottage was built upon. It was a true gift to hear her speak about Tadoussac, her Nation, and its historical ties to the Saguenay and North Shore. She came to Tadoussac to work on residency veteran Jasmine Dubé’s Marguerite. Marguerite is a choral play which tells the entire life story of one woman, from her birth until her death. A poetic piece that flows like a river, Jasmine set out to write this play after she was inspired to create theatre for toddlers. With Marguerite, she shares her love of language and playfulness through straightforward and evocative storytelling. After performing this work in French for 10 years, Jasmine decided she wanted to try and tour it to smaller communities in Northern Quebec. After she approached Joséphine about translating the play, they both agreed it would be a wonderful opportunity for the Innu-aimun language to be reinforced and for toddlers (and even their parents) to learn the language through a theatrical experience, surrounded by other babies and their parents. The main challenge Joséphine faced was that Innu-aimun has far fewer words than French. So, on occasion, she needed to use several words to describe one French word when there was no Innu-aimun equivalent. It was wonderful to see Jasmine and Joséphine forge a deep bond at the Residency, even though they’d never met before. Jasmine took advantage of Joséphine’s presence to advance her soon-to-be produced play for adults (a first!) Lascaux, even cutting out a central part of story she felt she’d appropriated from an indigenous myth.
First-time resident Alexis Martin came to Tadoussac to work with playwright Michael Mackenzie on a translation of Art Object, Michael’s sequel to Instructions for a Socialist Government Looking to Abolish Christmas, also translated by Alexis. Art Object, slated to premiere at Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui in 2020, is a play that satirises the often amoral and complex relationship between high art and high finance. In his translation of the play, Alexis drew upon his prior knowledge of Michael’s characters and universe, as well as his acting experience. During the residency, Alexis spoke about his need to find the “breath” inside each translation he works on. Until he finds its breath, until the text is playable, he isn’t satisfied with his work. He uses a more liberal and creative approach to theatre translation, something he executes with Michael’s enthusiastic blessing. Each day, the two old friends and collaborators would go for long hikes during which Alexis would ask all the questions he’d accumulate over his morning work session. Later in the residency, when Argentinian translator Jaime Arrambide arrived to work on his Latin American Spanish version Michael’s Instructions to Any Future Government Wishing to Abolish Christmas, all three artists exchanged tactics and ideas to improve the translations. During the residency, Jaime fell in love with Art Object and now feels compelled to translate that play too. Jaime spoke to us about the vibrant theatre scene in Buenos Aires as well as the challenges of getting translated work staged there. While both Alexis and Jaime were working on their translations, Michael advanced his numerous writing projects.
Dushy Gnanapragasam came to translate Suvendrini Lena’s play The Enchanted Loom into Tamil. The Enchanted Loom is a haunting drama about a Tamil Canadian family dealing with trauma in the aftermath of the Sri Lankan civil war. The multiple levels of language in the play presented a big challenge for Dushy since Suvendrini’s writing is equally poetic, lyrical, and medical, with Tamil influences. This team had been working on this translation for the past 3 years but the Residency was the first time they were able to spend dedicated time to the process. While working with Dushy in Tadoussac, Suvendrini discovered there were elements of the play, her first script, which she wanted to rewrite or cut. This often happens in Tadoussac as the translation process provides a means to improve upon original work through the lens of translation. Once they completed the Tamil version, Suvendrini and Dushy worked day and night on a new bilingual (Tamil/English) version of the play, rushing to get it done before they returned to their busy lives. During her stay at Fletcher Cottage, Suvendrini often repeated how this was the version of the play she’d “always dreamed of” creating. Though The Enchanted Loom will premiere in Toronto in Tamil in the next year or so, it’s often difficult to find the means and time to translate theatre for communities that aren’t part of the so-called dominant culture. During our late-afternoon discussions, we spoke about looking beyond English – French translation in this country in order to address the needs of the many communities who want to hear and see themselves on stage.
This year Olivier Sylvestre returned to Tadoussac as a translator to work with Bilal Baig on his play Acha Bacha. Bilal wrote Acha Bacha to speak specifically to Queer Muslim Pakistanis, so translating this play into French for a Quebecois audience posed several challenges. Acha Bacha is about a Queer Muslim Pakistani living in Mississauga (a large suburb of Toronto) who’s haunted by a traumatic memory the day before his lover leaves on a pilgrimage to the Middle East. Olivier thought about transposing this story to Montreal but expressed his concerns about this choice. His inquiry created an opportunity for some wonderful and lively discussion during our end-of-day meetings. How does a Queer Muslim Pakistani Canadian speak in French? Do they just sound Quebecois using, as Olivier put it, “ma langue”? Olivier explained how there aren’t many French-language Quebecois plays set in South Asian communities, let alone about the Queer Muslim Pakistani experience – which is what inspired him to translate this play. After listening to the group’s advice and his gut, Olivier decided to keep the play in Toronto as well as all the Urdu that’s spoken in the play. Olivier realized he needed to be sensitive to Bilal’s intentions and not simply translate the play to make it palatable for a French-speaking Québecois audience. He had to find a way maintain cultural specificity while keeping his audience engaged with material that may be unfamiliar to them. No small feat. By the end of the residency, Bilal seemed incredibly honored to have gone through this process and trusted that his first play was in Olivier’s expert hands – a clear result of their sustained proximity at Fletcher Cottage.
Like every year, it’s challenging to summarize everything that happened during this year’s residency. There are intangibles: the increased confidence residents gain over their time at the residency; the new creative relationships that are made; the validation they all feel; the significant moments of creative birth/rebirth… There were also bracing noon swims (in honor of Bill who swam every day), a trip to Cap de Bon Désir with no whales in sight, spicy debates about cultural appropriation, and – depending on which room you walked into – a constant stream of Tamil, Innu-aimun, French, Spanish, Urdu, or English. As always, Briony Glassco’s welcoming and joyous presence helped set the positive tone of our wonderful 10-day stay at her family’s magical home.
PWM would like to thank the Cole Foundation and the Friends & Family of Bill Glassco for making this residency possible.