Beyond getting lost in translation

When it comes to adapting a play or a script, language is often a stumbling block for local theaters, a discussion held last month found.

The discussion titled “Memahami Liyan: Forum Lakon Adaptasi” (Understanding the Other: Play Adaptation Forum) held in Salihara, South Jakarta, was part of the art space’s month-long theme of script adaptation.
The plays featured during the month were Miss Julie, which is an adaptation of Johan August Strindberg’s Froken Juli; Nabi Kembar, an adaptation of The Prophets by Slawomir Mrozek; Lear Asia, an adaptation of Lear Asia by Rio Kishida who himself adapted William Shakespeare’s King Lear; and Anak yang Dikuburkan, which is an adaptation of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child.

The theater groups performing the plays were, respectively, Teater Luwes and Teater Amoeba from Jakarta, Studiklub Teater from Bandung and Teater Satu from Lampung.

Buried Child
Writer Zen Hae in his paper “Antara Bersetia dan Berkhianat: Tentang Empat Lakon Adaptasi dan Sedikit Pengantar” (Between Remaining Loyal and Betraying: On Four Adapted Plays and a Short Introduction) lauded Anak yang Dikuburkan as “the most impressive closing performance. They performed with young, talented actors, with natural acting, thus it did not bore.”  He also praised Teater Satu, which was voted best theater group in 2008 by Tempo magazine, for using a “flexible language”, referring to the overall language style and the use of Indonesian smothered in Lampung idioms.

However, problems leading to the possible widening of distance between the play and the audience begin to appear when actors begin to speak in proper, or formal, Indonesian.

“Indonesian has been chosen as the unifying language and only with that language we can speak with different people from Sabang to Merauke. The problem is that the Indonesian used in this play, once again, still sounds like written language and not the Indonesian used in everyday conversation,” Zen said.

Miss Julie
According to Zen, the lines spoken by two characters, Thea and Shelly, still feel “strange to the ears. The main problem is the lack of flexibility in the adaptation of their dialogues, aside from the translation, which is still not meticulous enough.” Anak yang Dikuburkan tells of a family’s crumbling glory as a microcosm reflecting changes occurring in the larger world. The characters include Albert, who once reaped wealth from his plantation but is now a pessimist alcoholic; his wife Hesma, who works as a tailor and gave birth to a child despite not sharing a bed with her husband anymore; and Hesma’s daughter Thea, who had a child out of wedlock and suffers from depression despite once being a famed athlete.

Director Iswadi Pratama said he had discovered likenesses between Shepard’s original story, which is set in the United States. “There are plenty of problems in the original text that are not exactly like the [problems] in the Indonesian context, but we can find their equivalents, such as in the problem of the industrialization of plantations, of the demise of the family identity, the demise of the economy and the decreasing trust of formal religious institutions due to poverty, and the problem of identity,” he said.

According to Iswadi, despite improvements in the bigger economic picture, some farmers in Lampung lost or sold their land because of growing industrialization.

“And when farmers lose their land they do not only lose their economic resources but also their cultural resources,” he said.

Despite the similarities, there were a few alterations aside from the setting and language. The original text, for instance, includes incest as a plot twist.

“It was hard to find an incest problem in Lampung,” Iswadi said. Thus, in Teater Satu’s version, the identity problem is rooted in sexual encounters with those who come and go.

Zen’s critique of Anak yang Dikuburkan appears mild compared to ones he offered of other plays. He criticized Teater Amoeba, for instance, as “believing too much that adaptation is a creative, if not overdone, effort”, and likened the performance to Opera Van Java — a television show that often features slapstick humor.

Lear Asia
His criticism of Lear Asia was, again, about the language. “The script is still trapped in the culture of the text and is unrealistic while, on stage, the spoken plays a quite important part.” Yudi Ahmad Tajudin from Teater Garasi said his reading of a manuscript from a 1988 discussion revealed that directors then, such as the late Arifin C Noer and Teguh Karya, had a fundamental point of view saying that “the main problem in text-based performance is how to convey the text’s issue or theme to the targeted audience in the limitations and traits of theater that is hic et nunc [here and now].”  He added that his recent watching of a collaboration between the Wooster Group and the New York City Players to perform Early Plays by Eugene O’Neill indicated that adaptation is not limited to the process involving a script written in a language different from that used by the players or audience, because of an imminent distance between the text and the performance’s context, “That night, I saw that even an original script, when performed, will always need an adaptation,” Yudi said.

According to Yudi, for the theater world in Indonesia, theater history has been adapting scripts for decades and even perhaps since the early 20th century when Dutch colonists brought Western theatrical traditions to the archipelago.

Nevertheless, Yudi said he still encounters “essentialist attitudes closing themselves from dialogue with the foreign”, when in fact theater history “is a history of adaptation and appropriation”.

Dina Indrasafitri
The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | July 12 2012, 6:25 AM

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