Translating Deviance: The Gravity Myth

Every month, Out of the Wings invites a translator to share their work in our free-to-attend laboratory.  We gather to read a play in translation, discuss it, and offer feedback.  All are welcome.  For our December 2022 session, we were joined by Panamanian playwright Javier Stanziola and  translator Alexander Aguayo, with Alexander’s English translation of Javier’s play, The Gravity Myth/El Mito de la Gravedad.  In this blog, Alexander tells us about his experience of sharing the play with us.

In December I had the pleasure of sharing my English translation of Javier Stanziola’s The Myth of Gravity with Out of the Wings for a table read session. I found out about the organization and the table reads thanks to Javier. I was in the process of translating his play, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to breathe life into the translation and receive feedback from the public. After reaching out to the organization with introductions, we set a date for the table read.

The day of the table read, I eagerly entered the video conference. As the members of the organization divided the roles among themselves, it finally dawned on me that a dynamic game was about to begin. The Myth of Gravity revolves around Alejandra Vargas and Karla Santos, a lesbian couple and adoptive mothers to Fernando Vargas, who must confront the prejudices of certain sectors of Panamanian society, as represented by a sneaky civil servant and a school headmaster. After their son is taken away from them, Alejandra and Karla must do everything possible in order to recover him, even if it means testing their limits. The main players, Karla, Alejandra and the Civil Servant, were about to confront each other in a battle for the well-being of the young Fernando (or Moises, depending on who you ask).

Artwork from the original Panamanian production of ‘El Mito de la Gravedad’

The characters represent and voice the concerns of certain sectors of Panamanian society invested in bringing about progress or impeding it. For me, as a translator, this meant being attuned to the ways characters communicate with and across each other. For example, there is a conversation between Alejandra and Karla that takes place in front of the television set while they watch a reality TV show and talk past each other:

Karla: Today when I picked up Fernando from school the teacher asked to speak with me.
Alejandra: It looks like a bad welcoming.
Karla: I think she’s going to be received well by the housemates.

In the Spanish version, Karla confuses Alejandra’s message that the teacher’s reception of her is ominous with the message that the television signal is poor. I alter this scenario to read as though Karla believes that Alejandra is referring to the arrival of a new cast member in a reality show, as happens, for example, in a show like Love Island. Later, I altered a bit of the dialogue again. This time to read as follows:

Alejandra: It’s time for a shake-up.
Karla: Why if the show was going smoothly?
Evidently, Karla believes that Alejandra is talking about the show again.

In the Spanish version, Alejandra makes a double entendre when she says that it is time to tip the scales (¨la carga del balance¨)—a message that in Spanish could refer to the television set or the direction of the conflict with the school. The challenge of capturing this double meaning was resolved by shifting the content of the conversation towards the reality TV show again and emphasizing that the order of things can no longer continue as they are.

This conversation between Karla and Alejandra reflects the expanding scope of their conflict, one that will become part of the public discourse around adoption. As the drama unfolds different communities are addressed through different venues: Twitter, newspapers, and the courtroom. In fact, the members of the audience are turned into an organized public by being addressed by the Civil Servant and becoming involved in the actions and decisions of the adoption panel.

The play’s subtitle also underlines the social aspect of the drama. The play’s subtitle in Spanish is “un pequeño acto de perversión social”. The English may be rendered as “a small act of social perversion”. In several instances, Alejandra and Karla confront the Civil Servant and (in the Spanish version) refer to him as being “full of perversion” and “perverse.” I was wary of using this term in the English translation, and so I used the term “deviance” instead. For the Civil Servant, I reserved the term “rotten”. In doing this, I sought to emphasize the idea that he was spoiled fruit, and that he could “contaminate” others with his ideas. During the discussion portion of the table read, I asked for feedback regarding these choices. One suggestion given to me was to translate “perversión social” into “social defiance.” Alejandra and Karla use the word “perversión” in a more positive light to refer to their own forward-thinking actions as lesbian women living in a heteronormative society. I did not think the English “perversion” captured quite the same sense, so I went with the suggestion to use “defiance” in reference to Alejandra and Karla’s revolutionary actions.

Overall, the table read with Out of the Wings was wonderful. It allowed Stanziola’s play to have an English-speaking public for the first time, and it generated collective ideas for improving the clarity and flow of my translation. I am very grateful for Stanziola, who attended the table read, and the Out of the Wings collective.

Our next meet-and-read will be on 24 February 2023 at 15:00 GMT in London (with an online option always available), to read Antígona by the Peruvian playwright José Watanabe, in a new, recently published English translation by Cristina Pérez Díaz. To attend this or any of our monthly sessions as a guest or participant, sign up to our mailing list.