2007 CHINESE WHISPERS

2007

CHINESE WHISPERS

by Goran Stefanovski

I was kindly invited to this Conference on Translation as a practicing playwright.

 

Making my way here, I met someone on the train from Canterbury East to London Victoria. He is a small, slightly pompous man with a waxed moustache. He used to write for hi-fi magazines, but he says he now writes about watches. Writes about watches? I was curious, but I asked no questions.

 

He asked me where I was going. I gave him the programme for this Conference. He glanced at it and was immediately dismissive. “Another EU scam” he said, in a Mister-know-it-all way. This was a very British attitude to a very European initiative. I already felt silly. He asked me what my mandate was. I asked him what he meant by that. He said: “Who do you represent, what permission do you have, who’s the muscle behind you, what’s the authority?” I said I represented myself. He said “Why do they want you there?” I said “some friends invited me to speak.” “Why you,” he said. “Because they like me,” I answered glibly. “Oh come on,” he said, “it’s never about that, it’s always about something else.” “What?” I asked. “You should ask yourself that question” he said. “You are not a mascot are you? You are not a token?” This hurt.

 

So I’ve been asking myself that question. Had I come here on academic business, as a lecturer and representative of my Department of Media, I would have been legitimate. But this time that’s not the case. So indeed who do I represent? It’s both a simple and a metaphysical question.

 

Who do I represent when I get commissioned to write a play from producers? Do I represent them or myself? Or my audience? What happens when I just write a piece, when I commission it myself? Whose mandate is it then? My super ego? My Id? I suppose it’s all of these, in constant negotiation. Did Shakespeare have a mandate from the Globe Theatre Ltd. to write another play? Did Bach have a mandate from his church in Cothen to write another Christmas oratorio?

 

So here I am, talking about living and writing between two languages and having to talk about it today. I find this an important task. I am very eager about it, even starry-eyed. I like to be an interface. A conduit. To give and take. To interchage. To engage in transmission, interpretation, translation. But who do I translate for? If you are one bank of the river, and I am the bridge, who and what is my other bank? Who am I a middle ground, channel, confluence and catalyst for? Who do I link and connect?

 

When I was a child in elementary school I was also eager and starry-eyed. One day I was elected president of the class. The teacher congratulated me, as did some of my peers. I was excited. Then I realized I didn’t understand what that meant. I wanted to be active and useful, but what was there to do? The pupils didn’t care about my title, the teachers didn’t either. It seemed to be an honorary title, ceremonial, ritualistic, totemic. It turned out I was inefficient middle ground. A frustrated conduit.

 

There was one major power which was bestowed on me, however. On certain Monday mornings the teachers would check how clean our hands were. So, prior to this, I had the power to ask everyone to show me their fingernails. It was the power of a hygienist. Most of the “clean” pupils would show me their fingernails without even being asked. And the thugs, who I knew were dirty, I didn’t dare ask as I knew they would beat me up. So I hung on to my empty title. At least my parents were proud of it.

 

These kinds of ceremonial titles seem to have followed me through life. I went on being eager and starry-eyed and president in high school and university too. Then I went on being eager and starry-eyed and I wrote a few plays. And they made me member of juries and invited me to conferences. As a representative of who and what? I was never quite sure. But I always hoped to be active and useful and interfacing.

 

Then I met my English wife and believed I was representing Macedonia in England and England in Macedonia. Then I was elected a member of the Macedonian Academy of Arts and Sciences. And recently I was given the honorary title of Cultural Ambassador of the Republic of Macedonia to the United Kingdom. This is who you are dealing with here.

 

What I’m really complaining about is that I never get paid for these positions. If I did, I wouldn’t mind feeling useless from time to time. The novelist Dubravka Ugresic told me that is how she felt when she was invited to the Frankfurt International Book Fair. She found herself surrounded with too many publishers and soon realised that the whole affair was about them and not about her. It made her feel like a mascot, a token.

 

But trying to interface is never easy. It gets pretty ugly when we fail to interface, when our representation goes haywire.

 

When I lived in my native Republic of Macedonia I would write a play, the theatre would put it on and that was pretty much it and that was enough. But the times changed. A European producer comes to town and says I want to work with you as a representative of Macedonia. I am eager and starry eyed and I want to interface. I go with him to Europe. I hope to be a middle ground, a confluence, a catalyst, a conduit.

 

At that moment a few doors shut behind me in my home country. Voices are raised. He is working for them now! He is a not our proper representative any more. “But I do represent us,” I say. They say “No, once you represent us to them, you don’t represent us any more.” “So who should I represent us to, then?” “No one. No one is worthy of our representation.” “And who should do this representation to no one?” “Only the genuine representatives, who know how to properly not represent us.” “I don’t get it,” I say. “You see. You now don’t even understand these basic truths. We take the mandate from you.” So there you go. That’s how you lose one mandate you don’t understand and get another you understand even less.

 

Over the years I’ve met people who leave their families, languages, states, nations, theatres and audiences and travel far and wide, eager and starry-eyed, hoping to translate, to bridge, to link. And often getting lost. The process seems not to be interested in them, being bent on itself. The two banks of the river are content being self-contained and don’t seem to need a bridge. Or if there is an attempt at translation it gets precious and involved with itself. The original text is lost. The intended reader is abandoned. The conduit becomes a barrier.

 

I worked with a little theatre company in the UK. They would spend months on paperwork, filling in Inter-reg forms, Arts Council applications, progress reports. They would even hire someone to write them for them. After endless audience-building workshops there was little time and energy left for theatre as I knew it. The channels and drains were blocked and overflowing.

 

I grew up in the sixties. People shat, pissed, threw up, farted and copulated on stage. One of the most unforgettable experiences I’ve seen in the theatre was a piece performed by the London-based, nomadic and accidental, performance group called the People’s Show. I saw them at a theatre Festival in Sarajevo, last century, in 1972. They were starry-eyed and eager and reckless and wild.

 

The little studio stage had a backdrop of some rusty metal stuff they had found that morning in a junk yard. On the stage there was Jeff Nuttal, a leonine figure wearing an apron, with a broom in his hands. Centre stage was an immobile young man sitting at a table, wearing a sharp and pristine striped suit and black glasses. On the table in front of him was a loaf of bread, ketchup, eggs, cream cheese, a carton of milk and a huge butcher’s knife.

 

Very slowly and methodically the man started making a sandwich. Then he buried the knife in the carton so that the milk spurted out and went all over the table and all over his expensive suit. Whatever went on the floor, the man with the broom swept towards the audience, which retreated to the back, giggling hysterically. The young man went on squeezing the cheese and ketchup on the loaf, breaking the eggs, making a terrible mess. In the end he buried his face in this sandwich-from-hell. Pure immediate theatre! It had a therapeutic effect on me. I’ve tried all of my life not to spill milk on my clothes. I promised myself that one day I would put on my Sunday best and eat like the Dadaist pig I once saw on that stage. I still haven’t acted upon that promise.

 

Last year, by chance, I stumbled upon the People Show theatre in Bethnal Green. They now have a building all of their own! I wondered how much they now have to worry about the Borough regulations, the Arts Council, political correctness, aims and targets, equal opportunities, cultural diversity, annual reports. Has the wild source been bottled up? Has the force become an institution, the process a place? Has the underground become overground, has the radical fringe become accepted mainstream? Have they become a mascot, a token for the culture of underprivileged East London?

 

In Byzantium the bureaucracy turned the state into its own service. Today’s government ministries are often so busy dealing with their own problems that they forget the public. Academics find students a nuisance, doctors would work so much better if only there were not all these patients. Some days my computer gets so bogged down with its internal sophisticated software processes that I can’t use it even as a simple type writer.

 

A museum in Macedonia is better kept shut in winter, because if it opened its doors to the public it would have to spend all its meagre funds on heating and risk being shut down completely. So in order to survive and stay open it has to be closed to the public. And so we arrive at the farcical status quo, the Byzantine stasis. The conduit has become a buffer, a barrier, a limbo, no man’s land, quarantine, a decompression chamber which  keeps things compressed.

 

They say you can measure poetry by what is lost in its translation. How much meaning is lost in translation? How much energy is lost in transmission? How much art is lost in the management of art? How much communication is lost in Chinese whispers? (Or conversely, in an ideal world, how much might be even gained in these processes.)

 

We are all in the business of interfacing. I have come here to praise the importance of our job, but to also remind us of the devilishly difficult balancing act that goes with it. We must get it right so that we don’t end up like the defunct, no-more-bridging, ex-London Bridge in the desert of Arizona.

 

The moral of the story: keep your interface active and creative and alive and kicking!

 

Copyright:

Goran Stefanovski

18 Martyrs Fueld Road,

Canterbury, UK

00441227458236

debarmaalo@aol.com