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Lancelot Hamelin
© Jean-Julien Kraemer
About Place : Translating Issues of Locality | Lancelot Hamelin

« This May I spent three days at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh to discuss the translation of my play Alta Villa with Katherine Mendelsohn, dramaturg at the Traverse Theatre, and Christopher Campbell, translator and dramaturg at the National Theatre in London.

Alta Villa is rooted in the specifically French context of a godforsaken place in the Ain region, in the summer of 1999. The arc of the characters is determined by what I call ‘‘wounds from the Algerian War’’. The cultural and historical context is more than just the framework for the narrative, and is often what is driving it. Understanding the play requires many assumptions, as Alta Villa is a play about the unspoken – on a social, historical and familial level.

It seemed to me that the translation issue raised another issue – that of place. Perhaps that is my idea of writing: talking about place. Working on localities.

I arrived with my little book, Alta Villa, after reading it again and wondering how to translate the joke about De Gaulle, known as le vieillard maniaque (for le vieil armagnac). A strange feeling of melancholy had come over me about the profound otherness that exists between how alcohol is perceived in various European cultures.

Katherine Mendelsohn and Christopher Campbell came with their own questions about the play. We went through it line by line to see how we might twist the neck of the French Alta Villa and put its head back on straight in English. At times translating means betraying the literal sense, in order to produce a new play in another language and convey in the French text the slice of reality I was trying to capture. Seeing the text altered wasn’t a problem for me – but what I wanted to see faithfully rendered was the reality it was celebrating.

Alta Villa is based on a real place, and the writing often feels like working from life. (Indeed, the English expression for nature morte is ‘‘still life’’).

Here’s my idea of the thing. The purpose of a text is to capture reality, to place it within a specific vision that belongs to me, my culture and language – in order to develop a mechanism that will generate theater. And the text is that mechanism. My idea is not ‘‘the text as a musical score’’ or ‘‘the text as a film script’’. I see the text as an ice tray with bits of amputated reality in it – something to bring back to life. How can you translate that?

That said, language is where the reality evoked is transformed. The name Alta Villa was made up, and Latin wasn’t used for the sake of the exotic, but rather to suspend the realism behind that abstract layer of language. Christopher Campbell decided to keep the title instead of translating it. (This triggered a discussion about the French mania for translating English-language films in rather fanciful ways: The Deer Hunter becoming Voyage au bout de l’enfer, illustrating the excessive pathos which harks back to the expression nature morte)

Before even starting to work, Katherine Mendelsohn wondered what language we should speak together. We decided to use English, despite my weak command of the language.

I was allowed to express myself in French, but then it had to be translated directly into the ‘‘target’’ language, forgetting about the ‘‘source’’ language. That’s what translation is – a forgetting. How else can you describe this process that consists in forgetting what is being evoked in one language as you gradually utter it in another. By evoking in one language what was said in another, you leave behind whatever has no place in the language now being spoken. And there is a transformation of the very thing you are trying to preserve and convey.

Perhaps translating is like choosing, without hesitating to amputate (as in the case of De Gaulle and the vieil Armagnac, which had to be ditched). Instead of translating it literally, we tried to uncover the purpose of the joke in that scene and find out what the scene was trying to say.

The play involves an old Pied-noir (i.e. an Algerian-born Frenchman) who owns a bar. In the summer of 1999 he hires a waiter of Algerian extraction, and France’s colonial past resurfaces in this bar out in the country. The relationship between the owner of the bar and Karim occurs indirectly, through allusions or jokes evoking General de Gaulle and the painful issue for Pied-noirs of De Gaulle’s ‘‘betrayal’’. It’s a difficult issue for English-speaking readers to grasp, and it isn’t crucial.

The point is rather to find the right way to evoke the historical context around De Gaulle, while also recalling the decolonization process. The most interesting and relevant aspect for English-speaking readers is the issue of what connects people after independence, when a young man wants to hark back to the colonial era or the struggle against the occupiers.

The translation process also sparked some pleasant surprises – for instance, when we translated voir 36 chandelles by ‘‘to see stars’’. By coincidence, the next line says that the character ‘‘tries to smile through the stars’’ (essaie de sourire à travers les étoiles). The French star-concept was waiting for its English equivalent. Translating is about invoking these terrestrial places – far from the stars, yet all capturing light from those same stars, in whatever language is being used to evoke them.

At times the English translation may already be present in the French text, which anticipates or already contains it. Our two languages have criss-crossing histories, and our texts may have preserved that memory despite us, like an echo of the days when the kings of Scotland and France were allies against the English occupier in yet another story about the struggle for independence. That’s what is translated: a story that tells a story that may have occurred in another place.

Sometimes you can see the same stars in the sky over Edinburgh and
Alta Villa. »

Lancelot Hamelin
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