Mine Your Language

Published on 16 March 2015

What are the benefits of translating a well-known play or script from its original language into Mandarin, Malay or Tamil? Local theatre practitioners weigh in.


Speaking from experience, DJ/author/performer Danny Yeo highlights that translating a piece of work from one language to another isn’t as straightforward as people think. “You can’t simply replace a word in one language with one from another, especially not for scripts — have you seen those Brazilian TV serials dubbed in Mandarin?”

Yeo has transformed English first drafts of local movies like Kidnapper and Ghost Child into the existing Mandarin versions. He has also turned English children’s musicals by the West End’s George Stiles into Mandarin stage blockbusters, including the ongoing Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

“Translators have to consider not just terms and phrases, tones and timbre, but the culture and background of each language. For example, because of different cultural mindsets, Mandarin speakers in Singapore may feel differently from English speakers about a script, they may even take satirical vignettes as fact rather than parody. There are many other things to consider, which is why I generally request not to be credited as Translator, but Adaptor or Creator.”

Actress/director Alin Mosbit, a 2008 recipient of the National Arts Council (NAC)’s Young Artist Award, has first-hand experience of audiences having different takeaways from different language versions of the same tale. “I once directed Kuo Pao Kun’s Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral, about Ming Dynasty voyager Cheng Ho, that was adapted into Malay by Alfian Sa’at. The adaptation was not only poetic and beautiful to me, but because Cheng Ho was a Muslim, people drew a lot of references from his story being told in Malay — how he was lost between cultures, for instance.” A playwright, writer and poet, Alfian was a recipient of NAC’s Young Artist Award in 2001.

ON THE BALL The Singapore Repertory Theatre Little Company has begun to offer Mandarin versions of its celebrated fairy-tale adaptations, such as The Nightingale, to packed houses.

Nelson Chia, Artistic Director of Nine Years Theatre (NYT), offers some translation tips from his experience turning wordy Western classics like An Enemy of the People, Twelve Angry Men and recently, the French farce Tartuffe into sellout Mandarin productions. “I’m always aware that I’m translating for a modern Singapore audience, so I find a brand of Mandarin that is able to carry certain nuances, yet is not so cheem (complex) as to be un-relatable. That can mean not using too many difficult words or complicated sentence structures. Sometimes, this can be challenging, especially when dealing with puns or poetry.”

But if translation is so perplexing, why do so many theatre practitioners take it on? Wouldn’t it be easier to just stage a play in its original language? According to Chia, translations help in developing the non-English theatre scene. “Singaporeans are familiar with Western literature, so if we perform a Mandarin translation of those works, audiences are likely to be more receptive — we have already seen that happening. Some gave feedback to say they hadn’t watched a Mandarin play in years, but when they caught the Mandarin adaptations, they realised it wasn’t so daunting, they didn’t even need the English surtitles!”

Now You’re Speaking My Language Nine Years Theatre translated French farce Tartuffe into Mandarin, while Aidli ‘Alin’ Mosbit adapted American play The Women into a Malay production.

Says actor Ebi Shankara, “The new generation of Singapore Indian theatregoers is very intellectual and often very Western-oriented. Gone are the days when they want to see familiar Indian classical content, they want relevant modern-day issues. But there aren’t that many playwrights doing new plays in Tamil, especially not in Singapore.” Shankara is also the Artistic Director of the predominantly Tamil theatre company Ravindran Drama Group (RDG), which recently staged Pazhi, a Tamil version of Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth.

“We have no shortage of contemporary English text with good, relevant stories. Why should we let language be a barrier to sharing them with our audience? In fact, we’re thinking of making Tamil translations of English works a niche of sorts for RDG. It allows people who are unfamiliar with English theatre to relate to all these wonderful characters and scripts.”

RDG’s co-Artistic Director, Hemang Yadav, adds that translations of Western scripts into local languages are not only unsurprising in our melting-pot of an island, but actually add more meat to the multicultural stew. “Translating a variety of text is in line with the mission of being both Singaporean and global. RDG really wants to explore the potential of translating foreign text into an Indian context, or staging the work using Indian performing techniques or styles.”

HAIRY EXPERIENCE George Chan transforms into the Big Bad Wolf for The Singapore Repertory Theatre Little Company’s Mandarin version of The Three Little Pigs.

In fact, in these troubled times, all this inter-lingual exchange may help audiences realise that it is a small world after all. Shares Mosbit, “Last year, I helped translate the 1930s American play The Women into Wanita, a Malay version set in 1950s Singapore, which I also directed. People may say Western values and morals are very different from Asian ones. Well, in The Women, there are all these people going astray and having affairs. But when we transposed it into the Singapore context, it was interesting to see how well everything fitted — the characters, and the mistakes they make.

“It’s not about Americans, Singaporeans, Malays, it’s an exploration of human nature. And that becomes clear when you explore one text through the lens of another language or culture.”

Goldilocks and the Three Bears (Mandarin) plays till 29 Mar at the DBS Arts Centre.

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