(left to right) Daniel Jáquez, Nophand, and Susan Bernofsky

Columbia's International Play Reading Festival Closes with Playwrighting and Translation Panels

BY Angeline Dimambro, November 7, 2020

Columbia University School of the Arts’ International Play Reading Festival went digital this year. Listeners from around the world were able to listen to plays by Candace Chong Mui Ngam (Hong Kong), Nophand (Thailand), and Camila Villegas (Mexico) as a series of podcasts and listening parties hosted by the School of the Arts. Adapting the plays to the new podcast format was not the first transformation these works had experienced, each undergoing the critical process of translation.


Associate Professor and Director of the Translation program Susan Bernofsky moderated the Translator Panel Discussion with Daniel Jáquez (translator of Rarámuri Dreams) and Nophand (writer and translator of Taxi Radio). Originally from Cd. Juárez, Chihuahua, México—traditional territory of the Manso, Apache, Jumanos, and Rarámuri people—Jáquez is a director, theater-maker and translator of plays. He has translated plays by award-winning Mexican playwrights, and he currently serves as a member of the Advisory Committee for The Lark's México/U.S. Playwright Exchange Program, the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab, The Latinx Theatre Commons Steering Committee, and more. Nophand is a Thai citizen who after living in London for many years, returned to Bangkok to pursue a career in acting. He has now staged fifteen productions that mainly reflect upon contemporary issues of the human condition. 


At the panel, Jáquez and Nophand spoke about the challenges of bringing Rarámuri Dreams and Taxi Radio to an English-speaking audience. Rarámuri Dreams follows Nicolasa, who goes to the police to report that her son has been kidnapped, and Jacinto, who confesses to the murder of his friend. Unfolding in the rugged landscape of the Sierra Madre Occidental in Northern Mexico, both parents seek justice and redemption. The play, already bilingual in its original version—Spanish and Rarámuri—has now become trilingual in this newest translation. Bernofsky asked Jáquez how he dealt with the play’s multilingualism. “You have to realize how much of the culture you need to keep, and how much you need to move forward,” Jáquez said. “The way Camilla [Villegas] had this play structured, whatever was used in Rarámuri was actually crucial, and you can’t change it. At least, that’s what we decided.” The stories of Jacinto and Nicolasa—the protagonists of Rarámuri Dreams—could not be divorced from the Rarámuri people or its language. This question of what to translate and what not to came up even before the possibility of presenting the play in English, for, as Jáquez noted, many people are not familiar with the Rarámuri language in Mexico, as it’s an isolated language from the Northern part of the country. “What I loved about this play is also that Camilla captured the actual way of speaking of these people,” Jáquez said. “It’s a very lyrical and beautiful-sounding piece in Spanish, that was another goal—to keep it sounding beautiful in English.” 


Taxi Radio, as Bernofsky noted, is a natural fit for the podcast format, as it follows four beings stuck in traffic on a stormy night in Bangkok as karaoke hits and news reports play in the background. However, Nophand initially had concerns that the audience would be lost trying to follow these distinct characters without the help of visuals. Nophand shared how he tried to add to the production, but he did not want to change too much of what was specific to Thailand and Bangkok, exercising restraint and inviting participants to become active listeners. This is a question many translators and playwrights face, Bernofsky noted, as sometimes there is an impulse to minimize the cultural roots in order to make it more universal. While Nophand was concerned that there were too many cultural references to Bangkok for an international audience, he talked about tapping into something he calls “collective thought”: “In Taxi Radio, we tap into the collective thought of people in Bangkok—the past, the present, and maybe the future. We use these collective thoughts that we all share as a way to share the story together. When you translate it to another language, you want to tap into your collective thought too because you would never have our collective thought, right? Because we have different backgrounds, beliefs, ambitions, behaviors, and social structures. But, at least, maybe I can, as a translator, click to your collective thought.” 


The following day, Nophand joined fellow playwrights Villegas and Ngam at the festival’s final event—the Playwright Panel Discussion. Moderated by Associate Professor, and festival co-founder, David Henry Hwang, the playwright panel brought together all three playwrights featured in this year’s festival. Villegas is a Mexican playwright who after studying economics and living for two years with the Tarahumaras—an indigenous community of Northern Mexico—redirected her career towards theatre. In 2008, she founded Tepalcate Producciones, an association for female actors, directors, and playwrights that has produced over thirty plays. Her play Rarámuri Dreams was the first reading of this year’s festival. Ngam was awarded the Best Artist Award in Drama by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council in 2010. She was selected as one of Hong Kong’s most “inspirational and influential women” by the South China Morning Post, and she is the winner of six Hong Kong Drama Awards for Best Script. Ngam has also worked as translator, notably in the Broadway production of Chinglish, which was written by Hwang.


When Hwang asked the playwrights to discuss the challenges of presenting their work to an English-audience as a podcast, Villegas shared that while she was excited to broaden the audience of her play, it did necessitate some changes: “For the international version, we added a scene—a prologue—because we felt it was necessary to locate the story, because it’s so specific...and as we were rehearsing for the podcast, we did change some things, because they didn’t make sense without the visual support. They were small changes, but we did have to adjust.” Under normal circumstances, audiences would see the traditional Rarámuri costumes of the characters, but without visual support like costuming, Villegas and her production team chose to make small additions like the prologue to help “adjust the imagination of the audience” and locate them in the world of the story. While Villegas’ play explores the specificities of the Rarámuri people, the commonality of justice and injustice within Mexico more broadly connects it with a larger audience. Villegas noted how she felt reverberations of this theme in Ngam’s play, May 35th as well.


Ngam’s theatre group has been producing works in Hong Kong dedicated to the June 4 Tiananmen Square Massacre for years. As Ngam noted, while it remains impossible to search for June 4 in mainland China, there is freedom to talk about this piece of history more openly in Hong Kong. The details of her play came from the extensive research she completed, which in addition to consulting print and video news archives, also included interviewing the reporters who were present at Tiananmen Square, as well as the victims’ families, who are still highly-surveilled in China. Similarly, the characters of Rarámuri Dreams are composites of people Villegas met during her time living with the Tarahumaras, which she called “the turning point of her life.” What initially began as short stories turned into monologues, and eventually, the play.


Nophand was similarly compelled by the impulse to tell a story centered on people not often in the spotlight—taxi-cab drivers and riders. “There are so many stories happening in taxi rides, you know. I started writing the story, but there was so much when I was writing Taxi Radio that I didn’t realize what was happening was all the collective thought within me from living in Thailand was pouring out into the story.” Nophand discussed how, as a writer, he didn’t want to limit himself to one story, and he also avoided linking the stories together the way they might be in a traditionally constructed narrative. Instead, Taxi Radio is an amalgamation of these distinct voices and stories that the audience jumps between, just as people jump into and out of taxi-cabs. 


While the plays featured in the festival—Rarámuri Dreams, Taxi Radio, May 35th—are all unique, the podcast format gave each new life. After listening to the three plays, Ngam shared how she found three different styles: “Rarámuri Dreams brings me to another world that is very dreamy, and at the same time, very real. I like the rhythm of Taxi Radio, that of a busy city...Theatre people are very flexible and creative in changing the situation into something possible.” Ngam also shared that while she would have, of course, loved to be able to meet the other playwrights and present the plays in person, that maybe then they wouldn’t have had the longevity and accessibility of what the podcast grants them—the possibility to share their work far and wide.


The International Play Reading Festival was co-founded by Carol Becker, Professor of the Arts and Dean of Columbia University School of the Arts, and Associate Professor David Henry Hwang. You can listen to both panels on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google. You can also view the complete festival schedule here to browse through the plays and listen to their recordings.