Art, Yasmina Reza
I took a translation class recently because…come on, you should know by now that I’m a word nerd. I used it as an opportunity to translate Yasmina Reza’s play, «Art», a wry and entertaining take on friendship, class, taste, and the ridiculousness of the art market that I recommend for anyone who’s had the thought, “modern art: why?” If you don’t read French, it’s already been translated into English by Christopher Hampton at the link above.
Translating is like reading and writing combined. You get to know a text inside out: putting it together word by word, line by line, then examining the entire body to make sure it’s functioning as a whole. It’s closer-than-close reading, and finickier than most writing. If this sounds like torture to you, feel free to skip to the alternate recs below. But for me, it’s a pleasure to consider the variations of a word within a sentence, then the sentence itself, then how it works in the larger scene or chapter, all the while trying to match the voice and vision of someone else. It requires both ego and humility—ego to assume you can execute such a tightrope job, and humility to bend your skills in service of someone else’s goal.
The class, taught by the wonderful Elisa Wouk Almino, made me realize how much I took the process of translation for granted in all the translated books I’ve read. I assumed I was hearing the voice of the author, when much of it was also the skill of the translator. To say that things get “lost in translation” is true, but oversimplified. It is never quite the same, but at its best, a translation gives the original text another life, in a language and style that make sense to another audience and another world.
Even if you don’t read this play, I recommend reading any text in two languages—or two different translations into English—to have your eyes opened to the possibility and individuality of each writer and translator. Every word is a choice. And that basic fact of writing becomes much clearer when you can compare it side by side with another.*
*NB: I do not recommend doing this activity with life choices.
If you like it
For similar style and substance to «Art», try any of Noel Coward’s classic comedies of manners (Design for Living, Private Lives, and Blithe Spirit are my favorites). I also recommend Terence Rattigan’s screwball French Without Tears, about a hapless group of English friends trying to learn the language.
If you don’t
If a play’s not your thing, you might enjoy strongly developed characters in nonfiction like Isabel Wilkerson’s incredible epic The Warmth of Other Suns. She uses vivid, individual stories to tell a sweeping history of America’s Great Migration. I’d recommend her latest, Caste, but I haven’t read it yet.
Things I’ve written lately: