For three nights in Manchester (July 12-14), as many as 300 people will file into a theatre space littered with cables and sound equipment. Seven islands will be placed throughout the audience, hosting seven of the world’s most celebrated authors: Adania Shibli, Alejandro Zambra, Dubravka Ugrešić, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Patrick Chamoiseau, Sayaka Murata, and Sjón. Each author will be joined by an English-language interpreter.
The project, Studio Créole, was conceived and curated by novelist Adam Thirlwell, who says audience members will each don a pair of bone-conduction headphones so that they can listen to two versions of each story simultaneously. Through headphones that sit on the bone just below the ear, audience members will hear the authors read newly written stories in Arabic, Spanish, Croatian, Kikuyu, French and Antillean Creole, Japanese, and Icelandic. But their ears will be free to listen to an actor, who will voice a near-simultaneous interpretation in English.
“What we’ve found is that, when that happens—and it works—it does something very strange to the brain,” Thirwell said over Skype. “It really does make you believe you understand seven different languages. It almost makes you forget that you’re listening to a translation, so you kind of just think that you’re listening to the Arabic and understanding it. It’s like the opposite of speaking in tongues. It’s like listening in tongues. You think, I can speak Japanese now!”
Studio Créole debuts today as part of the Manchester International Festival, and for each of its three nights, the English performance will be different. The seven authors will read from fixed texts. But as each author reads aloud, their interpreter will create a new version, which will then be fed into the actor’s earpiece. From this, the actor will craft their performance.
The seven stories are not linked; each author was left to write in their own particular style. But the authors did have two limiting factors: each story had to be a first-person narrative, and each had to include a conversation with a stranger. In the story by Palestinian novelist Adania Shibli, a woman bikes to a salon, where she has a tense exchange with the hairdresser.
At an early workshop, the interpreter working on Shibli’s story rendered the bicycle as a “motorbike.” Shibli said that, as she listened, “I was wondering: Should I correct him? But this would create a certain relationship that I didn’t want.” Two of Shibli’s novels have been translated to English, and her third, Minor Detail, is set to appear in 2020. When working with a literary translator, she said, “you are speaking to each other. But the interpreter has a parallel life.”
In this, Shibli said, the process is not unlike reading. The interpreter, who is completely separate from the author, makes moment-by-moment choices about what’s important and what to leave behind. Such omissions happen in any reading, Thirlwell said. “No brain can keep the text as a whole.”
Throughout July rehearsals and performances, the same stories will be read to the same interpreters and voiced by the same actor. Yet Thirlwell doesn’t expect the texts to reach a static form. At a workshop last December, he attempted the project with a French short story, repeating the process around 20 times in two days. “And still,” he said, “there would be small nuances that would change, that would drift.”
The experiment doesn’t end with the final reading. After the performance, each audience member will walk away with a slender paperback that has the stories’ originals as well as their “official” literary translations. This book, available only to audience members, will be “an archive of the whole thing, but also a way of continuing the thinking that this piece is meant to do.”
After Manchester, the project is set to travel to Sydney, Australia. Some of the writers will remain with the project; others will change. Each time Studio Créole is staged, Thirlwell expects the group to be a little different. “The rule is always that the actor is in the host language of the place, but the writers can never be in the host language,” he said. “So no English-speaking writer is allowed in Manchester. In Italy we could have an American novelist, but not an Italian one.”
Thirlwell previously curated a part-mischievous, part-serious translation project for McSweeney’s, where stories were translated from language to language, sometimes by authors who knew both the source and target, sometimes by authors who were using Google or half-remembered conjugations.
“It’s weird because I take translation so seriously,” Thirlwell said, and yet “I quite like making up these things that in many ways go against all my intellectual probity.”
The project is certainly a translational decadence—yet it’s also a lens through which to re-examine what we mean by “world literature.”