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The Spanish Crucible

I'm going through the crucible of negotiating Spanish into my playwriting right now. My chosen language, easily my first and best, is English. I'm from Los Angeles, and despite having a Mexican mother and grandparents I learned Spanish mostly at school, and with the help of a Puerto Rican girlfriend in college (when she spoke slowly enough for me to catch up with her). But my writing has always opened itself to Spanish words and phrases, precisely because I've been curious. Since I never knew much, I wanted to know more. And when I feel like that, it helps me with my dramatic writing.

I'm used to making mistakes when I write (much less speak) in Spanish. I must have learned Castilian Spanish in junior high, but a lot of good it's done me. I try to utilize the Spanish I've heard on the street. Sometimes I'll remember Spanish I've seen in print, when it's particularly colorful. Recently I've been writing songs, or using existing Spanish language songs written by others, in my plays. When I say crucible, it's because the battle I must wage is how and when to translate them. This is a large issue in my life at the moment.

For one thing, my translations of a song by Silvio Rodriguez are likely to pale in comparison to the prismatic brilliance of the original. For another, I believe it's important to represent something beautiful in its essential state whenever possible. And finally, I'm politically sensitized to want my audience—bilingual and monolingual—to have to reach a bit. I don't want my English-only audience members to fall out of a play while a chunk of untranslated song goes by, but by the same token I think they should try to suss out the words they know, and the context and tone they can glean just by listening closely. My agent understands my predicament, yet thinks I'll need to translate more if I want the play in question—Dias y Flores—to have the life we both want it to have. But I'm stubborn.

Today, I've been working at interlacing translations as painlessly as possible into the dialogue, thanks to the lead character who is completely bilingual—who happens to be played by my Havana-born wife, Marlene Forte. Thanks to being married in love and work, she knows my predicament well; thanks to being talented and comfortable in both languages, she'll hopefully be able to finesse these translations without making me wince, and without slowing down the forward motion of the story, which depends on the almost magical power of the Silvio songs I've chosen. It's a tall order.

The larger problem here is surely that American audiences are often not used to having to work. The writers I love make their readers and listeners actively engage in the experience of the piece; language and song are two ways to make someone sit up.

When I go to opera, I often don't look up at the supertitles, even when the singers are declaiming in German or French—neither of which I know at all. I want to try to get what I can from what's given me. I take an operatic approach to my playwriting. If the emotion is big enough, and the stakes are high enough, the language shouldn't be a stumbling block. You'll get it.

Oliver Mayer is Assistant Professor of Dramatic Writing at the USC School of Theatre. He is the author of Blade to the Heat. His new play, Conjunto, will be staged in Los Angeles this November. Other plays include Young Valiant, Joe Louis Blues, Joy of the Desolate, The Road to Los Angeles, Laws of Sympathy, The Righting Moment, Dias y Flores, Rocio! In Spite of it All and Bold as Love. The Hurt Business: A Critical Portfolio of the Early Works of Oliver Mayer, Plus is published by Hyperbole Books, San Diego State University Press. He received a Gerbode Grant to write the libretto for a new opera entitled America Tropical composed by David Conte. His newest play Dark Matters won a Sloan Initiative national grant through the Magic Theatre. Oliver is a graduate of Cornell and Columbia Universities, and attended Worcester College, Oxford. His literary archive can be accessed through Stanford University Libraries.