- Between Tongues: Translation and/of/in Performance in Asia
We live in an age that is rich in the publication of important contributions on Asian performance traditions. Thus a volume like Between Tongues comes as an unexpected but welcome surprise that makes us sit up and take notice of an important area of theatre studies that seems not just to have been overlooked in the past, but to have barely existed. This is the question of how multiple languages interact in performance contexts, and what this means for performers, directors, audiences, and others with an investment in the life of the theatre.
As Jennifer Lindsay tells us in her insightful introductory chapters to Between Tongues, her interest in the role of translation in the theatre was sparked by witnessing University of Hawai'i professor Hardjo Susilo's simultaneous translation of a Javanese shadow play (wayang) performed by the illustrious Anom Suroto at the Adelaide Festival in 1994. Concerned that performance genres based on an aesthetics of multiple language use are increasingly coming under threat as linguistic homogenization proceeds under the pressures of globalization and national language policy, Lindsay convened a conference in July 2003, cosponsored by the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore and Theatreworks, a Singapore-based theatre company under the direction of Ong Keng Sen. The major aim of this conference was to open up a discourse on what Lindsay initially termed "language-based performance," that would respond to a performance of Javanese wayang kulit by Anom Suroto and subsequent discussions of a wide range of theatre genres and events that share the characteristic of being in some sense "multilingual." Very early during that conference, as representatives of traditional genres such as Thai khon, Indian kutiyattam, Balinese arja, and Chinese opera met with playwrights and directors working in multilingual contexts ranging from Malay bangsawan to the intercultural work of Ong Keng Sen, Lindsay realized that the term "language-based performance" conceals as many problems as it reveals and so turned attention to the question, "What kinds of translation does performance reveal, and perform" (p. 9).
For readers of Between Tongues this turn of events was fortunate, for it opened up a discussion not just on the use of translation for performance, but a broader discourse that touches upon problems of language use that confront not only specialists in translation and performance, but entire audiences [End Page 304] from multilingual states such as Malaysia, Singapore, India, and Indonesia. As Between Tongues demonstrates, this discourse also has crucial meanings for an international audience increasingly turned toward visual and kinetic modes of communication by way of the decision-making processes of international arts organizations that have understandably shied away from the problem of translation. How can one convey the richness of performance genres built around the complexities of verbal art forms when moving away from the local idioms that are their natural home?
While the geopolitical area Between Tongues is limited, focusing largely on multiple language use in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia, but also including South Asia, Thailand, and the Chinese diaspora, a wealth of detail and surprises emerges. Ammol Vellani's contribution on multilingual theatre in India shows how both "the politics of the nation (emanating from the Centre) and the politics of language (operating in the states) . . . collude in the production of an impoverished idea of multilingualism and cultural diversity" (p. 64), thus failing to produce the multilingual theatre that should be a logical consequence of more than two millennia of linguistic diversity and interchange. Chua Soo Pong's work on the experience of Chinese opera in Singapore shows that a prescriptive national language policy favoring English and Mandarin has not reduced the enthusiasm of local audiences for "dialectical" forms of the opera, including Hokkien, Teochew, and Hainan alongside Beijing style, but has required the creative interventions of organizations such as the Chinese Opera Institute, which have pioneered multiple "dialect" performances like Fire at Riverside Pavilion (1999) and The...