Photo credit: Max Zerrahn
What is it like to be a truly bilingual playwright? Patty Kim Hamilton, a writer based in Berlin who makes theatre in German and English, was recently involved in the ETC ENGAGE Readings programme – for which three plays, of which one was hers, were translated into English for the first time. She tells us about how working bilingually influences her creative process, how she decides which language is right for the scene she’s writing, and the potential for multilingual theatre programming to reach new audiences.
‘Sex Play’ was presented at the ETC ENGAGE Readings. Tell us about the play.
‘Sex Play’ is a play about consent, intimacy and the language we use around these realities. It’s a play that grew out of numerous conversations over the course of many years, reflecting on bodies, nearness, needs and desires.
I wrote it after personal experiences of not being fully seen, and of navigating consent. But I also wrote it because in my adult life I am constantly hearing stories and listening to conversations which reflect on language and bodies and desires. In the play, we experience Jane (Doe) and John’s relationships to sexual assault, intimacy and to one another, all while dropping into the experiences of unnamed characters and a chorus of multifaceted perspectives, all trying to figure out the spectrum of different relationships to one another and themselves. In the process of writing I referred to the work of Alice Birch and Sarah Kane, playing with language to lay bare real situations and experiences, attempting to hit a nerve that feels relevant to the public conversation post-#MeToo.
‘Sex Play’ was initially written in German, then halfway through the process translated into English. Is it still the same play?
It remains, in essence, the same play, but in this iteration has become something clearer and stronger, more nuanced and specific. This is partly due to the act of translating and partly due to the continued work of refining the text. If anything, the translation pushed me to continue developing the text and made me aware of places where I hadn’t quite articulated what I wanted to.
The typical question in this situation is whether you think anything has been lost in translation. But I think the more appropriate question here is actually: Has anything been gained from it? The play is intentionally not bound to particular characters, and many of the lines are spoken in chorus, in unison. Do you feel that translating the text – and therefore the ideas it expresses – has made it more universal?
In this specific case, the text did become more universal in that it was translated into English, which makes it accessible to a greater number of people. Also, because so much work has been done around the #MeToo movement, sexual assault, consent and intimacy in the English-speaking world, it feels somehow even more fitting for the piece to be spoken in that language. As someone who was educated about consent and experienced most conversations around intimacy in English, it probably also made writing the second draft somewhat easier, allowing me to use situations and articulations that are not available in German.
You’ve mentioned before that younger and more diverse audiences handle bilingual performances best. Do you see this as a cause for hope? Those younger audiences will eventually grow into the traditional middle-aged theatre audience. And although theatres have been talking about diversifying their productions and audiences for 40+ years, without making major changes, it does feel like there’s been a different energy in the past several years.
I absolutely feel that my generation and younger are increasingly multilingual, if only through the pervasive experience of the globalised internet and the ways in which languages are changing to naturally include a large number of Fremdwörter (‘loan words’ in English). I’m sure there are more articulate linguistic theories but as a lay person who is always observing language, I find the increased and ubiquitous use of English words in German extremely interesting. It of course changes your thinking, and in some ways, your personality, if you’re using English words to describe states of being for which there is no word in German (i.e. ‘vibing’, ‘awkward’, ‘sad’). Obviously, there is a word for ‘sad’ in German, but not in the way it’s used ironically at this moment in our globalised culture.
Additionally, anyone who has immigrated from another country is existing within two or more languages, navigating their mother tongue(s) as well as the language(s) of the country to which they immigrated. In this way, while multilingual programming might be challenging to a traditional theatre audience, there are many people who are used to switching back and forth constantly, who might identify with and feel spoken to by theatrical storytelling that does the same. I’ve worked at a theatre in Berlin with a postcolonial focus which specifically encourages this form of (multilingual) storytelling, as their audience enjoys this added way of reflecting on their own experiences (or they simply enjoy experiencing the specific reality – of which language is a huge part – of the storyteller-artist who created the piece). Additionally, we underestimate the ability of audience to participate in and commit to a reality on stage - people are curious about other realities and go to the theatre to experience exactly this.
However, just because younger people and anyone who has ever emigrated (as well as their children) experience the world as a more multilingual and culturally diverse place, it is not necessarily reflected in the actual space of the theatre. There is a great deal of virtue signalling when it comes to a theatre expressing an interest in a more diverse audience, but it’s rare to see this translated into actual, targeted action plans. Most of the time I think this happens because people just don’t know how. But unless theatres do active work to bring in audiences who are coming from different backgrounds, classes and life experiences, I do think the theatrical audience will simply remain niche: academic, elitist and, self-referential.
Creating a more diverse audience does not happen without a concerted effort towards making theatre more accessible, i.e. by decreasing the barriers to entry and by programming artists and perspectives to which a wider audience can relate. And also by finding people with ideas who either know what needs to be done or are willing to put in the work listen and figure it out. (In positions of artistic programming).
This work involves:
- diversifying from the inside out, bringing people onto artistic teams who have a broader perspective
- asking the people you want to bring into the theatre what would appeal to them;
- telling stories onstage that reflect everyday experiences and human truths (to ensure a sustained interest in and community around the theatres;) and
- encouraging those coming from non-traditional backgrounds (ie: non-academic and lower class backgrounds, individuals with migration histories, etc) to develop artistic skills...
I could go on and on with ideas, but you basically need people in creative decision-making positions (dramaturgy, artistic direction, etc.) who are generating this change.
As a bilingual playwright, how do you use language in the creative process? Do you think differently in different languages? Do you write for the same audience when using both languages? Do certain scenes / themes come more easily in particular languages?
My relationship to language is an inherent part of my creative process: different areas of my mind or experiences I’ve had within the world are related to different languages. In German, I feel like I think more directly and specifically, if not more dramatically. There is also a tenderness to the German language that allows for a specific tone in writing. In English, I am able to think in nuance and expanse. I have a bigger English vocabulary, from having read much more in it, and so I am able to employ language more broadly. My process is usually to write a first draft in German, then translate it into English, write until I’ve finished that draft, and then translate it back into German. It’s a very time-consuming process, but in the end I have words that have been placed very intentionally and combed over with great care.
The use of language is also situational. I am currently writing a play about chronic pain, about elderly women in a surreal chronic pain clinic. As someone who deals with chronic pain, I do most of my own learning about the neuroscience of pain online in English. However, in the formal, clinical setting, my experience is fully German. It is interesting for me to observe what this does with pain and how I (and others) perceive it, depending on the vocabulary that exists to talk about it. So, yes, in some settings a specific language feels more appropriate. And no: I don’t write for the same audience, I mostly try not to think too much about my audience, since in my experience I never know exactly what is going to speak to one audience or another. When I wrote my play ‘Peeling Oranges’ I thought, ‘Who else could be interested in that story but an American audience?’ (The play is about a family of Asian Americans women pursuing and failing at the American Dream, among other things). It turns out I was completely wrong: German theatres have been significantly more interested in it, specifically in the poetry of the language and narrative and the form. Maybe it’s because I’ve been studying and learning in Germany, so the formal structure of the play is too far outside a traditional ‘well-made play’ to be easily accessible to an English-language audience?
But what I meant to say is: when I was 19, I was able to attend a talk with Lynn Nottage, a playwright who I deeply respect. I remember her sitting on stage, looking at the relatively small audience (feeling like she was making eye contact with me) when she said, ‘Writing for the stage is putting truth – emotional truth – on stage’. That’s when I realised I wanted to be a playwright and that’s how I’ve focused my process since. I listen: to the world around me, to my inner compass, to the words that come up on the page. I listen, and attempt to portray something true. And whatever language feels necessary to communicate that is the one I write in.
At ETC, we often help theatres reach new audiences through surtitling, or translations. Have you learned anything from this process that could help ensure theatres get it right?
I feel like the most important thing is having a translator who understands the tone and voice of the playwright. What I realised in this process is that I also acted as a third person, as someone who could speak both languages and check the tone of the translation to polish it to be even stronger than the original. Of course this isn’t usually necessary, but I feel like a third person in the translation process is honestly ideal (so often I read German-to-English surtitles that are just not getting it). And this makes me think that in future translations of language which I don’t think, I’d like to have another person on board to ensure the translation is capturing the essence I intended. So this is my radical suggestion for translation - you in theory need at least two translators to get it ‘right’.
Patty Kim Hamilton is a poet-playwright, dramaturg, director and performance artist, currently in her masters in Playwriting at the University of the Arts in Berlin. Her Play, ‘’Peeling Oranges’’ (developed as Playwright in Residence at the Shakespeare Academy Stratford and through the Bechdel Group) is the recipient of the Heidelberger Stückemarkt 2021 Radio Play Prize (produced through the SWR2), amongst other nominations and mentions. Her work exists at the intersection of the intimate and the political - meditating on bodies, language and memory. She is a graduate of Stanford University where she received a Bachelors in Theater and Performance Studies with Honors and the Sherifa Omade Edoga Prize for Work Addressing Social Issues. In Germany she is represented by Suhrkamp.