Could You Say That in English?: MN Plays That Toy with Translation

Isla Tuliro, at the Southern Theater, isn’t going to translate everything for you, but that’s not a bad thing


The translation of the title of the play Isla Tuliro, which plays at the Southern Theater April 6-22, is “Island of Confusion.” People who speak Tagalog or related Filipino languages point out the grammar is incorrect. That’s the point, according to its writer and co-director, Marlina Gonzalez.

“Multilingual and bilingual people, especially people who’re colonized by another country,” Gonzalez says, “we have a way of subverting the language or the second language by making it our own, by changing the spelling and the pronunciation, by changing the grammar to how we conjugate and mastering the second language.”

The way colonization seeps through language is a central theme in Gonzalez’s play, an allegory on the Spanish and Americans’ takeover of the Philippines. Although it’s a serious subject, she fills her story with mythical creatures, bright colors, puppetry, and music. “Lost in translation” moments from the mix of Tagalog (a Filipino dialect pronounced tah-GAH-lahg), Spanish, and English are just part of the humor she sprinkles throughout. In all of the commotion, she has the audience go through some of the same lingual confusion as the islanders, and it is this clever wink that causes us to wonder just how much translation we need in theater.

Oftentimes, if playwrights don’t prescribe projected subtitles for non-English languages, they will put the translation in the context of the play. Isla Tuliro certainly employs this method, as does the Guthrie’s Familiar, which is on the McGuire Proscenium Stage through April 14 and features the Shona language, a major language in Zimbabwe. However, there are also moments when there is no English version of a line—in the craziness of Isla Tuliro, there are moments when it’s hard to tell which language the characters are speaking at all. 

Even if you’re feeling a little lost in the audience, if the playwright didn’t think you needed the translation, you probably don’t.

Isla Tuliro co-director Meena Natarajan grew up in India, and for her, not understanding every language she hears is normal. “You don’t have to understand every language,” Natarajan says, “and you have a sensitivity to languages because of that…It’s wonderful to be in this space (of the play), really. It’s really familiar to me. As a monoculture (in the U.S.), you’re not used to it, and it’s a culture shock.”

While Isla Tuliro is one of the most recent multilingual world premieres happening in the Twin Cities, other plays are in the works, too. Actor and playwright Nora Montañez Patterson is a local theater professional whose works often reflect her experience growing up as the daughters of Spanish-speaking immigrants. Not every piece is about her childhood or deals with immigration, but she has found that just as she has grown up in a bilingual world, so do many of her most authentic characters. For the one-woman memoir she is working on where she portrays her parents, they speak in Spanish because they insisted their family stuck to Spanish in their own home. Sometimes she translates what they say after she’s done acting as them, and sometimes she doesn’t.

“What I tend to do is kind of read it out loud, and then I try to put myself in the position of people that don’t know the language much,” Patterson says. “Then I kind of think to myself, what is important about this sentence that needs to be addressed a little more?”

As much as theater is about dialogue, Montañez Patterson believes a play has more power than the literal words on a page. It’s how they are said and the universal body language and feeling behind them that truly conveys the message.

“What I’ve experienced sometimes,” she says of choosing to have a line in Spanish, “is that things are heightened. There are things in the inflection where I need to use words in Spanish to kind of emphasize whatever I’m trying to say, emotionally. It just kind of sounds better in the mouth.”

Keeping the dialogue in a language that represents the character or the situation can help cut to the emotional truth of the play, and it also can help keep the play closer to the culture it draws inspiration from. For Familiar, the Guthrie asked Nicholas Nyachega, a University of Minnesota PhD candidate from Zimbabwe, to be a vocal coach. Not only did he help with word pronunciation, but he worked with the actors so they really understand the meaning of the Shona lines. Some words had different contexts and meanings that weren’t properly conveyed by a direct translation, and other phrases called for a lesson on etiquette.

For instance, when the aunt talks with anyone who is beneath her relative elder status, Nyachenga says, “There’s this kind of space dynamic, and that position is maintained throughout the language itself with a kind of tone that is respectful, a kind that isn’t disrespectful in a way. We worked on that to become more visible: You can have a high tone, but a lower tone shows respect, and even the groom, he would have to know how to maintain space between the aunt and even the bride.”

Still, if language corresponds with culture and cultures can change, so does language. As you trace back the etymology of words, you’ll find how they blend and overlap with others as people have traveled, conquered, and coexisted over the centuries. When Gonzalez was writing Isla Tuliro, she made a deliberate effort to use Tagalog words that didn’t have a Spanish root until the Spaniards were introduced in her play, and she didn’t use any Americanized or American-influenced words until the Americans came along in her play, creating a timeline of cultures meeting and, in the case of her play, colonialism.

Outside of the scripts and the stages, when Gonzalez reflects on the multiple languages that make up her memories and identity, she likens the feeling of balancing the different languages and cultures to the traditional Filipino folk dance called tinikling, which was inspired by watching the tikling rail birds run across the ground and navigate bamboo traps meant to ensnare its feet.

“We’re not a monolithic culture in terms of language (in the U.S.), and yet we insisted it should be, or at least there are factors in our society that say there should only be English,” Gonzalez says. “We’re always dancing between bamboos, always trying to avoid being caught in between the penalty of not owning one or the other language.”

If theater is often about showing what is important, what is formative, or what needs to change, then let us continue to keep our minds open even if we don’t understand everything. Sometimes, as in plays like Isla Tuliro, you don’t necessarily need a translator for every line: You simply need to listen.