Microsoft word - sati_nomination_fiction_2011.doc
Nomination: FIT “Aurora Borealis” Prize for outstanding translation of fiction literature
Merits of the work
The Syringa Tree
is a South African play written by Pamela Gien. It’s the story of two families, a white liberal family in Johannesburg and the family of Salamina, their nanny. We are in South Africa around the seventies, under Apartheid rule. The tale is told by Elizabeth Grace, a 6 year old girl. The reality and complexities of South Africa are filtered by the eyes (and the words) of this little girl, who takes the audience in a journey through the darkest period of the Country to the new South Africa. The play has 24 characters, which differ in age, gender, ethnic group, social status, etc., but it is meant for a single actress. The stage is bare and the actress doesn’t make use of any props. Therefore the characterization of the different roles relies solely on the language and gestures. The translation has been able to render into Italian the complex structure and deep nuances of the different characters. More so it was able to evoke for the Italian audience a portrait of a far away country, far away both chronologically and geographically. Besides the clear hints to historical facts and to the general political atmosphere, the author makes several references to habits, songs, cultural details that are typically South African. The translator was able to recreate this universe into Italian, without losing any of the many facets of the English work and creating a meaningful Italian version. To add to the complexity of the play, some parts are in Afrikaans, other in Zulu and the translator managed to work with these, using their presence almost as if they were natural inflections of standard Italian, making them part of the ordinary and natural flow of the language. The translation was reviewed and edited by Italian speaking Jean-Louis Rodrigue, Alexander Technique expert and movement coach, close collaborator of Pamela Gien in the production of the play. In a mail to the translator, he wrote the following, “Since I was the one to encourage Pamela to grant her permission for your translation of "The Syringa Tree", I am pleased about this award possibility and I can give you the reason why I found your translation compelling. It is a challenge to maintain the spirit and "blood memory" of the place and people in a play such as "The Syringa Tree" when it is translated in Italian. In your translation, you were able to tell the story with clarity, heart and staying true to Pamela's vision, all the while fully aware of connecting and integrating all the technical needs of language, place, and history. This is a remarkable achievement
.” The author expressed her opinion to the translator after the opening of the show in Italy, in March 2010, “I want to thank you so much for your beautiful work on the play. I understand (.) that the opening night was wonderful, and that the audience responded beautifully and very emotionally. This was lovely to hear, as it tells me again that your work on the text was true to the writing in every way, and really excellent - something I already knew from Jean-Louis! So an enormous thank you from me, Adele. Thank you for your very special idea to translate the play, and then for putting it into the hands of Rita. I had so much joy working with her, and only wish you could have been with us in rehearsals. Your translation gave her, and me, both truth and peace of mind. Thank you for your great skill and care.”
Background on the nominee
Maria Adele Palmeri is an Italian translator and interpreter who has been living in South Africa since 2002. She studied Foreign Languages and Literature at the Università degli Studi di Udine, in Italy, and obtained her B.A. Honours in 1999 summa cum laude. In her thesis she analyzed the work of a Congolese author and playwright (Sony Labou Tansi) of French expression. The same year she translated one of his plays (“La résurrection rouge et blanche de Roméo et Juliette
”), which was produced by Italian theatre company CSS – Teatro stabile e di innovazione del Friuli Venezia Giulia. The play had enormous success and the translation was particularly appreciated by the critics. The collaboration with directors and theatre artists continued and Maria Adele was the assistant to the translation and the direction of the play “A cinquante ans elle découvrait la mer”
, by Denise Chalem, directed by Alessandro Marinuzzi for the Teatro La Contrada di Trieste. She translated a second play by Sony Labou Tansi, “Moi, Veuve de l’Empire
”, and the play “Raoul
”, by Isabelle Bats for L’Atelier Corneille, Brussels, under the direction of Jean-François Politzer. Her collaboration with the CSS continued when she edited and supervised the translation of the play “Revolt”
, by Rita Maffei. Maria Adele’s first South Africa work was the editing and proofreading of the Italian translation of the novel “A time of Angels
”, by South African author Patricia Schonstein Pinnock. Alongside the literary translation and artistic collaborations, Maria Adele Palmeri has translated two volumes for the tourism industry: “South Africa
”, by Gerald Hoberman and “Mini Visual Cape Town
”, by Andrea Willmore and Dominique De La Croix, both published in South Africa. Her latest work is the translation of “The Syringa Tree
”, by the South African author Pamela Gien, produced in Italy by the CSS Teatro stabile di innovazione del Friuli Venezia Giulia. The play has been particularly well received by the Italian public and obtained the prestigious prize: ‘Premio Franco Henriquez 2010’. The actress and co-director Rita Maffei was awarded best actress and director in the category ‘civil theatre’ (http://www.enriquezlab.org/centro_studi/), Pamela Gien was awarded the prize for best author as well as the Medal from the President of the Republic of Italy for her civil engagement.
Letter from the author in support of the nomination
January 28, 2011
Marion Boers (Mrs)
Executive Director/Uitvoerende Direkteur
SA Translators' Institute (SATI)/SA Vertalersinstituut (SAVI)
Tel: (011) 803-2681
Fax (local): 0866 199 133
Fax (international): +27 11 803 2681
RE: Adele Palmeri’s Italian Translation of The Syringa Tree
, by Pamela Gien
Dear Mrs. Marion Boers,
I am delighted to take this occasion to express my gratitude and admiration of Adele Palmeri’s fine translation work.
As the playwright of The Syringa Tree
, I was hesitant to allow a translation because I feared that the finer points,
nuances and many South African dialect subtleties might be difficult to capture in another language. However, as
the process went along with Adele, I became aware of her skill, sensitivity and care for all these matters. As the
play, published in 2002 by Dramatists Play Services Inc., has been performed in New York, London, Canada, and
South Africa, and has become beloved of audiences, we all felt a responsibility to honor its reputation with any new
translation. I do not speak Italian myself, so upon receipt of Adele’s translation, I asked an Italian friend who has
been familiar with the play from its inception, to read it. He called me, deeply moved, and said, “The translation is
You may know that the Italian production of Adele’s translation won awards in Italy, including the Presidents Award
for Best Play. I have no doubt that Adele’s skilled and caring work played a great part in this success, and I am
deeply grateful to her.
I thank you in advance for considering her as a nominee. She is deserving in every way.
With great thanks,
Background to The Syringa Tree
For background on The Syringa Tree
Black, White and Colored Review by PAUL GRAY Published: August 6, 2006
After its debut in Seattle, “The Syringa Tree,” a one-woman play by the South African actress Pamela Gien, opened
in Manhattan in the fall of 2000 at Playhouse 91, an intimate theater in Yorkville. The early response did not
overwhelm; one night, 17 people made up the entire audience. But Gien’s virtuoso performance in all the roughly
two dozen roles she had written began to attract attention. Oprah attended and sent flowers backstage. Rosie
O’Donnell became a cheerleader. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward showed up, as did J.D. Salinger, the father
of the show’s producer, Matt Salinger. Eventually, “The Syringa Tree” and its author/star collected a sheaf of Off
Broadway awards, including an Obie for best play.
THE SYRINGA TREE
By Pamela Gien.
262 pp. Random House. $24.95.
Some time later, Gien decided to transform what had been, by most accounts, an intense and emotionally affecting
95 minutes on the stage into a novel. It was an odd choice, although one with some fairly recent precedents. David Lodge rewrote a play of his into the 1999 novella “Home Truths”; the Irish author Kitty Fitzgerald turned “Pig
Paradise,” a 1998 radio drama she had written for the BBC, into the novel “Pigtopia,” which was published here last
year. But historically the adaptation traffic between narrative and dramatic writing has been overwhelmingly in the
other direction, from discursiveness toward intensity. That was true when the Greek dramatists recycled Homer and when Shakespeare did the same with Plutarch and Holinshed, and when Dickens’s notable characters cropped
The rise of the movies made this process familiar to everyone. Hollywood blockbusters like “Gone With the Wind,”
“The Godfather,” “Jaws” and, recently, “The Da Vinci Code” have repeatedly demonstrated the public eagerness to
see books on film. A corresponding yen to read dramas turned into works of fiction remains questionable. Has anyone ever emerged from a production of “King Lear” or “Waiting for Godot” or “Our Town” thinking, “Boy, I wish
I could read a novel about what I just saw?”
The narrative version of “The Syringa Tree” gives Gien the chance to reach those who weren’t lucky enough to see
her enact her dramatic inspiration in person. But the venue, and hence the rules, have changed. Thanks to
Hollywood, anyone who has ever considered writing a movie script is hip to the first rule of adaptation: What works
on the page may not play on the stage (or the screen). As a novel, “The Syringa Tree” offers an unusual
demonstration of that principle in reverse.
Like the play, Gien’s novel portrays the grinding imposition of apartheid in South Africa through the eyes and
impressions of a young white girl. Lizzy Grace is 6 years old in 1963, when the story begins. Her country, cut loose two years earlier from the British Empire, is ruled by an uneasy alliance of former English and Dutch settlers. Lizzy
lives in a new Johannesburg suburb with her parents and baby brother. A small retinue of black servants, notably
Lizzy’s beloved nanny, Salamina, occupy separate quarters in the back of the house.
Salamina is pregnant and soon gives birth (assisted by Lizzy’s father, a physician) to a daughter, whom she names Moliseng, a Xhosa word meaning “protect her, leave her alone.” This injunction becomes literal: the baby’s name is
“not to be spoken outside our house, ever. We had avoided a trip to the hospital and had been graced with no
complications. No one knew of her. Moliseng would remain hidden. My special job had begun.”
The task of explaining why Moliseng must be kept a secret falls to Lizzy, since hers is the dominant voice in the
novel. “Moliseng had no paper. The police would declare her illegal if they ever found her on our property.” But why would they do that? The answer entails an explanation of the invention and spread of apartheid that doesn’t seem
plausible coming from a child of 6. In performance, Gien could shift instantly between playing young and old, white
and black, English and Afrikaner, through alterations of accents and postures. Print calls for different strategies of
Roughly halfway through the novel, Lizzy announces that she has turned 7 and conquered her nagging bed-wetting
problem. A page later, she intones: “In a silent coup, the Afrikaners, still humiliated by their defeat at the hands of
the British after the Boer War, were soothing their grudge with the goal of regaining their independence and re-establishing their Boer republics. Not content with now holding a white majority with their Nationalist Party, their
work had to remain secret if they were to successfully enrich themselves and reignite their pride of religion, culture
and language.” A few pages after that, perky Lizzy once again scampers up the syringa tree in her backyard, her habitual perch for observing the grown-up activity below and for communing with the “thousand friends,” the
spirits who the African servants have told her reside there.
Winsomeness can work wonders in person. Every audience waiting for the curtain to rise or the movie to begin
(after all those annoying ads and previews) is a huddled mass yearning to be astonished or entertained or amused or, at the very least, diverted, given some consolation for having gone to the trouble of showing up in the first place.
Solitary readers can be tougher customers, prone, for example, to grow irritable when the words on the page,
unaccompanied by the physical presence and inflections of a speaker, seem flat or insipid. It may be appropriate that Lizzy, given her age, prattles so often in clichés, but the effect in a book is deadening.
What happened when a girl in Victorian dress fell into a river? “She sank like a stone.” How wide is baby Moliseng’s grin? “As wide as the sky.” How does a laborer perspire while toiling under the harsh African sun? “He was
sweating bullets.” What does Lizzy’s father think while searching for Salamina, who suddenly leaves them? “I
thought Salamina had fallen off the face of the earth.”
Novels can be large, hardy vehicles, capable of surviving lackluster maintenance and neglected fine-tuning while still carrying readers to someplace worth visiting. This version of “The Syringa Tree” conveys, as pale fire, some of
the brightness generated by Gien’s stage performances. Her original concept — to illustrate the breathtaking cruelty
and lunacy of apartheid by detailing its effects on a small number of black and white characters — remains effective. A child’s bewildered response to the injustices inflicted on people she knows and loves seems entirely appropriate;
only adults could have believed that apartheid made any practical or moral sense.
When Gien reins in her tendency to use timeworn phrases, some of her descriptive passages leap into life, as when
Lizzy recounts a drive with her family to her maternal grandparents’ farm, near the Rhodesian border: “Four hours
deeper into miles and miles of nowhere, at Bandelierkop, a no-horse town with a train platform, a petrol pump, a fly-pestered dog, and a kafee selling cigarettes and yesterday’s newspaper, we stopped for bananas, Joko Tea leaves
and Eet-Sum-More biscuits.” Now that, the lone reader may declare, is entertainment.
Paul Gray is a regular contributor to the Book Review
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