Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Performance, Untranslated

Two stories.

Recently, on the afternoon of arriving in Paris, I ducked into the sleek organic cafe R'Aliment for a late lunch. Service had ended for the day, unfortunately, and only a few sandwiches were available for take-away. I gleaned this information in a rather non-welcoming exchange with the young waitress. My French is admittedly atrocious, but my ear for the language is quite strong; I can pick up the gist of a conversation by listening and observing the speaker closely. This woman, however, gave me nothing. The bland exasperated look on her face could have been due to a very busy lunch that day, or the fact that I walked through the door when she was ready to close up, or that I was a typical non-French speaking American. The situation ended in a draw: she carelessly tossing a sandwich in a bag and perfunctorily closing the till (at the same time, of course), and I half-heartedly walking out onto the street to eat my first meal in Paris (a delicious and simple concoction of soft, herbed cheese and arugula on a crisp, sundried-tomatoey baguette).

A few days later I entered the chocolate shop L'Etoile d'Or with almost mythic expectations. The curious stories of Denise Acabo, the proprietress, and her school-girl braids, plaid pleated skirt, and knee-high socks worried me somewhat; anyone who dared to wear such a costume at my grandmother's age was bound to be eccentric. Would she refuse me chocolates if I couldn't ask for them--with proper verb conjugation--en francais? Quite the contrary. All smiles from the moment I stepped through the door, she eyed me attentively as I fumblingly said I would like any "assortment" of "vous favorites" for "dix euro." She nodded effusively, grabbed a little cellophane bag, and chattered away in French as she filled it with Bernachon chocolates. Pistache? Menthe? She probably asked if I preferred dark or milk, almonds or nougat, candied orange or caramel; I really have no idea, and yet it definitely felt like we were conversing, communicating. Simply the fact that she just kept talking as if I understood made the entire encounter a pleasant and memorable one.

Language and translation. Performance as language. These days, particularly with modern music, what I hear more and more from the audience is, "we need a translator!" As the curtain comes down at intermission, cries of "what was that about" or "what was the composer/choreographer trying to tell us" or "did you understand that" abound. But really, is translation necessary?


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