Truth in Translation
Stories told under African skies
This article is from 2007.
South African television is polyglottic. Characters in ‘soapies’, puppets on Sesame Street and even newsreaders skip fluently between the country’s eleven official languages, sometimes in the middle of sentences. To an outsider the effect is jarring, but for South Africans it’s necessary; an assertion of their very complex post-apartheid nationhood.
In 1996, the African National Congress set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, founded on the principles of absolute honesty and absolute culpability. Anyone could come and seek justice for atrocities committed under apartheid; anyone could plead for amnesty as long as they made a full confession of their actions; and everyone in the country had to be able to understand what they said. Truth in Translation, a major new verbatim play devised and directed by Hollywood ex-pat Michael Lessac with music by South African composer Hugh Masekela, has been sculpted from the stories of the TRC’s translators; young language graduates, often in their first jobs, who were hired to interpret every account into each of the 11 languages.
‘They were given this one mandate: do not become involved,’ says Lessac, ‘but of course, to translate accurately, they had to speak in the first person: “I did this”; “I tortured this person”; “This happened to me”. In order to be able to truly interpret somebody else’s experience, you gotta be able to feel that person, and the victims and perpetrators of that violence began to flow through the translators. It was a horrific experience for them, but those translators became like a conduit for their country’s story.’
The process is being replicated as Lessac’s actors, all of them South Africans of a similar age, take on the stories themselves in performance. ‘The new South African constitution pivots on the concept of ubuntu, which means more or less ‘I am because we all are’, and I think that’s what’s happening in Truth in Translation as we tell those stories, and tell them again,’ he says. ‘If I tell my story to you and you tell yours to me, and we understand, then we make it impossible to dehumanise each other.’
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