I watched Almodovar’s All About My Mother (Todo Sobre mi Madre) last night. It inspired a few thoughts about translation, which I shall endeavour to write about here.
Early on in the film, Manuela, the main character, takes her son to see a play. He wants to be a writer and it’s his birthday treat. The play, like the rest of the film, is in Spanish. But, as soon as the camera alights on it, there’s something very familiar about this play. It is clearly a moment of climax – three men sit at the rear of the stage playing poker, while a nurse chases an eccentrically-attired woman around the stage. It’s only moments before I recognise the play to be Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, confirmed in an instant when another actor address the woman as Miss Dubois.
The play takes on a great deal of significance in the film, and Almodovar shows excerpts of it several times. We are clearly invited to see links between the play and the film, perhaps made most explicit when Manuela says, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire has marked my life’. Almodovar has etched this American text into his character’s existence.
This line reminded me of Walter Benjamin’s essay, ‘The Task of the Translator’, in particular the moment when Benjamin quotes Rudolf Pannwitz:
Our translations, even the best ones, proceed from a wrong premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German instead of turning German into Hindi, Greek, English …
Bear in mind that this was originally written in German. Pannwitz goes on to say that the translator ‘must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language’.
According to this principle, Almodovar has achieved a feat of translation in the character of Manuela. Manuela’s life has been so influenced by Streetcar, so ‘marked’ by it, that she only makes sense with this foreign text. Almodovar has taken Pannwitz’s idea of expanding the mother-tongue and extrapolated it to show how a mother-narrative, so to speak, can be expanded and deepened by means of a foreign narrative.
For instance, Manuela says she is ‘moved’ by Streetcar’s character Stella, who, when we first see Streetcar in the film, leaves her husband, taking her baby with her. Manuela met her husband when they were both acting in Streetcar and we can hazard a pretty good guess that when she left Barcelona for Madrid, running away from him, carrying her unborn son inside her, this idea was inspired by Stella’s actions at the end of Streetcar.
But something jarred while watching the play in the film. The thing is, I studied Streetcar at school, and I was sure that something about Almodovar’s excerpts from it didn’t quite add up. I found my old copy of the text, filled with sixteen-year-old scribbles, and watched those bits of the film again, play-script in hand.
I realised that something quite uncanny had happened. The first thing that became clear was that the scene had been cut, less significant parts removed and more dramatic ones sown together. I imagine this was to make it more simple, more understandable to the viewer who only sees a minute or so of the play. But the really crucial change is that, in Williams’s play, Stella stays with Stanley. The final image is one of Stanley soothing Stella:
Stanley [voluptuously, soothingly]: Now, honey. Now, love. Now, now love. [He kneels beside her and his fingers find the opening of her blouse.] Now, now, love. Now, love …
Stella remains in Stanley’s modern (echoed in the repeated ‘now’), sexual (suggested here with ‘his fingers find the opening of her blouse’) world. She doesn’t run away with their baby.
In the play that Almodovar shows, however, the final image – and the one that has been so significant for Manuela – is Stella leaving Stanley. The subtitles go like this:
[Stanley] Come on. The worst’s over.
[Stella] Don’t touch me! Don’t ever touch me again, bastard!
[Stanley] Watch your language. Stella come here. Stella.
[Stella] I’m never coming back to this house. Never! [Stella walks off stage]
[Stanley, calling after her] Stella, Stella.
So the effect of the translation is not straightforwardly one-way. While it seems as though the American text has marked the (Spanish) narrative of Manuela’s life, it is actually the Spanish translation of the text that has marked her life – if it had been the American version, perhaps she would not have run away from her husband with her unborn child.
Examining the two versions of the play more meticulously, it is clear that the words themselves – not just the narrative thrust – have changed. Translation is evidently a radical process. Instead of getting the original English of Tennessee Williams’s play in the subtitles, we get something very different indeed. We get the end result of two translations: an American play, translated into Spanish, and then translated again into English for the subtitles. The word ‘bastard’, for example, isn’t used once in the original play. For every part of the play that Almodovar shows, there is a marked disjuncture between the text of the English subtitles and the original text of the play.
In the original, for example, Blanche asks Stella to get something from ‘the heart-shaped box I keep my accessories in’. In the version we see in All About my Mother, this is altered to:
[Blanche]: Where’s my heart?
[Stella]: She means her jewel-box, it’s heart-shaped.
Almodovar then cuts to Manuela watching the actors, closing her eyes in, what we infer is, pain. The question, ‘where’s my heart?’ is of great significance to Manuela, harking back to earlier in the film, when she went to Coruna to see who received the heart of her dead son in a transplant operation. A ‘heart-shaped box’ would not have the same resonance. The re-translation of the play back into English has been vitally affected by the Spanish.
Some phrases are sacrosanct. ‘Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers’, uttered by Blanche to the doctor at the end of the Streetcar we see in the film, is identical, word for word, to the line in Williams’s play. There’s a remarkable scene about half-way through the film, when Huma Rojo, who plays Blanche in the play, is being driven through Barcelona by Manuela, who she has only just met, to try and find her girlfriend and fellow actress Nina. Huma turns to Manuela, in the car, and repeats the infamous line perfectly. The phrase is utterly characteristic of Blanche, and is also utterly characteristic of Huma. This is an example of Pannwitz’s ideal translation: a phrase, albeit spoken in Spanish, that has kept Williams’s unmistakable tone, deepening and expanding Spanish with the American-English idiom. The retranslation in the subtitles shows it to be identical to the original version; the phrase is meaningful enough, strong enough, to survive intact.
But this is the exception rather than the rule. Almodovar’s translation of Streetcar into All About My Mother is far more dialogic. The American play affects the Spanish, but the Spanish also affects the American play. I can only conclude that while Streetcar may have ‘marked’ Manuela, All About my Mother has also, indelibly, marked Streetcar.