When someone asks you the question ‘if you could pick a superpower, what would it be?’, do you opt for the ability to be fluent in every language? Or does the new year come around and you promise to finally crack open the Japanese for Dummies book your Grandma gave you for Christmas?
I love to immerse myself in a different culture and listen to the cadence of another tongue but often shy away from international art without subtitles (even my first opera was translated on a big screen) for fear of feeling out of my depth. I’m fascinated by stories that twist and blur as they’re passed down through generations, etched onto the page and then scattered across continents, and I’ve often wondered, much like in a game of Chinese Whispers at a kid’s sleepover, how much of the tale changes or is lost. So, when I heard about Studio Créole, a project commissioned by Manchester International Festival (MIF) and Carriageworks in association with the Abu Dhabi Festival, my interest was immediately piqued. Not only was the project a performance for stories in translation, but there was the promise of a fancy pants audio network that would allow me to feel less on the periphery of the story.
Created by award-winning novelist Adam Thirlwell, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Rem Koolhaas, Studio Créole sees seven acclaimed authors from seven countries – Patrick Chamoiseau (French), Sayaka Murata (Japanese), Adania Shibli (Arabic), Sjón (Icelandic), Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (Kikuyu), Dubravka Ugrešić (Croatian) and Alejandro Zambra (Spanish) – read out specially commissioned short stories to the audience in their original language. Their words are then live translated by an interpreter into English and a version fed via an earpiece to actress Lisa Dwan who creates a preformative interpretation of the original text. Audience members wear bone conduction headphones and simultaneously listen to the story in its original language and in the actor’s English version.
The premise took me some time to get my head around. The technology sounds complex and I wonder if it’s confusing, a bit like trying to rub your stomach and pat your head at the same time. “I found that, even almost more than I expected, the brain weirdly cancels out that it’s even listening to English,” says curator Thirlwell. “So, you forget that you’re listening to another language. You can kid yourself that you can speak Icelandic or Japanese.”
After a quick Google search (which was needed to find out more about such sorcery) I learned that bone conduction allows you to hear sound through the vibration of the bones of your face (jaw bones and cheek bones). This means that the sound waves are bypassing the outer and middle ear where the eardrum is located and directly stimulating the inner ear. For Thirlwell, the technology is magical. “When you’re listening to a language you don’t know, it really gives you an incredible godlike experience and suddenly you can understand all languages.”
Originally, and out of “pure financial worry”, the team experimented with normal headphones and it became apparent that it couldn’t work. “The way in which bone conduction headphones work means your brain can quite happily listen to the English version and the translation without any problem,” explains Thirlwell. “I’d never used these headphones before. They’re incredible. The quality is really creepy, so you’ll be able to hear the voice of the author inside your head and, with your ears, you’ll be able to listen to Lisa [Dwan] do her story in English.” Like I said, sorcery.
The project is co-curated by Swiss art curator, critic and historian of art, Hans Ulrich Obrist. “I’d known him for quite a long time,” says Thirlwell, “And he’d always said to me that he wanted to do what he called a group show for literature. He’s always been interested in how you can stage literature in some way almost like a live art show.”
Interestingly, translation, which is so integral to the finalised piece, wasn’t always the central premise of the project. “I was always interested in time and literature. It fascinated me, and I know by watching other people and myself read that, as a novelist, you spend so much time thinking about the composition of your novel, the tempo of events, whether you’re going to delay a piece of information to release, and we all know that when you’re reading a novel, you might spend a really intense two or three hours reading a book and then not pick it up for another two months. I’d always been frustrated at that lack of control over the reader. Having created this object, you can’t control what tempo [in which] the reader read it.”
He continues: “I always had this idea of an anthology of stories that, if people actually wanted to read them then they would have to go to a certain place to listen to them. It would be a way of creating that kind of control I’d always envied my filmmaker friends with a piece of cinema or a composer with a piece of music.”
Despite the shift in focus, this aspect of controlled consumption is still evident in the finished piece as each writer was given a story length of 10 minutes to adhere to.
For me, one of the most fascinating elements of projects commissioned by Manchester International Festival is how they are afforded the time and space to evolve during the creative process. Sometimes, projects will reach a different conclusion than initially proposed and it’s interesting to see the emphasis placed on the journey and the making of a piece of art. MIF approached Thirlwell in 2016, just before Brexit, and when he began thinking about involving live translation, one of the reasons for the project was to showcase multiple languages. “I often feel that, particularly for English speakers, we get used to the absence of other languages and when we go abroad people will speak English to you, and there’s that almost invisibility. It was just extremely interesting to put other languages in your head.”
He adds: “Translation then entered it for two reasons. The first was purely literary as I’ve always been fascinated by reading in translation and watching my own books be translated. It’s such a paradoxical thing that the words you read are not any of the words the writer has chosen, but it’s still the same novel. Literature is an international art form that has a nationalistic medium which is language unlike film where there are subtitles and a huge amount of it is available to the viewer as the director intended. I’ve always been interested in translation, what the problems might be and the creative solutions.
“People are really campaigning for more translations to happen into English, but there’s a weird flip-side to that where, in translation, the original just completely disappears and I thought it would be interesting to find a way of holding the two things together at the same time.”
So, why the name Studio Créole? “I have always been interested in theories of literature being international,” says Thirlwell. “While I’m always in favour of not being overly nationalistic, at the same time there can be a bad aspect to being overly cosmopolitan and globalised. The ideal is always to be somehow cosmopolitan and attending to local specifics at the same time.”
Thirlwell is interested in the work by the Martinique poet and essayist, Edouard Glissant, who developed a theory of literature using the Caribbean archipelago as a model of thinking. “His argument was always, the way that your identity is constructed in a place like the Caribbean, where you’re both very locally specific and part of a larger whole, so you’re relating to the larger Caribbean islands and to America and also back to Europe and Africa, you can never stay still in one identity. He saw this as a model of not only what identity was like in a place like Martinique, but as an almost Utopian model of what everyone’s identity should be, constantly moving between different identities than one single one, and he pushed the theory towards thinking about creolising literature and moving beyond simplistic ideas of language and identities.
“Because that feeling was so important to the way I was thinking about the project, Studio Créole became this way of thinking that what we were trying to make was like a recording studio but for the creolisation of languages.”
Main image: Actor Lisa Dwan Studio Créole at Manchester International Festival 2019. Credit: Chris Payne.