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Betrayal – How does translation change context?

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“I think there are many Malaysian audiences who would be curious to watch a Pinter play in BM (Bahasa Malaysia),” says director Joe Hasham. “They rarely are given the opportunity to experience the same play, by the same cast in two languages. I am aware of several theatregoers who are already looking forward to watching both versions.”

There are strong arguments to watch Harold Pinter’s Betrayal in English. It’s the original language of a play that has retained its power since it was first performed nearly 40 years ago. There are also good reasons to watch it in BM. The internationally popular play has been translated for audiences around the world but this is the first time it’s being being performed in Malaysia’s national language.

The strongest arguments, however, are for watching the the play in both languages.

Because it’s there

Seriously, until Joe said so, it had not crossed my mind that he was offering audiences a choice. His latest experiment – making his actors learn two scripts for the same role and then perform the play in different languages on alternate nights – was too delicious an idea for a mere ‘or’. It had to be ‘and.’

The experiment came with multiple rewards. For Joe as a director, for his actors, and for the audience. “I get to experience the cultural difference of directing the play in Malay. Even though the text and the action are identical in both versions the ‘perasaan’ is influenced by the language.”

The one scene in which Jerry (Rafiz Hashim), Emma (Stephanie Van Dreisen) and Robert (Omar Ali) all share the stage

As for the actors: “the idea of working on such an iconic play, written by one of the English language’s finest playwrights, in two languages is a wonderful learning experience … not to mention, terrifying!”

The actors

Stephanie Van Dreisen is such a powerhouse on stage that there were productions in which she has been asked to tone down her performance to not overshadow fellow cast members. So what a pleasure it is to see her at her best among actors who pack the same punch.

Omar Ali, who translated Betrayal into BM, plays husband (cuckold) Robert with dry humour and unyielding upper lip, even when he learns of his wife Emma’s affair with his best friend, Jerry. Powerfully, the only time he comes close to losing composure is when he calculates that the affair overlaps the time when his son was conceived. The only other signs he gives that he’s been ruffled by the betrayal are quick lunge-and-retreat verbal digs that wound his wife (who knows he knows) and confuse his friend (who doesn’t).

Actor Razif Hashim owns Jerry, a character you want to shake until his teeth rattle and his brain grows up. You can’t quite hate him because he isn’t a bad man, or even a terrible friend. He truly wants to live in a la-la land where everyone is happy – Robert and Emma in particular. His childish way of making this happen is to still sin but sin in secret – what people don’t know won’t hurt them. One of his golden moments is when he learns that Emma has told Robert about their affair. “But he’s my best friend!” Jerry cries preposterously.

Stephanie’s Emma is the only one in the trio who doesn’t play games. She is uncomfortable with pretense and lies. Her husband doesn’t even have to ask about the affair. Once she realises that he suspects, she comes clean.

Emma seems to pity Jerry’s weakness, even as it wounds her. In fact, both Emma and Robert share a fondness for their foolishly weak friend. They recognise that his affection for them is genuine and accept faults he either doesn’t realise he has or believes they don’t realise he has.

There is a fourth actor in this play – unfairly forgotten by reviewers. In the role of waiter, Jad Hidir is on stage for maybe one minute altogether, but steals our attention every time he saunters on. As an Italian waiter in an Italian restaurant, scorn for his customers runs bitterly through his veins. He may have never met these particular diners – Robert and Jerry – before, but it it gratifying for the audience to see at least one person treat Jerry with the contempt he deserves.

Jad Hidir (centre) as the superbly snooty waiter

The language thing

On different nights and in different languages, the actors are playing the same character but do we, the audience, see the same person? After all, we live in a country where language is heavily associated with a particular race and religion. The minute English speaking characters start speaking in Malay, behaviour that seemed innocuous – including what they eat, drink and do in rented flats – may have you nervously expecting the moral police to charge in.

There is nothing in any of the interviews I’ve read that suggests this is intentional. That’s the magic of the arts; the conversations it generates and the unsettling of our world view. Sometimes, as in this case, it unlocks an uncomfortable political or personal truth. Other times, it’s simply interesting.

Jerry professes his love for the first time in the last few minutes of the play

For example, there was a peppering English in the BM version but no BM words dropped into the English version. Again, this changed context of certain phrases. For example when Emma has finally decided to leave Jerry, she challenges him on the reason they even bother having a flat for themselves. In both versions, she uses a word meant to shock. Jerry, wounded, corrects her, also in English.

The one chance you get

Since actors and director both survived this exercise, one hopes it will be repeated in the future. In the meantime, Omar Ali continues to recreate English language works into BM and audiences of all mother-tongues should mark their calendars so they don’t miss the upcoming Kandang – an adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm


If you liked this article you may also enjoy: Fear of other languages: One step away from ‘Malaysian’ theatre.

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Amy De Kanter
Amy De Kanter

Former Chief Editor, frequent contributor and enthusiastic audience member, Amy is thrilled to have a job that lets her do three of the things she loves most.