Translating languages, translating cultures, translating modes: Pedro Almodóvar’s ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’, the Playhouse Theatre, London

written by Jessica Bradley, Doctoral Researcher

 In a previous blog post by Adrian Blackledge on Simon Armitage’s translating poetry masterclass (https://tlangblog.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/simon-armitage-translating-voice/), he looked at literary translation as a focus for considering translation and translanguaging across cultures and languages.

We can further explore ideas of inter-cultural translation in analysing the many ways in which films, plays or performances are adapted for new audiences outside the countries in which they were written and produced originally. How are these reworked and to what extent are they ‘localised’, to use a term from translation theory, to open them up to new audiences? One current example of this is the musical stage show version of Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar’s ‘Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios’, translated for English language audiences as ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’ which is currently showing at the Playhouse Theatre in London starring Tamsin Greig and which I was fortunate enough to see during a recent visit to the capital. (http://womenonthevergemusical.com)

As a student of French and Spanish in the late 1990s I took a number of film studies modules and it was through this that I first discovered Almodóvar’s films, for which I developed a love, not only for their complex, emotionally entangled and frequently melodramatic storylines and bright, vibrant colours and homage to fashion but also for the ways in which he intertwines the film locations into the narratives, to the extent that they can almost be seen as characters themselves. Barcelona is the backdrop for the wonderful ‘Todo sobre mi madre’ (All About My Mother), its spaces are woven into the film, and Madrid the fast-paced city setting for the unfolding chaos of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

I was keen to see how this would be translated for English-speaking audiences and whether Madrid would still feature as prominently in the stage version. I also wanted to find out how the production director would translate multimodally from a film to a musical stage show and how successful this would be. How would the translation of the language from Spanish to English affect the cultural references to Spain and to Madrid? Would anything be lost in translation?

In terms of semiotics, Madrid is brought alive in the play through colour and reference and its key role is translated across from the film to the stage. The vibrant colours for which Almodóvar’s films are renowned are translated into the costumes and set, with the main character Pepa, whose ‘world is unravelling’ as she navigates the city trying to track down her lover who has disappeared, having a wardrobe of pillar-box red and black and living in a brightly coloured and sun-lit flat, perhaps typical of one overlooking a wide Madrid avenue. The characters use references from the city, including street names, in the Spanish language within their English-language dialogue, further establishing the setting for the drama.

As a linguist researching multilingualism and translation in the arts, I had a particular interest in the decisions that were made at each point during the production process: for example which words were kept in the Spanish language (mainly street names and of course first names), would the actors speak with any kind of accent to underline the location (no, although there is the hint of Spanish pronunciation in the opening song ‘Madrid’) and how many of the ‘cultural signifiers’ would be retained (the role of the gaspacho is central, as it is in the film, and the two main characters work as voice over actors, dubbing films into the Spanish language, making the translation of language and culture one of the themes within the storyline itself).

And so what of the songs? David Yazbek’s score works to bring Madrid even closer to the London audience: the opening song being a love story to the city itself.   Almodóvar himself has said of the stage show ‘this is an incredible tribute to my country’ (http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/jan/11/almodovar-women-on-verge-musical-wonderful) and in the same article the director states that the project was called ‘interpreting Pedro’, perhaps demonstrating the intention to rework the film while remaining true to the film maker’s original vision and love-story for Madrid. The film was originally inspired by theatre, meaning that it could be said that the production is taking the story back to its roots. It also makes this a very appropriate focus for consideration and interrogation of translanguaging across modes, cultures, languages and indeed temporal spaces: the film was made in 1988, almost thirty years ago, and the spirit of the era is clearly evident.

The theatre itself had created a linguistic space by putting new Spanish-language signs up all around and serving Sangria during the interval. The effect of the whole experience on me is clear: I’m investigating flights to Madrid.

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