Dislocation in Drama: Osage County 5,000 Miles South, and Still Hot

It is widely known that literary translation presents varied difficulties on different levels. The literary translation of dramatic texts presents additional problems that are hard to solve with the typical tools available to the literary translator.

Drama is a paradox: succinct and expansive; ephemeral and ever-lasting; written but spoken. Translating plays, therefore, requires handling these paradoxes while preserving the beauty of the original, the musicality of the language, its dramatic features and its oral structure.

In addition, translation is not always translation in drama, as it can be adaptation. Geographical distances and cultural differences sometimes call for additional measures when planning the staging of a play. The 2007 play August: Osage County is a dark comedy which centers on the reunion of the dysfunctional Weston family, who live in the state of Oklahoma. Written by Tracy Letts, the play explores family relationships in a carping light. From its Chicago debut, it has been presented in theaters from London to Melbourne and from Tel Aviv to Buenos Aires.

This play having been a box office success in Argentina, we're interested in analyzing and discussing some characteristics of its translation as a product. The motivations behind actual translation decisions and their outcome are addressed here under the light of Gideon Toury's view of translation as a norm-governed activity and within the overall perspective of Descriptive Translation Studies (Polysystems Theory). Far from prescribing translation practices and techniques, this approach focuses on actual translations as products of the target culture.

This descriptive approach allows us to both examine what we have spotted as potential translation problems of the original work and how they have been solved, and to unravel the function of the translated product in the target culture.

Dislocation: A Sample

An analysis of a fragment which we consider representative of the whole play, in terms of the adapter's attitude towards culture, will help us reach a definition of dislocation. At the end of the first act, the sheriff of the small town of Pawhusca, where the original play is set, knocks at the Westons' door in the middle of the night to inform Barbara of the death of her father, who had been missing for a few days. Shortly after receiving the news, Barbara talks to her teenage daughter while she gets ready to leave the house to identify her own father's body. This fragment is especially useful to our ends because it includes a short narrative of a social practice which, although common to both Argentinian and American societies, displays many exclusively American features: the high school prom.

English versionBARBARA: I used to go out with that boy. With that man.JEAN: What man?BARBARA: The sheriff.JEAN: You did?BARBARA: Yeah, in high school. He was my prom date.JEAN: You're kidding.BARBARA: The day of the prom, his father got drunk and stole his car. Stole his own son's car and went somewhere. Mexico. Deon showed up at the door, wearing this awful tuxedo. He'd been crying. I could tell. And he confessed he didn't have a way to take me to the prom. I just felt awful for him, so I told him we'd walk. About three miles. I busted my heel and we both got so sweaty and dirty. We gave up... got a six-pack and broke into the chapel, stayed up all night talking and kissing. And now he's here telling me... oh, it's just surreal. Thank God we can't tell the future. We'd never get out of bed.Spanish translation
BÁRBARA: Yo salía con ese chico. Con ese hombre.JIMENA: ¿Qué hombre?BÁRBARA: El comisario.JIMENA: ¿En serio?BÁRBARA: Sí, en la secundaria. Al baile de egresados fui con él.JIMENA: Me estás jodiendo.BÁRBARA: El día de la fiesta, su padre se emborrachó y le robó el auto. Le robó el auto a su propio hijo para irse a otro pueblo. Jacinto se apareció en la puerta, vestido con un traje espantoso. Había estado llorando, me dí (sic) cuenta. Y me confesó que no tenía cómo llevarme al baile. Me sentí horrible por él, así que le dije que iríamos caminando. Unos cinco kilómetros. Me reventé un taco, los dos quedamos sucios y transpirados. Nos dimos por vencidos... consiguió media docena de cervezas y nos quedamos toda la noche hablando y besándonos. Y ahora me está diciéndo (sic) que...oh, es sencillamente surrealista. Gracias a Dios que no podemos saber el futuro. Nunca nos levantaríamos de la cama.English retranslation
BARBARA: I used to go out with that boy. With that man.JIMENA: What man?BARBARA: The sheriff.JIMENA: Really?JIMENA: You are kidding me.BARBARA: The day of the party, his father got drunk and stole his car. He stole his own son's car to go to another town. Jacinto showed up at the door wearing an awful suit. He had been crying, I could tell. And he confessed he didn't have a way to take me to the dance. I felt horrible for him, so I told him we would walk. About five kilometers. I busted a heel; we both ended up dirty and sweaty. We gave up... he got half a dozen beers and we stayed all night talking and kissing. And now he is telling me that... oh, it's just surreal. Thank God we can't tell the future. We would never get out of bed.Both American and Argentinian high school seniors celebrate the end of their intermediate studies with a formal social gathering. However, there are some essential cultural differences between these two celebrations. In the typical American prom, the social convention establishes that a student needs to ask a date to the prom (usually the boy asks the girl), pick her up at her house, and drive her to the venue. For doing this, an American high school student may need to rent or have a tuxedo and a car. These practices are completely absent in Argentinian culture, where students simply go accompanied by their families.

While the American prom centers around the formal dance itself - prom being short for promenade - the main event of the evening in a typical Argentinian high school gathering is a banquet-like formal dinner. Thus, it may be common in Argentina to refer to this social practice as a fiesta de egresados (graduates' party), or cena de egresados (graduates' dinner), but surely not as a baile de egresados (graduates' dance).

In general terms, the whole "prom experience" is a meaningful social practice in American popular culture, deeply-rooted and ubiquitous in movies, television shows, and drama productions, while the fiesta de egresados is not nearly as present in Argentinian popular culture.

When analyzing the translation of source-text cultural elements, we found out that the most used translation techniques were addition, adaptation and omission. The sentence "He was my prom date" was translated into Spanish as "Al baile de egresados fui con él" ("to the dance of graduates I went with him"). We see in the Spanish version that the sentence structure is modified on the translator's own account to avoid translating the problematic element in the sentence: prom date. This is perfectly reasonable in translations which aim at adapting cultural elements, and the Argentinian version of this play is safely sheltered under the "adaptation" label. Interestingly enough, though, the "dance" element has been kept in "baile de egresados", which is a foreign element. Likewise, the "date" element has not been elided altogether but it has rather been blurred, for the Spanish text still gives the idea that they were supposed to go "together": the translation of the sentence "He showed up at the door wearing an awful tuxedo" has been translated almost literally into Spanish, except for the word "tuxedo", which is replaced with the Spanish word for "suit", and the phrase "take me to the prom" has also been literally translated.

All in all, what we get in Spanish is the following: A high-school boy showed up at Barbara's door (foreign element), he had been crying because he didn't have a car (foreign element) to take her to the dance (foreign element), he was wearing an awful suit (naturalized element). Even though the word "date" is not present in the translation, all these elements of the story are indicative of the fact that he is actually her date.

The translation of this excerpt accounts for the mixture of cultural elements in the adapted version, a sort of blending (note the characters speak the dialect of Spanish spoken in Buenos Aires in a house that has the typical American architecture) between American and Argentinian cultural elements, always aiming at acceptability by means of an overall naturalizing tendency (note the names of the characters, overall linguistic fluency, the presence of cultural elements that are exclusively Argentinian).

Now where, exactly, does this mixture of source and target cultural elements take place? Is there a specific geographical setting in the adapted version? In the example we are discussing, the specific spatial reference, Mexico, has been suppressed and replaced with an expression that is vague enough so as to evade a specific place, "Stole his own son's car and went somewhere. Mexico." is translated as "Le robó el auto a su propio hijo para irse a otro pueblo", changing Mexico into "another town". Except for a few specific instances which will be analyzed later, most geographical references are carefully tampered with so as to avoid a distinctive designation of an actual place.


How do translated works penetrate a system and what function do they have? Do these works, imported from other literatures, removed from their original contexts, struggle in the center-and-periphery forces? As explained by Itamar Even-Zohar (1990) translated works correlate "(a) in the way their source texts are selected by the target literature, the principles of selection never being uncorrelatable with the home co-systems of the target literature (to put it in the most cautious way); and (b) in the way they adopt specific norms, behaviors, and policies--in short, in their use of the literary repertoire--which results from their relations with the other home co-systems." The translation, adaptation and staging of Agosto in Argentina owe their success to the fact that the "principles of selection" correlate to the "home co-systems" of the target theatrical system, very much pervaded by the American cultural dynamics and aesthetics.

Plays acquire new relevance when staged in a new social and cultural setting as adaptations. The theme of a dysfunctional family, whose members have split apart and hide secrets that are gradually revealed as the story develops, is evidently not unique to American society and thus does not depend on such society to have a meaning of its own. This implies that the reception of at least the theme of the play will have wide acceptance in the new cultural and temporal frame, and will easily find a central place in the new literary system. Beyond the universality of the issues that this play tackles, in general American plays tend to find a central place in the Argentinian system due to certain factors. According to Itamar Even-Zohar, a literary work enters the canon when a literary system is too young or in the process of being established, peripheral or weak, or undergoing a crisis. In Argentina, there is a vacuum of local production in mainstream drama and this weakness of the system allows for a foreign production to find a place as it does not have a repertoire of its own. Also, American culture has systematically penetrated through Hollywood movies, making American places, traditions, and people all too familiar to the Argentinian audience. Literary pieces that belong to national production, on the other hand, need to struggle for a central position in the institutionalized aesthetics, which is foreign. The fact that Agosto was staged in "calle Corrientes", a famous strip in Buenos Aires that is analogous to Broadway, functions as an indicator that the play, in spite of its being a translation, is canonical in the target system, which, in turn, makes the play a profitable consumer product that will definitely sell.

Dislocation in drama: translation and adaptation

Much of the theory states that drama translation not only entails finding the linguistic equivalence but also adequate cultural and gestural parallels. In the process of the translation of a play, thus, it is not sufficient to focus on content and meaning, which implies the ideas of fidelity to an original text and literality: since the information in a play is the play itself, it is necessary to go beyond the mere reproduction of the meaning and adapt the aesthetic, cultural and social identities of the work. The concepts of "translation" and "adaptation" are diffuse, many times one entailing the other. However, in this particular case, these two processes were clearly delimited: Mercedes Morán asked Bety Couceiro to do a "literal translation" of the play, as pointed out by the adapter in the interview we did with her, and then she adapted it for the stage. The process of translation, thus, was carried out between two different languages, with the purpose of creating a text in Spanish for the adapter to recreate. The process of adaptation, on the other hand, was done within the same language, with the purpose of making the play available and appealing to the target culture, in a sort of intralingual translation. The adaptation process needed to be carried out because the play, staged in the new setting, had to comply with certain pre-requisites to be successful in the target culture. These pre-requisites are determined by the forces at stake within the polysystem of the target culture. As defined by Rosa Rabadán, adaptation is "a text that has been apparently translated and whose dependence on the source text is limited or at least weak; since it does not bear a global relationship of equivalence with the source text, it cannot be considered a translation. In these cases, the source text is not, strictly speaking, the input of the transference process but rather the "source of inspiration" upon which a new text is created within a new polysystem". (Rabadán, 1991: 288) It should be noted here that in the case of Agosto, the source text is much more than just a source of inspiration to the target text. Although there are major shifts stemming from the adaptation of cultural elements, the source text is clearly reflected in Moran's text and can be identified at all moments in the Argentinian performance.

The prevailing strategy in Agosto has been a mixture of interlinguistic translation proper and adaptation, which constitutes what we have here called dislocation: an effective means of enhancing the acceptability of drama translations by redirecting the source-text cultural allusions to an intercultural, blend-like no-place, drawing on an alleged universalization of a notion of culture and a search for the common essence of humanity. Standing somewhere in between transplantation and total adaptation to the target culture, dislocation works as an eclectic translation strategy since it allows for proximity as well as distance: foreign elements of the source culture intermingle with local features of the target culture. As a decision-making process, all strategies and approaches entail risks: transplantation may generate incomprehension and the subsequent rejection on the part of the target culture; total adaptation may be disturbingly all-too-familiar and it may make the audience wonder about the mysterious origin of the text; and dislocation may make the audience get confused about the setting of the play if there is lack of consistency and coherence in the treatment of cultural references.

The concept of decision making, not just in translation but in every area of life, necessarily entails a preexistent "problematic" situation. The genesis of the problems which come up in every translation may be, in general terms, linguistic or cultural, and their solutions will depend on the different forces at play in the translational act. Thus, upon the identification of a problem, whether linguistic or cultural in nature, a translator may feel responsible to the source text and produce an adequate translation, or may feel responsible to the target culture and produce an acceptable translation. This deep-rooted, old dichotomy, which can be traced back to nineteenth century theorists such as Schleiermacher, has been addressed from many different perspectives in translation studies and still underlies highly influential works carried out today, such as Venuti's concepts of foreignization and domestication.

However, as we stated above, it is often the case that actual translation decisions result in a combination of and compromise with these two extremes, which leads us back to the concept of dislocation being an eclectic translation strategy.

The Title of the Play. Some Heated Words.

The title of the play has been transferred due to copyright reasons and thus we cannot assert that this has been a translation choice but rather an imposition of the norms that govern the adaptation and staging of a foreign play. However, this transference, whatever the reasons behind it, goes along with other instances of cultural transference as willful translation decisions and it is worth analyzing in terms of the effect on the target audience.

The month of August triggers different associations in the Northern and the Southern hemispheres; however, the relationship between the month of August, which is cold in the Southern hemisphere, and the characters complaining about the hot weather all the time seems to go unnoticed by the Argentinian spectator, who, as such, suppresses this apparent incoherence. This is possible in drama due to what the English poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1817) called "willing suspension of disbelief", meaning that if a writer could transmit an illusion of truth in a fantastic tale, then the reader would suspend any assessment regarding the implausibility of the story. Thus, the unpleasant heat transmitted in this play, which is actually Oklahoman, does not clash with the spectator's expectations of how the weather will be like in August in the Southern hemisphere.

Geographical References. From Now-Here To Nowhere.

Agosto presents different strategies when it comes to geographical names: some of them have been transferred, others adapted and others eliminated. We already referred to an instance of elimination, in which a specific geographical place in the source text, Mexico, was replaced in the target text by the noun phrase "another town", an expression vague enough to avoid naming that specific place, yet expressive enough to convey the idea of "just somewhere else at a driving distance". Among the different strategies used for doing away with the original setting, we have found the use of deictics, vague expressions, explicatory paraphrasing and plain omission.

English version
VIOLET: I just don't understand some of the choices you make. You are forty-three years old-IVY: Forty-four.VIOLET: Forty-four years old. Maybe you are past the point of having children, and that's fine if you don't want them, but aren't you interested in finding a husband?IVY: A husband. In Pawhusca.Spanish translation
VIOLETA: No entiendo las elecciones que hacés. Tenés cuarenta y tres años-ELI: Cuarenta y cuatro.VIOLETA: Cuarenta y cuatro. A lo mejor ya se te pasó el momento de tener hijos y está todo bien, si no los querés, pero ¿no te interesa conseguir un marido?ELI: Un marido. Acá.English retranslation
VIOLETA: I don't understand the choices you make. You are forty-three years old-ELI: Forty-four.VIOLETA: Forty-four years old. Maybe you are past the point of having children, and that's fine if you don't want them, but aren't you interested in finding a husband?ELI: A husband. Here.English version
IVY: Charles and I are going to New York.(Barbara bursts out laughing)BARBARA: What the hell are you going to do in New York?IVY: We have planes.BARBARA: Like what?IVY: None of your business.BARBARA: You can't just go to New York.Spanish translation
ELI: Carlos y yo nos vamos a la capital.(Bárbara se rie (sic) a carcajadas)BÁRBARA: ¿Qué carajo van a hacer en la capital?ELI: Tenemos planes.BÁRBARA: ¿Cómo cuales?ELI: No es cosa tuya.BÁRBARA: No se pueden ir así nomás.English retranslation
ELI: Carlos and I are going to the capital city.(Barbara bursts out laughing)BÁRBARA: What the hell are you going to do in the capital city?ELI: We have plans.BÁRBARA: Like what?IVY: It's none of your business.BÁRBARA: You can't just leave.The few geographical names which are present in the adapted version revolve around the characters of Karen and Steve. Karen is the youngest daughter of the Weston family. She claims to have been unhappy her entire adult life. After years of day-dreaming about meeting a charming prince who would marry her and take her to Belize on vacation, she claims to have finally found him. She comes home with Steve, her brand-new fiancé, a fifty-year-old apparently successful businessman who is involved in "security work" in the Middle East. They live in Miami. In the adapted version, "Miami" and "the Middle East" have been transferred, while "Belize" has been adapted and replaced with "Cancun".

English version
KAREN: (...) I spent a lot of time in that bedroom upstairs pretending my pillow was my husband and I'd ask him about his day at work and what was happening at the office, and did he like the dinner I made for him and where were we going to vacation that winter and he'd surprise me with tickets to Belize and we'd kiss (...)Spanish translation
CAROLINA: (...) Pasé un montón de tiempo en ese dormitorio de arriba fingiendo que mi almohada era mi marido, preguntándole cómo había sido su día de trabajo, qué estaba pasando en su oficina, si le había gustado la cena que le preparé, adonde nos iríamos de vacaciones y si él me sorprendería con pasajes a Cancún y nos besábamos. (...)English retranslation
CAROLINA: (...) I spent a lot of time in that bedroom upstairs pretending my pillow was my husband, asking him about his day at work, what was happening at the office, if he liked the dinner I made for him, where we would go on holydays, and if he would surprise me with tickets to Cancun and we would kiss.English version
KAREN: Miami. Didn't you know I moved to Miami?BARBARA: Wait, yes, I did know that-KAREN: That's where Steve's business-BARBARA: -right, rightSpanish version
CAROLINA: Miami. ¿No sabías que me mudé a Miami?BÁRBARA: Esperá, sí, eso lo sabía-CAROLINA: Es donde tiene los negocios Marcelo.BÁRBARA: -cierto, ciertoEnglish retranslation
CAROLINA: Miami. Didn't you know I moved to Miami?BÁRBARA: Wait, yes, I knew that-CAROLINA: It's where Marcelo has his business.BÁRBAR: -right, rightEnglish version
BILL: I'm sorry. What's the business again? I don'tSTEVE: You know, it's essentially security work. The situation in the Middle East is perpetually dangerous, so there's a perpetual amount of money involved.BILL: Security work, you mean... mercenary?Spanish translation
MIGUEL: Disculpame, ¿Cuál es el negocio?MARCELO: Mirá, esencialmente es un trabajo de seguridad. La situación en Medio Oriente es permanentemente peligrosa, así que hay una tremenda cantidad de dinero involucrado-MIGUEL: Trabajo de seguridad. ¿Querés decir...mercenario?English retranslation
BILL: I'm sorry. What's the business again?STEVE: You know, it's essentially security work. The situation in the Middle East is perpetually dangerous, so there's a perpetual amount of money involved.BILL: Security work, you mean... mercenary?It would be not only pointless but also highly unpractical to conceive dislocation as consisting of just spotting and deleting concrete spatial references. Instead, dislocation must be understood as a way of recreating an unnamed setting which will display some characteristics of both source and target cultures. In this sense, dislocation may be seen as a sort of relocation to an intercultural nowhere.

Cultural References. Decisions Staged on Assumptions.

In line with the prevailing strategy concerning geographical references, some cultural elements have been transferred, others adapted, and others eliminated. The grounds for these different translation decisions lie upon the adapter's assumptions of how these cultural references would impact the audience.

Adaptation: When the family comes back home after the father's funeral, they have dinner together. While the widow's brother-in-law is giving a speech about the deceased, Karen's fiancé's cell phone begins to ring, playing the theme from "Sanford and Son." In Agosto, this ring tone has been adapted and replaced with a song by Shakira. Apart from replacing an element that would not mean anything to the Argentinian audience, this choice adds up to the overall construction of the character: he is a middle-aged man whose occupation is not very clear except that he has businesses in the Middle East and he has flirted with his fiancée's teenage niece. In addition, the presence of the song by the globally known Colombian singer Shakira is consistent with the construction of the no-place where the performance is set. Another example of adaptation is the replacement of the reference to the 1955 film The Night of the Hunter with Twilight. The first option puts the emphasis on the teenager's love for films, as she is presented as a movie buff, and the second option places the emphasis on her age and on the latest box office success in Argentina regarding films for teenagers.

Transference: The song "Lay down Sally" by Eric Clapton, and all the references made to it throughout the play, has been transferred. In spite of the fact that in Argentina it would not be very common for a 65-year-old woman to be a Clapton fan, this 1977 piece constitutes a universal classic, and, as such, it achieves the familiar effect intended in the original and shows Violet's reminiscence of her youth. Another example of transference is the reference to the 2004 film Maria Full of Grace, which is in fact a Colombian film. Its international success and the Oscar nomination of Catalina Sandino for best actress made the film have global recognition.

Elimination: The reference to Johnna's Cheyenne origin and the reference to the 1989 film Powwow Highway have both been suppressed in Agosto. Johnna explains to Barbara's teenage daughter, Jean, that she is Cheyenne, and Jean replies with a reference to the film:

English version
Johnna: It's a Cheyenne traditionJean: You're CheyenneJohnna: Mm-hmJean: "Like that movie Powwow Highway. Did you see that?Spanish translation
BLANCA: Es una tradición.JIMENA: Como en la película aquella...English retranslation
BLANCA: It's a traditionJIMENA: Like in that movie...The elision of "Cheyenne" contributes to the no-place setting: even if an Argentinian spectator may not know that there's a Cheyenne tribe in Western Oklahoma, they will most probably associate this people with the United States. The elision of the film Powwow Highway is attributable to the fact that an Argentinian spectator would not recognize this movie and therefore the reference would not mean anything to them.

Final thoughts or prelude to a quest

Literature is conceived of in the polysystems view as an essential constituent in society, regulated by laws like all the rest of human activities. Thus, a literary system comprises not only the traditional (canonic) genres but many other popular forms. When it comes to translation within this approach, which has been labeled as Descriptive Translation Studies, the focus is oriented to the target text rather than to the source text.

The translation and adaptation of August preserves the beauty of the original, its dramatic features and its oral structure. It has also proven to be a huge success in the Argentinian theatrical market. It ran for almost two straight years, with incredible box office figures. This version raises questions of interest to translators: What strategies have been used? What is the effect they have? Can Osage County maintain its qualities over 5,000 miles south of Oklahoma? Is August still August when the seasons change in the Southern hemisphere?

The translation decisions we have analyzed at a micro level, that is, adapt, transfer or elide, reveal the position of the adapter in relation to the source text, the new audience, and the new setting, and at the same time reflect both translation trends discussed above: adequacy-oriented translation and acceptability-oriented translation. At a macro level, on the other hand, the translation and adaptation processes have, in our view, accomplished a skillful and sensitive degree of naturalness that in turn made the play become a success. The combination of choices at a micro level accounts for the delicate balance that Morán's adaptation persues and constitute an example of the impossibility of using categorically unified translation techniques in drama and, in any case, in literary works in general.

Works cited:
Even-Zohar, Itamar: "The Position of Translated Literature within the Literary Polysystem." Poetics Today 11:1 (1990), pp. 45-51.
Rabadán, Rosa. Equivalencia y traducción: problemática de la equivalencia translémica inglés-español. León: Universidad de León, 1991.