Rhyme And Reason- A Literary Series

Making sure Singapore isn't lost in translation

The delights and challenges of bringing home-grown theatre overseas

In June, I spent three weeks at Kinosaki International Arts Centre, in a picturesque Japanese town equidistant from Kyoto and Osaka. I was there with Claire Wong (my fellow joint artistic director of Checkpoint Theatre, and to whom I am married) and a team of six Japanese collaborators for the latest phase of our project to translate my play Cogito into Japanese.

In recent years, I've become convinced that the export of Singapore's contemporary arts and culture should be a deliberate focus in the nation's projection of soft power. Singapore's culinary diversity and business-friendly efficiency are glorious, yes, but that's not all we have to offer the world.

The talent in our arts scene is broad and deep and an infinitely renewable resource. By translating and touring original work, we can claim Singapore's rightful place in the international dramatic canon, and in doing so bolster - by just that tiniest little bit - the renown and reputation of the country as a whole.

To that end, together with Dr Takiguchi Ken of the National University of Singapore, over the last seven years Checkpoint has been refining our own innovative translation methodology that brings actors, directors and dramaturgs into the process in order to come up with a nuanced, vibrant, Japanese translation that will really connect with audiences.

Checkpoint Theatre's Cogito translation workshop was partially funded by grants from the Japan Foundation's Asia Centre and the Singapore International Foundation.

Some background: commissioned by the 2007 Singapore Arts Festival, Cogito is set in Singapore in 2026.


Katherine Lee is the widow of a murdered biotech scientist. Another woman claiming to be Katherine Lee contacts her; it becomes apparent they both have the same memories. The two Katherines must figure out what happened, and decide what they're going to do.

Despite the sci-fi premise, I wrote the play as a poetic, meditative study of grief, loss and what makes us human. It's designed to work in a cumulative, emotional way, and its abstraction and indirectness make it a particular challenge to translate, but we did our best.

In Kinosaki, we began our discussions of the play with a comprehensive look at Singapore.

The three Japanese actors (Nakayama Ichiro, Kuboniwa Naoko and Kito Noriko, led by director Narita Doppo) were accomplished veterans with decades of experience with the most prestigious companies and directors in Japan. But they'd had little contact with the Singapore elements of my text. If they didn't have the images of these things in their mind, they wouldn't be able to contribute to the translation, nor make an eventual Tokyo audience understand the Singapore milieu.

For example, in Scene 1 there's a monologue about a cremation, drawing on my experiences of funerals at Mandai. We showed the actors videos of cremation ceremonies that Singaporeans have uploaded to YouTube, so they could note the soaring architecture and dignity of those spaces and underscore the text with the appropriate emotional sense memory.

The Katherine Lee character lives in Nassim Road, so we showed the team images of the elegant old bungalows of that area. Kuboniwa-san picked up on a reference to "laksa sweat", so of course we cooked Singapore laksa for everyone, which was a hit, but which also allowed them to experience at first hand the effects of a rich, spicy broth on a delicate metabolism. Laksa sweat indeed!

Dr Takiguchi established an early rule that the translation must remain recognisably Singaporean: It was not to be an adaptation. We weren't going to transpose cultural references to Japanese analogues that might be more familiar. So certain Singaporean things had to be contextualised - as economically as possible - to prevent confusion.

In Scene 11, Katherine has an upsetting encounter in Cold Storage. Nakayama-san asked if we could take out "Cold Storage", which would make no sense in Japan, and replace it with "supermarket". I pointed out that in Singapore, it's mildly significant that she shops at Cold Storage, and not at Jason's, FairPrice, Sheng Siong or Finest. We settled on "Cold Storage market".


    Huzir Sulaiman is a co-founder and joint artistic director of Checkpoint Theatre. A critically acclaimed playwright and theatre director, he is also recognised as a teacher and mentor of emerging Singapore writers, and as a creative consultant.

    An adjunct associate professor at the NUS University Scholars Programme, he has also taught playwriting and devising at Yale-NUS, the School of the Arts Singapore, New York University Tisch Asia and the Nanyang Technological University. Huzir was educated at Princeton University, where he won the Bain-Swiggett Poetry Prize, and is a Yale World Fellow.


    Atomic Jaya (1998)

    His first full-length play, this hugely popular satire asks what would happen if Malaysia decided to make an atomic bomb.

    The Weight Of Silk On Skin (2011)

    Winner of Best Original Script in the Life! Theatre Awards, this is a poetic and gritty meditation on a wealthy Singaporean man coming to terms with his lost youth and his lost love. Chosen as one of five iconic Singapore plays given full new stagings in the Esplanade's Studios:fifty season last year.

    The Last Bull: A Life In Flamenco (forthcoming, Aug 25-27, 2016)

    A commission of the 2016 Singapore International Festival of Arts, this is a performed memoir of the passionate life and global career of acclaimed flamenco master Antonio Vargas, who now lives in Singapore.

    •The book Huzir Sulaiman: Collected Plays 1998-2012 is available at the National Library, and on sale at Books Actually, Select, and Kinokuniya bookstores.

    •Tickets to The Last Bull: A Life In Flamenco are available from Sistic

    .•For more on Huzir's work, visit www.checkpoint-theatre.org.

After the upsetting encounter, Katherine says she "stood there with Concepcion" looking blankly at the shelves. The actors wanted to know who Concepcion was. I explained that because it was a name with Spanish Catholic overtones, most Singaporeans would instinctively conclude Concepcion was a Filipino domestic helper. Kuboniwa-san shrieked apologetically; she had assumed Concepcion was the name of a dog. After the laughter died down, we agreed that "uchino meido", or "my maid", would replace the name.

In Scene 13, the line "You're not my friend, you're my lawyer" is followed by an apology. Why the apology, the Japanese asked. It's because Katherine has insulted Lex by saying he was merely a lawyer, I explained. This came as a surprise to Kito-san; apparently lawyers are so rare in Japan and enjoy such high status that the actors didn't think to interpret the line as an insult. Essentially, they assumed it meant that Lex was better than a mere friend because he was a lawyer. The word choice in Japanese had to be adjusted to make the intent clear - although I do know many lawyers in Singapore who would probably prefer that the first, more respectful interpretation be left in!

By far the most complex set of issues had to do with the fundamentally different ways in which Japanese and English work, and we spent the most time on these.

To begin with, in Japanese a great deal of information about the characters' relationship is encoded in the level of politeness or formality of the dialogue. Because the Katherine Lee characters begin the play with mutual suspicion but end up virtually as sisters, the translation has to take into account how, when, and in what increments the politeness is recalibrated over the course of the play as the characters become closer.

Working from Dr Takiguchi's initial flat translation, which deliberately (and artificially) omitted this information, the actors and director spent many, many days forensically examining the play, line by line, adjusting the levels of politeness within each scene and between scenes, again and again, to arrive at a psychologically convincing linguistic arc. This is where I really saw the benefit of not having just one conventional translator. The actors brought their training in emotional authenticity and expressing nuance to bear, and their careful word choices made the scenes sparkle with verve and life.

One side issue was how to represent the particular speech patterns of Lex. The lawyer character speaks in a clipped way, and is described as leaving off the beginnings of sentences. But in Japanese, the subject of a sentence is customarily omitted, so Lex's English already sounds somewhat Japanese.

We had to find an alternative way to render his choppy, violent rhythms. Nakayama-san, the actor playing Lex, was a major star in the company of director Suzuki Tadashi, having played the title role in King Lear. It was thrilling for me to watch him invest Lex with the same amount of care and detailed preparation.

Then there were difficulties in translating certain words or ideas. "I'll tell you a story" proved tricky, because the Japanese word for story, ohanashi, already contains the idea of telling, so "tell a story" results in something like "tell tell a story". Furthermore, in English a story just means a narrative - it could be a true story or it could be fictional; in Japanese a "story" is always fiction. In English we can say a newspaper story, but in Japanese it's kiji, a completely different word.

Finally, the actors invested great care and energy in trying to approximate or echo in Japanese some of the poetic devices I used in English, with much success. The ominous effect created by the harsh "k" sounds of "The bomb: the Mag-Lev train jackknifes, the track buckling, blown up by anti-technologists" is rendered in Japanese as "Bakudan, han tekunoroji shugi sha ni yoru bakuha, kido no kiretsu, rinia mota ka no hakai". The effect was electric.

Towards the close of the 20-day process, we did a public reading of our third draft of the translation. We asked the audience, can you tell this is a translated play? Could it pass for a Japanese play? I imagined that that would be the mark of a truly fluent translation.

The response surprised me and taught me a lot.

No, we were told, it very much came across as a Singaporean play, and that was a good thing. While the Japanese was fluid, lyrical and elegant, the fundamentally different worldview of a Singapore work came through strongly - and that's what made it special for them. A clear sense of place, of outlook; a poetry that was alien, but beautiful. They felt it brought them into a different world.

"It's like good translations of Shakespeare," someone said. "You still know it's not a Japanese play because Shakespeare's English uses too many adjectives. But that's what makes it interesting for us. It's the same with this."

I've never felt more proud as a Singapore artist.

The better we are translated into other languages, the more strongly we retain our own voice. By connecting with others, we define ourselves ever more clearly. If we take care, Singapore will never be lost in translation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 16, 2016, with the headline 'Making sure Singapore isn't lost in translation'. Print Edition | Subscribe