Monday, December 03, 2007

Let One Interpret

I never know how I get involved in these things. One minute I'm sitting in Indonesian class, nodding yes, yes, yes, Ibu Professor, I am listening, and I do understand you, and the next minute I'm doing simultaneous interpretation of a traditional Javanese shadow puppet show (or wayang) for an audience of about 500 people.

I think I should be more careful when I nod.

This wayang show was mostly a performance of the university's gamelan group, but, to make gamelan music sound ever so slightly less intolerable to a Western audience, they had invited a dalang to put on a wayang show. (The translation for dalang that Indonesians tend to prefer is "shadow master"; that sounds more like a badly-translated Japanese video game villain than a mild-mannered Javanese artist, so we'll stick with the Javanese word, okay?) That way, the show would not simply be two hours of random banging. It would be two hours of random banging AND PUPPETS!!! That distinction is key.

(I should note, here, that gamelan is an intricate and ancient art form that is certainly not just random banging. Even if it does sound like it.)

In any case, those running the event realized that wayang isn't any fun to watch if you don't understand it, so they called up my professor to ask if she would translate. She agreed, and then instantly assigned three of her students, myself included, to do it instead. Because, really, what are grad students for, if not doing the unpleasant parts of a professor's job?

I've done simultaneous interpretation before, but never quite like this. The dalang and his shadow screen were up on stage, along with the gamelan players, while I and my classmates knelt at the side of the stage, with a laptop, typing, in English, what the dalang was saying, as he was saying it. The laptop was then connected to a projector, and everything we typed was displayed on a screen hanging on the back of the wall. Yes, that's right--everything. I've never seen my typos so, um, huge before.

The dalang was kind enough to give us a script in advance, so we had a rough idea of what was going on, but, of course, true to both Indonesia and the art of wayang, he started deviating from the script about five minutes into the performance and never went back. Also true to Indonesia, he refused to stick to only Indonesian; even though he knew none of his translators spoke Javanese, every. single. conversation started in Javanese, at least for the first two sentences. That means at the beginning of every. single. conversation the translators looked like idiots and the audience was confused. And every time he did it, at least when I was translating, he looked over at me, made eye contact, smiled, and started in on (to me) gibberish.

I forgive him his little bilingual jokes, though, because he put on such a good performance. I've seen plenty of wayang, and, frankly, once I get over the initial "hey, this is cool and foreign!" factor, I get bored. That happens, of course, when you don't understand what's going on. With this wayang being in Indonesian, though, I actually understood not only the plot, but also the jokes. And, it turns out, wayang can be funny. Maybe I was just punchy from the stress of simultaneous interpretation, but at one point I laughed so hard I cried. (Okay, fine, at several points. I just don't want to have to admit to laughing at the fart jokes. Though, come on, farting puppets? Hilarious!) The performance was made even better, if I may say so myself, by the interaction between the translators and the dalang--whenever he spoke English, we typed commentary on what he was saying. As one character recounted what you'd need to get to America, my classmate typed a bullet point outline on the projector screen. "First, you need to get a passport." ($$) "And be sure to apply six months in advance, since getting a passport takes time." (Time=$$) "Then, you need a visa." ($$) "Then you'll need a plane ticket." ($$) During another segment, a long fight scene, I "translated" the dalang's fighting noises: Bam! Pow! Biff! Ka-zow! Holy fighting puppets, Harjuna Sasrabahu!

Now, of course, we weren't perfect; I did need the occasional whispered vocabulary item from my professor, and at one point I missed the line in which a character said the name of the gamelan song that was about to happen, and was then highly confused as to why all the musicians on stage were suddenly hissing "Golden Rain! Golden Rain!" at me. I think, though, that I have a decent excuse for the occasional mistake: three and a half hours of kneeling on a hardwood floor concentrating with all your might is no cakewalk, people. The performance was supposed to be two hours, closer to the attention span of an American audience, but, again, true to the Indonesian idea of time ("jam karet"), the dalang had other ideas; a real Javanese wayang performance begins around sundown and runs until sunrise the next morning, so, frankly, we were lucky to leave before midnight. In fact, I feel lucky in general: lucky to have seen such a performance, lucky to have translated it, lucky, even, to speak Indonesian.

But I'm still going to be more careful about nodding in class.


Jan said...

Thanks for the delicious entertainment, my dear niece!

Confuzzled said...

I hear you, and I'm not even a grad student yet . . . when I worked at the Writing Center, I found myself teaching my boss's English 960 class not once, but twice. At least you appear to have learned the first time around :)

And apparently Batman has nothing on puppets . . .

Th. said...


Cool puppets!

I love Asian puppet theater of all stripes I'm familiar with. Never Javanese however.

Mom said...

Wasn't that fun going to see the Wayang in Yogjakarta and then riding home on the back of motorbikes. I'll look forward to translation next time.