Gained in translation: Germans and Americans in a collaborative poetry slam | Bleader

Gained in translation: Germans and Americans in a collaborative poetry slam


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J.W. Basilo and Dan Sullivan of the SpeakEasy Ensemble
  • J.W. Basilo and Dan Sullivan of the Speak'Easy Ensemble
Chicago Slam Works is crossing borders with a new bilingual show, "In Any Tongue" (Sat 7/21, 8 PM, Vittum Theatre, 1012 N. Noble, Three slam poetry teams, two German and one American, will perform together simultaneously in German and English. The concept originated last year during CSW's celebration of slam poetry's 25th birthday, when Chicago's Speak'Easy Ensemble performed a short set with Frankfurt's Word Alert.

Speak'Easy will be slamming again at this weekend's 90-minute event, along with the first- and second-place winners of last year's German national slam championship, Team Totale Zerstorung and Team Allen Earnstyzz. They'll be performing the German teams' poems for the most part, both in the original and in translation. There's also a multimedia component: clips from a behind-the-scenes documentary will play between the poems. CSW creative director J.W. Basilo and Allen Earnstyzz member Tes Fu talked about the event and the international future they see for the slam poetry movement.

Sharon Lurye: How does it all work exactly?

J.W. Basilo: The pieces are going to be presented as multivoice, multilingual poems all at once. So it's a really big undertaking—not only to get effect and meaning, but also to make the words really pop and make both poems work in both languages at the same time. We're working really hard so that the words and the language weave in and out of each other, to make it as engaging as possible for the audience.

So it's not so much a translation as something new.

JWB: Yes, absolutely. Some parts are straight translation, and some are more interpretation, where we don't actually translate what's being said in German but bring the concept to something new.

Tes Fu: It doesn't only consist of words, but also has a physical level. So we're also trying to translate that.

Were the translation and putting together the performance collaborative efforts?

JWB: I'm the artistic director, so I'm directing the show in terms of how it all works when it's onstage, but, in terms of the actual process of translating and choreographing the poems, it's a very collaborative effort.

TF: I did the rough translation for my team, Allen Earnstyzz. Of course we did a lot of changes, so it was collaborative. It's not like we have one person that does one thing. We work together.

In the process of translation, did you prioritize sound and rhythm or meaning?

TF: Both, actually. We tried, of course, as much as possible to keep the rhythm and the sound, we tried to translate the rhymes, but the priority is that the audience understands what we're doing onstage. If it sounds pretty but then the audience doesn't get it, it's worth nothing.

JWB: We're trying to keep the physicality and the spirit and the rhythm of the original poems when they go onstage, but what's more important for us—and the most important thing in any translation—is to get the feeling and encapsulate what viscerally is happening and what emotionally is happening for the writer and for the performer.

What about cultural references that Americans wouldn't understand?

JWB: We've debated that quite a bit. There are some poems where they make a reference to a German joke or a German song that we just wouldn't get, so there are some things we change. We also have a piece that's about immigration and xenophobia, and there are certain ways that folks in Europe relate to xenophobia and immigration and racism that we as Americans relate to in a very different way. There are some topics that are completely taboo in Germany that are not taboo in America, there are some topics that are taboo in America that are completely on the table in Europe.

Does performing in another language add an extra layer of meaning to that piece?

JWB: Absolutely. That's part of the point. The main line in that piece is, "I don't have a problem with foreigners, BUT . . ."

Do you have any plans to expand this and do it in other languages?

JWB: Yes. We've talked with some folks from France—and even some folks from Brazil, which is really strange. . . . We're going to continue doing a kind of German exchange program, where we're going to bring in German teams and then Speak'Easy Ensemble is going to go to Germany. We're going to do that every year. We hope next year to incorporate a French team, a Canadian team, and maybe a Spanish-speaking team, as well as the Germans. It's always going to get bigger, and we're always going to keep playing with the format. This is just an idea we had a year ago and we're not sure where it's going yet, but we're excited to keep following it.

Why did you choose to work with German poets?

JWB: We have a long-standing relationship with Germans and Germany. Germany is where slam is absolutely thriving, more than any country. Slam is even more popular in Germany than it is here, if you can believe that.

TF: The national finals were in a hockey stadium, so there were 4,000 people.

Why is slam poetry so appealing to Germans?

TF: I think it's easier in Germany because Germany is not as huge as the U.S., and we have a pretty good network. We are very connected, so it's easier for us.

JWB: It seems to me that German audiences are generally more interested in discovering new culture, while the Americans tend to rely more on what they know. We also have 1,000 TV channels and 600 reality TV shows and all sorts of other things. There's definitely a feeling in Germany where audiences want to go out and see new things and try new things and be indoctrinated with culture, and I think a lot of that is very systemic.

Did you notice differences between the performance style of German slam teams versus American teams?

JWB: I absolutely did. In America, we're in a state now that slam is much more literary than it's ever been before. It's been very writing- and poetry-focused. In Germany they put as much weight on the performance as they do on the writing. The Germans are way more eager to take risks and use sound and music and physicality than the Americans, whereas the Americans are kind of stale in their performance a lot of times. And I gotta tell you, I don't know that we could take American pieces and translate them into German and perform them there—if that would be as effective. . . . Germans take so many risks, they're so willing to go to places—even risking the foolish and risking the offensive—that a lot of Americans are not.

What do you see as the future of slam poetry?

JWB: I think with Chicago Slam Works in the last year, we've worked really hard to take slam from a game, or just a basic performance in a bar or a coffee shop or library, and make it as big and accessible and fun and challenging for an audience as possible. It can't just be people reading poems for scores in bars forever. It has to expand. It has to get bigger. I think that slam as a movement is going to go much more into theater, and we're hoping to push it in that direction. [To TF.] What about Germany?

TF: I won't speak on behalf of Germany, but the most rewarding thing for me is to teach young people, and slam is a very good device for them, just to get them interested in writing and getting onstage. I hope that in the future we'll go into even more schools and spread the word among the young people. . . . My main focus when I do work is not on getting them interested in reading but more getting them interested in writing, because I think that society today is all about consumption, and it's really important for them to find a way to express themselves.

I heard that you visited the Green Mill on Sunday. How did you like it?

TF: The Green Mill was insane. The audience has much more power than in Germany. So they take advantage of that. They don't like a poet, they just snap them off the stage.