Absurdism of ‘Kangaroo’ not lost in translation

Taneeka Hansen

How often in your academic career do you get to write about gangsters and a man everyone thinks is a kangaroo? With her honors theatre thesis, senior Raisa Stebbins gets to do just that. Stebbins, a theatre major with a minor in Japanese, translated the Japanese full-length play “Kangaroo,” which has never before been translated into English. A section of her translation was performed at this year’s Whitman Undergraduate Conference.

Photo Credit: Faith Bernstein

“I decided to pick a contemporary play, and after that it was a process of finding a well-known playwright who had a lot of plays, some of which were translated into English so I could get a sense of the playwright’s style,” said Stebbins.

This led her to playwright Betsuyaku Minoru. Stebbins chose “Kangaroo” because it was an untranslated play written at the time of Betsuyaku’s two masterpieces and also because it is a comedy.

“Kangaroo is a charming absurdist dark comedy. It is very Kafkaesque, and it is about a man who wakes up one day to find out that everyone thinks he’s a kangaroo,” said Stebbins.

“It was essential that we actively worked on naturalism within the absurdity, so that the comedy could come from the eccentricities of the characters, rather than the numerous puns in the original Japanese text,” said senior Erin Terrall, the scene’s director.

Besides the strangeness that renders it an absurdist farce, Stebbins and her cast have had to deal with some cultural hang-ups as well. This includes the concept of “cutting a mie,” a traditional kabuki Japanese theatre stance a character takes to symbolize doing a heroic action. Sometimes the jokes are affected as well.

“[Raisa] told us specifically that this one line [is] a pun in Japanese, because it’s the same word for backyard as it is for [something like] sneaking onto a ship,” said first-year Melanie Medina, who plays the hat maker’s wife. “So the line ‘try to slip over the fence, but there might be a dog there,’ that’s punny, which obviously we didn’t get until she explained it to us.”

The show is also packed with verbal and physical humor. Despite the difficulties, or perhaps even because of them, Stebbins has enjoyed the work of translation.

“All of this play [is] written in the colloquial spoken languages of Japan,” said Stebbins. “So that was difficult but also really fun because I got to learn a lot more about casual spoken Japanese, in the sort of controlled environment of being able to look at it and see how it’s written, and then talk about it.”

Stebbins has high hopes for her work   that include getting her translation and her critical paper on the play published. She also says she can imagine doing similar work in the future.

“I think I could definitely do work with translating Japanese plays,” said Stebbins. “There is a niche to be filled.   There are certainly four or five anthologies, but that is it from a country that has had hundreds of years of theatrical tradition.”