Tania de Miguel Magro

West Virginia University

Translating Juan Rana in the Classroom

This presentation will summarize the strategies and results of having undergraduate students annotating, translating, and deciding how to stage three entremeses of Juan Rana. In an upper division Spanish course on Teatro del Siglo de Oro, I required groups of 2-3 students to work throughout the semester on one specific short play of Juan Rana that deals directly with gender issues. My presentation would try to answer the following questions: How do student's bias towards gender issues transfer in the way the perceive and translate Juan Rana? How do students approach what today would be considered politically incorrect?, and, ultimately, Can Juan Rana be translated? Material presented will include samples from students’ translations as well as direct reflections written by them. Student translations will be compared to the only published translations of Juan Rana by Peter Thompson.

Translating Juan Rana in the Classroom

In my proposal for this panel, I aimed to present material related to an upper division Spanish course on Teatro del Siglo de Oro that I was to teach this semester at West Virginia University. My institution, like every other public university in the US, is going through major budget cuts that result in the cancellation of courses that have low enrolments and are not “necessary.” Of course, an upper division theater course taught in a language other than English that is not a requirement for any major was promptly eliminated. So here I am, with no results to report and teaching instead a survey on Greek and Roman Civilization. Because, as we all know, an expert on 17th Spanish theater would have no problem coming up with such a course three days before the beginning of the semester. I mean, is not everything that happened in Europe pre-1700 more or less the same? (Yes, you too can bang you head against the wall now). Maybe next year we should also have a panel on how to translate what we do into a language administrators can understand.

And now, what?

Considering that I have no real data to analyze, I will use this opportunity to think about the following: Is there a use for translation in a theater course? And if so, how should we approach translation to make it meaningful to students? Can translation help bridge some of the barriers students encounter when reading “old stuff”? After considering translation as a teaching tool in general, I would like to focus on the use of translation in a theater course in which students have to both translate and adapt a text for performance. Finally, I will present the challenges and learning opportunities of translating Juan Rana entremeses, which are packed with double meaning expressions and jokes of sexual nature that make them particularly difficult to be translated.

I am not saying anything new here when I point out to the fact that two of the most common problems a teacher of Early Modern Spanish literature in the US one has to deal with are that students do not have enough Spanish and that they lack a historical or cultural background to be able to understand what they have to read. Attempting to analyze La vida es sueño with a group of students who have yet not fully grasped ser and estar can be quite challenging. We have probably all tried different approaches with different degrees of success: reading only fragments, using editions with notes in English (not too widely available), have students watch a performance or movie based on the text, bilingual editions (even less available), providing summaries of the plot before they read, etc. I often have students adapt plays into 10 minute movies that transform the main themes of the original into a modern version allowing them to consider that we might not care about women’s virginity, for example, but that “honra” has to do with the passions, fears, and taboos that all societies develop. I won’t go into much detail here, but my favorite adaptation was one of Fuenteovejuna in which the Comendador was Starbucks and the people of Fuenteovejuna, coffee producers in Colombia. In my experience, these kinds of projects work great at many levels. They help students grasp the general themes of the plays and they learn more and become more engage when they have to produce a new piece, instead of just processing what they read. But there is one thing that keeps bothering me: how to get students to enjoy and appreciate the beauty of the language, the little details, the subtle metaphors, the jokes… There is, of course, close reading of passages, which I often do in class, but, let’s face it, this can get boring.

One of the techniques I have explored (only with grad students up to now) is to flip the common order of readings. For some reason, most syllabi for Golden Age theater start with Arte nuevo de hacer comedias, followed by several comedias, and on the last couple of weeks we introduce short genres (entremeses, for the most part). What about doing it the other way around? Why not start with the shorter pieces? They are, after all, shorter. They have fewer characters, and, if properly chosen, one single plot line requiring very little background knowledge. Students, who for the most part have never before read a theatrical text in a foreign language (often not even on their own), feel less intimidated by El juez de los divorcios or El retrato de Juan Rana than by El perro del hortelano. Even El gran teatro del mundo can be more accessible. And, personally, I believe there is no point in going over Arte nuevo, before they have read several comedias.

Once I decided to start with the short pieces, a new opportunity opened. If they read at the beginning of the semester a collection of entremeses, it is then possible to develop a semester long project based on a short piece. It should be a project that will require students to fully immerse themselves in the text. I looked at my own experience, what kinds of projects have made me understand a text better, and 3 activities came to mind: first, performance, (all I can remember of my undergrad class on Golden Age theater is that we performed La cueva de Salamanca), second, creating an annotated edition, and finally translating. So, the basic idea would be for students to work through out the semester on one entremés, first annotating, then translating, then adapting, and finally performing. Although I initially considered giving student the option to pick any piece, I then came to the conclusion than having all groups working on pieces that share many common elements would make it easier for everyone, and we could have more peer-review input. Rather than picking an author or a subgenre, I settle for Juan Rana entremeses for many reasons.

Cosme Pérez is arguably the best-known actor of 17th century Spain. According to reports of his time, his mere appearance on the stage made people laugh. He acted almost exclusively in short burlesque plays using the name of Juan Rana. Juan Rana became his alter ego and many short plays were written just for him, often to be performed in the royal palace. In fact, he was a favorite of Felipe IV and Mariana de Austria, who often talk about him as a guest in their home. As a dramatic persona, Juan Rana was always stupid and very often effeminate, to the point that in one play, for example, he is pregnant. In many other cases, albeit as a result of a misunderstanding, he is trying to seduce or is being seduced by another man. Although all his plays are comic and no serious moral comment is ever made about his sexual orientation, Juan Rana is often insulted and beaten up for not being a “normal” man. In fact, in all the plays in which Juan Rana dresses up as a woman he is beaten up for, literally, not wearing the pants. In many occasions, he is chastised by his own wife for not acting like a man should, and he is then insulted by his friends because, as a husband, he should be the one hitting the woman. In a sense, Juan Rana became the scapegoat that channeled the fears of a society obsessed with controlling sexual conduct. But things are way more complex and interesting than this. Cosme Pérez, early in his career, was charged with sodomy. His close connections to powerful people allowed him to get out without any punishment, but his sexual condition became well known by everyone. Far from hiding it, Cosme and writers composing plays for him used the comic potential of his well-known homosexuality. Some obscure jokes even go as far as to point out to his arrest and how easily he got away. The double Cosme/Juan, which plays with the blurry barrier between reality and fiction, served as the perfect canvas to question other dichotomies: gay/straight, male/female, husband/wife, right/wrong, etc.

There is more written about Juan Rana than about any other actor, and he offers a magnificent point of entry into the theatrical world. He is also perfect to talk about the close relation between text and performance, and the challenges of adapting the classics. He also offers the possibility of analyzing the nature of translation itself. How could one translate and stage a play written for a particular actor? How do we convey the connection between the jokes and the life of Juan Rana, which all his contemporaries knew about, but not modern audiences? How do we translate jokes based solely on the double meaning of words in Spanish? And then, there is the crucial element of gender. Our perception of homosexuality and drag is so different from that of Early Modern audiences that one wonders if there is any way of closing the gap… or even if there is a need to attempt to close the gap. Should a translation for a performance merely reproduce the perception of gender in the period or translate it into our understanding? Is there anything in Juan Rana pertinent today? Can we or should we attempt to reproduce the emotions Juan Rana transmitted to his public?

To me, the most intriguing part about Juan Rana and his plays is the ambiguity. He is at times irreverent and critical, at times a conformist. He makes fun of his homosexuality (there is sarcasm, but sometimes we can even appreciate some pride). Other characters often humiliate him, in scenes that will be considered more than inappropriate today. But sometimes, other characters envy him and want to imitate his freedom. Juan Rana is ridiculed, but also admired. For one reason or another he is fascinating to others. Juan Rana is unique in many ways, and his uniqueness is celebrated (the piece El triunfo the Juan Rana, written by Calderon to commemorate his long career is the best testimony). Students react differently to this ambiguity. Some are able to breach the cultural gap and just laugh, or maybe they are insensitive and unable to understand the complexity of the situations. Some students feel uncomfortable when confronted with the open scorning of a homosexual.

For those interested in teaching about gender in Golden Age theater, Juan Rana entremeses provide a great starting point of dialogue. El parto de Juan Rana is such a fabulous piece to talk about gender construction and sexual myths. In El parto, Juan Rana is an alcalde facing a trial in which he is charged with one account: “para hembra es mejor que para hombre.” Juan Rana acts like a woman, taking care of the house, following the orders of his wife, and, more importantly, he is pregnant. He is found guilty (his pregnancy is quite an irrefutable piece of evidence) and taken into the streets for public shaming. The play ends up with Juan Rana (who refers to himself using feminine pronouns and adjectives) giving birth to a full-grown Juan Ranilla who calls him “mamá.” Gender normativity and the relation between gender and sexuality is presented in such a direct way, that I find this piece a perfect example to introduce gender studies in the class. Once students acquire the basic terminology and concepts, it is easier to apply them to the analysis of more complex and less obvious pieces.

I have only read Juan Rana’s plays with graduate students up to this moment (most of mine are from Spain), so I have never had any problems discussing homosexuality and gender. I never had any doubt that my students share common core values such as: it is not acceptable to make fun of someone for being homosexual or women have the same rights as men. But, I have to confess, I am not sure this is going to go so smoothly with undergrads. I teach in West Virginia. I have students who come to class wearing confederate flag t-shirts. Frat-rape “just” happens. A non-insignificant number of students believes in Creationism. How to approach Juan Rana without turning the class into a battle or alienating some students? My hope is that the temporal and cultural gap will help avoid the initial negative reaction of those students who don’t even want to talk about gender. I also want to believe that translation, and the detail focus that comes with it, will help understand bias. It is not the same for a student to make homophobic comments with his friends, than to have to translate a homophobic joke, that is, to write it in paper, to have it read by a professor and commented by peers. Can translation be a tool for awareness?