Russian, Music, Puppetry, and Dance: My Babushka in Translation
In Бабушка | BAb(oo)shka, playwright and performer Anna Lublina centers her Russian-speaking grandmother’s stories. In this new play at the 14th Street Y, Lublina translates her grandmother’s stories not only to English, but also to gibberish, klezmer music, and puppetry. She talks to Lilith Intern Elana Rebitzer about the role of gender and translation in her work and how this play has affected her relationship with her grandmother.
Elana Rebitzer: Why did you choose to center the play with your grandmother’s story?
Anna Lublina: The performance grew organically out of my grandmother’s stories. Or, really, my different understandings of them. Every holiday, we’d get in a heated discussion around what it means to be Jewish. These conversations were hard but also fascinating! I started to think about how her experience of Jewishness informs yet dramatically differs from my own. How has her lived experience been altered as in the process of being passed down to me? I made this show to honor and explore those alterations.
ER: The story comes alive in so many ways– puppetry, klezmer, gibberish, Russian, and English. What led you to use all these different expressive methods to tell your story?
AL: When I began thinking about this show two years ago, I came up with this concept of “queer translation.” With queer translation, I wanted to focus on the “mis” part of miscommunication. I wanted to honor the negative spaces in stories. This idea got me thinking about my multidisciplinary theater practice….how you lose something moving from live dance to puppeted object, but those losses are so beautiful. Over this past year of building this piece, I wanted to explore all these different types of multidisciplinary translation. One example is a performance where three non-Russian speaking actresses attempt to translate audio of my Babushka speaking in Russian into a strange Russianesque gibberish. In that show, we were thinking about translating affect and emotional landscape behind a story. In another iteration, we translated the stories into a video game puppet show inspired by the SIMS. I really want to privilege different elements of the stories– the emotionality, the iconography, the political symbols, the structure of the narrative, etc— in different ways so we can experience how each translation is both flawed AND expanded.
ER: How do each of those languages / mediums change your grandmother’s story?
AL: Each translation is an attempt towards understanding. As I translate the stories into English, music, puppetry, dance, I am communicating (to you, the audience, and to my Babushka) what it is that I am understanding when she tells me her story. My interpretation often has nothing to do with her intention, and that’s the point! That’s what happens when we communicate. So in BAb(oo)shka, the story changes with each retelling to honor a different element of the story that I’m understanding: the pain of being an other, the pride of being an other, my babushka’s intense love and fear about this oppression occurring again, and a lot of anger. It’s really just built on the idea that when you share a story—whether in the kitchen or on a stage—you are giving it over to other individual subjectivities to shape and warp.
ER: What do you think are some of the ways that translation interacts with gender and Judaism?
In a lot of ways, this is where the performance originates. I have always felt that I have inherited my Soviet’ family’s sense of Judaism—an ethnic one—incorrectly. What I mean is that I don’t totally take on their version of Judaism. Instead of seeing myself as an ethnic or zionist Jew, I approach Judaism as an ethical practice and spiritual way of living in the world. So this arrival at another interpretation of Judaism—that’s translation in action. I see Judaism as expanding and evolving constantly, translating into new forms whenever it encounters new contexts.
I think gender has a similar evolution. My sense of my gender has been immensely shaped by my context. Although, I’d say my Babushka and I have fewer moments of mistranslation when it comes to gender. She is incredibly supportive of me as a queer person, and I think we find common ground when we talk about being “strong women.” So in a way, gender is more easily translated between us than Judaism.
ER: Did creating this play change your relationship with your grandmother? How?
AL: Yes, it has forced us to collaborate, to really listen and communicate in ways that disrupt our traditional power dynamics. We worked on the performance at a residency in France this summer, and it was such a powerful thing to treat my family members like collaborators. Instead of assuming I knew my Babushka’s boundaries as a storyteller, I had to really listen to her in a whole new way. That process exponentially expanded my understanding of her life and how she became who she is today. And I think she had to expand her understanding of me. And we’re still in this process. It has created conflict, triggered larger traumas, and forced our entire family to think creatively, together. It’s been an experiment in communication that I am excited to see translated to the stage. I guess you’ll have to come witness the show to see where we landed.
Бабушка | BAb(oo)shka runs at the 14th Street Y from September 26 through October 5. Lilith Subscribers can use the code LILITH for $5 off tickets.
Elana Rebitzer is an intern at Lilith Magazine and a student at Barnard College.