Why 1812 Productions Is Putting on Spanish-Captioned Performance of I Will Not Go Gently

Wednesday’s performance of the one-woman play by Jennifer Childs will be captioned in Spanish. Fernando Mendez translated 18,630 words.

Jennifer Childs in I Will Not Go Gently - 1812 Productions

Photo | Mark Garvin

Fernando Mendez had done 5,000 words of translation, and it seemed like a lot. Then he looked at what was remaining in the text of the play, and he realized he wasn’t even a third of the way done. “You don’t even want to know” how long it took to translate the whole thing, he told Philadelphia magazine.

In all, Mendez translated 18,630 words. And, this Wednesday at the Plays & Players Theater, there will be a Spanish-captioned performance of Jennifer Childs’ one-woman play, I Will Not Go Gently. Mendez’s translation will be displayed on captioning equipment on a side of the stage.

The impetus for a Spanish-captioned performance came out of 1812 Productions’ work in ESL (English as a Second Language) classes at Newcomer Learning Academy at Franklin Learning Center.

“We have a whole group of students we’re not able to serve because of the language barrier,” says Childs, who is also the producing artistic director and co-founder of 1812 Productions. “We can connect with them in the classroom but we can’t bring them to see our work.” Tyler Melchior, the marketing and public relations director for 1812, suggested  the company use its existing captioning equipment to subtitle the performance. 1812 had previously used it to put on shows for deaf and hard-of-hearing people.

Enter Mendez, a patron of 1812 who is also an editor-at-large at El Sol and a host on El Zol Philly radio. Childs handed him the daunting task of translating the play.

Comedy is often cited as the hardest format to translate, with particular idioms and in-jokes not easily conveyed in another language. “You read about translators doing it and struggling with idioms, and the mood of the writer,” Mendez says. “And until you start doing it, you never realize how tough it is. I believe I did justice to the play as much as possible.”

The main character in Childs’ show is a fictional rock star, Sierra Mist, who is attempting to make a comeback. Her breakthrough album was Jack in My Box. In the play, she makes an offhand reference to the character of Tattoo on Fantasy Island. How does one translate that title pun, or deliver the tattoo/Tattoo joke if you’ve translated the word tattoo? (For the latter, Mendez settled on using a translation with the original word in parentheses.) Even the title, I Will Not Go Gently, is tough to translate. Mendez said he eventually settled on No voy tranquilo, “I am not tranquil about going.”

That’s how translations work, says Mendez. He references a saying he says he first heard from Gregory Rabassa, who translated Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. It was an Italian phrase: “traduttore, traditore.” The translator is a traitor.

I Will Not Go Gently, Childs says, is about aging and suddenly finding yourself in the second half of life. Childs and local composer Christopher Colucci actually composed a greatest hits album for Sierra Mist. “He says, “You can’t just say, ‘I want to write a rock song,’” Childs says. “He’s like: ‘What era was this? What was her thing during this time? If she had a 15-year career, is this her weird concept album phase? Is this her punk rock phase?’ So that was really, really fun to write across those genres.”

Childs says the spark for the play came not from a rock star but from Salt-N-Pepa, one of Childs’ favorite groups when she was young. She saw them on a musical talent competition show on TV. “They came on and they sang “Push It,” which is of course their breakout hit,” Childs says. “And I was shocked, because they were old. I was like, ‘Wait a second. If they’re old, then I’m old.’”

The play, Childs says, is about the liminal space. “In the circus that means that moment when you’ve let go of one trapeze but haven’t yet grabbed on to the other,” Childs says. “It’s that in-between space. I’m not the person I was at 20, but I don’t think I’m a grown-up yet. It’s very much about that.”

I Will Not Go Gently runs through May 15th at the Plays & Players Theater at 1714 Delancey Place. Wednesday’s show, at 6:30 p.m., will be subtitled in Spanish. It was written by and stars Childs, translated by Mendez, and is directed by Harriet Power.