Playwright Nilo Cruz first found his voice in translation as a boy in Miami when his Cuban immigrant parents would have him decipher missives in English.
Cruz, who was 9 when the family arrived in the United States in 1970, made it his mission to master English as quickly as possible. He knew it was the ticket to success.
The effort paid off. He studied theater, was admitted into the master’s program in playwriting at Brown University and started writing plays about the Latino experience — always in English. In 2003, his drama “Anna in the Tropics” won the Pulitzer Prize.
He honed his craft so diligently in English that now, like Samuel Beckett, who drafted masterpieces in French, or Joseph Conrad, the greatest English novelist ever raised speaking Polish in the Russian Empire, Cruz prefers to compose in his second language, even though he is a fluent Spanish speaker.
“It was a conscious choice at one point, and then life took me in that direction,” Cruz, 51, says by telephone from Miami in his slightly Spanish-accented English. “I realized early on that if I only did theater in Spanish in this country, I would be limited to a few theaters. . . . I learned to intellectualize the [playwriting] process in English rather than Spanish.”
Now, in a twist, Cruz has translated “Anna” into his native language. “Ana en el Tropico” opens Thursday at GALA Hispanic Theatre. Cruz’s original English will be relegated to surtitles.
For the actors, director and the playwright himself, the Spanish version is teaching unexpected lessons about the nature of language, identity and theater.
“When I saw the play, I saw it in English and I was originally not crazy about it,” says Hugo Medrano, producing artistic director of GALA, who plays the role of Santiago, the family patriarch in “Ana.” “Then I happened to get the Spanish version, and I read the play and it was beautiful. It was like another play for me.”
At the heart of this work in translation is a translation.
Cruz set his drama about love and betrayal, modernity and tradition, in a factory where the Cuban immigrant workers make cigars in the Ybor City section of Tampa in 1929.
In those days, cigar factories employed lectors to read aloud to the workers as they stuffed and rolled cigars by hand. It was a means of transmitting high culture to poorly educated workers, but most of all, it passed the time.
The play opens with a new lector arriving from Cuba. The novel he has selected to read to the workers is Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.” The story of tragic Russian love resonates unpredictably in the lives of the play’s characters.
Instead of the English translations of the Russian that Cruz inserted into the original “Anna,” here Spanish seems especially suited to sighing passages of Russian melodrama.
Of course, as any Cuban knows, Spanish comes in many varieties.
A Spaniard named Nacho Artime took the first cut at translating the play from English during the initial success of “Anna,” when Cruz says he was too busy to translate himself.
Artime’s draft sounded too much like Spanish from Spain for Cruz’s taste. “I didn’t think it captured the flavor of Cubans in Tampa,” Cruz says. He found himself translating certain words or expressions from “Castilian Spanish” into “Caribbean Spanish,” with the help of Jose Badue, an editor in Washington. The final translation is credited to Artime and Cruz.
The Spanish “Ana” premiered at Repertorio Espanol in New York several years ago.
“I had actually not heard the piece in the mouth of actors” in Spanish, Cruz says. “It was just breathtaking to hear it the way these people speak.”
Productions of the play in English over the years — including at Arena Stage in 2004 — have often engaged bilingual Hispanic actors to play the roles in English. (Jimmy Smits played the lector in the Broadway production in 2003.) The language and casting imply a distinct back story for the characters — that they are immigrants who have had time to learn English and are striving to assimilate linguistically, much like little Nilo at school in Miami.
The true history, according to Cruz, is that the Cubans in Ybor City maintained their customs, culture and language within the little societies centered on the cigar factories. They would have spoken Spanish to one another, and they would have listened to a Spanish translation of “Anna Karenina,” as in the lush excerpts that figure in “Ana” at GALA.
A key consequence of translating the play from English to Spanish is to subtly alter the characters’ implied biographies.
“Just the fact that now I can make her a Spanish-speaking Cuban woman, that’s a whole different character,” says Marian Licha, who plays Ofelia, the matriarch, after having performed the same role in English at Arena Stage. “There’s a flavor there that wasn’t there before.”
Cruz says the English he writes is already wired with the music and rhythms of the Spanish he grew up with. In theatrical circles, he is known as an intensely poetic playwright, whose characters are given to bursts of lyrical language, somewhat in the style of Federico Garcia Lorca.
“When I was writing ‘Anna’ in English, I was thinking in Spanish but writing in English,” Cruz says.
That may explain how it was possible for Cruz and Artime to render such a faithful translation. Rather than reaching for linguistic approximations, they managed to convey every metaphor, simile and image with near literal fidelity.
Marela, the character of a young woman yearning for romance, says at one point: “No, everything in life dreams. A bicycle dreams of becoming a boy, an umbrella dreams of becoming the rain, a pearl dreams of becoming a woman, and a chair dreams of becoming a gazelle and running back to the forest.”
In translation: “Pero todo en la vida suena. Una bicicleta suena con ser nino, un paraguas suena con ser la lluvia, y una perla suena con ser mujer, y una silla suena con ser una gacela que huye al bosque.”
Even though the imagery is consistent, the Spanish version still gains something in translation.
For director Jose Carrasquillo, a Puerto Rican, the impact on the overall feel and meaning of the piece is profound. He’s a good barometer because he also directed the play in English at the University of Maryland.
In English, “it reads very much in the naturalistic style,” Carrasquillo says. “It’s a realistic play. So most of the productions of the play that have been done are totally realistic. It’s a cigar factory, it’s a play with hundreds of props.”
In Spanish, the play feels more “Lorca-like” to Carrasquillo. “It’s the language that really rules, and the language has such a powerful end result that you don’t need to support it with anything. You just need to let these actors get their solar plexuses up and let the poetry come out.”
Speeches that may sound over-the-top in English seem equal to the emotion of the moment in Spanish.
“I can’t hear that without tearing up,” Carrasquillo says of Marela’s riff on the dreams of inanimate objects. “People don’t speak like that. In Spanish, it seems plausible that people could potentially say that.”
For Cruz, translation is more than a tactic to reach new audiences. He recently translated “Hamlet” into Spanish, and he has also translated work by Lorca into English.
“It’s almost like going to a museum and standing in front of the masters and trying to do a copy of what work they’ve done, to really investigate what they did,” he says.
The language in translation casts its spell. After finishing “Hamlet” in Spanish, he turned to writing a new work of his own, in English.
“For some reason, at the beginning, the characters were speaking to me in Spanish,” he says. “I was like, okay, I need to write this in English, even though it’s going to be translated into Spanish.”
(“Anna in the Tropics”), Thursday through March 4. GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. Thursday-Saturday 8 p.m., Sunday 3 p.m. 202-234-7174. www.galatheatre.org.