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Wannous in Translation

In response to:

Coup de Théâtre from the June 27, 2019 issue

To the Editors:

In her review of Sentence to Hope, the anthology of works by the Syrian playwright Sa‘dallah Wannous [NYR, June 27], Ursula Lindsey is incorrect in stating that his famous play Soirée for June 5th—a powerful dramatic reaction to the naksa (setback), the disastrous June War of 1967—is being offered to an English readership “for the first time.” Two different translations of the play were published in 2014. One of them (The Evening Party for the Fifth of June), based on the text of the play found in Wannous’s Complete Works (Damascus, 1996), appeared in the anthology Four Plays from Syria: Sa‘dallah Wannous, edited by Marvin Carlson and Safi Mahfouz and published by the Theatre Center at CUNY. The publication of that anthology in 2014 would seem to call into question Yale University Press’s assertion that Sentence to Hope is “the first major English-language collection of plays and essays by Syrian playwright Sa‘dallah Wannous.”

The other translation that appeared in 2014 is my own, published in the online theater journal The Mercurian (Fall 2014). The major difference between the translations involves the history of the play itself (something that I discussed in some detail in an essay published by the Journal of Arabic Literature, Vol. 15, in 1984). Banned following its initial performance, the complete text was nevertheless published, with all its contemporaneous citations and allusions, in the third issue (1968) of the newly established Beirut literary journal Mawaqif, edited by the renowned Syro-Lebanese poet and critic Adonis.

It was in 1972 that the play was performed in Damascus to tremendous public acclaim, and for that purpose Wannous revised his text, removing some of the more local and controversial materials, no doubt with the longer-term impact of the play in mind. My translation of the play includes all the materials from both versions of the text, thus allowing the reader to gauge not only the impact of the naksa on Wannous and his contemporaries but also the ways in which he chose to revise his initial text in the post-naksa era.

Roger Allen
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Ursula Lindsey replies:

Indeed, I was mistaken in suggesting that the anthology Sentence to Hope contained the first translations of Wannous’s work into English. I should have written that this collection of his work introduces him for the first time to a wider, general English-speaking audience. I’m thankful for this chance to highlight Roger Allen’s work on Wannous and the volume of plays edited by Marvin Carlson and Safi Mahfouz (to which the translators of Sentence to Hope, Robert Myers and Nada Saab, contributed and which they mention in their acknowledgments).