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The Strange Language of "Invasion!" How do you translate the made-up words in a Swedish play?

By LAURA HEDLI

Swedish-Tunisian playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri rarely makes a simple statement. He manipulates the mechanics of language---the construction of sentences, the ambiguity of meaning---so that even short phrases become suggestively complex. That's especially true of his play Invasion!, where every line pulses with  dark comedy and sinister power.

With vignettes that explore etiology and identity from conflicting points of view, Invasion! shows that words can be transformed into political weapons or into arbitrary sounds that mean almost anything. Khemiri wrote the play in Swedish, using many almost-words or words that he made up entirely, and that made it difficult to find a qualified translator for the English version. He needed someone who could capture not only the literal meaning of his language, but also the metaphorical implications.

While he was giving a lecture in Wisconsin, Khemiri happened to meet the scholar Rachel Willson-Broyles. He quickly realized she could make his Swedish play accessible to American audiences. (Invasion! is currently at the Flea Theater, in a production from the Play Company. It’s being remounted after an Obie award-winning run earlier this year.)

"Rachel was able to find that balance that I find with what I write, a balance between humor and tragedy, a balance between awkwardness and linguistic playfulness," Khemiri says.

Willson-Broyles is a Ph.D. candidate in Scandinavian studies who loves "the problems of translating words and concepts that are culturally untranslatable." That's a perfect match for Khemiri, given the themes of his script.

"One of the things that is really striking is the way he plays with language," says Willson-Broyles, who began teaching herself Swedish at 13 because she liked the pop group Ace of Base. In Swedish, it's permissible and common to create compound words, she explains, but for her translation of Invasion! she had to invent hyphenated mash-ups like "winter-tired New Yorkers" or "monkey-seeking film producer."

"This is one of my favorite aspects of Khemiri's writing and the part that is the hardest to let go of and change," she says.

Khemiri's wordplay is central to his particular brand of storytelling, which recalls and endless game of cat and mouse where a new person, group, or government entity is constantly asserting authority. "I see my plays as being very political, but not political in the classic, Brechtian sense that would convince someone about something," says the playwright. "I try to create plays where you are bombarded with multiple messages and you are never really able to sit securely in your seat."

For instance, in one of the play's most striking scenes, an immigrant apple picker brings out an interpreter to translate his thoughts for the audience. It soon becomes clear that the interpreter is purposefully misrepresenting what the apple picker says. A monologue in Arabic (and largely about ABBA) morphs into vicious, anti-Semitic speech. Eventually the apple picker stops speaking entirely, but the interpreter keeps going.

"That's kind of like the key scene of this play---the belief that you could actually use language to get out, to break yourself free, but also, if you fall silent, this is what happens," Khemeri says. "There's no way out; you have to keep speaking in order to hopefully move things along."

Willson-Broyles says this scene underscores the challenge of her job, as the balance between "funny" and "terrifying" is tough to convey. When audiences laugh at the mention of ABBA hits, Willson-Broyles is tempted to remind them that it isn't supposed to be funny. "But of course it is," she says, noting the complexity of Khemiri's dark humor. "It's just, to me, I see the scary part of it more than the funny part."

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Laura Hedli  is a writer based in New York City