In Translation: Adaptation, Connection, and the Heart of a Story

Last year, as I followed discussions about the new film version of Persuasion, I began thinking about how adaptations are really a form of translation. Instead of moving between languages, adaptation brings a story from one form to another.  

For those doing the translating, it can be a fine balance. On one side there are those who love the original source material, who have built a connection to the story, and the heart of the original narrative. On the other hand, going from one medium to another provides opportunities for new considerations, new ways of creating reflections between story and human emotion. 

Sometimes these adaptations can be incredibly successful. Other times they fall flat for the majority of people, resulting in a wave of consternation that feels deeply personal. And yet, these translations can touch people in different ways depending on the medium through which it is being shared. 

For the purpose of this piece we’re going to look at three different types of adaptation, book to television, myth and oral tradition to visual arts, and book to opera. In each case the translation of the original source material gives us something different to examine, often leading to a renewed sense of wonder.

Glass sculpture by Preston Singletary from Raven and the Box of Daylight at the National Museum of American Indian.

Damage: Book to Television

Let’s start with Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. When I heard that HBO was going to adapt it I felt trepidation, because I love this book. This is a novel that uses a version of adaptation within itself, where a graphic novel story—called Station Eleven—runs parallel to the main narrative about a global pandemic, reflecting its central tenets. For me, Mandel embeds the structure and message of the book by layering her storytelling between characters, the creation of the graphic novel, and the role of art as people search for hope amidst desolation.

Then COVID-19 changed our world, and I was even more apprehensive. How would I feel about seeing this on television?

For those that watched the mini-series it was clear that this wasn’t going to be a scene for scene copy of the book. Rather it was a translation that maintained the essence of Mandel’s novel, yet built more connections between different storytelling threads underscoring the role that arts play in bringing people together.  The details may have changed, but the heart remained.

There is one episode in particular, a so-called-bottle episode called “Goodbye My Damaged Home” where three characters—Kirsten, Jeevan, and Frank—are quarantining inside an apartment while also rehearsing a play, a vehicle to stay sane as the world falls apart.

Except this isn’t straightforward storytelling. This is actually a memory of an older Kirsten is having after being knocked out by some poisoned darts in the future. It is haunting and very much felt like a mirror of our world and how much worse everything could be—while also emphasizing, again, what we do to stay human. Oh and that play they are performing? It’s another adaptation, one that takes the graphic novel Station Eleven, and turns it into a dramatic performance.

While these scenes, these relationships never existed (in this form) in the novel, on screen they are mesmerizing. What the book accomplishes with its non-linear narrative style, the show takes one step further, twisting time, and making us feel the sense of loss, and loneliness even as they search for joy through storytelling.

Clip from “Goodbye My Damaged Home” an episode of Station Eleven on HBO.

And then there is the Shakespeare of it all. Where the book uses his plays as a touchstone for the meaning of life. The show emphasizes those moments in stark relief, where the travelling symphony is just “trying to have the world make sense for a minute.” So yes, Shakespeare is that touchstone, but in the show you can see the community, the connection, and the tragedy that comes within many of the Bard’s plays. Another form of translation.

Story within story, within story.

While both versions of Station Eleven leverage their format to tell a compelling story of the human experience after tragedy, they hit in very different ways based on how we, the audience, connect the information together.

Raven: Oral Tradition to Visual Arts

A second example of this is taking a historical story—a creation myth of the Tlingit peoples of southeast Alaska called Raven and the Box of Daylight—and translating it in a completely different medium. The exhibit at the National Museum of American Indian in Washington, D.C. featured the incredible glass work of Preston Singletary (Tlingit) coupled with incredible soundscapes and lighting design to bring this story—which is about “Raven, the creator of the world and giver of the stars, moon, and sun”—to life.

As the introductory panel states, “Each telling [of the story] emphasizes different aspects of the same story, creating a unique treasure for the families, communities, and for all Tlingit people.” 

Views from Raven and the Box of Daylight at National Museum of American Indian (May 2022 and January 2023)

What makes this exhibition particularly evocative is how Singletary visualized Raven. Visitors began by walking through a soundscape of trees to set the scene, where gorgeous glass sculptures of the white raven are sitting to welcome them. It’s easy to imagine someone sharing this myth without visuals, where you only have your imagination to take you on the journey. However, the translation of this myth through sculpture added an element of magic, building a bridge between the narrative and the full range of our senses.

In the catalog for the exhibition, curator Miranda Shkik Belarde-Lewis, Ph.D starts by answering a question posited by her son, “How do we know if history is true?” Her response is that we know because people remembered, we have evidence, and that some people wrote down these histories.

For this exhibition, Belarde-Lewis and Singletary spent four years “[wrestling] with questions at the intersection of oral history, the defining, nature of art, and the universal elements contained with in this particular Raven story.” As she describes their task, how their “primary goal is to honor the essence of the story without veering too far off into one version of it,” both artist and curator recognized their obligation to the people whose story they were sharing. After all, “art helps us recognize each other’s humanity, a vital act if we wish to move beyond this contentious moment in time.”

“Before here was here, Raven was only named Yéil. He was a white bird and the world was in darkness.”

Opening panel for Raven and the Box of Daylight.

Every time I walked through this exhibition (a total of three times in the year it was on the National Mall) I was struck not only by the beauty of the glasswork but also the staging. In the catalog Singletary describes wanting to create a sense of “drama and myth, “where visitors walk away understanding the power of the symbolism, and a reverence for nature and the earth. This layering of glasswork coupled with soundscape and lighting brought me fully into the story in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to get if I had just read the Raven story, or heard it being told. In the catalog, Singletary talks about wanting to include the element of smell for visitors, but realized it wasn’t possible with the bigger installations. Even without it, this multi-sensory approach to storytelling, remains one of the most evocative installations I have experienced.

Parable: Book to Opera

A third example, is Parable of the Sower, the eerily prescient book by Octavia Butler, which was adapted into an opera. Developed and written by Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon , this opera covers the first two books in what would have been Butlers’ Earthseed Trilogy. In the story we follow a young woman named Lauren who creates a new religion, one governed by the principle that the only constant in this world is change. Like Station Eleven this is about a world that is irrevocably changed.

Octavia Butler’s typewriter as featured in the Smithsonian FUTURES exhibition in 2021-2022.

This isn’t the easiest translation. The books are complex, and yet the live nature of the opera—which includes Toshi Reagon as the storyteller-narrator of the piece—takes the words off the page leveraging the music to convey emotion. Unlike a television adaptation or a static art piece, here you can feel the vibration of sound in the voice, and sense the crackle in the air that comes from a live audience who is reacting to what they see before them.

For example, when Lauren (played by Marie Tatti Aqeel) expresses the loss of her father, her wail ends on sharp quiet breaths, and you can hear your own heart begin to race with empathetic grief. Or when there is uncomfortable laughter as Toshi Reagon as narrator sings about the new “company town” that has come up in this world—with familiar references, it feels real  and tangible. In a lot of ways you may be the audience but you are physically present in a way that you can never be with a television show or even a book.

Jump to 41:38 to hear Lauren sing about her father.

I’ll be the first to admit that as a translation, this particular version of Butler’s novels was tough to follow if you did not already know the story. But like so many stories, Parable of the Sower is positioned to remind the reader of community, of humanity, of connection. “Don’t forget: Octavia is writing about the universe. She’s saying that our destiny is to be amongst the stars, and we already are,” Toshi Reagon said in a story for The Root. “We’re a part of something amazing and we are an amazing part of something amazing…Don’t leave yourself out; you’re a part of all of it.”


I know that technically the definition of a translation is a 1 to 1 shift and that an adaptation is about representing the “spirit” of the original into a new medium, but for me each of these pieces is doing a little of both. Layering different media on top of each other to add depth and emphasis in a way that a pure adaptation could never really do.

By introducing a play, comic book visuals, music, sound, and three-dimensional art to an established narrative the creators are all weaving in an acknowledgement that as human beings we connect with stories in different ways. For me, having the opportunity to watch a complex narrative unfold on television, feeling the reverberations of sound as it pushes through a theatre, or being dropped in the middle of a myth elevated through light filled boxes of glass, is a magnificent feeling. In each case I walked away with my brain feeling just a little more full, my heart a little more complete.

As a historian, I think about how different disciplines—particularly with the Raven exhibition—fosters linkages between the past and the present. That these varying mediums serve as vehicles which move history from a space “in the past” to a very real, very tangible present. 

At the start of the Singletary show there is a quotation from a Tlingit historian, Shdal’eiw Walter Porter who said “The importance of mythology is that it is universal. Every culture has the same information disguised as a story.” And in a lot of ways that is what makes adaptations (or translations) so interesting. They are in effect a different version of passing traditions on,  building relevance and connection with every version that is put out in the world. 

While for many the original will always be a sacred text, it is in the translating, that stories and histories live on.

A Postscript: Having just finished the recent Amazon adaptation of Daisy Jones and the Six I wanted to say a few words about this particular version.. The book, almost from the beginning, was by its very form, destined to be made into a live action medium of some kind. Shortly after release, I listened to the audio book (after reading it in text form) featuring a set of celebrity voices that brought the story to life. But even with that “live” reading, and Taylor Jenkins Reid’s ability to make you feel and hear the music through her words, the ten episode miniseries was an translation on another level.

Like the book, the mechanism of using a documentary style storytelling technique provides an opening for discussions about memory, perspective, and reliable narrators. However, more-so than the book, this mini-series successfully took what was text and translated it beyond imagination. Really the mini-series leaned into the medium, and where lyrics that were snatches of poetry at the end of a novel were elevated (and changed to fit the emotion of the show) with music. The music that was woven all through the show revealed the rawness of emotion, articulating what our two main characters could not actually say. Like the other examples in this piece, Daisy Jones reminds us that the act of making art, the act of creation, and storytelling no matter what the form, takes a measure of trust, of vulnerability, and in the end, a measure of love.

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