The play “Comedia famosa de la monja alférez” (“The Famous Comedy of the Lieutenant Nun”), written by Juan Pérez de Montalbán in 1625, tells the true story of a Basque woman, Catalina de Erauso.
The story is remarkable. As a young woman, Catalina de Erauso escaped a nunnery, cross-dressed as a man, jumped aboard a ship with conquistadors, and fought in wars in Chile and Peru for 17 years. When she returned to Spain, King Felipe IV granted her a military pension and permission to continue dressing as a man. She traveled to Rome where Pope Urban VIII granted her a papal dispensation to allow her to live her life as a transgender person.
Mac Test, a professor and chair of Boise State’s Department of English, translated the 400-year-old play from Spanish into English for the first time in 2018.
Test took the first draft of his translation to the University of California Los Angeles and refined the translation with experts in drama from the play’s era through Diversifying the Classics, a project to build awareness and appreciation of Renaissance drama from Spain. While there, Test learned that a new and better edition of the play had been found in Europe, with “whole passages added and words changed,” he said. A typical example: “temor,” meaning fear, changing to “amor,” meaning love.
Test spent the summer working on an updated scholarly translation of the play based on the newly uncovered edition. He worked with a co-translator, Marta Albalá Peregrin, a specialist in Spanish Golden Age Renaissance drama. The discovery of the new edition meant that the translation process was slowed down as Test and Peregrin waited for the European editor to send acts – one by one, every three months or so.
“The only hard part was the waiting, but it will be worth it in the end,” said Test.
There’s good news, too, for theater-loving local audiences: Test is adapting the scholarly translation of the play into a version for live performance. The process, he said, involves cutting text and figuring out where phrasing might make an actor stumble, or make a plot line unclear. In November, Test, joined by visiting actors from London will present a scene from “The Lieutenant Nun” through Boise State’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
Test also is planning to enlist local actors to perform a staged reading of the full play, possibly in 2020, when Boise’s Basque community hosts Jaialdi, the festival that draws thousands of visitors from around the world to town. Details are still in the works but the performance could include music from a historic Spanish opera, as well as traditional Basque dance.
- Listen to Test speaking about his translation of the play on the Howlround Theatre Commons Theatre History Podcast: https://howlround.com/theatre-history-podcast-22
- Read “Memoir of a Basque Lieutenant Nun Transvestite in the New World,” Catalina de Erauso’s autobiography (the text through which Test discovered the play about her life). The book was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 1996. Amazon chose it as a top history book in 2018.