The night we watched Brian Friel’s “Translations” was bitterly cold, too cold for bare skin — the kind that has everyone walking hunched over, head and hands stuffed in close to their bellies. They say that the snow was coming the next day and I felt it, willing my fingers to face the frost and sense the sharper, colder edges of everything: people’s stares, puffy jackets, the blare of a car horn, the white edges of a solid red block stop sign.
The play at Barnard Theater was a shining joy. Sharon Fogarty directed, with Hana Worthen and Luke DeCourcey Cregan as dramaturgs. It began in darkness, five shrouded girls leaned in close to the ground. All we could hear was their breath. And then the one in the center sat up, her face a luminous oval in the dark. She sang in Gaelic and her voice brimmed with pain, change, and loss.
Friel’s play is about the end of the hedge schools of Ireland in the 19th century. The lame schoolmaster Manus strives vainly to hold on to his students, schooled in the classics in the Irish countryside, while the schools operated by the colonizing British are offering free English-language education to all who will come. Manus seeks the hand of Maire, one of his students, but she is desperate for English education, anything that will take her from the farm life that she knows. When Manus’ brother Eoghan (pronounced “Owen”) returns to the countryside as the interpreter of the English Royal Engineers, translation comes to center stage. The goal of the soldiers is to “organize” the mess of place names used by the locals into a standardized, six-inch map for proper tax allocation; the effect of the soldiers is to disrupt and deface the life of Baile Beag by erasing, re-tooling, and dispossessing the land of its history and oddities. A running joke through the play is that none of the British lieutenants can even pronounce Eoghan’s real name, calling him “Roland” instead to make it roll easier off the English tongue.
Maire, played by Chloé Worthington, eventually falls in love with Lieutenant Yolland, a wide-eyed, stupidly lovable man whose romantic spirit is immediately enthralled with the land he has been sent to re-map and conquer. His earnest innocence endears him to Maire, and to us. The iconic scene of the play, in which Maire and Yolland fall in love through an interpreter, also hit the right balance of pathetic and hilarious and moving. Brendan Walsh, playing Eoghan, delivered a stunning performance capturing the essence of translation’s awkward mishaps and repetitions. His was the most interesting character of the play, the one who exhibited the most unflinching self-awareness. He was interpreter and traitor, too intelligent for his role, proud of how far he’d come, and disgusted by how far he’d fallen. Listening to his speech, you could see how somebody could be so helpless in the midst of things that they had helped to create.
In the end, Manus flees when he sees Maire falling in love with Yolland, and the play implies that Manus will pay dearly for it. The play meditates on power and powerless-ness, wielding language and its absence like a weapon. When Lieutenant Yolland disappears, seemingly because he has run afoul of Irish extremists, the fun, flirtatious translations between the Irish peasants and the British surveyors becomes hostile, suspicious, even nasty. The sudden mistrust of the British reminds everyone of who is in charge, and their brute force reminds us who would have the authority to name, to remember, and to punish. Ultimately, it was the British who would determine what even constituted fear.
The play ends with Maire facing the crowd with outstretched hands, black lines projected upon her bare arms as she stands before a backdrop of silhouetted farmers in arms. She doesn’t see us.
That was the play, a bitter sliver on a winter night. Still, exiting the theater, we were all flushed with excitement and praise. The GLJ reading group chatted in the hallway about the different themes that couldn’t help but resonate, and then I took the long way home because my train wasn’t working. It was out of the train station that I felt someone there, walking right behind me on the quiet street. He was continually muttering in a low voice, “money, money, money.” I quickened my step and avoided turning around. I didn’t want to face the fact that I had nowhere to go. Finally, the voice said, “Um, excuse me.” I turned without thinking. “Um… Bennett Street?,” he asked. His right hand was raised, pointing weakly in one direction, then the next.
My voice sagged with relief. “Oh. To the left,” I said. “A la izquierda.”
His smile was immediate. “Oh, you speak…” He didn’t even finish his English sentence, just smiled widely and nodded and went on his way.
I turned and walked on, slower now. I was realizing belatedly that he had been saying “Mami” (like “girl” or “miss”) all along to get my attention, and that I had known that Spanish, deep down, but it had only made me more afraid. I thought of how much I could understand him and yet refuse to hear him at the same time. Cruelty does seem to be just so much constituted fear. I thought of the relief on his face when he realized I spoke his language. And then I ran into the stop sign that didn’t look like a stop sign, its six corners jutting starkly into the New York City night.
By L. Maria Bo, Global Language Justice Graduate Research Fellow. Translations played at Barnard’s Minor Latham Playhouse from Dec. 7-9, 2017.
Feature photo credit: Vivienne Gucwa