The welcome inscribed on the Statue of Liberty is no longer guaranteed

Bringing Friel's 'Translations' to the Washington stage, I hope will bring comfort to those who feel like exiles

Martin Giles and Molly Carden in Translations at Washington DC’s Studio Theatre. Photograph: Teresa Wood.

Martin Giles and Molly Carden in Translations at Washington DC’s Studio Theatre. Photograph: Teresa Wood.

 

Brian Friel’s masterpiece of miscommunication, Translations, explores the complex dance between language, place and self. As an immigrant from Belfast who has lived in America for 12 years, it is a dance that I have come to know very well.

Translations explores the consequences of the wholesale translation of Irish place names into English by the British Army in the 1830s. Using a combination of literal or phonetic translation and descriptive language, Ireland was re-christened in a new colonial reality.

The local community of Ballybeg (formerly Baile Beag) become caught between two linguistic paradigms, and lost in a maze of shifting meanings. As the alcoholic schoolmaster says to a young English cartographer in the play: “Words are signals. Counters. They are not immortal. And it can happen ... that a civilization can become imprisoned in a linguistic ‘contour’ that no longer matches the landscape of ... fact.”

Matt Torney, associate artistic director at Studio Theatre in Washington DC. Photograph: Teddy Wolff
Matt Torney, associate artistic director at Studio Theatre in Washington DC. Photograph: Teddy Wolff

Written in 1980 as a response to the first decade of the Troubles, Friel offers the theatre as a space in which to engage the deep politics of past and present, and the myths that serve as the foundations of identity.

His thesis is both pragmatic and forlorn. He recognises the cost of losing touch with your heritage, but also the impossibility of moving forward without making peace with history. As he wrote in his diary while writing Translations, “The victims in this situation are the transitional generation ...lost, wandering around a strange land. Strays.”

Friel’s play about language feels timely in an America where words are becoming increasingly unfixed from their meanings. Even the word America means many different things.

To the nationalist right it means a white, Christian nation that must be protected from the threatening forces of otherness. To the diverse left it is the answered promise of the land of the free. Immigrants are no longer sure what it means, except that the welcome inscribed on the Statue of Liberty is no longer guaranteed.

Translations resonates deeply with a society locked in division, and looks at both the historical roots, and the human cost, of the failure to communicate.

I am currently directing Translations at Studio Theatre in Washington DC, where I am the associate artistic director. We aim to produce the “best of contemporary theatre” in a converted industrial building just a few blocks from the White House.

Since Obama left, it’s a very different city. Democratic staffers who arrived eight years ago on a wave of hope and change have now returned to their home states to join political campaigns, fleeing the red-hatted gloating of their replacements. More than ever, DC feels gridlocked in a conflict between two viciously opposed political identities.

America didn’t always feel like this. One of my abiding memories of arriving in New York more than a decade ago was the wonder of taking the subway from my apartment in Harlem down to the Staten Island Ferry.

Gang kids, families, Wall Street bankers, drag queens, Hasidic Jews, travelled south alongside tourists and immigrant workers from all over the world. Everyone was travelling in the same direction, and minding their own business – the polar opposite of the lurking suspicion that defined growing up in Belfast.

Matthew Aldwin McGee and Megan Graves in Translations at Washington DC’s Studio Theatre. Photograph: Teresa Wood
Matthew Aldwin McGee and Megan Graves in Translations at Washington DC’s Studio Theatre. Photograph: Teresa Wood

Some 12 years and two elections later, that early wonder feels painfully naive. America is much more complicated than I initially assumed. Despite being policed by an urgent narrative of freedom, the landscapes of past and present do not align, and the promise of exceptionalism does not include all Americans.

Working on Translations in DC makes it impossible to read a map of the United States in the same way. Place names here are both a palimpsest of a complicated colonial history, and a reliquary for a lost civilization. The landscape is littered with the names of European cities (including 29 Bristols, 26 Berlins, 18 Dublins, and 17 Warsaws) that settlers chose as a symbol of shared heritage.

Alongside these imported names, the ghosts of indigenous peoples live in the words Delaware, Massachusetts, Shenandoah, Illinois, Kansas, Omaha, and even some of the most iconically American state names such as Kentucky and Tennessee. The people who once spoke these words were resettled farther west during the ‘Trail of Tears’. A sad march that occured in the same decade as the remapping of Ireland.

That this is so seldom discussed shows how deeply uncomfortable some Americans are with the realities of the past. In Texas, the Board of Education recently attempted to change all references to ‘slaves’ to ‘workers’ in the history books.

Even today, a debate is raging about what to do with monuments to Confederate generals, and the streets and towns that also carry their names. Campaigns are waged to remove the offending words and statues, as if this can morally sanitise all public space. And yet, the ghosts of these names live on in myth and memory.

In Translations, Friel recognises this ambiguous world, in which the deep sense of home cannot be confined in the rigid contours of a map, or the black and white language of politics. Home is more intimate and alive, and ultimately much more dangerous. In Ireland and elsewhere, this is what we kill and die for.

In this age of unease, it is my hope that Translations can offer comfort to those who feel like exiles in their own country, and open up a space in which to embrace the ambiguity of the present. As the schoolmaster says in the play, “My friend, confusion is not an ignoble condition.”

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