Lost in Translations

Special Features   Lost in Translations
Garry Hynes directs Brian Friel's acclaimed exploration of language, love and cultural divides.

Garry Hynes
Garry Hynes


The young Englishman who speaks no Gaelic has run away from the dance hand-in-hand with the beautiful, spirited Irish girl who speaks no English. He is Lieutenant Yolland of the British Army, and he is there in County Donegal, Ireland, in the summer of 1833, as junior officer of a Royal Engineers detachment assigned to draft a new map of this entire area — a map of potential future military usefulness. The lieutenant's job is to somehow improvise English-language equivalents for the Gaelic place-names, be it farm, crossroads, town hall, or ditch — Fair Hill, for instance, for Cnoc Ban (which Yolland can't pronounce, much less spell).

The girl's name is Maire. She is laughing, there in the night, so is he. "Say anything at all," she says, in that tongue he cannot understand. "I love the sound of your speech…"

"Sorry — sorry?" he says. "Yes — yes? Go on — go on — say anything at all…I wish to God you could understand me."

"Soft hands," she says. "A gentleman's hands." "Because if you could understand me I could tell you how I spend my days either thinking of you or gazing up at your house in the hope that you'll appear even for a second…I would tell you how beautiful you are, curly-headed Maire…I would tell you…"

"Don't stop," she says.

"I'm trembling because of you," Yolland says.

"I'm trembling, too," she says.

"And yes," Garry Hynes says one afternoon in the midtown office of Manhattan Theatre Club. "Yes, exactly. You are right. That is one of the greatest love scenes of the English-speaking theatre."

Because it speaks — doesn't it? — to anybody who has ever loved, has ever gone through that process of groping, learning, translating, feeling each other out.

"Exactly," says Hynes — the first woman ever to win a Tony Award for direction of a play (The Beauty Queen of Leenane) — whose MTC production of Brian Friel's Translations is playing the Biltmore on Broadway.

"I've known Brian for years," she says. "In Ireland, everybody's more or less from the same territory. The very first play I ever directed at the Druid" — the high-impact little "Off-Dublin" theatre that she and two associates launched in Galway in 1975 and runs to this day — "was Brian's Loves of Cass McGuire. And I was actually at the first performance of Translations in Derry [in 1980]."

The roots of the Druid Theatre may be said to have sprouted from New York City's own Off- and Off-Off-Broadway productions of 1970 to 1975. Garry Hynes was majoring in history and English at Galway University in those years when, for four months every summer, she came and worked in New York as a file clerk for a messenger service and in a garment-district factory. Nights, student Hynes saw plays.

Pressed to name some, she thinks long and hard and then says: "Sam Shepard's The Tooth of Crime, in an environmental design. Woyzeck. Meredith Monk. Leonard Melfi's Birdbath, which later we did at the Druid. Paul Foster's Elizabeth I and lots of other stuff at La MaMa. I was completely captivated, seeing plays in small rooms."

Small rooms are no strangers to the Druid. When she and actors Mick Lally (1980 creator of the role of Manus, Maire's morose intended, in Translations) and Marie Mullen (the matricidal daughter in The Beauty Queen of Leenane) were starting the Druid, it moved from a 300-seat school auditorium to a 46-seat function room in a Galway hotel to a onetime Victorian tea house made of stone to the 100-seat theatre on Chapel Lane, Galway, where it has been ever since.

Garry Hynes was born June 10, 1953, in what sounds like "Ballyheedryn," County Rosecommon, Ireland. She grabs the interviewer's pen and writes it out, first in Gaelic — Bealach an Doirín — and then in English, Ballaghadereen, and then its meaning, its translation: "the way of the little oak."

On her fourth finger, left hand, there is a silver ring. "A gift from my father when I was 14." Dead two years now, he was Oliver Hynes, who ran educational schools throughout the west of Ireland. Garry's brother Jerome, chief executive of the Wexford Opera Festival, died last year. Her mother, Carmel Morley Hynes, "is still alive, thank God, at 76."

The amazing thing about Brian Friel's Translations, or about the suspension of disbelief of somebody watching and listening to it, is that the people up there onstage who are supposedly talking Gaelic are in fact talking Irish-accented English, mixed with a little Latin and Greek. It's a sort of logical disconnect — that works.

"Translations," Hynes says, "is a play about translations in all sorts of ways. Of language, of love, and also about the translation of Gaelic culture to Anglo-Irish culture."

Of a culture also of starvation, and rents, and emigration.

"There had been some potato blights in the latter half of the 18th century — partial failures of the crop. But seven years after the events of this play," says its director, "Ireland was hit by the massive famine of 1840. The main reason the Irish came to America was they had no work. The potato famine started a flood of emigration to the United States. Ireland lost two million in population through death, starvation and immigration right up into the 1960s."

There have been no potato blights in Garry Hynes's astonishing career. Is there anything, Ms. Hynes, you want to do that you've never done? Any new worlds to conquer?

Another long think. Then two words: "Eugene O'Neill." In the closing moments of Translations, an overeducated old four-flusher named Hugh contemplates a sleeping colleague of equally advanced years, the Jimmy Jack Cassie who lives entirely in the world and speech of Homer. "It is not the literal past, the 'facts' of history, that shape us," Hugh says, "but images of the past embodied in language." Eugene O'Neill knew something about that, and so does Garry Hynes.

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