In the summer of 2018, I took a trip to England where I had the opportunity to truly explore the city of London for the first time. One night during my stay, I visited the National Theatre where I saw the play Translations by Brian Friel.

Set in a small Irish town in the 1830s, the show follows the story of a rural headmaster and his sons. One son helps his father educate members of their rural community while the other joins British Royal Engineers to anglicize maps of Ireland. During this time, British officials sought to replace traditional Gaelic names with British equivalents, asserting the Empire’s control over Ireland’s past and their future. The show touches on the importance of language and culture by shifting back and forth between the perspectives of the British Engineers and the Irish community, allowing the audience to see the story from both sides. The different characters were unable to communicate with those who did not speak their native language, leading to intensified tension and frustration.

As I watched the actors portray this story, I found that everything about the play- the book, the acting, the direction- forced the audience to reckon with the detrimental realities of the past and empathize with the Irish communities and the British officials that the fictional characters were based upon. As a member of the audience, I felt the frustration of the Irish community members; I felt their pain as they watched the names of their roads, lakes, and buildings being replaced; I felt satisfaction as the community joined together to resist the infiltration of British authorities and protest colonialism. The play also emphasized the perspective of the British soldiers sent to the town to serve their empire and the feeling of obligation and duty that accompanied their actions.

To me, one of the most important aspects of the humanities is being able to invite an audience, a reader, a listener to experience a perspective that is different from their own and potentially alter the way they view the world. The play I watched that night in 2018 exemplifies this purpose as it presented an important story, based on true events from the past, in a way that encouraged audience members to suspend their biases and think about life through a different point of view. As a budding historian, Translations encouraged me to find and highlight historic moments in a similar way within my own work.

– E.N.K. Robbins (Ph.D. Candidate)