In his 1987 book “Ireland Kiko (Travels in Ireland),” the renowned historical novelist and essayist Ryotaro Shiba (1923-96) observed that “the typical Irish character could easily be dramatized,” and that “Ireland is one of the richest countries for the literary arts, with people whose daily lives are full sarcasm, humor, magnificent rhetoric and biting self-criticism.”
In theater, of course, the likes of Samuel Beckett, John Millington Synge, Oscar Wilde and others are clear testaments to these insights. More recently, another who has catapulted himself into these ranks is 37-year-old Martin McDonagh, whose debut play, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” won the Most Promising Playwright award of the Critics’ Circle in Britain in 1996, and a Tony in the United States two years later. The London-born son of Irish immigrants then won Best New Play in the Laurence Olivier Awards with his morbid fantasy “The Pillowman’ in 2003, the same year that he reached Japan, with his fifth play, 2001’s “The Lieutenant of Inishmore.”
Despite being hardly known here — and his work being full of quirky Irish humor and jargon — in one bound McDonagh assumed star status in Japan’s theater world. A key figure in his ascension here has been 42-year-old translator Jo Meguro. With her translation of “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” set to open in Tokyo next week, Meguro recently took time out to speak with The Japan Times.
How did you get involved in translating for the theater?
I studied French literature at Chuo University, where I was particularly interested in semiotics (the study of signs and symbols, especially in language). After I graduated, I worked at the Saison Theatre in Ginza for about 12 years, mostly involved with its independent productions at a time when its ethos was more about art for art’s sake rather than making big profits.
When that company was taken over in 1999, I went freelance, and one day a translator asked me to lend a hand when the American author Betsy Howie came to Japan. Though I had never set out to be a translator, that led to me translating one of her children’s books. Then, because of my drama connections, a producer at the Parco Theater asked me to translate playwright Martin McDonagh’s “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” in 2003.
Martin McDonagh was unknown in Japan when you did your translation. What did you think about the play?
I loved its multi-layer structure and his original view of human life, which stems from his unique background of being born in working-class south London to Irish parents who went back to Ireland and left him there living on welfare at age 16 with his brother. I also loved the traditional Irish type of drama, in which a great sense of humor coexists with scary, terrifying scenes. For example, “The Lieutenant” is about vicious infighting in the paramilitary Irish National Liberation Army, and it has a cynical view of the group. But many characters are so stupid and unbelievably silly that sometimes the audiences have sympathy for them. So, the play combines conflicting brutal and comical aspects — and it’s brilliantly complex.
His plays have lots of local and culture-specific details, so they are difficult to translate. One thing in particular I try not to do is create a kind of false Irishness by having the characters speak in unsophisticated dialects. I believe in his plays’ power, and I trusted in the work of the director, Keishi Nagatsuka, and the actors, so I just concentrated on translating the real essence of the work.
How do you decide how “foreign” to make your translations?
Obviously there are cultural gaps, but I prefer to retain some unfamiliar things rather than ignore them or change them into something familiar for Japanese. I don’t think it’s right to rework foreign plays as if they were as natural and smooth as plays written in Japanese. We should keep some “foreignness.” Getting the balance right is quite sensitive and difficult. English four-letter words, such as f**k — which McDonagh includes a lot — must be translated case by case. Sometimes, I translate them to keep the rhythm, but sometimes I think it is better to cut them.
Why do you think McDonagh’s quintessentially Irish plays are so internationally popular?
Perhaps such localized details are interesting for today’s audiences, but I think his ability to create characters and depict human nature is first rate, so his plays appeal to any nationality.
Tell me about this universality in “The Beauty Queen of Leenane?”
In the play, a middle-aged spinster named Maureen (Shinobu Otake) and her dominant old mother Mag (Kayoko Shiraishi) live together in a small town without much hope of their lives ever changing. This prisoners-of- circumstance situation is quite familiar to Japanese audiences. Also, despite its cruel and hopeless scenes — as in McDonagh’s other plays — this is not just a tragic drama, and I believe audiences can gain some understanding of people and are able to move forward after having seen it.
What do you think of the current state of Japanese theater?
From the 1960s to ’80s there were many counterculture theater companies challenging the conservative mainstream and also staging Western works. But then that ideological approach waned, and now many young theater people don’t know about drama history in Japan or anywhere. They don’t have any social motive and mainly express themselves through “I” dramas. Consequently, most young playwright’s works don’t have an international appeal. Perhaps this attitude of self-affirmation among the young generation is a result of the “democratic” education system that has emerged, where it is frowned on to rank pupils in classes by ability or achievement.
“The Beauty Queen of Leenane” runs Dec. 7-30 at the Parco Theater, an 8-minute walk from JR Shibuya Station. For more details, call (03) 3477-5858 or visit www.parco-play.com. Jo Meguro’s second novel, “Cult no Shima (Cult Island),” will be published in February.