August 8, 2007
By Lyn Gardner
Sometimes you think you know what a show is going to be like before you see it. I thought I knew what Truth in Translation would be like - yet another South African musical show about coming to terms with apartheid, ending with a rousing song so we could all stand and cheer the new South Africa (and ourselves for cheering it).
Wrong, completely and utterly wrong. Truth in Translation is tough, bitter and hard to watch. It is laced with exquisite music and lyrics, but this is no song-and-dance show: the music acts like a requiem for truth itself.
Truth in Translation is about how difficult it is to forgive, and the ways language fails us all the time. How do we speak of the unspeakable? How do we recognise our own lies? The piece takes place in the 1990s during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, set up to examine the crimes of apartheid. It focuses on the interpreters who, day after day, listened to the terrible testimony of those who suffered at the hands of the state - and sometimes at the hands of their neighbours too. These were the people who never found out what happened to their vanished husbands, wives, sons and daughters. As one mother says: “To look for your child and find nothing. Not even a speck of ash.”
“Don’t get involved,” the translators are told, yet how can they not fail to do so? As the hearings continue, we see their increasing confusion as they realise that there are as many versions of the truth as there are languages spoken in South Africa.
The show’s deliberate structural messiness is a reflection of the moral quagmire at its centre. This is a piece that thrives on ambiguity: does Winnie Mandela’s final hug with the mother of Stompy represent the triumph of forgiveness or is it just a public relations exercise? While it does require some knowledge of recent South African history, Truth in Translation’s message - that saying sorry is easy, but genuine forgiveness is really hard - is well worth hearing.