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When Truth Is Lost in Translation

January 12, 2024

The following is a condensed version of "When Truth Is Lost in Translation" by Roy Mathews, published at Law & Liberty.

Narratives concerning the marginalized have come to dominate American institutions and popular culture. The plight of a plethora of minorities is regularly alluded to, from Justice Jackson’s allusions to America’s “legacy of discrimination” in her dissent of SFFA v. Harvard to the numerous months dedicated to racial and sexual minorities. Narratives about America’s systemic racism, sexism, and other “isms” have become prefaces to the missions of leading cultural, civic, and political institutions. Vaclav Havel dared to ask in his day what Americans cannot do today: Why are the rich and powerful telling the country that the rich and powerful are responsible for the daily oppression of the ruled? His answer for the denizens of the former Soviet Union offers important lessons for those in America today who question why so many blindly regurgitate lies and ahistorical Manichean narratives about our country.

Havel’s most famous play, VyrozumÄ›ní, or The Memorandum, chronicles the struggles of Josef Gross at his job as a director in an unnamed government bureau. Gross receives a memo concerning an audit that has been typed in a constructed language called Ptydepe. Unable to translate Ptydepe, Gross questions his deputy Ballas as to why his memo is written in Ptydepe. Ballas, sensing an opportunity to accumulate more prestige and power, blackmails Gross into institutionalizing Ptydepe for use in the bureau. Then he takes Gross’ job. What follows is an odyssey through the bureau, in which Gross struggles to get his memo translated and regain his old job.

The triumph of bureaucratic authority over truth is unfortunately a familiar feature of American life too, especially in the university world. When Professor Bret Weinstein objected to the call for white people to voluntarily leave the campus of Evergreen State University for a Day of Absence, he was run out of town by a mob. He did not have the proper authorization to object. Weinstein’s challenge to Evergreen students, that “one’s right to speak—or to be—must never be based on skin color,” was a challenge to the dominant narrative of America being a white supremacist nation. But once a false narrative has been enshrined within a petty bureaucratic culture, questioning the narrative or pointing out its absurdities is useless. Much like Gross, Weinstein was blackmailed into approving the action taken against him. When that was unsuccessful, the mob resorted to open oppression, much like Ballas did in seizing Gross’ job.

As Gross’ frustration builds, the play has become so repetitive that many in the audience are left with a similar sense of tiredness at the repetitive nature of the play, the dull, unfeeling bureaucratic set, and the absurdity of Gross’ circling round and round the stage as he dashes from one department to the next. Havel maintains suspense, however, by having the staff watcher be an ever-present character in the play. The staff watcher’s job is self-explanatory; he is charged with spying on all the bureaucrats. His obvious job serves as a contradiction to the absurdities of Ptydepe and the bureaucrats whose roles and speeches are twisted, awkward, and repetitive. The staff watcher’s job is a microcosm of Gross’ predicament as well: his menacing presence indicates to the audience that everyone knows his job is to uphold Ptydepe as the official language, regardless of how ridiculous it is. The staff watcher is the consequences of conformity personified. Gross ends his day out of his job and has failed to translate his memo.

Gross does find a reluctant secretary, Maria, who can translate his memo the next day. However, Maria does not possess the proper permit to translate Gross’ memo, as his continued presence at work is considered to be damaging. Maria serves as the foil to Gross and the system of Ptydepe. Her translation of Gross’ memo is a repudiation of “the automatism” of the bureau. By forgoing this willingness to live within Ptydepe’s byzantine lie, Maria refuses to allow the system to use her to perpetuate itself. Maria’s character transcends the suffocating Communist system. For doing so, her job is terminated. Ironically, Maria’s translation of Gross’ memo inspires the other Ptydepe learners and translators to give up on the language, while Gross regains his job from Ballas. Maria’s decision to shatter the bureau’s “world of appearances trying to pass for reality” forces Gross to eventually rule that all work will be conducted in the employee’s mother language. The play ends abruptly and rather humorously as the employees break for lunch.

Havel rightly saw the hilarity and darkness that this kind of conformity bred amongst the citizens of Soviet Czechoslovakia. With every citizen hiding their true selves and allowing weak-willed men like Ballas and Gross to perpetuate the system, there ultimately was no hope once the system was turned against Gross himself. That sounds an awful lot like modern America.

Roy Mathews is a Writer for Young Voices. He is a graduate of Bates College and a 2023 Claremont Institute Publius Fellow. His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Federalist, and the Boston Herald.

This article was originally published by Law & Liberty Exclusive and made available via RealClearWire.
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