Hamilton, the Broadway musical that has become a force in itself, has also become a force for me lately. The hip-hop inspired musical about the “bastard, orphan, son of a whore” who became America’s “10 dollar founding father” has broken fertile ground on Broadway and opened it to new directions and a new future inspired by a fresh genre of music that easily translates itself into storytelling.
While the lyrics pay homage to musicals past, invoking both South Pacific and The Pirates of Penzance early on, the show clearly sets its own course from the beginning, with people of color portraying the stark white founding fathers of the United States. Perhaps by design, it also confronts some difficulties in translation. How do black actors portray slave owners? How can rap music be sold to an upper class, mostly white population? Can Americans accept the son of a Puerto Rican immigrant playing the first Secretary of the Treasury, even though the man himself was an immigrant from the Caribbean?
One section in particular has recently caught my eye (and ear). Early on, the group of patriots who will ultimately help overthrow the British introduce themselves over shots at a New York City pub. One of them, the Marquis de Lafayette (himself both an immigrant and instrumental in the patriot victory) declares in broken English:
“Oui oui, mon ami, je m’apelle Lafayette
The Lancelot of the revolutionary set
I came from afar just to say ‘bonsoir,’
Tell the King ‘casse toi’
Who’s the best? C’est moi”
Which roughly translates to:
“Yes yes, my friend, my name is Lafayette,
The Lancelot of the revolutionary set
I came from afar just to say ‘good evening,’
Tell the King ‘fuck you.’
Who’s the best? It’s me.”
It’s not the same when translated, is it?
At the same time, one of my favorite podcasts, “Stuff you Missed in History Class,” recently reported about a pair of human figures who were found embracing just before they died. Originally, they were assumed to be women. Recent evidence has proven them to be men, which inspired speculation that they must of been gay. Oddly, when they were thought to be women, no one assumed homosexuality, but once they were shown to be males, modern sexuality expectations have been thrust upon them. The modern story says: Why would men hug each other unless they were gay?
The truth is we don’t know. We translate the things we see through our modern eyes and filter past evidence through our current understanding. And just like the translation of Hamilton’s French lyrics conveys their literal meaning devoid of heart, attempting to explain why these two men were embracing at the end of their lives can never quite complete a fully contextualized understanding of who they were or why they were so close.
As Pagans, we see other difficulties in translation. Unless you are immersed in Pagan practice, it can be challenging to explain your spiritual beliefs to others. Especially in these days of social media, that can lead us to existing within our self-made bubbles. If we only talk to people who understand us, then it will be easier to discuss our practice.
And yet, if we stay within our bubbles, we erect a barrier between ourselves and the outside world, making us more isolated and more difficult to understand. We move more toward being the misunderstood men embracing each other than any kind of useful movement or world religion. We become only vaguely translated through the eyes of others, our true hearts obscured, like trying to translate Lafayette’s rhymes directly into English.
Through his interactions with the American revolutionaries in Act 1, Lafayette’s English steadily improves. By the end of the war, he raps in a fast and furious style because he has learned to understand his host culture and it has accepted him. With exposure, we can grow and change. Isolated, we become marginalized. Listen to each other. Form bonds. Try to see from others’ points of view. Notice your own filters and attack them. The truth lies beneath, often lost in translation.