Rhythm and depth: The use of Polish in 'Ironbound'
Dialog in a script is the groundwork for most plays’ plot line; acting, directing, scene/setting, etc. completes the story and creates the whole production. With dialog being the basis of the plot for these plays, what happens when some of that dialog is in another language, perhaps, even, in a language that most of the audience may not be familiar with? Does the foreign language hinder the understanding of the plot? Is a translation needed? Does the foreign language enhance the play in anyway? In Martyna Majok’s play Ironbound, characters Darja and Maks, Polish immigrants, speak in broken accented English, but also with choice words and phrases in Polish at certain points in the script. Majok’s intelligent and thoughtful placement and use of the Polish language does not disturb the progress or understanding of the play’s plot and themes, and for this reason, does not need to be translated. Her use of Polish enhances the play by adding depth and background to Darja and Maks while also adding texture, rhythm, and cadence to the characters’ speech.
Most of the dialog in Ironbound is in English, but at certain points, choice words and phrases are in Polish. When the characters speak in Polish the plot isn’t disturbed, even though the words or phrases aren’t translated for the audience. This is because the amount of Polish in the play is sparse and the context clues surrounding the foreign language is enough for the audience to understand what the characters mean. On page 19, Maks begins to speak in Polish to Darja, who cuts him off and admonishes him for not speaking English.
MAKS. It’s, no, this it’s not for you, you stole this.
DARJA. So, okay, I give this back. After tonight.
MAKS. No, Darju, ty nie rozumiez—
MAKS. (Dismissal.) Ah.
DARJA. You will never go no place you don’t speak English.
Maks’ Polish is never translated, but since it’s only one line, cut off, and isn’t meaningful to the progression of the story line, the plot isn’t hindered. What is left unsaid (and untranslated) isn’t what’s important, instead it is the tension between the characters and the showcase of their relationship unraveling which is important. Polish is used just enough for the audience not to lose tract and still give depth and background to characters: Darja and Maks.
Majok’s characters also switch between speaking English and Polish in casual conversation. On page 21, Maks sings a Polish blues song to Darja and improvises in English towards the end.
MAKS. (singing) Czerwony jak cegta—
DARJA. (This always happens) Okay.
MAKS. (singing) Muszę mieć, // muszę ją mieć—
DARJA. Yeah okay.
MAKS. Czerwony jak cegta,
Rozgrzany jak piec,
Fuck this bus,
Oh yeeeeaaaaahhhh, fuck this bus.
The technique of Maks transferring from Polish to English at the end of the song as he improvises is creative and resourceful because it’s not what he’s saying that’s important, but rather what he’s doing and how he’s feeling. This scene is meant to showcase Maks’ personality as funny and laid back as well as Darja’s attitude towards Marks’ personality now that she’s pregnant. These implications are what propel the story forward, not necessarily the actual Polish words the characters are saying. Yet, the use of the foreign language also brings texture and rhythm to the cadence of the dialog. It’s interesting to listen to the characters switch between the two languages while following along with the plot and themes of the story.
At the beginning of the play, Darja admonishes Maks for speaking in Polish, insisting that he will have trouble being successful in America if he doesn’t speak English well. For most of the play, Darja refrains from speaking Polish until page 46 when she leaves a message for her son Aleks.
DARJA. Halo, kochanie. Is me. Your mom.
What she is saying in Polish can be deduced from surrounding context clues of making a phone call to her son: She’s giving a salutation and term of endearment and that’s all the audience needs to know—no translation needed. This offers depth and background to Darja, but also to her son Aleks, who never appears on stage. On page 58, Darja speaks in Polish as she calls after Maks when he leaves to Chicago on a bus.
(Maks and Darja quickly and achingly say goodbye without words.)
There is no time.
(Maks runs after the bus.)
(Maks is gone. Darja watches him leaving. Darja watches Maks in the bus, leaving forever.)
Nie idź! Proszę cię. Ja nie mogę. Nie mogę sama. Sama nie mogę. Kochanie…
Although chronologically this scene takes place before most of the events in the play, Majok mindfully and tactfully placed the scene towards the end. This placement creates symmetry in the dialog, juxtaposed to Maks in the second scene when he speaks Polish and Darja refuses to. Darja also uses the word kochanie, previously deciphered as a term of endearment. She uses the same word for her first love/husband, Maks, and for her son, Aleks, adding texture, depth, and symmetry to the dialog and characters.
Majok successfully uses the foreign language Polish in her play Ironbound sparingly and without translation to add depth and background to characters Darja, Maks, and subsequently Aleks. Darja and Maks switch from broken accented English to Polish with ease in a way that is interesting to listen to, giving rhythm and texture to the cadence of the characters’ speech. Majok’s choice of placement for Polish is also successful in creating symmetry and deeper layers of meaning and understanding for the characters and themes of the story.
Majok, Martyna. Ironnbound. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 2016.