Opinion: retelling memories of the past is a way of constructing our identities in the present and of building a better future

By Lucía Pintado Gutiérrez and Alicia Castillo Villanueva, DCU

An interesting event happened in Smithfield in early July when a plaque commemorating a working class Irish man and a Spanish Civil War veteran was unveiled. Brigadista Bob Doyle joined the International Brigades in 1937 to fight for the Spanish Republic. He was subsequently captured and brought to a concentration camp near Burgos, a town in the centre of Spain.

Tributes to six Limerick men who volunteered to fight for the Republic, led by Frank Ryan from Elton, were paid in 2014. These commemorations, a celebration of Ireland's complex history, are now part of the so-called "sites of memory", in this case related to the Spanish Civil War.

The Irish, as we can see, are not unfamiliar with the Spanish conflict. They took part in the Civil War, whether volunteering for the International Brigades that supported the Republicans, or fighting for the Nationalist cause led by Franco. The memory of those Irishmen who fought in Spain remains in the national consciousness, with tributes to those who departed the island to fight with the International Brigades against Franco’s troops, and folk songs such as Christy Moore’s "Viva la Quince Brigada" (wrongly known as "La Quinta Brigada", which was never one of the International Brigades, a slip caused by the similarity between quince (15th) and quinta (5th)).

A live performance of "Viva la Quinta Brigada" by Christy Moore at Glasgow's Barrowlands

Culturally and politically, the Irish are fully aware of the importance of national and international collective memory. The memory that they claim embraces the right of remembrance of past triumphs, traumas and tribulations. We saw this clearly with the recent 1916 celebrations. The runaway success of the Atlas of the Irish Revolution has shown that Ireland too has an appetite for recovering the memory of past conflicts whose consequences still reverberate into the 21st century.

This year, Spain has been commemorating the 80th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. On March 28th 1939, General Francisco Franco entered Madrid to the applause of Mussolini and Hitler, who declared the end of "all enemies of Italy and Fascism" and "the final defeat of nation-destroying Bolshevism" respectively. However, there was not much to celebrate, as the end of the war also brought such political terms as liberal, democracy, Republican, socialist, anarchist, Catalan or Basque to an end and marked the start of a cruel dictatorship that lasted almost 40 years.

Since the end of the dictatorship in 1975, Spain has experienced many important historical events that include the transition to democracy (with the passing of the Amnesty Law and the new Constitution), the passing of the Law of Historical Memory and, more recently, the debate about whether Franco’s body should be exhumed from El Valle de los Caídos and transferred to a more ordinary grave, one detached from any type of homage or distinction. Sources close to Franco’s regime hid the extent of the repression for which it was responsible, and this is still an unresolved issue. New studies reveal that there were over 150,000 disappearances during the Civil War and under the dictatorship. 

From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News report by Michael Ronayne on Irish veterans who fought on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War meeting to mark the 50th anniversary of the event in 1986

The challenges of transmitting memory in translation are countless. Representing memory is a difficult endeavour and this difficulty is exacerbated when the memory crosses countries. But countless too are the possibilities that travelling memories offer. Countries cannot forget and neglect the counter-memory of conflicts. Ireland and Spain know this more than most.

The question about how past events affect us so powerfully in the present must consider both the domestic politics involved and how the politics of memory have developed in Europe over the past two decades. This is a period in which past crimes have exerted a greater influence on foreign relations and international politics.

In June 2019 the same city that surrendered to Franco’s troops eighty years ago became the Capital of Memory. Madrid hosted the biggest international conference on Memory Studies to date, attracting more than 1,300 experts who focused on conflicts including the Second War World, the Holocaust, Crimea, Cambodia, Rwanda, Latin America, Ireland and the Spanish Civil War. Contributions explored a variety of areas, including genocides, literary forms of remembering, memory practices in post-dictatorial societies, and the rise of memory laws. Re-telling the memory of the past is seen as a way of constructing our identities in the present and also of building a better future.

From RTÉ Radio 1's The History Show, a 2014 show to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Spanish Civil War

Memory does not remain still. It is a dynamic entity that changes as it travels. Novels, movies, research, exhibitions and new stories are all vehicles for memory to travel, not only across generations, but also across countries. The growth in the literature of memory in Spain has exploded since the 2000s and its translation is key to continuing a transformation of this retelling through time and space, and across social, linguistic and political boundaries.

Novels have great potential in recounting memory as they encapsulate multilayered and complex relationships. For these reasons, the translation of novels that deal with memory will have a central role in the circulation of a shared knowledge of the past. Every time a version of a narrative is retold or translated, broader narratives arise in a different landscape. Translating memory has the power to legitimise that part of Spanish history that remains to be told – that which went unheeded or which was silenced. Perhaps the same could be done with forgotten histories in Ireland like the country’s own civil war?

Despite the contingencies of memory the translator is part of this journey in time and geography. They are an extended guardian of the history, of the memory. Translators decode traces of memory in the representations and are responsible for transmitting them to future generations, with the hope that stories of memory will not be forgotten. 

The question about how past events affect us so powerfully must consider both the domestic politics involved and how the politics of memory have developed in Europe

Translation and memory studies is a new field that provides countless possibilities to learn more about the conflicts of a given country, and also to explore such conflicts in a new light, beyond national frontiers. The synergies between memory and translation open up new avenues not only in academic research, but also in our contemporary societies.

Dr Lucía Pintado Gutiérrez is Assistant Professor in Applied Linguistics and Chair of Applied Language and Translation Studies at DCUAlicia Castillo Villanueva is Assistant Professor in Spanish at DCU

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ