How does Brian Friel explore colonization in Translations?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Brian Friel explores colonization by addressing the physical, institutional, and mental processes that such domination encompasses. While the British forces are expanding throughout Ireland, they are changing the landscape by renaming all the places. Each location in the country will be transformed—not only on maps, but in street signs and other physical markers that will indicate the tangible reality of each place.

The school as an institution is a crucial marker of all three aspects of colonization. Building a new building, staffing it with new teachers, providing a national curriculum, and making English the language of instruction are all related components of building "hegemony"—social and political control that is so total that people do not even notice it.

The character of Owen embodies the contradictions of physical and mental colonization. He submits his entire body and mind to the British by becoming a soldier. Learning new behaviors and comportment, wearing a uniform, and positioning himself in opposition to his countrymen requires him to think of himself primarily as a soldier and only secondarily as an Irishman. Realizing the trap in which he is caught, Owen responds by providing false information through inaccurate translations, in effect becoming a double agent for the Irish cause.

Owen had previously “escaped” to England and returns now in service to the British, who need him to help remap Ireland because they do not speak Irish. The British never get his name right and call him Roland. Initially pleased to have avoided his brother’s fate and to be earning a good salary, he is finally appalled by the consequences of the process of which he has been a part.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Friel's Translations takes place in Ireland during the 1830s, when the country was under British control. Key to the play is the Ordnance Survey, which marked a renewed British interest in Ireland. Friel uses this as a backdrop for his explorations on colonialism.

Irish resentment towards the British occupation of their country is seen early and often throughout the play. For example, Manus speaks only in Irish in front of Lancey and Yolland. Still, most of the British see the Ordnance Survey as something the Irish should be happy about. They think it will help the Irish people if they only let it.

Translations is important because it shows how colonization isn't just the use of violence and force to oppress a people. Instead, through the events in the play, Friel shows that colonization also takes the shape of cultural destruction. Perhaps more cruel than violence is the fact that the colonizers force the Irish to assimilate into British culture in order to find success. This is a theme most often explored through the Irish language and British attempts to obliterate it. For example, the British open a series of national schools that only teach in English.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Colonization is one of the primary themes in Brian Friel's Translations. It is manifest in a variety of ways, although Friel explores the topic in two primary modes: 1) the physical presence of the soldiers facilitating the Ordnance Survey, and 2) the translation of the Irish language into English.

The physical presence of the soldiers in Baile Beag is Friel's most obvious exploration of colonization. While the expedition headed by Captain Lancey is only interested in mapping the region, it's still a subtle form of colonization. The play takes place in 1833, well after the Act of Union, a legal measure passed in 1800 that cemented England's political control over Ireland. As such, though the soldiers are peaceful enough, their presence is a sign that England is extending its reach beyond the already Anglicized regions around Dublin and seeking to exert more control over the Gaelic frontier of the island. As such, the soldiers represent the initial wave in an impending invasion. 

The translation of Irish into English is also an act of colonization. In many ways, the translation of a language always loses something; some kind of important meaning always gets "lost in translation" because each language represents a unique way of interpreting the world. As such, when Lancey and his men translate Irish into English, they are effectively replacing an inherently Irish worldview with an English worldview. As such, though the act of translation does not seem terribly sinister at first, it is effectively a colonization effort attempting to extinguish the native Irish psyche. 

 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team