How does Friel emphasise cultural identity in Translations?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Brian Friel's play Translations treats the sensible topic of the Irish cultural identity under the scope of the British occupation of Ireland. Moreover, the play touches on delicate themes such as cultural subjugation, imperialism, the theft of national identity, the violence of colonial occupations and the superimposition of one nation over another.

The manner in which Friel emphasizes the topic of cultural identity is by showing how, in a very subtle way, the domineering nation imposes its own system of values, education, religion, and language either by force, or in a manner often too "civil". The play contends that this may be done this way, not out of respect for the people who have to submit, but simply to draw them into the "game" surreptitiously.

An example of this comes with the issue of language. When the Gaelic is replaced by English in the Irish public schools, some people are outraged, while others see this change as a welcome addition. Why not speak English? After all, many other countries do it!

Hence, the ease of transition from one language to another causes outrage in those who view it as a "matter of fact" process where the English, quite easily and normally, assume that the language of the Irish is no longer important. However, the faction of the population who agrees with the change seems to fall for it, and actually seems to appreciate the change as if it were a favor done to them.

“We should all be learning to speak English. That’s what my mother says. That’s what I say. That’s what Dan O’Connell said last month in Ennis. He said the sooner we all learn to speak English the better.”

However, notice how this seemingly-simple statement carries with it a ton of messages. First, it shows how the colonized nation assumes and accepts the fact that their cultural identity will, in fact, be lost; "the sooner we all learn, the better". Second, it demonstrates that there is a definite secession of cultural identity that will, indeed, occur in favor of the imperialists. Finally, it brings about the topic of pride; how much of it is lost in the process? How is dignity affected? What about the small man or woman who does not have a voice to protest?

In another example of the language separation, we see how the idea of something "standard", "normal", or "typical" will shift roles and will automatically be deemed "English". Therefore, all that was once Irish will now become "as a standard" in English. This is a clear diffusion of one language by another and the acceptance of the imperialist language over the dominated one as a matter of fact.

Manus: [..] What’s ‘incorrect’ about the place-names we have here?

Owen: Nothing at all. They’re just going to be standardized.

Manus: You mean into English?

Owen: Where there’s ambiguity, they’ll be Anglicized.

Therefore, the idea of one culture imposing over another transcends language and permeates every aspect of the colonial identity.

In all, Friel emphasizes cultural identity by illustrating the gradual decline of the cultural importance of the colonized nation: a nation that will be "no more". There will, instead, be a progressive extinction of rich, historical and cultural differences that will take away the sense of identity from both the bigger and the smaller social circles and will, leave behind much to be desired.