The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Translations opens in the sparsely furnished barn that functions as the hedge-school for the Gaelic-speaking folk of County Donegal. Hugh O’Donnell, the master of the school, arrives from christening a child and is confronted by his student, the strong-willed Maire Chatach, who informs him that “the old language is a barrier to modern progress.” One aspect of this “modern progress” is Hugh’s news that he has met Captain Lancey of the Royal Engineers, a cartographer assigned the task of mapping the territory in great detail and providing Anglicized names for the various villages and towns.

The appearance of Owen, Hugh’s youngest son, brings full circle the conflicts within this play: Owen is now in the employ of Captain Lancey and his assistant Lieutenant Yolland, for whom he translates the Irish the surveyors encounter, but he deliberately blunts the latent military threat of this survey. The first act ends with this confluence of ethnic concerns and languages, and the audience is reminded of the portentous sweet odor that some of the students mentioned to be permeating the countryside: The potato blight is fast approaching.

Act 2 begins in medias res, with Owen and Yolland proceeding with their task of converting each toponymy (such as “Cnoc Ban”) into an Anglicized form (“Knockban”). Owen assiduously studies the Name-Book, church registry, and other reference books with the large map before him, but Yolland daydreams—“he is at home now.” Attempting to make Yolland feel part of the “tribe,” Owen tersely tells Yolland that these people can be “decoded.” Owen’s father is pragmatic and informs Yolland that Gaelic words are but “signals,...

(The entire section is 701 words.)