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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 209

At its heart, Brian Friel's Translations is a play about the erosion of a culture in the face of colonialism. Specifically, the play is about the erosion of Irish culture and language in the face of English colonial incursions and the translation of Irish place names into English. The theme of translation is an important one, as one might expect in a play called Translations; indeed, the translation of Irish place names into English becomes a symbol of colonial hegemony, with the emergence of English place names signifying colonial ownership not only of the landscape, but also the people who inhabit it.

While every scene in Friel's dense play is important, perhaps the most important moment is in act 2, scene 1, in which Yolland and Owen are busy trying to find a suitable way of translating the name of an insignificant parcel of land in the surrounding area. Try as they might, the two men can't find a good English name to replace the Irish one, as each English name they conceive seems to miss some important meaning conveyed in the original Irish. The "untranslatability" of language thus becomes a key theme throughout the play, gesturing toward an Irish cultural essence forever lost in the face of English colonial occupation.

The Play

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 701

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, counters,” which are not immortal.

In the second scene of this act, Maire and Yolland joyously flee a dance at Tobair Vree that same evening for a private interlude. While there are moments of intuitive conversation, in which each unknowingly anticipates the other’s words, frustration governs their futile attempts to understand each other. Maire attempts Latin and Yolland tries to raise his voice and enunciate slowly each word. However, their reciprocal affection draws them together as each names a village or area in Gaelic. The subsequent dialogue, though mutually unintelligible, is transcended by their common love.

Tragedy besets the community in act 3. The scene is a rainy day after the dance, and the mood of the hedge-school is one of disruption. Manus, who had been pledged to Maire, has packed and is prepared to leave Baile Beag after having discovered Yolland and Maire in their intimate encounter the night before. Manus’s departure troubles Owen because Captain Lancey will assume that Manus has played some part in Yolland’s disappearance. Lancey’s response to the people of Donegal has been to force Owen to translate his questions and threats of violence if Yolland, who has not been seen since the dance, is not found.

Maire’s arrival brings only more questions, and she recalls her last conversation with Yolland. Speaking in fractured Irish, Yolland had told Maire that he would see her “yesterday,” meaning “tomorrow.” More poignantly, Maire traces a map of England upon the same spot where Owen had previously placed his map of Ireland, and she utters the names of various English villages Yolland had mentioned to her.

The play enters its last moments with the intoxicated entrance of Hugh and Jimmy Jack; both have been at a wake for the baby who was christened just before the action of the play began. Hugh has been informed that the post of master at the new national school, which he had been promised in act 1, has been assigned to a schoolmaster/bacon-curer from County Cork. Hugh promises to teach English to Maire because he realizes that English is the new language of the tribe. Intermingled with this pragmatic acceptance is Jimmy Jack’s confession that he will be married, but not to any mortal: He will marry Pallas Athene, “flashing-eyed Athene,” so that he may contend with the loneliness of his existence. Though it is an illusionary marriage of myth and reality, his concern over marrying outside the tribe is a valid one for all the people of County Donegal, who find their “ancient city” conquered by English culture.

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 432

Translations is a fitting title for Brian Friel’s play, because it dramatically presents “translation” as a linguistic displacement of one culture by another. To “translate” languages is to carry over or bring across meaning from one culture to another in order to engender a connection or bridge between two entities. Applying this process to the political sphere generates the imperialism and conquest which the play depicts, and the playwright seeks to examine how cultural translation can impede communication just when it promotes quite the opposite goal of understanding. Owen’s earlier rendition of Captain Lancey’s order to triangulate a survey “to advance the interests of Ireland”—Owen translates it into a mere “map” rather than the military project it is—compromises his integrity as an Irishman and translates him into a traitor to his own people, as his brother Manus seems to imply. His second translation of Lancey’s threats of cattle massacre and wholesale eviction of the people because of Yolland’s disappearance is a more honest narrative, and it forces Owen to forsake the Anglicized place names and restore the Gaelic originals in order to convey precisely to the country folk Lancey’s words.

The play further dramatizes the irony of translation by having all the actors, even the Gaelic speakers of the hedge-school, speak English. The mistranslations and failed communication between Gaelic and English speakers are dramatically evident for the audience, which witnesses both the duplicity of the English project to control the Irish countryside and the tragic distance between Yolland and Maire. The touching scene between Maire and Yolland is made particularly poignant because the audience can hear their dialogue beginning to coalesce as each anticipates the other’s thoughts. No translation is needed for their scene, yet their ability to transcend linguistic barriers is a tenuous success, for Yolland’s disappearance follows shortly thereafter and shatters the veneer of British benevolence toward the Irish people. The subsequent threats of destruction and eviction are clearly military actions that underscore Ireland’s loss of autonomy, and the Anglicizing of Gaelic eponymy is a metaphorical reflection of that oppression.

Friel’s decision to scatter fragments of classical words and allusions throughout the play functions to accentuate linguistically the essence of Gaelic existence—its rootedness in the mythologies of the community. Hugh’s frequent prompts for etymological derivations are a reflection of the continuity of the entire language and its people. The closing allusion to Carthage suggests that Ireland, like Carthage, must surrender to a conquest which will leave the ruins of its language and culture for future translations.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 121

Sources for Further Study

Andrews, Elmer. The Art of Brian Friel: Neither Reality nor Dreams. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

Dantanus, Ulf. Brian Friel: The Growth of an Irish Dramatist. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1985.

Delaney, Paul, ed. Brian Friel in Conversation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.

Kearney, Richard. “Friel and the Politics of Language Play.” Massachusetts Review 28 (1987): 510-515.

Kearney, Richard. “Language Play: Brian Friel and Ireland’s Verbal Theatre.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review of Literature, Philosophy, and Science 72 (1983): 20-56.

Kerwin, William, ed. Brian Friel: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1997.

Peacock, Alan J. The Achievement of Brian Friel. Hyattsville, Md.: University Press, 1997.

Rollins, Ronald. “Friel’s Translations: The Ritual of Naming.” Canadian Journal of Irish Studies 11 (1985): 35-43.

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Critical Essays