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.
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...
(The entire section is 1,463 words.)