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,...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

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.