While there are many themes at work in Brian Friel's superb Translations, two stand out in particular, and I've outlined them below:
Language as a vehicle of consciousness: Throughout the course of the play, we witness a slow, simmering anxiety beginning to surface about the English translations of the place names in and around Baile Beag. This process presents a potential problem for the Irish-speaking characters of the play (while all the dialogue is presented in English, the inhabitants of the small Irish town are meant to be speaking in Irish), who sense that the translation of Irish place names into English will result in a subsequent transformation of the way in which they think about and describe both themselves and their home. It's a poignant image of how private realities are always eroded during translation, and how the death of language is accordingly the extinction of a unique conception of the world.
English Colonization: The English are, of course, a continuous presence during the events of the play, although they're not always necessarily viewed by the Irish as antagonists. Indeed, the disruptive presence of the English gradually increases as the play progresses, and it is only at the end, when Yolland's disappearance sparks his comrades' anger, that we see them as potentially dangerous. In many ways, this insidious progression mirrors the gradual progression of the English presence in Ireland, as the colonization of the Irish occurred gradually over many centuries, rather than all at once.
Themes and Meanings
By setting the action in a hedge-school, threatened by the establishment of a national school which will conduct all classes in English only, Brian Friel creates a final redoubt for Gaelic culture and the revival of classical languages, which themselves had experienced a decline. Hugh draws just such a comparison between the classics and Irish for Captain Yolland by defining the essence of classical, and implicitly Gaelic, languages, in terms of their etymological and vibrant adherence to a principle innately spiritual (“We like to think we endure around truths immemorially posited”). Hugh’s suggestion that the opulence of the Gaelic language provides compensation for the material dearth of the country folk who speak it is the clearest exposition of Friel’s intent in the play.
As the play proceeds, Friel depicts a variety of responses to imminent cultural extinction. In the instance of Jimmy Jack, Gaelic and classical myths have merged so...
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