Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 246
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 363
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 inextricably that he resides in a delusional state which, though charming in his blurring of myth and reality, denies him the opportunity for meaningful change and adaptation. Maire’s decision to flee the potato blight and learn English is portrayed as a logical step in this time of “modern progress,” but it is not passionately embraced by Friel. Captain Yolland’s affection for the Gaelic tongue and manners renders him an attractive figure in the play, though his implied death suggests that the barriers of language are not easily surmounted. Owen’s duplicitous translations of the English for the Irish invest him with an ambivalence which is itself a prison, as he discovers when he is forced to translate into Gaelic the potential violence to be exacted upon County Donegal by Captain Lancey. Hugh’s closing words to Owen sustain his notion that Gaelic myths invigorate a colonized world: “It is not the literal past, the ‘facts’ of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language.” Whether this balance can be maintained under the duress of invasion remains unresolved, and Hugh’s quotation from Vergil regarding the urbs antiqua (the ancient city) analogically bodes ill for Baile Beag, itself an urbs antiqua poised for a heroic fall.