Translations is a three-act play by Irish playwright Brian Friel written in 1980. It is set in Baile Beag (Ballybeg), a small village at the heart of 19th century agricultural Ireland. Friel has said that Translations is "a play about language and only about language", but it deals with a wide range of issues, stretching from language and communication to Irish history and cultural imperialism. Friel responds strongly to both political and language questions in modern-day
. He said that his
play "should have been written in Irish" but, despite this fact, he
crafted carefully the verbal action in English which makes the dynamics of the
play come alive, and brings its political questions into true focus. Northern Ireland
Baile Beag ("Smalltown") is a fictional village, created by Friel as a setting for several of his plays, although such a place name does exist: as a working class suburb of Waterford, a village in County Wicklow and a village in County Down (all in Ireland).
The play is set in the quiet community of Baile Beag (later anglicised to Ballybeg), in County Donegal, Ireland in 1833. Many of the inhabitants have little experience of the world outside the village. In spite of this, tales about Greek goddesses are as commonplace as those about the potato crops, and, besides Irish, Latin and Greek are spoken in the local hedge school. Friel uses language as a tool to highlight the problems of communication — lingual, cultural, and generational. In the world of the play, the characters, both Irish and English, "speak" their respective languages, but in actuality English is predominantly spoken. This allows the audience to understand all the languages, as if a translator were provided. However, onstage the characters cannot comprehend each other. This is due to lack of compromise from both parties, the English and Irish, to learn the others' language, a metaphor for the wider barrier that is between the two parties.
The action begins with Owen (mistakenly pronounced as Roland by his British counterparts), younger son of the alcoholic schoolmaster Hugh and brother to lame aspiring teacher Manus, returning home after six years away in Dublin. With him are Captain Lancey, a middle-aged, pragmatic cartographer, and Lieutenant Yolland, a young, idealistic and romantic orthographer, both working on the six-inch-to-the-mile map-survey of
for the Ordnance Survey. Owen acts as a translator and go-between for
the British and Irish. Ireland
Yolland and Owen work to translate local placenames into English for purposes of the map: Druim Dubh becomes Dromduff and Poll na gCaorach becomes Poolkerry. While Owen has no qualms about anglicising the names of places that form part of his heritage, Yolland, who has fallen in love with
unhappy with what he perceives as a destruction of Irish culture and language. Ireland
A love triangle between Yolland, Manus, and a local woman, Máire, complicates matters. Yolland and Máire manage to show their feelings for each other despite the fact that Yolland speaks only English and Máire only Irish. Manus, however, had been hoping to marry Máire, and is infuriated by their blossoming relationship. When he finds out about a kiss between the two he sets out to attack Yolland, but in the end cannot bring himself to do it.
Unfortunately, Yolland goes missing overnight (it is hinted that he has been attacked, or worse, by the elusive armed resistance in the form of the Donnelly twins), and Manus flees because his heart has been broken but it is made obvious that the English soldiers will see his disappearance as guilt. It is suggested that Manus will be killed as he is lame and the English will catch up with him. Máire is in denial about Yolland's disappearance and remains convinced that he will return unharmed. The British soldiers, forming a search party, rampage across Baile Beag, and Captain Lancey threatens first to shoot all livestock then to evict and destroy the houses if Yolland is not found in twenty-four hours. Owen then realizes what he should do and leaves to join the resistance. The play ends ambiguously, with the schoolmaster Hugh consoling himself by reciting the opening of the Aeneid, which tells of the impermanence of conquests. Unfortunately, Hugh's stumbling attempts at recitation are evidence that our memory is also impermanent.
Friel's play tells of the current struggle between
during this turbulent time. The play focuses mainly on (mis)communication and
language to tell of the desperate situation between these two countries with an
unsure and questionable outcome. Ireland
- The Englishmen in the play are a detachment of the Royal Engineers and function as part of the Ordnance Survey creating six-inch to the mile maps of all of Ireland. The characters of Captain Lancey and Lieutenant Yolland are fictionalized representations of two real soldiers who took part in the survey: Thomas Colby and William Yolland, but Thomas Larcom has also been identified as a possible model for the lieutenant, with Owen based on his teacher, the Irish linguist John O'Donovan.
- The character Máire contemplates emigration to America, reflecting the mass emigration of Irish people to America in the 19th century. The theme of emigration is key throughout the whole play, as Manus plans to leave after being offered a job in another hedge school.
- There are fearful references to potato blight, reminding the reader of the Great Famine of the 1840s, even though the play is set in 1833.
- Irish politician and hero Daniel O'Connell is mentioned and quoted as saying that Irish people should learn English and that the Irish language was a barrier to modern progress. Anglicisation of place names, including Baile Beag (the setting), is prominent in the dialogue, because it is Lieutenant Yolland's professional assignment.
- Characters Hugh and Jimmy remember how they marched to battle during the 1798 rebellion against the British influence in Ireland, only to march back home upon feeling homesick.