Translations is a three-act play written by Brian Friel set in the small town of Baile Beag, a fictional Donegal village in Ireland. The play deals with issues ranging from language and communication barriers to Irish history and cultural imperialism by the English. The clash of cultures coupled with misunderstanding and misinterpretations leads to chaos within the small town. The difficulty of trying to communicate without an effective method extends to show how difficult establishing a stable relationship is without a strong grip on language or an accurate interpretation.
The plot evolves around the appearance of members of the British Army, Captain Lancey and Lieutenant Yolland, whose purpose is to translate place names around town from Gaelic to English. They do not understand each other, there is no real communication between them, and so Owen translates the words of the British to the Irish townsmen. “A new map is being made of the whole country. (Lancey looks to Owen: is that all? Owen smiles reassuringly and indicates to proceed) (31).
” Owen does not seem to translate effectively as he simplifies what the Englishmen are saying in an attempt to protect his friends and also to keep his real duties a secret. Manus later questions Owen’s interpretation abilities and confronts him saying, “What sort of translation was that Owen? You weren’t saying what Lancey was saying! (32)” This seems to suggest to the reader that if the truths are known by the locals, chaos and hardship towards the Englishmen would follow. The Englishmen are there to create an ordinance map of Ireland so as to accurately apply taxes and eventually develop military tactics if needed.
The role of language plays a positive role for Owen because the act of interpreting leads to truths and perceptions being lost in translation. Throughout the play, Lieutenant Yolland becomes fonder of Ireland and the locals and, in particular, Maire whom he falls in love with. He is eager to communicate to the locals compared to Captain Lancey who prefers to keep things professional and distance himself from the Irish locals. When Yolland falls in love with Maire, they are somehow able to understand each other without words. They communicate and speak their language just to hear the voice of the other.
For instance, after the dance when they are alone together Yolland says, “Don’t stop – I know what you’re saying” (52). Or when Maire responds by saying, “Say anything at all. I love the sound of your speech” (50). Here, their language inhibits them to actually have a deep meaningful conversation that would allow them to truly understand each other. But for both Maire and Yolland, the essence of what is being spoken is much more important than the actual words because their emotions exceed words. The feelings they share for each other can’t be accurately translated and interpreted into either of the languages.
Sarah’s speech defect is symbolic in the play because she signifies the Irish people’s struggles and eventual loss of cultural and language. She constantly is ignored and only really says one line in the play, “My name is Sarah Johnny Sally” (28). Her muteness represents the Irish’s inability to escape and resist the anglicizing of the Gaelic names and culture. By translating the names, they are creating something wholly new out of something old in the hope that there will still be an essence left of the original. The real Gaelic names may contain great value and meaning, which will be lost in the eventual translation of the words.
In the hedge school, Hugh constantly reads and speaks the tales of the ancient languages of Greek and Latin, which are taught at the school. Towards the end, Hugh tells the tale of the springing of the Trojan blood to overthrow the Libyans’ by saying, “Yet in truth she discovered that a race was springing from Trojan blood to overthrow some day these Tyrian towers…for Lybia’s downfall…” (68). Both Greek and Latin are dead languages, which refers to the Anglicization and the loss of the Irish language and culture by the Englishmen. Translation is key to the effective communication when carrying over the meanings of one community to another.
In the play, Owen translates for the British soldiers the Gaelic place names into English. This process cannot take place without a certain loss of meaning during translation. Language and communication barriers eventually lead to the disappearance of Lieutenant Yolland, which in turn, leads to the Englishmen creating chaos around the small village to find him. The lack of communication through language barriers has lead to the breakdown of order. When the play comes to a close, it seems to suggest that the small Irish town of Baile Beag will be consumed by the Anglicization that is butchering the old culture.