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According to Seamus Deane, Translations is a play about “the tragedy of English Imperialism”. How far would you agree with this statement in relation to both Translations and Heart of Darkness? INTRO Although the location, language and structure of Brian Friel’s Translations differs unmistakably from that of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the topic of colonisation remains central to both.
While the supposed sophistication of ‘civilised’ colonists is deconstructed in Conrad’s novella to reveal man’s common ‘darkness’, Friel’s play deals with the ways in which the consciousness of an entire culture is fractured by the transcription of one landscape (Gaelic, classical and traditional) for another (Anglo-Saxon, progressive and Imperialistic). 1 Friel uses the apparently passive plotting of an Ordnance Survey map to emphasise the loss of indigenous Irish tradition, social history and heritage felt by the natives of County Donegal in Ireland.
The translation of the place-names automatically eliminates the secrets buried within the original name; it distorts rather than restores the ontological nature of the place-name. Friel uses Owen to expose the Imperialist outlook on ‘standardisation’ during his battle with Yolland over “Tobair Vree”: He begins a long discourse on how Tobair Vree came to acquire its name, identifying a well that once existed nearby and has long since dried up, with “Vree” an erosion of the Irish “Brian”.
He then asks Yolland: “do we keep piety with a man long dead, long forgotten, his name eroded beyond recognition, whose trivial little story nobody in the parish remembers? ” Even as he attempts to demonstrate the invalidity of ‘Tobair Vree’ as rightful place-name through its seemingly illogical associations, Owen contradicts his own argument. The reality that Owen himself remembers the tale behind the name reinstates the fact that as insignificant as this narrative may be to him, it remains the carrier of history and memories, both public and private.
The name not only retells the anecdote which defined ‘Brian’s Well’, but also evokes Owen’s memories of his grandfather. The Irish place-names had developed into historical, cultural and social storehouses through their varied associations and values. The reduction of such ontological knowledge to an epistemological referent through colonial dispossession therefore reduces identity in “an eviction of sorts”. 2 The destructive force of English Imperialism is echoed in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and is revealed to us through Marlow’s portrayal of the Africans he encounters and the treatment they are subject to.
Forced to work under the conditions of European mechanical labour, the natives acquired expressions of the “deathlike indifference of unhappy savages” as they became reduced to “nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation”. The “civilised” colonists place the “savages” in chain gangs, enslaving them; eliminating their identities and breaking their spirit as a people. Throughout the entire novel we, the reader do not learn a single of the Africans’ names.
They are collectively labelled “niggers”, “creatures”, “rebels”, “savages”, “enemies”, “ants” and “criminals” by the colonisers. Even the individual natives Marlow speaks of remain unnamed, distant and alien. This is exposed through the portrayal of the helmsman; although Marlow shared with him “a kind of partnership”, he is nevertheless reduced and objectified as merely “an instrument”. Conrad discloses the dying identity of the Congo’s indigenous inhabitants through Marlow’s initial observation of the “blind, white flicker …
which died out slowly” in their “enormous and vacant” eyes. 3 Friel illustrates Imperialism’s effect on identity unequivocally in his play through the function of Sarah. “My name is Sarah”. Unable to speak her own name previously, Sarah’s identity finally emerges and begins to flower. Language is demonstrated to be the key to memory; identity is formulated through language. Through Sarah’s speech, a hidden landscape of consciousness has been unlocked by Manus, ready to be explored.
Sarah’s name is crucial in her self-definition and identity, just as with the names of places; her name encapsulates not only an identity, but also an origin and a lineage. Sarah blurts out “Sarah Johnny Sally” to Owen when asked her name, thus providing not only her Christian name but in addition those of her parents. Owen does not hesitate to reply “Of course! From Bun na hAbhann! ” and complete this marker of the clan. He responds furthermore with his own identity, parentage and place of origin: “I’m Owen – Owen Hugh Mor.
From Baile Beag. ” Irish names in Translations quickly become linked not only with identification of an entity, but also with the narrative history associated with that identity through lineage and society. While Friel insists that “the play is about language and only language”, the fact that Sarah is silenced again by the colonisers could represent the suppressive and inconsiderate treatment imposed on the Irish people by the English Imperialists, denying them their freedom of expression and thus their right to an identity.
4 Conrad mirrors Sarah’s silence and consequent absence of identity in Heart of Darkness through his creation of Kurtz’s mistress who although described as “superb, wild-eyed and magnificent” in “her deliberate progress”, reveals the suffering she has endured under colonial domination through her visibly “wild sorrow” and “fear of some struggling, half-shaped resolve”. Her “formidable silence” contrasts wholly with Kurtz’s “ability to talk”.
As a musician, politician, poet and humanitarian his “inextinguishable gift of noble and lofty expression” is equated with political power, thus giving Kurtz “a sense of real presence” which is evidently lacking amongst the native Africans who have become disassociated from their past, their origins and their control over the future. Their only capability in expressing themselves is through their appearance of “dumb pain”. Exactly like Friel’s natives, the original inhabitants of the Congo are “imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of… fact”.