Written in 1980, Translations is a play covering quite a wide variety of social and political issues concerning the time and place it is set in. Friel had created a fictional village, Baile Beag, which he used as a setting in some other of his plays as well. The play, therefore, takes place in 1833, when some English representatives arrive in the Irish village of Baile Baeg in order to carry out the project of translating all the Irish place names into English.
There are a lot of characters in the play and most of them are introduced to the audience from the very first scene, which takes place in a hedgeschool where only Gaelic, Ancient Greek and Latin is taught. Nobody speaks English there apart from Hugh, the headmaster, and one of his sons, Owen, who serves as a mediator between the Irish and the English people, translating (and sometimes deliberately mistranslating) from one language to the other and helping in the act of translating the place names as well.
As expected, the Irish people want to retain their own language and culture and they believe that English will corrupt and hinder this endeavour of theirs. The students that attend the hedgeschool (whose ages vary) have only received a classical education and they are divided between those who think learning English merely aids the colonizers’ purpose and those who yearn to learn it as they think their future depends on it.
The strongest part of this play, apart from the intelligent plot, is certainly its characters. Each character is so very different from the others, and I especially liked how Friel wanted to divert from the stereotypical depictions of the two national groups and added so many layers to his characters. Of course, initially, there is the contradiction between the well-read and educated Gaelic people and the rude and ignorant English soldiers who care only about completing their expedition, no matter the cost or the harm they may cause.
However, even among the English soldiers, there is a good-hearted man, Yolland, who seems to be fascinated with the Gaelic culture and people and feels guilty for participating in this expedition in the first place. As he describes it in the play, this brutal change of language and imposition of the English language and culture on Ireland is like “an eviction of sorts”. Yolland falls in love with Maire, one of the Irish hedgeschool students, and he admits he would very much like to learn Irish and stay there with her.
Things get more complicated, since Maire belongs to those who support English and this change, and she wants to immigrate to America some time in the future. One of the funniest and saddest scenes at the same time in the play is the one Maire and Yolland try to talk to each other and communicate their love. None speaks the other’s language and their efforts to try and make the other party understand evokes a mix of contradicting feelings to the audience. They say love conquers all, but is that really applicable in reality?
Headmaster Hugh’s other son, Manus, belongs to those who strive to maintain the integrity of the Gaelic culture, which they feel so proud of and want to protect at any cost. He is in love with Maire as well, and her affection for the English soldier gives him an additional reason to desire the departure of the English. Another very interesting character, presented at the beginning of the play as well is Sarah. She is dumb, unable to speak, and the play actually opens with the scene of Manus trying to teach her how to pronounce her name. Some have seen relations between the character of Sarah and the mythical figure of Cathleen Ni Houlihan, which is an important emblem of the Irish culture. Sarah is identified with Cathleen, and her silence may be explained as Ireland being silenced by the British colonizers’ imposition.
Despite the play’s tackling so many cultural, sociopolitical and national issues, Friel has stated that he intended for Translations to be “a play about language and only about language”. And, indeed, at the end of the day, language is what conquers everything in the play. Owen, while helping the British people translate the Irish place names, is being called ‘Roland’ by them; a mishearing of his name he never really bothered to correct. So, the importance of naming, whether it concerns place names or people is also a very important theme.
It is really interesting how the Irish people in the play are supposed to speak Gaelic and be unable to communicate with the English soldiers, yet the play is all written and performed in English. Perhaps that was Friel’s way of declaring that most of the Irish people of today are so detached from their Gaelic past that they wouldn’t be able to understand what is being said otherwise. Or perhaps he wanted to show that Irish people have embraced the English language and made it theirs; it’s not the language of the colonizers anymore, a foreign languge, but one that now constitutes their present.
Translations is a play with so many layers and symbols. The rich characters that make up Friel’s world add beautifully to the very well-constructed story. It touches on such a wide variety of issues, from identity and history to language and culture, that it is impossible to find yourself being bored. I really loved reading this play and I think it would be so much more powerful on stage. I immensely enjoyed Friel’s witty writing, since I think he presented a very fresh perspective on the Irish culture and its evolution and I’ll definitely seek his other works in the future.