Brian Friel’s Play Translation: How Communication Prevents Chaos

Brian Friel’s play Translations deals with the issues of the importance of language to an existing culture and to the forced re-creation of an already existing culture. The play explores the difficulties and impossibilities of trying to completely understand a language foreign to oneself and how those difficulties extend to other areas of social interaction which are necessary to the building of a civilization.

The play is set in the small Irish town of Baile Beag and concerns itself with the appearance of members of the British Army whose undertaking is to translate place names in the area from ancient Irish Gaelic to the King’s English. This clash of cultures which takes place in the play results in a series of misunderstandings and misinterpretations that serve to highlight the fact that language plays a central role in the development of society and civilization. The play seems to be saying that without a shared, common method of communication chaos will prevail and instability will rule the day.

Chaos in the form of language disruption is created from the start of the play as the arrival of the British Army takes place under a sort of covert operation which isn’t made entirely explicable to the inhabitants of the small town, forging yet another divide between the Irish and English in their ongoing battle for supremacy of the emerald isle. Royal Engineers have come from England to create a new Ordinance Survey map of the country, including the area surrounding Baile Beag.

The purpose of their expedition is not laid out in a completely and satisfyingly factual way for the people who are going to be affected by the changes to the map (Kearney, 91). As described by the character Owen, freely translating the words of the leader of the undertaking, the new map being created will “take the place of the agent-estate’s map so that from now on you will know exactly what is yours in law,” (Friel, 31).

His description of what will be taking place makes it seem like a rather benign remapping for the benefit of the locals. The true focus of the engineers’ mission, however, is to Anglicize the map of Ireland, turning it from an ancient Gaelic region to a modern English colony. In fact, the remapping was “part of a deliberate effort to wipe out Irish culture (and therefore Irish cohesiveness and power) by wiping out the Irish language” (Lojeck, 84). Owen’s unfaithful description of the job being done lulls the students into a sense that what is being done is in no way a military action.

Owen is called to the carpet for this by his brother, Manus, who clearly understands exactly what the soldier was saying. “It’s a bloody military operation” (Friel, 32), Manus tells his brother, wondering what exactly is wrong with the Irish place names that the English want to change. The not-completely-correct translation given by Owen inserts a divide between the students and the English invaders as they begin to live under the misunderstanding that what is going on is for their benefit.

Another theme explored in the play is the way in which members of a society living under a colonialist government find themselves forced into varying forms of alienation in order to deal with the gradual loss of their own system of civilization (Brown, 196). This is clearly represented in the ways in which many of the characters in the play withdraw or wish to withdraw in some way out of social interaction. For instance, there is Sarah, who has withdrawn into herself so deeply that even the simple act of saying her name out loud becomes an almost joyous occasion. One way to escape the imprisonment of colonial domination is, of course, to leave the place being dominated, and this form of alienation is dealt with in the character of Maire, who longs to emigrate from Ireland to America. She even wants desperately to learn English so that she can be accepted across the Atlantic Ocean.

Jimmy Jack escapes from the crushing imperialism by delving into ancient Roman and Greek mythologies. He is so far gone in his escape that he even believes he can marry a goddess (Brown, 196). All these characters long for a deliverance away from the hard facts of life under which they live. The dream of America is a longing for freedom from the oppression of the British empire that many thousands of Irish men and women found appealing. Maire would hardly be the first to think that a better future for herself would be found in the great experiment of America. Sarah has been called dumb and mute when clearly she is able to talk if she really wanted.

But Sarah is more than just alienated and she signifies something greater than just another character dealing with the insufficiencies of life. Sarah “stands for a people’s loss of tongue and name” (Smith, 399). Sarah’s sense of isolation is symbolic of the translation from Gaelic to English that is taking place in the world around her. Her silence is reflective of the silence of the Irish people as their culture is being raped and pillaged by the British. She cannot simply escape anymore into muteness anymore, she is caught in the tumult taking place between her Irish countrymen and the English invaders.

Translations is an appropriate name for the play in that a translation of something is not merely a rote renaming, but is in fact a reinterpretation of a word or words and that is exactly what the British soldiers and Owen are doing. They are creating something almost wholly new out of something that was old. In reinterpreting something, the hope is that there will still be an essence left of the original, though this may not always be the case. In this the British soldiers-except for Yolland-seem not to care; they are instead only interested in the complete Anglicization of place names and whether there is any Gaelic essence left is unimportant. The original names may contain intrinsic natures which cannot be translated. Therefore, the renaming-or translation-of the thing is not completely true; something has been left out of the mix (Deane, 107).

This lacking in translation reaches its climax in the play in the love scene between Maire and Yolland where it is the essence of what is being spoken which is important rather than the actual words. The feelings they share for each other can’t be successfully translated into either of the languages; their emotions transcend mere words. This hole in the fabric of translation reaches a symbolic nature in the fact that the place names being renamed have more to them than just the letters that make up their names. Feelings and history exist behind the names which can never be translated in a wholly successful way from the original to English. Something will literally be lost in the translation.

In his play, Friel examines the underlying importance of language in developing a civilization. Language clearly is of the utmost importance of establishing stability and allowing for the formation of a society. When that language is declared dead or dying and there is the substitution of another language, chaos will play a part. By the end of the play, disorder is in control. The barriers between the ability to express their love for each other has separated Yolland and Maire and with that Yolland goes missing. Afraid of being accused of being involved in Yolland’s disappearance, Manus leaves town. The British soldiers are now acting like soldiers instead of engineers and have laid down an edict that the town will be systematically razed unless the whereabouts of Yolland are addressed. Obviously, because of the war over language, things are breaking down significantly in Baile Beag, now called Ballybeg.

Friel has highlighted how the strain between a colonial imposition and the simple folk who are being colonized against their will results in the breakdown of order. He seems to be saying that if you mess around with established forms of communication you will have to face dire consequences. The British have taken seriously their effort to wipe out Irish culture and the result of their efforts has been-as it could not have been otherwise-complete rebellion by those they were wishing to dominate. The effort to Anglicize the Irish could only have resulted in a stubborn form of denial by the Irish and the British will find themselves having to deal with that stubbornness for time to come. The concept of turning the Irish into British subjects by making them read and speak English could only have resulted in hard feelings and the desire to rebel against the forced Anglicization of an entire country.

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