Translations by Brian Friel

Translations (1980) is a three-act play by Irish playwright Brian Friel. Friel also wrote short stories and founded the Field Day Theatre Company.

The play is set in August 1883 and takes place in the fictional agricultural village of Baile Beag (or Small Town), an Irish-speaking community in County Donegal, Ireland. It is an isolated place where the residents have had little contact with life outside of their village.

A detachment of Royal Engineers come to the area as part of the first Ordnance Survey. In other words, they are making maps of the region. For the maps, instead of using the native Irish place names, the names of locations are being translated into English. The decision to use English instead of Irish seems to be a simple administrative decision; but the choice has more significant ramifications.

One of the main themes of the play is the challenges of communication. Friel shows how language, culture, and generation can all create barriers to effective communication. Brian Friel wrote the play in English and on stage, the actors speak in English to translate the dialogue for the audience. But it is implied that when the English- or Irish- speaking characters speak, they are speaking in their respective native tongues. The characters onstage are unable to understand each other if one is Irish and the other English. By choosing not to learn each other's languages, the Irish and English widen the cultural barrier that exists between them.

The play begins when Owen O'Donnell returns to his hometown after six years in Dublin. He is the younger son of Hugh O'Donnell, headmaster at the local hedge school. Hugh is an educated man and he teaches the local farm children using the Irish language. He knows that one day he will be forced to switch to English. He provides a basic education to the children who learn Latin and Greek in addition to Irish. Owen's brother Manus, who has a lame leg, teaches at the school with his father.

Owen is employed by the British army to work on the map survey of Ireland. His father and brother are not pleased by his choice of employer. Owen serves as a translator for his English colleagues so they can communicate with the Irish speaking villagers. He is joined by Captain Lancey, a cartographer, who is responsible for making the map. Their party also includes Lieutenant Yolland, an orthographer, whose is responsible for the text on the maps.

Owen works with Lieutenant Yolland to translate local place names into English. This involves anglicizing the names to make them easier to spell, pronounce, or understand in English. For example, Poll na gCaorach, which means "hole of the sheep" in Gaelic, becomes Poolkerry in English. One would think that his role inanglicizing his heritage would bother Owen, but it does not. Instead, it is the Englishman, Yolland, who is disturbed. He has fallen in love with Ireland and does not want to help destroy any part of Irish culture or language.

Lieutenant Yolland also falls in love with Máire, a local woman and the two kiss after a dance. Love blossoms between them, despite the language barrier. Owen's brother Manus had hoped to marry Máire and is angry when he learns about Máire's romance. He goes after Yolland with a stick but does not hurt him.

When Lieutenant Yolland disappears mysteriously, people try to figure out the cause. Has he been attacked or kidnapped by the Donnelly twins, who are part of the armed resistance to the English colonizers? A search party of English soldiers goes looking for the missing man. Threats are madethat if Yolland is not found within 24 hours, Captain Lancey will shoot all the local livestock. If 48 hours pass, the English soldiers will evict everyone from their homes and destroy the houses.

Meanwhile, Máire holds on to the hope that Yolland will return safe and sound. Manus, who is heartbroken that Máire loves the Englishman, leaves the village, even though his departure will make it look like he is guilty. Owen returns to his roots and joins the Irish resistance.

The play has an ambiguous ending. We never learn what happened to Lieutenant Yolland. We do not know what will happen to the other characters. In the final scene, Hugh, the father of Owen and Manus, is drunk. He fumbles through a recitation of the opening of Virgil's epic poem, Aeneid. The poem tells the story of a Trojan man, Aeneas, who became an ancestor of the Romans when he traveled to Italy. The Aeneid touches on both the conquest of others and how such conquests are not permanent. Hugh's memory of the poem is also inconsistent in his drunken state.

Directed by Ian Rickson
Music by Stephen Warbeck
Design by Rae Smith
Lighting by Neil Austin

Hugh Ciarán Hinds Owen Colin Morgan

Company/theatre: National Theatre
Run: 2018-05-22 to 2018-08


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