Brian Friel

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Translations Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Brian Friel's Translations. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Brian Friel

Brian Friel was born in Northern Ireland in 1929, the son of a primary school principal and a postmistress. Friel’s grandparents were illiterate Irish speakers and would serve as inspiration for the tension between rural and progressive Ireland throughout Friel’s work. After an unhappy stint at the National Seminary, Friel attended a teacher’s college in Belfast and taught for ten years. He transitioned to writing full time after publishing multiple short stories in The New Yorker. Friel was propelled to international success following the 1964 transfer of his play Philadelphia, Here I Come! to Broadway. A Northern Irish Catholic Nationalist, Friel participated in an Irish civil rights march in 1972 during which British soldiers infamously short and killed fourteen civilians; the event became known as Bloody Sunday. Apart from The Freedom of the City, however, Friel largely avoided direct reference to politics in his work, choosing instead to focus on a broader sense of isolation and disenfranchisement. In 1980 Friel co-founded the Field Day Theatre Company in Northern Ireland, with Translations being the group’s first production. Now considered one of the greatest playwrights and short story writers of all time, Friel earned multiple Tony, Olivier, and Drama Desk nominations and awards during his career, which spanned more than half a century. Friel was intensely private and rarely offered the public glimpses into his private life. He married Anne Morrison in 1954 and had five children—four daughters and one son. Friel died in 2015 in County Donegal at the age of 86.
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Historical Context of Translations

The British Ordnance Survey forming the backbone of Translation’s plot was a real project undertaken in mid-nineteenth century Ireland to Anglicize place names. The British government also began implementing national schools throughout Ireland in the 1830s, which were financed by the state, free to attend, and taught only in English. The spread of such schools directly contributed to the sharp decline in local hedge schools. Maire’s desire to move to America further reflects the mass migration of Irish immigrants to the United States at this time. The play also makes several references to potato blight, identified by a certain “sweet smell,” foreshadowing the Great Famine of 1845-1849. At the end of the play, Hugh reminisces about marching to Sligo in 1798, referencing the historic Irish Rebellion against British rule of the same year.

Other Books Related to Translations

Friel was a prolific writer whose career spanned more than fifty years. Notable works include Faith Healer and Philadelphia, Here I Come!, which ran for nine months on Broadway. A year before the premiere of Translations, Friel wrote one of his most well-known plays, Aristocrats, about the decline of a posh Irish family in County Donegal—the same Country in which Translations is set a century earlier. In 1990, Friel reinvigorated his career with the premiere of Dancing at Lughnasa, also set in the fictional town of Baile Beag, which won the Tony Award for Best Play and was adapted into a 1998 film starring Meryl Streep. With its focus on the search for identity, familial relationships, and the universality of everyday tragedies, Friel’s oeuvre has often been compared to that of famed Russian playwright and author Anton Chekhov. During his career, Friel adapted some of Chekhov’s work, including Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya. Friel maintained a friendship with poet and playwright Seamus Heaney, who was also from Northern Ireland and whose 1966 collection Death of a Naturalist is considered a seminal work of Irish poetry. In addition, many works from contemporary Irish playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh evoke the Irish language, history, and sense of isolation present in Translations, including McDonagh’s Connemara trilogy—consisting of The Lonesome West, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and A Skull in Connemara—as well as two plays set in the Aran Islands: The Cripple of Inishmaan and The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Lastly, Hugh closes Translations by reciting from Virgil’s Latin epic poem The Aeneid, which tells the story of the founding of Rome by refugees from the destroyed city of Troy.
Key Facts about Translations
  • Full Title: Translations
  • When Written: 1980
  • Where Written: Ireland
  • When Published: 1981 (premiered September 23, 1980)
  • Literary Period: Modern
  • Genre: Play
  • Setting: The fictional Gaelic-speaking town of Baile Beag in County Donegal, Ireland in 1833
  • Climax: Maire and Yolland kiss, causing Sarah to run off shouting for Manus
  • Antagonist: Captain Lancey, British colonialism

Extra Credit for Translations

The Original Cast. The original Irish cast of Translations included future film star Liam Neeson in the role of Doalty.

Partly Based on History. Lieutenant Yolland is a fictionalized version of actual British military surveyor William Yolland, who participated in the nineteenth-century Ordnance Survey of Ireland (but who, unlike in Friel’s play, did not disappear on site). Captain Lancey, meanwhile, is based on Thomas Frederick Colby, the director of the Ordnance Survey.