Translations

by

Brian Friel

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Translations: Act 2, Scene 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
It is a few days later, and the “sappers” have proceeded with mapping much of the area. Owen is primarily doing Yolland’s job, which is to anglicize the names of everything from rocks to streams by approximating English sounds (“Cnoc Ban” would be “Knockban”) or directly translating the Irish to English (“Cnoc Ban” would be “Fair Hill”). The names are then put into a “Name-Book,” which is used for labeling everything in new anglicized maps.
This passage clarifies exactly how the process of re-naming Baile Beag works. It also reveals a mechanism of British colonialism, as English begins to literally reshape the Baile Beag landscape in the official record.
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It is a late afternoon on a hot day. On stage is a clothes line, as well as a large blank map on the floor, which Owen consults enthusiastically. Yolland sits on the floor, appearing completely at ease in his new surroundings. A bottle of poteen is nearby.
Yolland has fallen even more in love with the Irish and their culture. Poteen is a strong traditional Irish liquor often made from distilled potatoes.
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Owen points to a tiny beach and tries to get Yolland to pronounce the Irish properly as “Bun na hAbhann,” which means “mouth of the river.” Yolland says there is no equivalent English sound; Owen consults the church registry, which lists multiple names for the beach, each of which either refers to a different place or doesn’t capture the meaning of the Irish: Owenmore, Binhone, Banowen. Owen reflects that they must use a name that properly describes “tiny area of soggy, rocky, sandy ground where that little stream enters the sea” and arrives at Burnfoot.
This moment reveals the difficulty inherent to translation. “Burnfoot” is an attempt to capture the sound and sentiment of the original Irish yet is ultimately something quite different than “Bun na hAbhann.” Owen’s choice is not necessarily any more or less “correct” than a different translation; without a one-to-one correlation between all words in different languages, translation is a subjective process. 
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Yolland again mistakenly calls Owen “Roland” before revealing that Lancey thinks they are not working fast enough, since the sappers leave at the end of the week. Yolland proudly asserts that he stood up to Lancey, saying they can’t rename the country in a week.
The British continue to misname Owen, in effect denying him his Irish identity. Even so, this scene further establishes Yolland’s sympathy for the Irish and how that contrasts with the typical cultural imperialism that Lancey exhibits. Lancey clearly fails to appreciate the nuances of the Irish language, and as such, doesn’t understand the difficulty in translating Irish to English.
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Manus enters. When Yolland asks if he needs them to leave, Manus says no, but he responds in Irish (spoken on stage as English), much to Owen’s annoyance. Owen and Yolland discuss the name of a beach, and Yolland excitedly reveals he has been picking up some Irish words. He enthusiastically wishes he were fluent and offers to send Manus some oranges they got in from Dublin. Manus again responds in Irish. Owen scolds him, but Manus responds (again in Irish) that he thought Yolland wanted to learn, and he says that Owen should hide the bottle they are drinking from before their father arrives. He also says that while he can understand people like Lancey, people like Yolland confuse him.
Manus’ refusal to speak English in front of Yolland is a political act—a means to assert his Irish identity and express his resentment towards British colonialism. While Manus can grasp the narrow-minded prejudice of men like Lancey, Yolland’s love for the language he is destroying is a confusing character trait.
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After Manus leaves, Yolland asks Owen if his brother has been crippled since birth. Owen reveals that Hugh fell across Manus’ cradle when he was a baby, and that Manus has felt responsible for their father ever since. He lives on the odd shilling Hugh gives him, and as such he has no money to marry. Owen remarks that, unlike Manus, he got out of town in time. Yolland pours himself another drink, though Owen warns that the alcohol is strong.
Owen’s story reveals that, however unintentionally, Hugh has been holding Manus back since he was a baby. Manus has been caught in the stagnant world of Baile Beag. Owen, meanwhile, recognized the lack of opportunity and moved to Dublin—a place that not coincidentally contains many English speakers. This further associates English with progress and again underscores how colonialism functions by denying native people opportunities to succeed utilizing their own language and culture.
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As the two return to their work, Yolland reveals that a little girl spat at him yesterday. He asks Owen about the Donnelly twins, whom he says Lancey wants for questioning. Owen nonchalantly responds that the Donnelly twins are great fisherman and probably stole someone’s nets.
The little girl represents the growing Irish resentment towards the British colonizers and their mapping project. The subsequent mention of the Donnelly twins again foreshadows their implied involvement in anti-British activities and Yolland’s eventual disappearance.
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Owen is working on “Druim Dubh,” which means “Black Ridge.” Thus far, they have renamed every Dubh “Duff,” so he thinks they should continue for consistency, but is not sure if they should use “D-r-u-m” or “D-r-o-m.” Yolland asks about a house above their camping spot. Owen responds that it is the house of Maire Chatach, and that “Chatach” means “curly-haired.” Yolland says he often hears music coming from the house, and Owen suggests he stop by one evening. Yolland asks if Owen thinks he could live in Ireland, declaring it “heavenly.” Owen scoffs, responding that it’s “the first hot summer in fifty years,” and that Yolland could not handle the winter.
This scene further elaborates on the subjectivity and difficulty of translation. Yolland’s noticing of Maire foreshadows his love for her. The fact that Maire’s last name means curly-haired ties into the play’s theme regarding the connection between names and identity—“Chatach” is a literal marker of who Maire is. Owen begins to resent Yolland’s romanticization of Ireland.
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 Doalty rushes in looking for Manus. He asks Yolland how he is; Yolland attempts to thank Doalty for something, but Doalty says he cannot understand “a word” he is saying. He proceeds to tell Manus two men are asking for him, and they rush off. Yolland tells Owen that he was attempting to thank Doalty for cutting a pathway through the long grass outside his tent that morning. He proceeds to say that before coming to Ireland, he was supposed to have a job in Bombay but he missed the boat. He joined the army and was posted to Dublin, which sent him to Baile Beag—where he realizes he is much happier to be. Owen asks if he believes in fate.
Despite having learned a few words of Irish, Yolland still cannot communicate with the Baile Beag locals. Nevertheless, it appears his connection to the land is stronger than the confines of language. The men asking for Manus, it will soon be revealed, are offering him a job to start a new hedge school.
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Yolland says Lancey is similar to his own father in that he is meticulous in his dedication to his work. Yolland’s father was born the day the Bastille fell in 1789, and he believes that event shaped his life by granting him a sense of endless possibilities. Yolland, however, lacks his father’s energy. He tries to describe the feeling of arriving in Baile Beag to Owen, saying it was like entering into a “consciousness” that is “at its ease and with its own conviction and assurance.” Hearing Jimmy Jack and Hugh talk about the ancient Greeks as if they lived locally made Yolland feel like he could fit in in Baile Beag. Even so, he says that if he learned to speak Irish, he would still always be an outsider to the private “language of the tribe.”
Yolland seems unaware of the irony in his father’s story: Bastille Day marked a turning point in the French Revolution and is a celebration of French nationalism. Having a strong national identity, Yolland implies, is essential to feeling a sense of possibility—yet Yolland is denying that national identity from the Irish through the Ordnance Survey. Yolland also understands the limits of language in this moment, realizing that much of communication and mutual understanding occurs beyond the confines of a shared spoken language.
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Hugh enters in clothes “for the road,” with an air of energy and alertness almost to the point of self-parody. He asks for a “drop” of poteen and greets Yolland in Latin.  Hugh then translates his words to English, remarking that they sound “plebian” in this language.
Colonial narratives often paint the colonizers as “civilizing” natives; in this moment, however, Hugh asserts the English language is low class or common.
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Hugh continues to drink. He says he is going to see the local priest and then the builders of the new school to talk about his living accommodations there. Yolland says that he once lived close to a poet named William Wordsworth; Hugh responds that he is not familiar with him, seeing as the Irish “tend to overlook” British literature.
Hugh’s dismissal of Wordsworth again underscores his view regarding the apparent lowness of the English language. William Wordsworth was one of the most famous English Romantic poets, and his name would likely be familiar audiences watching the play—adding an element of comedy to this moment.
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Yolland tells Hugh how “Roland” (i.e. Owen) is teaching him Irish. He says again how remarkable Baile Beag is for conversing in Greek and Latin, and he remarks on the fascinating etymology of Irish place names. Hugh responds that Gaelic is “a rich language” and “a rich literature” that reveals the Irish to be spiritual people. An embarrassed Owen tells him to stop and asserts that Hugh does not know the way to the priest’s now that many place names have been changed: for example, Lis na Muc (the Fort of the Pigs) is now Swinefort.
Owen reveals that the mapping project has altered the once-familiar landscape of Baile Beag, resulting in a sense of loss and confusion for locals like Hugh. By erasing much of the historical meaning from the landscape, the new map displaces Irish identity, destroying context by which the Irish recognize and define themselves.
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Hugh ignores Owen and continues telling Yolland how rich the Irish language is, positing it as a response to the drudgery of their lives. He asks Owen for some money, asserting he will repay him with proceeds from the forthcoming publication of an elaborately-titled book about languages. Hugh tells Yolland that, even as he learns to speak Irish and to better connect with the locals, he must remember that words are only “signals” and “are not immortal”; what’s more, a society can get trapped in a language that “no longer matches that landscape of fact.”
Hugh believes the Irish language to be a product of Irish culture rather than its mirror image. This distance between a language and cultural complicates the notion that destroying a language completely erodes the culture that created it. Hugh also asserts that languages must evolve with culture in order for either to survive in an ever-changing world.
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After Hugh exits, Owen remarks that his father is pompous. Yolland, however, thinks he has a point: in creating a map of Ireland, he posits, they are taking part in an “eviction of sorts” and that “something is being eroded” in the process of standardizing place names. Owen grows frustrated with Yolland’s continued romanticizing of Ireland and tells the story of Tobair Vree: this is the name of a crossroads that comes from “tobair” (meaning “well”) and a corruption of the Irish name “Bhriain,” an old man who died in the well 150 years earlier. Owen only knows the story because his grandfather told him; the well is now dried up, and he doubts any others in the area know the real origin of the name—which has been “eroded beyond recognition.” As such, Owen feels that to hold onto the name is meaningless. Owen argues about what to put in the Name-Book, but Yolland insists they use “Tobair Vree,” asserting that that is what Owen—whom he calls Roland once again—really wants, too.
This conversation between Yolland and Owen reflects the debate at the core of Translations: that is, whether translation is a creative or destructive act, a means to increase mutual understanding or a process that invariably erodes meaning. Friel ultimately does not arrive at an answer, and both men in this moment make valid, complicated arguments. Regardless, Translations suggests that all culture was likely an erosion—or, perhaps, an evolution—of something that came before.
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Owen explodes at Yolland, shouting that his name is Owen, not Roland. Yolland is shocked, and the absurdity of the situation suddenly causes them to laugh. An elated Manus enters and says he has news; Owen asks him to speak English for Yolland, whom Manus refers to as “the colonist.” Manus has been offered a job to start another hedge school on Inis Meadhon, an island fifty miles south. Owen congratulations Manus and insists he and Yolland stay with him when they get to the island. Yolland makes a toast to Manus and holds out his hand; Manus takes it and they shake.
By taking back his name, Owen is reasserting his Irish identity. Manus continues to reveal resentment towards British colonialism in Ireland, but the two men appear to reach a sort of truce—one that will be abruptly broken soon when Yolland begins a romance with Maire.
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Maire arrives with a milk delivery. Manus tells her the news and attempts to thank her for something, but Maire interrupts him by handing him his milk, saying she will need the can she brought it in back. Manus goes upstairs to empty the can. Owen then reintroduces Maire and Yolland, acting as their translator as Maire speaks “Irish” (though the actors continue to speak in English). Maire says there is going to be a dance tomorrow night at Tobair Vree; Yolland gets excited upon hearing a familiar place name, though Owen asserts to Maire that Yolland has no idea what she is saying. Maire tells Owen to tell Yolland about the dance, and Manus returns with the empty milk can and offers to walk Maire home. Maire instead decides to have a drink with Owen and Yolland. A drunk Yolland joyously recites the Irish words he has learned and calls poteen “bloody marvelous.” At this cue, reel music swells and the stage goes to black.
Maire’s continued coldness towards Manus reflects the disintegration of their romantic relationship, even as Manus attempts to rekindle things with his announcement; it is clear that his new job is too little too late for Maire. Yolland and Maire’s romance, meanwhile, begins to blossom despite their inability to have a real conversation, suggesting that communication is possible even without a shared language. The fact that Maire rejects Manus’ offer to walk her home in favor of remaining with Yolland and Owen further reveals that she is choosing the Lieutenant over Manus. Yolland’s joy in this moment makes his later disappearance all the more tragic.
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