Widely regarded as playwright Brian Friel’s masterpiece, Translations takes place in mid-nineteenth century colonial Ireland. British soldiers have arrived in the fictional Irish-speaking town of Baile Beag to complete the country’s first Ordnance Survey. This process, which requires translating Gaelic place names into English, sets the context for Friel’s multi-layered meditation on language as a tool for both liberation and oppression. Above all, as the title suggests, the play explores what the act of translation—carrying meaning from one language to another—actually entails. The difficulty and frequent impossibility of such a process reveals all translation to be a form of interpretation, an attempt to signal toward meaning that always reflects the translator in some way.
The biggest example of translation is the play itself, which is written entirely in English. Translations requires viewers to accept that some characters are speaking “Irish” even as the audience hears (or reads) English. While Friel has noted that this is in part borne of necessity—few would be able to understand a play written in Irish—this theatrical conceit also allows the audience to clearly identify the difference between translations and original speech. This is apparent early in the play when Owen, a bilingual local who has come home after spending six years in Dublin, acts as a translator during discussions between the British officers Captain Lancey and Lieutenant Yolland and the residents of Baile Beag. As Lancey explains the rationale behind the British Ordnance Survey, Owen simplifies Lancey’s stilted, grandiose speech, taking care to make certain points more palatable to an Irish audience wary of colonial intrusion. For example, Lancey says, “His Majesty’s government has ordered the first ever comprehensive survey of this entire country — a general triangulation which will embrace detailed hydrographic and topographic information and which will be executed to a scale of six inches to the English mile.” Owen relates this as, “A new map is being made of the whole country.” This moment creates a sense of comedic irony as Lancey looks at Owen in confusion at the abrupt rendering of Lancey’s lengthy address. Owen’s translation is not necessarily inaccurate, but it does reveal his desire to assuage residents’ concerns and, as such, underscores the power of the translator to present information however he sees fit.
Friel further explores this sense of a translator’s intention through Owen’s work with Yolland, whom he helps render Baile Beag’s map points into English either by approximating English sounds (“Cnoc Ban” would become “Knockban”) or directly translating the Irish to English (“Cnoc Ban” would become “Fair Hill”). Owen delves into the etymological and apocryphal history of Irish words in an effort to find their English equivalent, only to find that this often does not, or cannot, exist.
In one illustrative moment, Owen points to a tiny beach known in Irish as Bun na hAbhann. “Bun is the Irish word for bottom,” he tells Yolland, “And Abha means river. So it’s literally the mouth of the river.” Yolland responds that there is no equivalent English sound, causing Owen to reflect on their goal “to denominate and at the same time describe that tiny area of soggy, rocky, sandy ground where that little stream enters the sea, an area known locally as Bun na hAbhann.” Owen arrives at a solution with “Burnfoot”—a word that in many ways reflects the sound and sentiment of the original yet is ultimately something quite different. It is not possible to say whether this choice is more or less “correct” than a different translation. Because there often is not a one-to-one correlation between words in different languages, Friel suggests that translation is always an inherently subjective process.
The subjectivity of translation is complicated by the fact that Translations presents words as dependent upon their context. Hugh, Owen’s father and the local hedge school master, calls words merely “signals” in the sense that they point to meaning rather than contain it within themselves. This can be seen with the character of Sarah, a waif-like woman with a severe speech impediment who communicates primarily through gestures and grunts. In Act One, these attempts at communication are perfectly understood by Manus, Owen’s elder brother. Take the following exchange that occurs after Manus wonders why Hugh is late to class (notably, Friel writes out Sarah’s moments of mime as if they were an actor’s lines, underscoring the fact that she is “speaking” despite her lack of verbal language):
She mimes rocking a baby.
Manus: Yes, I know he's at the christening; but it doesn't take them all day to put a name on a baby. does it?
Sarah mimes pouring drinks and tossing them back quickly.
You may be sure. Which pub?
No. Further away.
Sarah makes the exact same gesture to Owen towards the end of Act Three, but now its meaning has shifted entirely. She is saying not that Hugh is at a christening, but rather a wake:
Owen: I suppose Father knows. Where is he anyhow?
Sarah mimes rocking a baby.
Owen: I don't understand — where?
Sarah repeats the mime and wipes away tears. Owen is still puzzled.
The same “language” in a different context has an entirely different meaning. Without knowledge of that context—without knowing what Sarah is signaling towards—Owen has no idea what Sarah is saying and is unable to translate her.
Friel thus suggests that not only is all translation inherently subjective, but genuine translation is, in fact, impossible: to pluck a word from its surrounding context is to rob it of what it once signaled towards, and, as such, to rob it of meaning. The words that Owen and Yolland insert into their “Name-Book” to denote locations on the Irish landscape represent not a carrying over of the Irish past into an English map but the development of an entirely different nomenclature. Translation, then, is both an act of destruction and creation, a process that inherently alters meaning in the name of moving closer to mutual understanding. Though concerned with morality and consequences of such an act, Friel’s play ultimately refuses to offer any easy answers; instead, it revels in dissecting the mystery and paradox of human language.
All Translation Is Interpretation ThemeTracker
All Translation Is Interpretation Quotes in Translations
Maire: That's the height of my Latin. Fit me better if I had even that much English.
Jimmy: English? I thought you had some English?
Maire: Three words. Wait — there was a spake I used to have off by heart. What's this it was?
Her accent is strange because she is speaking a foreign language and because she does not understand what she is saying.
“In Norfolk we besport ourselves around the maypoll.” What about that!
Lancey: His Majesty's government has ordered the first ever comprehensive survey of this entire country — a general triangulation which will embrace detailed hydrographic and topographic information and which will be executed to a scale of six inches to the English mile.
Hugh: (pouring a drink) Excellent - excellent.
Lancey looks at Owen.
Owen: A new map is being made of the whole country.
Lancey looks to Owen: Is that all? Owen smiles reassuringly and indicates to proceed.
Owen: Bun is the Irish word for bottom. And Abha means river. So it's literally the mouth of the river.
Yolland: Let’s leave it alone. There's no English equivalent for a sound like that.
Owen: What is it called in the church registry?
Only now does Yolland open his eyes.
Yolland: Let's see ... Banowen.
Owen: That's wrong. (Consults text.) The list of freeholders calls it Owenmore — that's completely wrong: Owenmore’s the big river at the west end of the parish. […] (at map) Back to first principles. What are we trying to do?
Yolland: Good question.
Owen: We are trying to denominate and at the same time describe that tiny area of soggy, rocky, sandy ground where that little stream enters the sea, an area known locally as Bun na hAbhann… Burnfoot! What about Burnfoot?
Owen: Do you know where the priest lives?
Hugh: At Lis na Muc, over near...
Owen: No, he doesn't. Lis na Muc, the Fort of the Pigs, has become Swinefort. (Now turning the pages of the Name-Book - a page per name.) And to get to Swinefort you pass through Greencastle and Fair Head and Strandhill and Gort and Vhiteplains. And the new school isn't at Poll na gCaorach - it's at Sheepsrock. Will you be able to find your way?
I understand your sense of exclusion, of being cut off from a life here; and I trust you will find access to us with my son's help. But remember that words are signals, counters. They are not immortal. And it can happen — to use an image you'll understand — it can happen that a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of… fact.
Owen: What is happening?
Yolland: I'm not sure. But I'm concerned about my part in it. It's an eviction of sorts.
Owen: We're making a six-inch map of the country. Is there something sinister in that?
Yolland: Not in ...
Owen: And we're taking place-names that are riddled with confusion and ...
Yolland: Who's confused? Are the people confused?
Owen: … and we're standardising those names as accurately and as sensitively as we can.
Yolland: Something is being eroded.
Manus: (again close to tears) But when I saw him standing there at the side of the road - smiling - and her face buried in his shoulder - I couldn't even go close to them. I just shouted something stupid - something like, 'You're a bastard, Yolland.' If I'd even said it in English... 'cos he kept saying 'Sorry-sorry?' The wrong gesture in the wrong language.