As with much of Friel’s work, the shifting political and cultural landscape of Ireland lies at the heart of Translations. The play takes place in 1833, a time when all of Ireland was under British control and had been for hundreds of years. The Ordnance Survey represents a moment of increased British interest in the island, and Friel uses this turning point in history to explore the mechanisms and effects of colonization on a small community. Colonization in Translations is ultimately presented as an oppressive, violent effort that robs individuals of their cultural identity and inserts another in its place.
Resentment towards British influence is established early in the play when Doalty, a lively twenty-something and another one of Hugh’s students, brags about repeatedly moving the Red Coats’ surveyor poles around to confuse them and assert “a presence”—that is, to assert that the Irish community in Baile Beag is not going anywhere. Manus similarly does not conceal his contempt for the British, speaking only Irish in front of Lancey and Yolland. When Owen asks his brother to “speak in English,” Manus replies, “For the benefit of the colonist?” Both Doalty and Owen’s actions are deeply political—an assertion of Irish identity and refusal to bow to the “colonizer.”
Lancey, meanwhile, initially attempts to present the Ordnance Survey as a largely benevolent project, a means to provide the military with better information about Ireland and for taxation purposes. In his first meeting with Baile Beag residents, he even calls the British soldiers’ presence “proof of the disposition of this government to advance the interests of Ireland.” Upon Yolland’s disappearance in Act Three, however, Lancey parts with niceties. He threatens to kill all livestock and evict residents if Yolland is not found—a reminder that Baile Beag is firmly under British control and that the locals’ wellbeing is entirely in the hands of the colonizers. Lancey’s threat is also a representation of the violence inherent to colonialism. When Owen, again acting as translator, balks at relaying such information to the locals, Lancey puts him in his place, saying: “Do your job. Translate.” This is a reminder that however useful Owen has been to the British—and regardless of the power he possesses as a translator—he is still not considered an equal by men like Lancey.
Yolland, for his part, is far more sympathetic to the Irish than his colleague, going so far as to fall in love with both the Irish culture and a local Irish woman, Maire. The Lieutenant’s disappearance—and implied death at the hands of the Donnelly twins—further suggests the limits of mutual understanding and translation in the face of colonial oppression.
Because language is inextricable from culture and carries with it such a sense of history, its destruction is a concerted effort by the British to bring the Irish into submission. It is no coincidence that the new national schools being installed across the country will teach only in English. They will also be free and ultimately spell the end for hedge schools like Hugh’s. Maire recognizes this when she tells Manus that when a nearby national school opens, “this is finished: nobody's going to pay to go to a hedge-school.”
Colonialism, it is implied, functions not only by violence but also by forcing the colonized to turn towards the culture of the colonizers to find success. As such, Friel touches upon the opportunity inherent to learning English. Maire desires to learn it so she can go to the United States, where she will have more economic opportunity than she does as a milkmaid in Ireland. Meanwhile, Manus’ refusal to apply for a job at the new English-speaking school represents the fact that Irish nationalists will ultimately be left behind by the inevitable wave of change overtaking Ireland and again asserts the ultimate might of the colonizers.
Friel’s decision to write his play in English is the ultimate signal that the colonizers, in this sense, won. The playwright has in fact said the “fundamental irony” of Translations is that it should have been written in Irish. The theatrical act of watching the play is itself a condemnation of imperialism, as it inherently highlights the fact that an entire people have been robbed of their language. The vast majority of an Irish audience would not be able to understand this play, which in large part celebrates the culture embedded in the Irish language, had the play actually been written in the Irish language.
In the final moments of the play, Hugh translates a passage from Virgil’s Aeneid that mirrors what is happening to the Irish. He says, “Yet in truth she discovered that a race was springing from Trojan blood to overthrow some day these Tyrian towers—a people kings of broad realms and proud in war who would come forth for Lybia’s downfall.” The Aeneid tells the story of the founding of Rome by refugees from the destroyed city of Troy. The “race” that springs “from Trojan blood” refers to the Romans, who would one day overthrow the ancient empire of Libya. It is unclear in this formulation, however, if Hugh means Ireland to be Carthage—the capitol of ancient Libya—or Rome. In this way, it is unclear if Hugh is accepting the colonial destruction of Ireland by the unstoppable British (akin to the Roman Empire) or if he is engaging in hope for an Irish rebirth. As Rome was borne from the ashes of Troy, so too may a new “race” be borne from the downfall of Ireland to “overthrow some day” the British Empire. Ultimately, Hugh’s final lines reflect the fate of both the Irish and the British. While acknowledging the colonial domination of Ireland by the British, these final words also foreshadow that English—as a language like any other—will itself one day change and become eroded; the British may find themselves under the same colonial siege to which they have subjected the Irish.
Colonialism and Cultural Imperialism ThemeTracker
Colonialism and Cultural Imperialism Quotes in Translations
Bridget: Did you know that you start at the age of six and you have to stick at it until you're twelve at least — no matter how smart you are or how much you know.
Doalty: Who told you that yarn?
Bridget: And every child from every house has to go all day, every day, summer or winter. That's the law.
Doalty: I'll tell you something — nobody's going to go near them — they're not going to take on — law or no law.
Bridget: And everything's free in them. You pay for nothing except the books you use […] And from the very first day you go, you'll not hear one word of Irish spoken. You'll be taught to speak English and every subject will be taught through English and everyone'll end up as cute as the Buncrana people.
Maire: I'm talking about the Liberator, Master, as you well know. And what he said was this: “The old language is a barrier to modern progress.” He said that last month. And he's right. I don’t want Greek. I don't want Latin. I want English.
Manus reappears on the platform above.
I want to be able to speak English because I'm going to America as soon as the harvest's all saved.
Maire: You talk to me about getting married — with neither a roof over your head nor a sod of ground under your foot. I suggest you go for the new school; but no - 'My father’s in for that.' Well now he's got it and now this is finished and now you've nothing.
Manus: I can always ...
Maire: What? Teach classics to the cows? Agh —
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: Can't you speak English before your man?
Owen: Out of courtesy.
Manus: Doesn't he want to learn Irish? (to Yolland) Don't you want to learn lrish?
Yolland: Sorry - sorry? I - I –
Manus: I understand the Lanceys perfectly but people like you puzzle me.
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.
Hugh: Urbs antiqua fuit - there was an ancient city which, 'tis said, Juno loved above all the lands.
Begin to bring down the lights.
And it was the goddess's aim and cherished hope that here should be the capital of all nations - should the fates perchance allow that. Yet in truth she discovered that a race was springing from Trojan blood to overthrow some day these Tyrian towers - a people kings of broad realms and proud in war who would come forth for Lybia's downfall ...