In Translations, Irish culture is inextricable from Irish language; Gaelic at once reflects and shapes the Irish experience, and, it follows, is essential to the preservation of Irish identity. Friel explores the ways in which names are essential to the construction of this identity, presenting the destruction of one as invariably leading to the destruction of the other. While mourning this loss, however, the play does not entirely condemn it. Instead, Translations reveals that language can outlive the people and culture that created it. Friel’s play ultimately suggests that the Irish must find a way to preserve their identity without clinging so tightly to an archaic, increasingly irrelevant speech that they become trapped in the past.
The connection between language and identity is established from the play’s opening moments. Notably, the first thing Manus teaches Sarah to say is her own name, in effect teaching her to use language to affirm who she is. The importance of names is echoed throughout the play. At one point, for example, Yolland asks Owen about Maire, another one of Hugh’s students and the local milkmaid. Owen responds that her name is Maire Chatach, and that Chatach means “curly-haired,” making Maire’s moniker a literal reflection of who she is. Lancey and Yolland also mistakenly call Owen “Roland”—an anglicized version of his name—for most of the play. At first, Owen displays a cavalier attitude towards this apparent sleight: “It’s only a name,” he tells Manus. “It’s the same me, isn’t it?” Eventually, however, Owen snaps at Yolland for his recurring mistake. Owen’s anger and reclamation of his name in this moment represents the assertion of Irish identity. A man—or a point on a map—is not the same regardless of what it is called, because language gestures towards a sense of culture, history, and identity. Friel’s focus on names, then, reveals how the broader plot of the play—the rewriting of Gaelic maps—contributes to the erasure of Irish culture.
Yolland says as much to Owen at one point, positing that something is being “eroded” by their work as they rob locals of the history—personal, cultural, anecdotal—embedded in the language of the world around them. In one poignant moment, Owen asks his father, who is going to visit the local priest, if he knows where he lives. Hugh begins to reply, “At Lis na Muc, over near…” before his son cuts him off: “No, he doesn't. Lis na Muc, the Fort of the Pigs, has become Swinefort. And to get to Swinefort you pass through Greencastle and Fair Head and Strandhill and Gort and Whiteplains. And the new school isn’t at Poll na gCaorach — it’s at Sheepsrock. Will you be able to find your way?” This moment makes clear that the Ordnance Survey has completely altered the once-familiar landscape of Baile Beag, resulting in a literal sense of loss and confusion for locals. On a symbolic level, this represents the displacement of Irish identity. By erasing historical meaning from the landscape, the new map destroys invaluable context by which the Irish recognize and define themselves.
Of course, Yolland’s talk of cultural erosion is not as simple as it first appears to be. For one thing, language is not necessarily a direct reflection of culture so much as a product of culture. For example, Hugh notes, somewhat jokingly, that the poetry and lyricism of the Irish language grew in direct response to the drudgery of Irish lives. In his estimation, the Irish language does not actually mirror the culture from which it has sprung. Furthermore, as Owen points out, place names have been being eroded for a very long time. He points to the example of Tobair Vree, the name of a local crossroads that derives from “tobair,” meaning “well,” and a corruption of the Irish name “Bhriain,” an old man who died in the aforementioned well 150 years earlier. The well is now dried up, and Owen doubts any others in the area know the real origin of the name—which, he asserts, has already been “‘eroded’ beyond recognition.” He wonders, then, what the point is of preserving an Irish name whose “meaning” has nothing to do with its actual origin. There are no easy answers in Friel’s play, and Yolland assert that the meaning Tobair Vree has for current residents still matters. Regardless, Translations makes clear that even as one mourns the loss of culture, that culture itself was likely an erosion—or, perhaps, an evolution—of something that came before.
Because culture is constantly changing, language, too, must change in order to meaningfully signal to the world around it. Upon hearing of Yolland’s desire to learn Irish, for example, Hugh tells the Lieutenant to remember that words “are not immortal.” Despite his affinity for ancient Greek and Latin—both dead languages—Hugh believes that communities can become stagnant when language does not change to reflect new realities (and vice versa). Jimmy Jack, for example, an elderly bachelor and student of Hugh’s with an intense affection for Homer and the ancient Greeks, only grows more detached from reality and more deeply entrenched in a fantasy of the past. Despite his erudition in the realm of ancient languages, he is largely presented as comic relief, a buffoon whose obsession with the past makes him increasingly irrelevant; he even goes so far as to shout “Thermopylae!” at the encroaching British army. In many ways, then, Jimmy Jack represents those who cling to a mythic vision of the Celtic past in an attempt to preserve current Irish culture.
Hugh, meanwhile, accepts that “a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of…fact.” This is exactly what Friel suggests the British have done to the Irish: made sure their language no longer reflects their landscape. As such, Hugh suggests that the only way any Irish culture can be preserved is through capitulation to the present, even if that means learning English. Indicating the Name-Book, he says to Owen, “We must learn where we live. We must learn to make them our own. We must make them our new home.” With change comes loss, but a language and culture that clings too rigidly to the past will simply turn to dust. Instead, Friel’s play suggests, a culture is preserved when its adherents learn to establish a home within an unfamiliar future.
Language, Culture, and Identity ThemeTracker
Language, Culture, and Identity 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!
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: 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 —
Manus: And they call you Roland! They both call you Roland!
Owen: Shhhhh. Isn't it ridiculous? They seem to get it wrong from the very beginning — or else they can't pronounce Owen. I was afraid some of you bastards would laugh.
Manus: Aren't you going to tell them?
Owen: Yes - yes - soon - soon.
Manus: But they...
Owen: Easy, man, easy. Owen - Roland - what the hell. It's only a name. It's the same me, isn't it? Well, isn't it?
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.