Brian Friel

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Themes and Colors
All Translation Is Interpretation Theme Icon
Language, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
The Limits of Language Theme Icon
Colonialism and Cultural Imperialism Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Translations, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
The Limits of Language Theme Icon

Beyond being a tool to define cultural identity, language is also, of course, a means of communication throughout Translations. However, words often prove an inadequate mode of expression, as characters reach towards speech that fails convey what they actually mean. Thus, even as the play asserts the power of language to both preserve and shape culture—as well as the importance of translation in interpreting that culture—it also suggests that language is ultimately an insufficient tool to communicate the breadth of human experience.

For Maire and Yolland, communication does not rely on language at all; they fall in love despite not being able to have a conversation with each other. At the start of Act Three, after having left a local dance together, the two have a deeply romantic scene in which neither understands what the other is saying. Regardless, they both repeat—in their respective tongues—that they simply “love the sound” of the other’s speech. Words here are what matter, irrespective of what they mean. Indeed, unable to say what he wants, Yolland eventually begins simply listing the Irish names he has learned through his work on the Ordnance Survey, reciting them to Maire as if they were a love letter. For her part, Maire recites the only three English words she knows: water, fire, earth. All of these random words are understood by the other to be expressions of affection. The actual definitions behind them are entirely different from what the words mean in this moment. In this way, the play suggests that communication can transcend language.

Owen and Yolland come to a similar realization regarding the insufficiency of words to perfectly reflect the world around them. After their tense moment of confrontation over Yolland calling Owen “Roland,” the two men burst into laughter at the absurdity of the situation and joke that they are in Eden: “We name a thing and — bang! It leaps into existence!” Owen remarks. Yolland replies, “Each name a perfect equation with its roots.” Owen continues, “A perfect congruence with its reality.” The men are being facetious, of course, because the difficulty of their translation project has revealed to them that a name is almost never in “perfect equation with its roots” or “a perfect congruence with its reality.” Rather, language is presented as an inherently flawed attempt to give voice to meaning.

Because there is so much more to communication than language, Yolland realizes that even if he were to become fluent in Gaelic, he could never fully understand the Irish people. He says to Owen, “Even if I did speak Irish I'd always be an outsider here, wouldn’t I? I may learn the password but the language of the tribe will always elude me, won't it? The private core will always be ... hermetic, won’t it?” Hugh echoes this thinking in the final moments of the play upon agreeing to teach Maire English. “I will provide you with the available words and the available grammar,” he says. “But will that help you to interpret between privacies? I have no idea. But it’s all we have.” This suggests that there is more to mutual understanding—and to translation—than simply knowing the right words to say. Just as certain moments can transcend the confines of language, speaking a shared vocabulary does not guarantee that actual communication will take place.

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The Limits of Language ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Limits of Language appears in each scene of Translations. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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The Limits of Language Quotes in Translations

Below you will find the important quotes in Translations related to the theme of The Limits of Language.
Act 1 Quotes

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!

Related Characters: Jimmy Jack Cassie (speaker), Maire Chatach (speaker)
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:
Act 2, Scene 1 Quotes

Even if I did speak Irish I'd always be an outsider here, wouldn't I? I may learn the password but the language of the tribe will always elude me, won't it? The private core will always be ... hermetic, won't it?

Related Characters: Lieutenant Yolland (speaker), Owen
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: Hugh (speaker), Lieutenant Yolland
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:
Act 2, Scene 2 Quotes

Maire: Don't stop - I know what you're saying.

Yolland: I would tell you how I want to be here - to live here - always - with you - always, always.

Maire: 'Always'? What is that word - 'always'?


Maire: Shhh - listen to me. I want you, too, soldier.

Yolland: Don't stop - I know what you're saying.

Maire: I want to live with you - anywhere - anywhere at all-always-always.

Yolland: 'Always'? What is that word -'always'?

Related Characters: Maire Chatach (speaker), Lieutenant Yolland (speaker)
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:
Act 3 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Manus (speaker), Maire Chatach, Lieutenant Yolland
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis: