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Translations

 Can we translate the words of language into another and not lose anything? The play certainly shows that language is more than a simple sets of symbols that signify a set, inflexible meaning. Language is not a transparent medium that simply represents the outside world; it is saturated with cultural meanings, a way of seeing that cannot be translated easily.

The play suggest that the dispossession of a culture's language is as Yolland says, an 'eviction', something is always lost. In this case the invading British with their imperialistic discourse impose their own language so that the country is easily undertood by them, yet it then becomes alien to its own inhabitants. This has happened throughout history to every culture who have been victim to imperialistic colonisers. On one level the colonisers take away their land but it is the linguistic imperialism that fully robs a people of its way of understanding and describing the world. 

This is the loss that is explored in the play.

Translation draws attention to language in nearly every scene. The characters might be speaking English to the audience but they are really speaking Gaelic and the audience only become appear of this when the first Englishman appears. On one level this shows that Friels writing in the 1980's cannot write his play in Gaelic as there would not be a large enough audience for such a venture, but it is also a theatrical device that is used subversively to undermine the certainty that we associate with language as a means of communication and as really representing what it purports to.

The play centres on the Ordnance Survey that took place in Ireland during the 1830's and the action involves the British Yolland and Irishman Owen renaming all of the place names in the area. Great emphasis is placed on the way they derive an English equivalent from the original Irish name.

In the first scene Owen translates for Captain Lancey as he outlines his purpose in renaming the countryside while in the last scene he translate Lancey's ultimatum to the village. In the first scene Owen's translation is of great significance to the way language can misrepresent reality. Owen's translation simplifies and soften the authority of the original, leaving out references to 'His Majesty's government', 'this part of the Empire' and uses euphenisms and a more personal style of address. Owen tones down Lancey's inflammatory rhetoric and underplays its imperialistic intentions. The casual and natural way Owen presents his translation does not allow others (except Manus) to hear the threats implicit in Lancey's address. Both the hyprocrisy of Lancey's formal declarations and the distortions of Owen's translation are only evident to those who speak both languages. Hugh does not question the translation and it is left to Manus to challenge Owen: 'What sort of translation was that Owen?' ...' There was nothing uncertain about what Lancey said: it's a bloody military operation' (32)

While the villagers hear only Owen's description of an innocuous survey to help the people, the audience are aware that the Ordnance Survey is a 'bloody military operation' which Owen is a willing participant. The 'incorrect' names and 'ambiguity' will be Anglicised, English will serve as the standard and the language of authority and power will supplant the Irish. The mapping will be a way of making Ireland readable to the English and unreadable to the Irish.

The ritual of naming - caerimonia nominationis 23

Maire: 'We should all be learning to speak English ... And what he (Daniel O'Connell) said was this: 'The old language is a barrier to modern progress' 25

* Bun na hAhann is changed to Burnfoot 35

* 'You can learn to decode us' 40 (Owen) 'I'll decode you yet' 45 (Yolland)

Important quotes on Language

Hugh: 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.' 43/52 

Hugh: Yes,it is a rich language, Lieutenant, full of mythologies of fantasy and hope nad self-decption - a syntax opulent with tomorrows. It is our response to mud cabins and a diet of potatoes; our only method of replying to inevitabilities.' 42/50

'Eden's right! We name a thing and - bang! - it leaps into existence!' (45)

'We must learn where we live.We must learn to make them our own. We must make them our new home.' (66/88)

It is not the 'facts of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language.' ... we must never cease renewing those images; because once we do. we fossilise.' (66/88)

 Hugh would like to believe in that idealised world where words and language were directly linked to reality, and that his beloved classics from the ancient world were immortal truths that remained constant ('We like to think we endure around truths immemorially posited' 42). He certainly acts as though this is true. He parades his learning and knowledge of Latin and Greek as emblems of his superiority, and his native Gaelic as an indicator of their spirituality ('A rich language .. certain cultures expend on their vocabularies and syntax acquisitve energies and ostentations ... I suppose you call us a spiritual people' 42). He is a pedant who quotes from Ovid and Homer to assert his dominance over others and gives definitive translations of the Latin and Greek into Gaelic as if words did correspond, that there was a fixed meaning.He sees English as inadequate, a language only suited for 'the purposes of commerce' (25) and believes 'English ... couldn't really express us.' (25) However, the world is changing and though Hugh lives in the past glories, he is aware that these hopes and beliefs are false - he knows words are not fixed entities, but 'signals, counters. They are not immortal.' (43) He has some recognition of his own blindness to the fragility of his linguistic Eden; Irish is a 'rich language' he tells Yolland, one that is 'full of the mythologies of fantasy and hope and self deception.' (42)

 The saving grace of Hugh's linguistic idealism is its tragic self-consciousness, its ability to assess, even parody itself. Hugh's awareness is important, for the play is full of moments which destabilise the meanings and authority of words, and force us to be self conscious about language. As mentioned before this is shown by Owen's translations, but the audience is from the start alerted to language: Hugh's students mimic his language lessons; upon his entrance Owen parodies his father and playing the 'word game', and in the different attitudes that Owen and his father have. Hugh strats with a reverential attitude towards language, believing in its precision, as shown in his lessons, while Owen believes his job to 'translate the quaint archaic tongue ... into the King's good English'.

View on language in closing scene

The closing scene in the play shows Hugh trying to recall lines from Virgil's Aeneid concerning a prophecy that tells of the defeat of the Carthaginians by the Romans. It is a poignant moment on stage with Hugh left alone with the lights darkening, addressing an audience who are hoping for some type of resolution as they have been given no answers to whether Yolland is dead, whether the British army will destroy the village or what will happen to the other characters.

Throughout the play Hugh has been the articulate spokesperson for the importance of language and the relationship between language and culture. Though uttering contradictions on the very nature of language during the play he seems to now see that language, like cultures, cannot remain static, but must evolve and be dynamic, being amenable to change and growing richer from the contact. His earlier views on the superiority of Gaelic, that 'we like to think we endure around truths immemorially posited' (42/50) and that it is 'A rich language. A rich literature .. certain cultures expend on their vocabularies and syntax acquisitive energies and ostentations ..' (42/50) is how he may wish to see it but he is aware that to remain isolated and live only in the past, as evidenced in their connection with and use of ancient Greek and Latin, is a form of death. Jimmy exemplifies this through his proposed marriage to Pallas Athene, and though it is one way of coping with reality ('confusion is not an ignoble condition' 67/89), it is a fantasy and only serves to alienate them from everyday life.

The parallel drawn between the Roman with the British Empire and the defeated Carthaginians with the Irish shows the inevitability of the clash of cultures. Smaller nations cannot remain isolated, living in the past, and must attempt to retain their culture but within a more dynamic, rather than static model. Their culture must be 'translated' into the modern world, otherwise it will be lost like the Carthaginians. Hugh's failure to remember also symbolises that these civilisations are almost lost to memory. The other irony in the allusion to Virgil is that he tells of the defeat of the Carthaginians in the language of the Romans (Latin) in the same way that the defeat of Gaelic culture is written in the play in the English language of the oppressor.

interpretations

The play ends on an ambiguous note with no sense of closure, and so many questions unanswered. Because of this the play has attracted many interpretations. Many rest on what happens in the play or in its nuances and suggestions, yet they may represent more th values of the readers themselves who find in the play ideas they support.

Some saw the play that dealt with the 'failure of a people to cherish and preserve the riches of their culture.'

or 'the historical disjunction caused by the forced shift of Irish speech from the Gaelic language to English'

while another thought the play was blaming the Irish for losing their language'

or blaming the English for destroying Gaelic.

Some saw it as supporting violence while others believed it was condemning violence.

One believed it celebrated the heroic Doalty to organise violent resistance against the British: 'It is Doalty who knows how to deal with the present and defend culture most effectively.'

Martin Esslin thought it highlighted the 'moral dilemma of those in Ireland who desire independence and national freedom but abhor violence in any form.'

Some accused Friels of not portraying the past accurately (those involved in survey did not have power to evict, didn't carry guns, and many placenames had changed long before the survey) but Friels admitted he was not trying to be historically accurate but creating a mix of fact and fiction.

Others said the play depicted the present (1980's) accurately and contained an 'underlying feeling for the tragedy of people who get caught up in myths and mindsets that cannot adapt to change.

Issues and Themes

The play explores the cultural and linguistic dispossession of the Irish by the imperialistic British Empire. It uses the village of Bally Baeg as a microcosm for the story of how a culture was dispossessed of its language and culture, showing this tragedy - which was a long process over centuries, in the few days of the action.

The title, Translations, foregrounds this issue as mentioned but it also refers on a general level to how it is difficult to ever understand other cultures, as well as highlighting the lack of communication that exists in any clash of cultures.

It is also a story of love; the ability for love to cross boundaries as shown in the relationship between Maire and Yolland. The couple cannot communicate in language or at least the meanings attached to words, but manage to connect finally to reciting place names where the sounds of the words echo the feelings of love that Yolland has. The list of names 'Bun na hAbhann, Druim Dubh, Poll na gCaorach, Lis Maol, Lis na Gall are used as a bridge, showing Yolland love of the world Maire inhabits and his only way that he can reach out for her. This is shown symbolically by the space onstage where after drawing away from him Maire is lured back by the sounds of the words, finally facing one another, holding hands and kissing (51-52)

Irony

Friels needs to write his play where characters speak Gaelic in English. Only a small percentage speak Gaelic and recent surveys show that it is not because of the English but that the Irish do not see it as useful

- Hugh claims Gaelic have closer relationship with classical language yet throughout he asks students to explain Latin roots of English words. Close link between English and Latin

- Hugh and Jimmy speak Latin and Greek the language of nations that were great conquerors who imposed their language and culture on others

- Hugh says he has never heard of Wordsworth, a poet who is known world wide. Shows arrogant insularity of their world

- Hugh accuses English as being 'commercial' and materialistic the yells for 'soda bread' showing Gaelic is also used for ordinary material purposes

Important scenes

* The opening scene has Manus teaching Sarah to speak. She has a speech defect and is considered dumb, but she finally utters her name and where she is from: 'My name is Sarah'. It symbolically shows the relationship between language and the power of naming to give identity.

Stagecraft

The audience should learn about characters from what they say (dialogue) and do (actions). What others say about them (often before they appear), their observable relationships with others onstage and offstage, and the way they are associated with particular ideas and images or even props onstage.

Characters' dominance or lack of power should be shown by their physical presence, use of language, position on the stage in relation to others, gestures.

Parallels and contrasts of characters should be noticeable by dialogue and action.

Manus is constructed as a thoughtful, compassionate man - shown helping Sarah to speak and is sincerely pleased to see her success

The contrast between Jimmy and Hugh who both speak multiple languages and refer constantly to classical texts yet Jimmy is not pedantic, he does use language or mythical stories to assert his own erudition and superiority, but simply refer to them as they are important to him and a part of his life. He tends to change the intellectual into more colloquial responses - 'Ha-ha-ha! Athene did that to Ulysses! Made him into a tramp!' (13)

Hugh is more pompous and pedantic, especially in the earlier scenes. He uses language to assert his dominance. Though often drunk he still carries himself with dignity, treats others with disdain at times -thoughtless when it comes to people, selfish - doesn't think of the prospects of his son who has done his job thanklessly when he wants the job at the National School though he is in his sixties. He ignores manus and is seen as being responsible for his son's lameness, yet seems to take no responsibility.('An accident when he was a baby: Father fell across his cradle' 37). Thoughtless, irresponsible and selfish Hugh is still a likeable man who has power over others, and he has great insights on the nature of language. His favoured son, Owen may think him pompous but Yolland sees him as 'an astute man' (43)

- Manus is lame, Sarah has a speech defect - both damaged characters who have integrity yet exist on the periphery of social relationships.

- Jimmy is an unwashed scholar who speaks the classical languages and lives in a world where the myths are real. In the end this is destructive as he confined to a fantasy world where he imagines marrying the goddess, Athene.

- Maire is a practical woman who wants to learn English. She sees little use in Gaelic and knows that English would give her entry into an outside world beyond the confining rustic boundaries of her village. She wants to leave Ireland and migrate to America.

- Owen is the favoured son who had left the village to go to the city. He returns as a lackey for the British, even losing his identity as his name had been mistaken and is known as Roland. He initially sees his community as lost in the past 'speaking a quaint archaic tongue you people persist in speaking..' (29) His translations of Lancey fail to include the threat inherent in the English presence in the country and continually criticises the old names of the country. The play traces his transformation as he realises his own betrayal and the destruction that he has been complicit with. Ironically he finally accepts his cultural heritage ('I know where I live.' 66/88) while his father changes to accept the inevitable dominance of the English and their language. he audience should learn about characters from what they say (dialogue) and do (actions). What others say about them (often before they appear), their observable relationships with others onstage and offstage, and the way they are associated with particular ideas and images or even props onstage.

Characters' dominance or lack of power should be shown by their physical presence, use of language, position on the stage in relation to others, gestures.

Parallels and contrasts of characters should be noticeable by dialogue and action.

Manus is constructed as a thoughtful, compassionate man - shown helping Sarah to speak and is sincerely pleased to see her success

The contrast between Jimmy and Hugh who both speak multiple languages and refer constantly to classical texts yet Jimmy is not pedantic, he does use language or mythical stories to assert his own erudition and superiority, but simply refer to them as they are important to him and a part of his life. He tends to change the intellectual into more colloquial responses - 'Ha-ha-ha! Athene did that to Ulysses! Made him into a tramp!' (13)

Hugh is more pompous and pedantic, especially in the earlier scenes. He uses language to assert his dominance. Though often drunk he still carries himself with dignity, treats others with disdain at times -thoughtless when it comes to people, selfish - doesn't think of the prospects of his son who has done his job thanklessly when he wants the job at the National School though he is in his sixties. He ignores manus and is seen as being responsible for his son's lameness, yet seems to take no responsibility.('An accident when he was a baby: Father fell across his cradle' 37). Thoughtless, irresponsible and selfish Hugh is still a likeable man who has power over others, and he has great insights on the nature of language. His favoured son, Owen may think him pompous but Yolland sees him as 'an astute man' (43)

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