© By Brian Friel
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The play is set in nineteenth century Donegal in the fictional village of Baile Beg / Ballybeg. Owen returns to the village, after several years away in Dublin, acting as a translator for the English speaking cartographers, Captain Lancey and Lieutenant Yolland, from the Ordinance Survey. Owen’s brother, Manus, and Yolland both fall for local woman Máire; which is complicated by the fact she only speaks Irish while Yolland only English.
When Yolland goes missing and Manus flees the English soldiers see his disappearance as guilt. Captain Lancey threatens to kill all the village’s livestock and destroy their houses if Yolland is not found. Own leaves the village to join the resistance and the play ends with the local school teacher reading the Aenid, about the temporary nature of conquest.
Both Irish and English characters in the play use their own languages, meaning the characters cannot comprehend each other, which makes a comment on the outcomes resulting from this lack of compromise.
HUGH: Sophocles from Colonus would agree with Doalty Dan Doalty from Tulach Alainn: ‘To know nothing is the sweetest life.’ Where’s Sean Beag?
MANUS: He’s at the salmon.
HUGH: And Nora Dan?
MAIRE: She says she’s not coming back any more.
HUGH: Ah. Nora Dan can now write her name - Nora Dan’s education is complete. And the Donnelly twins?
(Brief pause. Then:-)
BRIDGET: They’re probably at the turf. (She goes to HUGH.)
There’s the one-and-eight I owe you for last quarter’s arithmetic and there’s my one-and-six for this quarter’s writing.
HUGH: Gratias tibi ago. (He sits at his table.) Before we commence our studia I have three items of information to impart to you - (To MANUS) A bowl of tea, strong tea, black-
( MANUS leaves.)
Item A: on my perambulations today-Bridget? Too slow. Maire?
MAIRE: Perambulare-to walk about.
HUGH: Indeed-I encountered Captain Lancey of the Royal Engineers who is engaged in the ordnance survey of this area. He tells me that in the past few days two of his horses have strayed and some of his equipment seems to be mislaid. I expressed my regret and suggested he address you himself on these matters. He then explained that he does not speak Irish. Latin? I asked. None. Greek? Not a syllable. He speaks-on his own admission-only English; and to his credit he seemed suitably verecund-James?
HUGH: Indeed-he voiced some surprise that we did not speak his language. I explained that a few of us did, on occasion - outside the parish of course - and then usually for the purposes of commerce, a use to which his tongue seemed particularly suited - (Shouts) and a slice of soda bread - and I went on to propose that our own culture and the classical tongues made a happier conjugation - Doalty?
DOALTY: Conjugo - I join together.
(DOALTY is so pleased with himself that he prods and winks at BRIDGET.)
HUGH: Indeed-English, I suggested, couldn’t really express us. And again to his credit he acquiesced to my logic.
(MAIRE turns away impatiently. HUGH is unaware of the gesture.)
Too slow. Bridget?
BRIDGET: Acquiesco, acquiescere, acquievi, acquietum.
HUGH: Indeed-and Item B ...
(MAIRE gets to her feet uneasily but determinedly. Pause.)
MAIRE: We should all be learning to speak English. That’s what my mother says. That’s what I say. That’s what Dan O’Connell said last month in Ennis. He said the sooner we all learn to speak English the better.
(Suddenly several speak together.)
JIMMY : What’s she saying? What? What?
DOAL TY: It’s Irish he uses when he’s travelling around scrounging votes.
BRIDGET: And sleeping with married women. Sure no woman’s safe from that fella.
Extract courtesy Brian Friel and Faber and Faber Ltd
The play was produced in 1981, at the height of the Troubles, being staged the Field Day Theatre Company in Derry. It’s themes of cultural and linguistic differences and the misunderstandings that they lead to would have been directly relevant to, and understood by, a contemporary audience.
Guildhall Derry, 1980
Manhatten Theatre Club, new York, 1981
“The play is remarkable for the even-handedness with which it presents the English presence in Ireland. Friel clearly makes the point that appropriating place names is “a form of eviction”, yet he advances the counter-argument that indigenous nomenclature becomes a random, unsystematic barrier to getting around: “Sometimes a landscape becomes imprisoned in a linguistic contour that no longer corresponds to the language of fact.” – The Guardian
“Quite a few languages are spoken in Brian Friel’s play “Translations.” There is a fair amount of Latin and Greek. Gaelic makes frequent appearances. And English is of course the play’s official lingua franca. But you can leave your Berlitzes and your dead-language primers at home. A basic fluency in the workings of the human heart is all that’s necessary to absorb the beauties of Mr. Friel’s tender, sad and funny play about the difficulty of finding a home in the world, a person to share it with, and a name to call it by. “ – New York Times