Language in Friel’s Play ‘Translations’

The Significance of Language in Brian Friel’s play ‘Translations’

Friel describes ‘Translations’ as a play about ‘language and only language’ (Friel in Klein, 2007, p.90). Of course, as a play it is literally a work dealing with language, but Friel also uses language as a ‘theatrical form adequate to the Irish condition, a form uniquely suited to represent the themes that concern him’ (Roche, 2006, p.3).

There is an interesting opinion expressed in Pine (1990, p. 149) that ‘a people without a language of its own is only half a nation’. Thomas Davis the founder of ‘Young Ireland’ continues by declaring ‘a nation should guard a language more than its territories. It is surer a barrier and a more important frontier than fortress or river.’

Although language is certainly one of the leading concerns, the play is ostensibly a ‘history play’ set in the early nineteenth century. It is estimated that during this period one and a half million people spoke Irish, about a quarter of the total population. In County Donegal where the play is set, there were approximately 73,000 Irish speakers, about thirty per cent of the population’ (Pine, 1990, p.148), so it was an appropriate setting to explore language.

Perhaps the first important point to consider about Translations is that the text is written completely in English. Friel intended that ‘English onstage represents two separate languages – the Irish we are asked to imagine and the English which is now the ‘natural vehicle’ for a play on an Irish stage’ (Pelletier in Roche, 2006, p.68). Because of its role in shaping and expressing personal and collective identity this is immensely ironic and hugely significant.

Cartography is also a key theme in Translations. The Royal Engineers are dispatched to anglicise the place names for the Ordnance Survey in Ireland. The ordinance survey mapping acts as ‘a powerful metaphor of the transformation of this linguistic and cultural environment. Irish loses the ability to describe what is, and becomes, like Latin and Greek, a language that is only capable of saying what it used to be’ (Pelletier in Roche, 2006, p.68).

Although maps are a static survey they affect people as well as the landscape. They undermine the history and culture of a place, and can be viewed as a form of authority, a ‘conviction,’ a type of ownership. Maps cause marginalisation; they can be used for controlling, or for dividing up the land for tax purposes.

Friel uses mapping and place names as a powerful symbol of nationalism versus colonialism. In the play we have the character of Owen who works for the Royal Engineers as a translator and go-between for the British and the Irish. Owen is practical about his employment and perhaps sees place names as artificial like language. In one scene they are discussing where the priest lives, his father Hugh responds ‘Lis na Muc’ to which Owen answers contradicting his father with the new anglicised names without any apparent sense of affection for Irish Gaelic ‘No, he doesn’t. Lis na Muc, the Fort of Pigs, has become Swinefort. And to get to Swinefort you pass through Greencastle…Fair Head…Whiteplains’ (Friel, 1981, p.51). He recalls a whole string of anglicised place names before ending with ‘and the new school isn’t at Poll na gCaorach – it’s at Sheepsrock.’ Further on in a conversation with Yolland we see Owen pragmatically arguing ‘we’re taking place-names that are riddled with confusion and we’re standardising those names’ (Friel, 1981, p52), with Yolland who is more romantic by nature responding ‘something is being eroded’.

There is textual evidence exploring both sides of this argument at the start of Act Three where Owen is explaining to his brother Manus the etymology of a place named ‘The Murren’. He recounts how the name is a corruption of St Muranus who had a monastery there in the seventh century. Owen is demonstrating that etymology applies to place names like any other word; they have histories and futures which are fluid. He concludes by arguing how ‘The Murren’ sounded unattractive and should revert to its ‘original’ name. Friel may also have intended to draw our attention to the name St Muranus, a very Latin sounding name (with an ‘us’ ending), possibly from the Roman Catholic Church, who were well-known for their colonial accomplishments throughout the world.

Another key example of mapping and place names is found in the text where Maire is discussing Yolland’s home in England. Maire is on her hands and knees and is tracing the outline of a map on the floor. Here she is describing the location of Yolland’s village, and the nearby villages and towns. Expanding her map she incorporates the county and its overall location in England. She explains ‘there’s Winfarthing…and there’s Little Walsingham – that’s his mother’s hometown…and Norwich is in a county called Norfolk…and Norfolk is in the east of England’ (Friel, 1981, p.78).This is an interesting contrast to the rigorous and aggressive remapping of Ireland being carried out by the soldiers. She comments further on the English places and how they sound to her: ‘strange sounds aren’t they? But nice sounds; like Jimmy reciting his Homer’ (Friel, 1981, p.78). Maire recalls how Yolland had drawn a map of these places on the wet sand for her. Perhaps Friel was intending to highlight here how maps are provisional, they are not permanent, and can easily be erased. Certainly the map drawn by Yolland in the sand will be washed away.

It is also relevant and useful to note how Irish Gaelic as a language is perceived in Translations. In chapter one, we find Hugh making many revealing comments at the hedge school about the language. In a discussion with Yolland (Friel, 1981, p.51) he describes Irish Gaelic as ‘a rich language … full of the mythologies of fantasy and hope and self-deception – a syntax opulent with tomorrows.’ Hugh seems to be aware of the importance of language as national identity and sees the British involvement in Ireland as oppressive and detrimental to their own language and culture. He perhaps feels Irish is a language that could carry Ireland successfully forward into the future without the interference of English.

Further on in the passage Hugh refers to a new book he is working on which again highlights a view on the Irish language. It is entitled ‘The Pentaglot Preceptor or Elementary Institute of English, Greek, Hebrew, Latin and Irish Languages’ (Friel, 1981, p.51). This is a significant combination of languages. Friel deliberately links Irish Gaelic with Latin and Greek here as in many other points in the play to demonstrate perhaps how Irish is perceived to be among the ‘academic and intellectual dead languages,’ all of which are no longer languages of power, economics or politics.’ Hugh is clearly an educated and clever man and he seems particularly well versed in literature. However, when questioned by Yolland about William Wordsworth (who Yolland at one point lived fairly close to), Hugh replies ‘did he speak of me to you?’ When Yolland explains that he hadn’t spoken to him, only seen him out walking – in the distance, Hugh retorts ‘Wordsworth?… no. I’m afraid we’re not familiar with your literature, Lieutenant… we tend to overlook your Island (Friel, 1981, p.49-50). This shows Hugh being fiercely nationalistic. Hugh was probably aware of many English writers, some he possibly admired, but he wasn’t going to raise the issue of English literature, and betray his language with an intruding and interfering Englishman.

If we now take a look at ‘translation’ as a form of communication in the play, it is interesting to note the two distinctively different scenes where Owen ‘translates’ the message of the British officers to his father and the hedge school. In the first scene we have Owen comfortable with the British and their intentions. He is also acutely aware of his father’s staunch nationalism and that of some of the students. As a result he translates the message carefully, being mindful to maintain harmony and peace between the two sides. It is worth looking at examples from the text to demonstrate this. In chapter one he introduces the soldiers by saying ‘two friends of mine are waiting outside the door’. Lancey begins his speech in a very patronising way, possibly inferring how he views the Irish people as inferior and uneducated. Owen comments how it would be best if he assumed they knew what he was talking about and that he would translate accordingly. Lancey begins pompously ‘His Majesty’s government has ordered the first ever comprehensive survey of the entire country’ to which Owen translates as ‘a new map is being made of the whole country’ (Friel, 1981, p.33). Lancey continues contentiously ‘so that the military authorities will be equipped with up-to-date and accurate information on every corner of this part of the Empire.’ Owen translates this as ‘the job is being done by soldiers because they are skilled at this work’. This is adequate if not accurate translating and Owen was able to conclude their meeting without causing further strain or obvious tension between the sides.

Later in the play Owen is no longer able to hide the brutalities that are coming ‘commencing twenty-four hours from now we will shoot all livestock in Ballybeg’ (Friel, 1981, p.80). Here the tension escalates to serious proportions with Lancey threatening eviction and the mass destruction of property. Owen can only conclude by truthfully translating ‘if Yolland hasn’t been got by then, they will ravish the whole parish’ (Friel, 1981, p.80). At this point in the play the previous metaphorical eviction becomes literal.

Having briefly touched upon Maire and Yolland earlier, it might perhaps be useful to explore how language within their relationship influences the play. What is interesting is that although both characters represent Britain and Ireland, they are in fact both sensitive to each other and far from appearing overly nationalist. They express their love for each other without understanding the words. Yolland speaks only English and Maire only Irish. A recurring symbol in their relationship is the maypole. This can be viewed as a traditional and potent symbol of England. Throughout the play both Maire and Yolland are often engaged in affectionate banter about their words being mispronounced or incorrect. In one scene we hear Yolland saying in Irish Gaelic ‘see you yesterday’ rather than ‘see you tomorrow.’ For this error he is mocked and laughed at by Maire. Yolland playfully gets his revenge by responding ‘maypoll, maypoll!’ (Friel, 1981, p.77) to further the banter. Their light-hearted misunderstandings are a stark contrast to the weightier issues of language in the play. They represent a utopian Ireland and Britain unaffected by politics, a simple pairing of people with mutual interests, but their brief scenes of friendship are played out on a larger and more complex stage of language, culture and society being oppressed, remapped and systematically eroded.

If we now look at personal names and the role they play in Translations we can see how Friel uses them to great effect. In chapter one, we are told that a christening is taking place. The hedge school are awaiting the return of their teacher Hugh when Manus his son comments ‘I know he’s at the christening; but it doesn’t take them all day to put a name on a baby, does it?’ (Friel, 1981, p.6). It is interesting how Manus remarks ‘to put a name on a baby’. To give somebody a name is to define them. We learn that Nellie Ruadh, the mother is going to name the child after its father who we learn later is Eamon Donal from Tor. It is possible that Friel included the christening of this child to represent Irish Gaelic. He was born and will be raised in Ireland, and he has been given an Irish name. And like place names personal names are social constructs that have special and even historical meaning attached to them.

We could also look more closely at Owen and his relationship with the officers Yolland and Lancey. Owen is a hybrid character who is educated, pragmatic and sees nothing wrong in working with the British, and many times throughout the play he is referred to by his English counterparts as ‘Roland’ rather than his actual name ‘Owen’. Although this isn’t an issue with Owen it causes consternation to his brother Manus, who sees it as ‘an abdication of his Irish identity and strikes him as ominous, almost a betrayal’ (Roche, 2006, p.67). A further example of Friel using personal names to show tension through language occurs with the character Sarah who has a serious speech defect. Throughout the play Manus has been coaxing Sarah to speak her full name to help build her confidence. Upon being questioned by the Lancey later in the play she reverts to silence, a scene that ‘suggests a possible symbolic reading of this character as Ireland, struck dumb through fear and the imposition of English’ (Roche, 2006, p.68).

If we are to summarise language and its significance in Translations, perhaps the first point to consider is that language is only one strand in Irish Nationalism. Be that as it may ‘Friel acknowledges the power of language in shaping our perception and understanding of the past, and the potency of such images and myths, once they have achieved cultural acceptance’ (Roche, 2006, p. 70). Language throughout the play has acted as a tool to control, to marginalise, to confuse or obscure. There have been deliberate mistranslations as in Owen’s first message from Lancey to the hedge school, and love scenes with more light hearted misunderstandings.

It is important to consider that even an ‘honest’ translation by its very nature can never be perfect, something is always lost, and there are often cultural, historical and political implications associated with languages which cannot be ignored. A further point worth bearing in mind is how ‘contemporary Irish audiences must also confront their own lack of proficiency in Irish, their historical responsibility in having accepted English as the everyday language of the Republic as well as the extent which they have succeeded in making Irish-English their own distinctive tongue’ (Roche, 2006, p. 69).


FRIEL, B. 1981. Translations. London: Faber and Faber

KLEIN, B. 2007. On the Uses of History in Recent Irish Writing. Manchester: Manchester University Press

PINE, R. 1990. Brian Friel and Ireland’s Drama. London: Routledge

ROCHE, A. 2006. The Cambridge Companion to Brian Friel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

SCHMITT-KILB, C. 2009. Scenario. Vol. III. Issue 2. The End(s) of Language in Brian Friel’s Translations and Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs and Misterman[WWW] (17 Dec, 2012).


GRANT, D. 2004. Student Guide to the Stagecraft of Brian Friel. London: Greenwich Exchange

O’DRISCOLL, R. 1971. Theatre and Nationalism in Twentieth-century Ireland. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Author: Descartes Baker

Graduate in English with Creative Writing. Loves Victorian literature, poetry, watching the clouds go by, travelling, numismatics, and reading long forgotten and obscure novels.

9 thoughts on “Language in Friel’s Play ‘Translations’”

    1. Yes, I see what you’re saying there! 🙂 and you’re absolutely correct. The good people of Ireland refer to their language as Irish, unless they are talking with tourists. In which case they might possibly say Irish Gaelic. Gaelic is indeed quite an ambiguous term, and usually refers to the Scottish language. I decided to use ‘Irish Gaelic’ over just ‘Irish’ because the later can sometimes sadly be interpreted during that period (in a slightly disparaging way) as somebody who is talking gibberish.

      1. How very interesting. I guess I never associated Gaelic with Scotland. Thank you so much for that. Next year this time we’ll be traveling in the British Isles. Really looking forward to it. 🙂 How’s school going?

      2. Oh, ace! I hope you have a good time exploring the British Isles. We do have some interesting things to see. School is going really well, thanks. The kids have settled down nicely, and I have a superb Ukrainian teaching assistant, who has pointed out a local Irish bar for the weekend 🙂

  1. I’m quite tempted to track this down and to read it. Highly interesting topic. I know it’s not quite the same thing, but I’m struck sometimes by the comparisons between the place names of an area in (for example) England, which all have a historical connotation, and are frequently rather ambiguous and strange sounding because of their history, with the place names in new countries such as USA which are usually much simpler sounding, and often on a single theme. Much like the old road names in an English town or village, which will have (sometimes forgotten) historical or geographical significance – Gipps’ Cross (used to be a gibbet at the crossroads), The Twitton , Under Rocks Lane, etc,, with the imaginatively named roads of new developments with their arbitrary themes; Walton Rd, Elgar Close, Purcell Avenue etc. etc. in an area that was fields and woods 2 years before, with no historical connections to music in any case.

    1. Hi Mick, how absolutely true. It’s great to hear from other people who feel the same way about our blessed Isles. Believe it or not, I had this very same conversation over the weekend with my American colleague. I was explaining how our nearest neighbours (Dorset) are full of unfathomable place names like Shitters Hill and Scratchy Bottom – they certainly beat the aforementioned Elgar Close and Purcell Avenue hands down! 🙂

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