Brian Friel Translations

Copyright J V Ward. 22nd June 2003

Translation difficulties in Translations

Friel’s Magnum Opus centres on the theme of, its difficulties and inconsistencies. It explores the problems, which arise within language, its relevance its application and the distancing of language, thought and meaning.


Communication would seem at first sight to be straightforward, for Sarah can explain the whereabouts of the missing Hugh by a series of mimes. But Manus requires Sarah to ‘tell me all those secrets that have been in that head of yours’ and’ for this, language is required and when language intervenes then the difficulties arise.


Ironically language seems to be irrelevant to communication. Marie does not understand the sappers but they can help her in the hayfield. Marie and Yolland can ‘wave to each other the fields’ and although says to Yolland, “You’re wasting your time ~ I don’t know a word you’re saying, he is instrumental in scything the grass for Yolland’s convenience. However, the necessity of language as a means to communication is demonstrated by Manus’ ignoring of Sarah when she is unable or unwilling to express her affection for him in words. Similarly, Manus in turn becomes invisible when he is obliged to remain silent during dictation and his client makes disparaging remarks about him as if he were not there.


Communication is complicated when individuals are selective in their choice of vocabulary, taking only that part of he language that gratifies their own desires. Jimmy knows only one English word “bosom”, one that excites his prurient mentality. Marie declares “I want English”, her purpose being to advance her prospects in America and the ‘Liberator’ Daniel O’Connell advocates the use of English for his supporters but ‘Its Irish he’s using when he’s around scrounging votes’. To satisfy one’s own desires would seem to be the sole purpose of language and any deviation from this is incomprehensible. Or as Manus says “I understand the Lanceys perfectly but people like you puzzle me”.

Although ‘uncertainty in meaning is incipient poetry’, the uncertainties of language are a barrier to understanding. ‘Words are signals, counters’ but they mean different things to different people and cultures and they change through the passage of time. Jimmy learns the principles of agriculture from Virgil’s Georgics but the archaic standards of agriculture mean nothing to the contemporary farmer Doalty. Lancey declares  “I do not speak Gaelic, Sir” showing a dual ignorance of the archaic language in which he was addressed and the ancient language that he imagines was spoken. He is incapable of recognising any language beyond his own time as he was born at a time when ‘ancient time was at an end’. Hugh puts it simply in the expression “semper~a silly word”, indicating that language is mutable by the passage of time. Words are merely images of the past embodied in language. It is as if the poles which Doalty moves were words and the gibberish of the sappers the inevitable result.


A problem in communication arises from the way in which language is learned, either by familiarity or by instruction. Maire is familiar with the name and purpose of the theodolite because it is stored in her byre but the etymology and function of the instrument escape the erudite Manus and Jimmy. It appears that the more learned the person, the less capable he is of making himself understood. It is no accident that the adjective describing ‘Prodigy’ is ‘Infant’ a word whose Latin etymology is ‘incapable of speech’. One of the central themes of the play is the giving of instruction and the passing on of information but this is constantly frustrated. Sarah’s newly acquired capacity for articulation evaporates under pressure. Also the message to the island men with which she is entrusted remains undelivered. Lancey’s declaration of intent is frustrated by Owen’s mendacity. Thus ‘more equal taxation’ which is a euphemism for higher taxation becomes in translation ‘taxes are reduced’. Mendacity further frustrates communication in the alcoholic haze created by the poteen of Anna of the Lies. Ironically a form of communication is inspired by misuse of language. Maire’s mispronunciation of ‘maypoll’ induces a modicum of mirth in Yolland which facilitates empathy if not understanding.


A major theme of the play is the impossibility of defining and fixing a name to an object, the constant shift of the signifier from the signified. At first sight, nomination would seem to be a simple exercise, to append a name which has universal significance. In the case of Nora Dan, to write the name is all that is required for as ‘Nora Dan can write her name, Nora Dan’s education is now complete’. The actual name given would seem not to matter. Hugh’s socks are kept in a box marked butter and as Owen says ‘It’s only a name it’s the same me isn’t it?’ echoing Shakespeare’s ‘What’s in a name? What we do call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.’ The problem arises when one considers the attributes of the signified. ‘How in modesty can I do myself justice?’ says Hugh referring to his autobiographical character reference. Owen says ‘We are trying to denominate..a tiny area of soggy, rocky, sandy ground’ but does the name ‘Trabann’ indicate sogginess, rockiness or sandiness? And does the existence of the signifier imply the tangibility of the signified? It would seem so for ‘we name a thing and bang it leaps into existence’ and if the baby were named ‘Jimmy’ then Jimmy Jack Casey becomes the putative father. Likewise, places can disappear as when Ballybeag is threatened with destruction, the name book remains extant and is given full prominence. The names actually take precedence over the objects for Doalty’s concern over levelling of the parish is directed at the trouble taken over ‘mapping the place’. The disparity between the place name and the place itself is demonstrated in the anecdote of the Tobair Vree well. The place name commemorates a ‘trivial little story nobody in the parish remembers’ about a man long since dead, who drowned in a well which was never there. With the superfluity of misnomers, it is not surprising that Owen is obliged to ask Hugh if he is sure that he can find his way through all those place names.


The response to the problem of the duality of language is the suppression of one in favour of the other. Friel adroitly sets the play when the death sentence has been pronounced on the Irish language, the time of the institution of the English speaking National Schools when the sappers are attempting to translate or transliterate the Irish language and in so doing questions both the justice of allowing a language to die and the validity of keeping it alive. ‘What’s incorrect about the place names we have?’ is answered by ‘the old language is a barrier to modern progress’. The protest at the extinction of Irish is ‘just a gesture to indicate a presence’ but it is ‘ the wrong gesture in the wrong language’. The Irish language is shown beside the classical languages as a ‘quaint archaic tongue’ and appears equally redundant. But the insidious pervasiveness of the English language may be compared with the incipient potato blight which ‘snakes in’ until the people are ‘destroyed altogether’. Hugh prophetically views the effects of the suppression of Irish in reading his own fate. He sees himself as ‘a barbarian because I am not understood’ and indeed is supplanted by a Cork bacon curer might as well ‘teach classics to the crows’.


The underlying assertion by the sappers in performing their duties is that English is the superior language and must overcome its inferior. This proposition is subtly challenged by Friel by placing, Hugh, the Irishman, in a reverse stereotype role pompously and overbearingly belittling Yolland, the Englishman. ‘We tend to overlook your island’ is a phrase which would be expected to fall from the lips of an imperious British officer. English is derided as a language of commerce, ‘a use to which the tongue is particularly suite’ and is a language which ‘makes it sound plebian’. By portraying the fatuity of grading a language quality, Friel adroitly makes the point that the Irish language contains its own inherent qualities which should allow it to maintain its own existence.


The supreme irony of the play is that this language has all but disappeared and the language in which Friel is obliged to express his message is the one which has been dominant. But could it be that the scholars of the Irish hedge school reading the Classics may be symbolic of the English speaking population marvelling over the lost beauties of the Irish language and that English may be the next tongue for whom the bell tolls?!

Links to other essays
 American Beauty   the movie.
Sylvia Plath The Bell Jar
John Milton Lycidas
Shakespeare Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V
Shakespeare Henry VI and Richard III
DrydenAbsolem and Achitophel and other works
Virginia WoolfThe Use of Symbolism
Sir Walter Scott Heart of Midlothian and Waverly
Keats and Shelly Adonais and other works
Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice and Emma
Shakespeare Notes on Twelfth Night