The Unreliability of Translations in Friel’s Translations

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

21 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Recurring Concepts in the Play

3. Friel, a Translator of the Irish Past
3.1 The Theatrical Convention of Accessibility
3.2 The Establishment of the National School System in Translations
3.3 The Utility to Learn English
3.4 The Metaphorical Ordnance Survey

4. Naming and Identity

5. Owen, a Traitor?

6. The Cultural Divide

7. Hugh, the Realist

8. Conclusion

9. Bibliography
9.1 Primary Literature
9.2 Secondary Literature

1. Introduction

The title of the play in question written by Brian Friel, namely Translations identifies one of the common concerns the leading Field Day dramatist shares with other postcolonial writers and which is subject of analysis in this essay. The playwright himself emerges as a translator of the Irish Gaelic past, illustrated by the fictional Gaelic-speaking community Baeile Beag in Donegal, into the political and economic realities of an Anglicized Ireland. The interpretation will be put forward that the central notion of the play is the unreliability of translation.

Before one examines Friel’s utilisation of the concept ‘translation’ in the same-titled play, the technical term itself has to be clarified by drawing on some insights from translation theory. In addition to that, some brief comments will be made regarding the essay’s underlying ideas of language, culture and identity as these will be frequently points of reference during the course of this essay.

In order to justify the interpretation introduced above, Friel’s theatrical device that is, to have the play enacted monolingual in the colonisers’ tongue has to be commented on. It will be illustrated that the shift from one language (Irish) to another (English) is presented in the play as a predictable consequence of at least three forces: Firstly, the establishment of the National School System; secondly, the utility to learn English; thirdly, the perhaps strongest force presented as a powerful metaphor, the ordnance survey.

The subsequent interpretations are rather based on character readings. Sarah, the mute hedge school student is of special interest because she represents the close connection between name and identity. Owen, the hedge school teacher’s younger son has to be paid closer attention to because of his deliberately performed mistranslation. After considering Yolland’s realistic articulation of the concealed cultural divide that separates him from the people of Baile Beag, Hugh’s remarks about language will be addressed.

2. Recurring Concepts in the Play

As soon as two speakers of different languages need to converse, translation is necessary. Spoken or written language is the most fundamental system of communication put another way, language is social. Broadly, ‘translation’ may be defined as ‘transfer’ occurring between individuals, social or cultural groups and involving either linguistic or other systems (cf. Dixon 11). In this definition ‘translation’ carries the connotation that something is moved or changed in its state. Taking the definition given in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary into account, the connotation finds its reassurance: “The process of changing sth that is written or spoken into another language” (OALD 1382). To change something means to make it different, therefore it is obvious that our perception of linguistic translation is so linked with the idea of difference, most apparent in the differing sounds and forms but also in the cultural phenomena.

Even between languages of rather closely related communities in terms of culture, there is to no degree an exact lexical equivalence between the items of their vocabularies. This dilemma has been recognized since antiquity and results from the fact that language does not operate in isolation but within and as part of culture (cf. Britannica). Words obtain various overtones and associations in their lexical meanings that are not shared by the nearest corresponding words in other languages. Therefore, one may state that translation on the whole is an art, not a science (cf. Britannica). Consequently, a translator can be given guidance and taught general principles of translation, but after that it must be left to the individual's own feeling for the two languages concerned. So, one has to acknowledge that the best starting situation for a translator is to be bilingual but also bicultural (cf. Worton 45). The translator’s constant effort has to be that of a go-between principled by compromise and approximation.

Since language is transmitted culturally, it holds true as well that cultural aspects are transmitted very largely through language. One may agree upon the fact that language appears to be inseparable from culture in its anthropological sense, as it is defined as the culture’s totality, the collective memory of the common historical experience that accounts for its growth, enrichment and continuation (cf. Stojkovic 184). Language is the “biggest thesaurus of all living history” (Stojkovic 187), it is memory as well as an active constituent and it is the identity’s primary source. Identity finds its expression in language as it contains everything within itself: ideologies, values, ways of life and so on (cf. Stojkovic 188). Thus, speaking a language does not mean to perform merely the same linguistic operations as the linguistic community one belongs to, but it implies the shared ethos, culture and belonging. As a consequence, communication in the sense of linguistic usage becomes a medium through which identity is realised (cf. Stojkovic 185). This view of language, postulates a deep and complex interacting connection between language, culture and identity. It is named the “ontological view of language” as partly derived from Martin Heidegger (cf. Pelletier 69). In conclusion, one may agree upon the fact that language use enacts identity, namely one’s sense who one is and what one’s relation to other people is. Within this essay this integrative view of language will be point of reference for analysis.

In a colonial context, the ideological and cultural values of a colonised community are potentially threatened by translation as a new semiotics of cultural signification is introduced (cf. Dixon 19). This semiotics has been developed in an alien context and the danger evolves that the dominant culture avoids the problem posed by untranslatable cultural connotations of the dominated language either by appropriating difference to itself, or more frequently by effacing it (Worton 44). This violation is a noted feature of imperialism. The coloniser’s desire is not so much to translate colonised values into coloniser’s words as to translate values of the colonisers into colonised terms (cf. Kiberd 619). Apparently, translation bears the association to be forcefully implemented, when translating out of a minor into a major imperial language in order to achieve linguistic dominance and thus exercising power over the colonised society. Causally determined one can state that language use is political and powerful.

Principally, through translation a piece of language is replaced by a functionally equivalent piece of another language. “Functional equivalence” (House 497) can be pursued by the translator with two opposing strategies. The first possible strategy is to domesticate the foreign piece of oral or written language: making it appear as if it had been written in the target language, thus erasing the very processing traces of translation (cf. Döring 29). Deriving from translation theory this type is named “covert translation” (House 498). It covers the fact of cultural specificity and is thus, from a psycholinguistic point of view, less complex and more deceptive than the outcome of the second strategy (House 499).

Applying the second strategy in translation the translator may try to draw attention to the translation process by revealing the cultural differences it mediates (cf. Döring 29). This can be achieved by demonstrating in the structure and vocabulary of the translation that one is in fact dealing with an outcome of foreign language, whose meaning is based on a partial reconstruction and is potentially able to interfere with the modes of meaning within the target language (cf. Döring 29). Based on this argument one may claim that “translation can help to foreignize the language into which it leads” (Döring 29). In translation theory this kind of alienated translation is termed “overt translation” (House 497). As the name suggests, it is quite overtly a translation, hence the translation is not treated as a second original.

An ideal translator does not only have to be both bilingual and bicultural, as it has been pointed out above, but he or she has to be aware of the two opposing strategies of domestication and foreignization and the consequences that result from applying either one of them. However, even a competent translator, a go-between so to say may be suspected of uncertain loyalties, especially in a colonial context (cf. Döring 29). Due to their intermediary position between languages and cultures, a strategic powerful position in a political sense, distrust results from the potential human behaviour to possibly take a stand on the interest of either party. Therefore the Italian epigram remains justified: Traduttore traditore; the translator is a traitor (cf. Britannica).

3. Friel, a Translator of the Irish Past

3.1 The Theatrical Convention of Accessibility

Bearing in mind that Translations is a postcolonial text which foregrounds the linguistic inevitability of imperialism by the very fact that audiences and readers are to imagine the play being enacted in Irish while the characters on stage actually speak English (except for the Irish place names that are subject of translation), it may be stated that by employing this theatrical convention one is dealing with a text by an Irish playwright in which the empire cunningly ‘writes back’. The play enacts the outcome of the key issue it dramatises: Ireland’s mother tongue was obliterated, so that modern audiences lack proficiency in their supposed first official language, hence the Irish-speaking characters have to speak English. Kiberd correctly describes this conceit as “savagely satiric” (616). As soon as those modern audiences “laugh at the Englishman’s halting attempts to express himself to the villagers, they are also in effect laughing at themselves” (Kiberd 616).


Excerpt out of 21 pages


The Unreliability of Translations in Friel’s Translations
University of Wuppertal
The Politics of Irish Drama
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
513 KB
Irish Drama, Brian Friel, Translations, Cultural Identity
Quote paper
Bianca Müller (Author), 2010, The Unreliability of Translations in Friel’s Translations, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The Unreliability of Translations in Friel’s Translations

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free