Romantic love in Brian Friel's "Translations"

Term Paper, 2017

13 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. The romantic love in Brian Friel’s Translations
2.1. An asymmetric love: Sarah and Manus
2.2. A love triangle: Manus, Maire and Yolland
2.3. Breaking love laws: Jimmy and Athena

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Brian Friel’s play Translations takes place in Baile Beag, a rural, Irish-speaking community in County Donegal, and is set in the year 1833. Its historical setting marks a major transition within the Irish culture, which was progressively eradicated by the British colonizers at that time. In addition, the play is even very concrete about the threat of the loss of Ireland’s collective heritage, when it presents two vital and especially effective means of anglicization, which were actually used those days. On the one hand, Baile Beag’s hedge- school is about to be replaced by a new national school, which will teach its students in English instead of Gaelic and will, naturally, also transmit historical knowledge from the British point of view. On the other hand, the officers Lt. Lancey and Lt. Yolland, who represent the British Ordnance Survey, arrive in the small community. With the help of the Irish man Owen, they are supposed to re-name and remap all localities in a standardized, anglicized way. In this remapping of Ireland, one might naturally recognize the complete reorganization of the Irish reality. So, obviously, both developments illustrate the imminent threat to the survival of the Gaelic language and, therefore, to the Irish culture and national identity in general. Accordingly, the whole play clearly serves as a metaphor for the cultural and linguistic transformation of Ireland, (s. McGrath 1999: 179, 181, 189)

To dismantle the play’s metaphorical meaning, many critics focus especially on the individual characters of Translations and their struggles, as they often offer parallels to the nation of Ireland and her identity. Since some of these theses provide the basis for the actual question of this paper, several of their insights and perceptions will be echoed in the following, while the major attention will be drawn to the relationships between the individual figures and the metaphorical significance that the play’s love relationships carry.

Thereto, all kinds of romantic love, which are presented in the play, will be analyzed in the following. That is, first it will be focused on the asymmetrical love between Sarah and Manus as well as on its consequences. Then, the conflict-laden love triangle between the engaged couple Manus and Maire, and the newly enamored lovers Maire and Yolland will be analyzed precisely, before we will have a short insight in Jimmy Jack’s love towards the ancient Greek goddess’ Athena.

2. The romantic love in Brian Friel’s Translations

2.1. An asymmetric love: Sarah and Manus

As just said, first, it will be focused on the relationship between Sarah and Manus, which is never directly defined in the play. However, the reader gets the clear impression that Sarah is in love with Manus, while he has less romantic, merely amicable feelings for her.

The play opens when Manus is teaching Sarah how to speak, because she suffers from a speech defect. While most people of the small Irish community of Baile Beag consider her to be dumb due to her inability to express herself, Manus believes her to be intelligent and, therefore, is passionate and ambitious about teaching her. “He is coaxing her gently and firmly and [...] with a kind of zeal” (Friel 2000: 1). He treats her well and is extremely happy for her when she makes progress. One special reason for their intimate relationship might be that he himself is lame. That is, just like Sarah, he is not flawless and people probably do not regard him as very capable either. Consequently, he can certainly identify very well with Sarah and sympathize with her situation within the community of Baile Beag what makes him more ambitious about helping her. (s. Friel 2000: Iff)

As mentioned before, Manus is sure that Sarah’s thoughts are and have always been of value. So, he states: “Soon you’ll be telling me all the secrets that have been in that head of yours for all these years” (3). Ironically, this is already foreshadowing the crucial role that Sarah will play in Translations’ tragic outcome. She then is able to express herself sufficiently to tell Manus the secret about Maire’s and Yolland’s relationship. Manus is heartbroken and therefore leaves Baile Beag - and, in doing so, also Sarah.

How important Manus really is to Sarah and how sore letting him go must be for her, can be examined easily due to the development of her speech impediment, which obviously depends strongly on her relationship with Manus. As it must be noticed at the beginning of the play, he is extremely caring and considerate towards her, teaches her patiently and ardently, kisses and hugs her. Sarah obviously enjoys this and feels comforted and secure when Manus is around. This allows her to enhance her verbal utterances a lot. Initially, she is only able to introduce herself by saying “My name is Sarah” (3). Throughout the play, however, she seems to have developed her speech quite successfully. On the one hand, the reader can assume that she has told Manus about Maire and Yolland kissing; on the other hand, she is even able to introduce herself in a much more elaborate way when she is talking to Manus for the last time. Here she can introduce herself not only by stating her full name, but also by telling where she comes from. Moreover, when Manus asks her to pass on a message to people from Inis Meadhon, she can even react spontaneously and assures him: “I will” (71). This promise implies that at this point she must even feel confident to be able to talk to strangers.

Yet, when Manus leaves and “addresses her as he did in Act One but now without warmth or concern for her” (72) this seems to have a disturbing impact on her ability to speak. After apologizing and lamenting “I'm sorry... I'm sorry... I'm so sorry, Manus...” (72) she will not be able to talk anymore. This becomes clear immediately after Manus has left. She starts to express herself exclusively through the semiotic code of gestures, when she is supposed to communicate with Owen. The reader then gets to know that Sarah will never speak again when the British officer Lt. Lancey shouts at her and, thereby, terrifies her in such a way, that she “knows she cannot. She closes her mouth. Her head goes down” (81). And even when Owen tries to comfort her stating “It will come back to you. [...] Sarah shakes her head, slowly, emphatically [...]. Then she leaves” (83).

Sarah’s loss of the ability to speak is often considered especially interesting, since language is generally assumed to be vital for the construction of an individual as well as a national identity. Therefore, George Steiner and Seamus Heaney suggest that Sarah can be perceived as a metaphorical representative of Ireland - its culture, its language, its identity. After all, Ireland had to face the gradual loss of the Gaelic, too, and, thereby, lost a crucial elementofits collective identity, (s. McGrath 1999: 191f)

Steiner explains that Sarah’s original muteness might be a direct reaction to the “incomprehensible and hostile reality” (192), that is, the colonial powers, to “shield her identity” (192). Through Manus’ help, however, she can constitute her identity by pronouncing her name. In doing so, she seems to depend strongly on Manus as we have compiled before. This can easily be understood - also in context of the metaphorical meaning of Sarah as Ireland - when one remembers that Manus defends the Irish identity keenly, how it can be recognized when he, although he is able to speak English, refuses to do so throughout the whole play, even when Owen almost begs him to (s. Friel 2000: 42f). Thus, Manus might represent the historical nationalist powers of Ireland. As soon as Manus’, i.e. the nationalists’, support is missing, however, Sarah falls into silence forever, which already adumbrates that the Gaelic language will eventually be lost, too. This is indicated when Sarah is unable to say her name when she is threatened by the colonial powers represented by Lt. Lancey. Accordingly, N. Jones summarizes:

Name and identity are synonymous throughout the play - Sarah’s first words are an act of personal identification; [...] When Sarah is unable to speak her name at the end of the play she essentially loses her personal identity. This effectively is what happens to Ireland in national terms as, inexorably and irrevocably, the country, in its minutest detail, is renamed (quoted in Adolf2015: 255).

Although this quotation of Jones merely refers to the renaming and remapping of Ireland, which is dramatized in Translations, the assumed larger context of the whole Irish identity is rectifiable “as the process of mapping symbolizes the invasion of the imperial power into the colonized country” (250) in general. Consequently, Sarah’s silence mirrors the effects of British colonialism in Ireland, and the eventual loss of the Irish culture as soon as her most important support is lost.

2.2. A love triangle: Manus, Maire and Yolland

Although, Manus cares affectionately for Sarah, he does not reciprocate her feelings of romantic love. Instead, he is in love with the spirited, young colleen Maire and wants to marry her. Yet, their relationship seems rather troubled as it already becomes clear in Act One when Maire is obviously mad at Manus, and continuously ignores and needles him. The audience gets to know that Maire is angry because Manus is too busy with the unpaid work at his father’s hedge-school, and did not even apply for the job at the new national school, which would have been important to facilitate a marriage. In turn, Maire did not tell Manus that her plans about emigrating to America are getting more concrete and that she already received the passage money. We get to know that the external circumstances make their marriage almost impossible, since Manus cannot offer her the stability nor the financial security she needs. Consequently, Maire is willing to learn English and emigrate to the U.S. to get ahead without him. When Manus is offered ajob in Inis Meadhon, which might enable them to marry, however, Maire barely reacts to the good news. Neither does she respond to his glib, unromantic proposal: “How will you like living on an island?” (Friel 2000: 59). Instead she is chatting with Lt. Yolland.


Excerpt out of 13 pages


Romantic love in Brian Friel's "Translations"
Catholic University Eichstätt-Ingolstadt
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ISBN (Book)
Love, Friel, Brian, Romance, Romantic, Triangle, Manus, Sarah, Maire, Yolland, Jolland, Athena, Jimmy, Greek, Gaelic, Gälisch, Griechisch, Sprachen, Language, Liebe, Romantik, Sprechen, Speak, Translations, Übersetzung, identity, play, relationship, kissing, tragic
Quote paper
Ronja Thiede (Author), 2017, Romantic love in Brian Friel's "Translations", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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