The theme of language in Brian Friel’s Translations

Seminar Paper, 2015
8 Pages, Grade: 2,0




Change of language use and power shift

Change of attitudes towards language and power shift

Substitution and power shift




The Irish history is a history of disempowerment. The invasion by the English triggered a decline of Irish history and language, which resulted in a rise of English power. However, the English have not been able to gain full control over Ireland, and the Irish defended their land not only physically but also verbally through literature. This struggle for power is represented in Brian Friel’s Translations. The play takes place in 1833, a time of the first Ordnance Survey, which Rollins describes as “an impact causing [...] threatened evictions and violence.” (35), and emergence of the new National Schools; the action happens at a hedge school in a small Irish speaking community, where no English is taught or thought to be important. Nevertheless, throughout the story the English language becomes more and more dominant as English soldiers arrive, the mapping of Ireland becomes central, or “the national schools were simply responding to the needs of the times [...]” (Andrews 167). Language plays not only a significant role in the story but is also a powerful element. Andrews states “without language a thing or person has no meaningful existence, identity or presence.” (169). In Translations, a power shift is represented through the change in the use of and the attitude towards language as well as through the process of language substitution. This paper discusses these changes in relation to the element of power within Ireland.

Change of language use and power shift

A power shift is represented through a change of language use of several characters. First, Irish is the dominant language in the story. Pine writes that “identity and culture of modern Ireland lay in its language and customs.” (150); therefore, the use of language is significant to find out how powerful a nation is. At the beginning, Latin and Greek are the main languages that are additionally used; for instance, Jimmy is enthusiastic about his Greek texts and tries to discuss about goddesses with Manus (Friel 386). Furthermore, Hugh teaches Latin in the hedge school without taking English into consideration; however, “It is not the etymology of Irish words that Hugh is constantly asking his pupils […], but English words such as ‘baptise’ (baptizein) […] and ‘acquiesced’ (acquiesce).” (Pilkington 286). Thus, English already becomes important in the first act although it is not actually spoken. As the story moves on, English becomes more and more present when Maire mentions “the sooner we all learn to speak English the better.” (Friel 399) and Owen, Yolland, and Lancey enter the stage (Friel 400). Towards the end of the story, Latin and Greek nearly diminish, whereas English becomes more important such as in the English speech of Lancey (Friel 439), which represents the rise of English power. Second, Manus is capable of speaking all the languages that are used in the play; but he prefers to speak Irish, which can be seen while Yolland is present and Manus refuses to talk English (Friel 412). Unfortunately, Manus has no power due to the fact that he does not get a salary (Friel 412) and is dependent on his father, who owns the hedge school. Later in the story, Manus is eager to become the head of a national school as he knows that he would get more powerful; consequently, he would approve to teach English. In addition, he also seems to accept Yolland when “Yolland holds out his hand. Manus takes it. They shake warmly.” (Friel 423), which represents a power shift, again. Third, Owen demonstrates the power of translating. He is the go between as he is familiar with the Irish culture as well as the English culture; thus, he is able to move freely between those languages. The ability to translate gives Owen the power to decide what people get to know or not and can lead to misunderstandings, lies, or secrets within communities, too. For instance, he decides to translate Lancey’s speech in an incorrect way (Friel 406) and to deceive the listeners. In general, the ones who are able to speak different languages, including English, are more powerful such as Hugh, who is the head of the hedge school; or Manus, who is capable of becoming powerful as he could start a new school. Finally, Maire’s wish to learn English is not only to be able to communicate with Yolland, as they have problems to understand each other (Friel 425), but also to become more powerful in America as she knows that “‘The old language is a barrier to modern progress.’” (Friel 400). Her attempt to establish a relationship with Yolland (Friel 425) and her indifference towards Manus (Friel 424) refer to a power shift from the Irish to the English, as well.

Change of attitudes towards language and power shift

A power shift is shown through a change of several characters in terms of their attitude towards language. Firstly, Doalty only speaks Irish and seems to be self-confident from the start when he enters imitating his master (Friel 390) or when he greets Jimmy “Hi, Jimmy, do you fancy my chances as a boss of the new national school?” (Friel 395). Furthermore, his ignorance concerning changes is shown through his belief that everything is all right in Ireland (Friel 395) or when Owen arrives and states that nothing has changed and “Doalty hasn’t changed either!” (Friel 402). Besides, Doalty is not interested in multilingualism due to his statement “g’way back home to Greece, son.” (Friel 395) or because of his ignorance of Maires’s beliefs in the importance of the English language. His conviction of Irish is shown through the declaration “It’s Irish he uses when he’s travelling […]” (Friel 399). Pine also states “Doalty’s immune system rests in his ignorance: he knows nothing and wishes to know nothing.” (147). His behavior and attitude refer to the power of Ireland. In contrast, towards the end of the story Doalty becomes less self- confident and gets afraid of the English soldiers when he announces that more soldiers arrived and prodded every inch of the ground (Friel 434) or when he shouts “Cripes, there’s millions of them! Cripes, they’re leveling the whole land!” (Friel 436). The fact that Doalty loses his self-confidence and gets worried represents the shift of power from Ireland to England. Secondly, Hugh is also one of the patriotic characters although he is able to speak Irish, English, Greek, and Latin. After his first entry he tells that he encountered Captain Lancey (Friel 398) and that he explained him that a few people are able to speak English, but only for the purposes of commerce as the classical tongues make a happier conjugation (Friel 399). In addition, he also adds “English, […] couldn’t really express us.” (Friel 399) and tells Yolland that he is not familiar with the Irish literature and feels closer to the warm Mediterranean (Friel 417), which also show his aversion to the English language. At first, he does not consider to teach English, too, for the disadvantage of Maire. She is keen on learning English as she claims that everyone should learn to speak English (Friel 399) and emphasizes “I don’t want Greek. I don’t want Latin. I want English.” (Friel 400). In comparison, towards the end of the play Hugh finally approves to teach Maire English when he states “Yes, I will teach you English, Marie Chatach.” (Friel 446). Pine also suggests “English is the language Maire needs to know […], the central reality in which Hugh O’Donnel ultimately acquiesces.” (150). Therefore, again, the power moves from the Irish to the English. Thirdly, Captain Lancey is a figure who can only speak English and also tends to look down on the Irish community. As soon as he enters the stage, it is clear that he is a powerful person because Owen introduces him as Royal Engineer and asks him if he would like to say a few words (Friel 405). Furthermore, Lancey refuses to hold a speech (Friel 405), what shows his lack of interest in the Irish culture; he also speaks as if he were talking to children (Friel 405), what shows that he takes the Irish for a mug. Nevertheless, at the beginning, the relationship between the English and the Irish is respectful although the English are already powerful. Towards the end, the rise of English power is shown through Lancey’s last speech, in which he threatens the Irish with evicting and levelling every house in different townlands if Yolland is not found (Friel 439). Finally, the English language is not considered to be important at the beginning of the play, but this atmosphere completely changes throughout the play. Pilkington describes “The atmosphere at the beginning […] is one of optimism […]; of an Irish national culture surviving despite severe economic and political disadvantage.” (286). Therefore, the characters are enthusiastic about their languages, enjoy them, and have fun during class; for example, when Hugh tests his students about translating Irish into Latin (Friel 399) it seems to be more like playing than testing. However, at the end, the enthusiasm of the characters diminishes as well as their power as the last sad discussions about different tribes within boarders and an ancient city (Friel 446) show.

Substitution and power shift

A power shift is signified through the process of substitution. First of all, one crisis comes up due to the fact that the hedge school is no longer a school of good standing as the statement “‘still footering about in the hedge-school, wasting people’s good time and money’” (Friel 389) proofs. The school is about to get replaced by the new National schools where English, instead of Irish and Latin, is taught; Bridget explains “And from the very first day you go, you’ll not hear one word of Irish spoken.” (Friel 396). Thus, the substitution of the hedge school refers to the unimportance of Irish but to a power shift towards the English language. Secondly, the main plot, namely the Ordnance survey or process of map-making, creates a crisis, too. Pilkington suggests that “the Gaelic place- names of the area represent a cultural permanence that must not be changed.” (289), and Pine states “map- making [...] changes the identity of the region.” (146); consequently, “the translating process which replaces all the Irish place- names[...] cuts off the natives from their culture [...]” (Rollins 35). Although renaming seems to be an act of standardization, the substitution of all the place- names stands for the decline of Irish language. Owen already knew the aims of this process; that is why he decided to translate incorrectly in order to avoid that his fellows get worried as Manus’ statements “You weren’t saying what Lancey was saying” and “it’s a bloody military operation, Owen! [...]” (Friel 408) proof. Rollins describes the objectives of the English as “to disassociate the Irish from their past and to control their future [...]” (36) in terms of Irish topography, educational processes and their language use (36). Thus, there is a rise of English power as the procedure continues. Thirdly, Owen substituted his name while he was in Dublin; as a result, Yolland calls him Roland. When Owen goes back to his roots, Manus is irritated by Owens other name, but Owen claims that “It’s only a name.” (Friel 408) before he gets insecure and asks Manus for his approval (Friel 408). After all, he gets annoyed by the name Roland and clears things up (Friel 421). The fact that Owen substituted his Irish identity with an English identity symbolizes that the English culture is more appreciated and that English names are referred to be more powerful. Moreover, Manus gets substituted with Yolland. At first, Maire gets more and more interested in the English man Yolland and forgets about the Irish man Manus. In the end, Manus also has to flee because of Yolland’s sudden absence (Friel 432) and his fear to get accused. As a consequence, these actions stand for the rise of English power. Finally, the blindness and naivety of the Irish people, which they show in the first act, get substituted by the reality and tragedy of the circumstances, notably the rise of English power over the Irish country.


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The theme of language in Brian Friel’s Translations
University of Salzburg
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
Brian Friel, Translations, Language, power shift, substitution
Quote paper
Silvia Dreiling (Author), 2015, The theme of language in Brian Friel’s Translations, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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